Why the Yazidis Worship the Devil (And Why That’s OK)

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Peacock AngelDedicated to Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, executed for heresy

In the past month, an estimated 500,000 Yazidis have fled Sinjar, the site of one of the largest Yazidi communities in Iraq, to escape the invading threat of ISIS. The crime they are accused of is devil worship, one that Muslims have been flinging at the Yazidis since the 16th century.

The Yazidis deny the accusation, of course. But it’s hard to do when one of only two holy books known to your faith says, “Neither is it permitted to us to pronounce the name of Shaitan (because it is the name of our God)” (Meshaf Resh).

Shayṭān (Shaitan) is one of the names given to Iblis, the Islamic version of Satan. That the Meshaf Resh (The Black Book) names him as the god of the Yazidis could be a bit confusing. But it should be kept in mind that Meshaf Resh and the other Yazidi holy book, Ketēbā Jelwa (Book of Illumination), though revered by the Yazidis themselves, are considered to be forgeries written by outsiders in 1911 and 1913, respectively. So, using them as primary sources is misleading.

Much of the “confusion” (not counting that particularly damning piece of scripture) stems from connections traditionally made between peacocks and Shayṭān in Islam.

The Yazidis are a monotheistic culture, but they also venerate seven archangels (the heft sirr), chief among them being Tawûsê Melek (translated as “King Peacock” or more commonly, “Peacock Angel”). Although they believe that a supreme deity created and ruled over the heft sirr, Tawûsê Melek still plays the role of creator in Yazidi cosmology, filling the earth with animals and plants.

And at least one Islamic myth ties the peacock to Azazel (the jinn who would later become Iblis):

Azâzîl kept sitting at the gate of Paradise, anxious to enter. The Peacock also was there seated on a Pinnacle, when he saw one repeating the mighty Names of God. “Who art thou?” asked the Peacock. “I am one of the angels of the Almighty”; – “But why art thou sitting here?” “I am looking at Paradise and wish to enter.” The Peacock said, “I have no command to let any one enter as long as Adam is there.” — “If thou wilt let me in,” said the other, “I will teach them a prayer which if any one repeat, three things will be his — he will never grow old; never be rebellious; nor will any one ever turn him out of Paradise.” Then Iblîs (the devil) repeated the prayer. The Peacock also from his pinnacle did the same, and forthwith flew up to the Serpent and told him what he had heard from Iblîs. We also learn that when God cast down Adam and Eve with the devil (Iblîs) from Paradise, the Peacock also was expelled along with them. (Qisas al Anbia)

This wouldn’t exactly count as evidence, considering that different cultures can have wildly different interpretations of the same symbol, however the Yazidi faith is known to be a syncretic one, borrowing heavily from Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, the Ahl-e-haqq, Judaism, and Sufism (Islamic mysticism).

IRAQ-UNREST-YAZIDISBut in my mind, the most compelling piece of evidence that the Yazidis actually are devil worshipers is their admiration for the Sufi martyr Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, who was executed in Baghdad in 922 a.d. for saying “Ana’l Haq” (“I am the Truth (God)”). The Yazidis even named one of their bronze peacock idols, called sanjaks, after Hallaj.

Hallaj is a controversial figure in Islam. A Sufi ecstatic, he was one of a very small handful who regarded Iblis as a misunderstood hero.

To better understand where all the confusion comes from, let’s glance over the story of Iblis, as told in the Quran.

After Allah created Adam, he was presented to the angelic hosts, who were ordered to bow to him:

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I am about to create man from clay:

“When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.”

So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together:

Not so Iblis: he was haughty, and became one of those who reject Faith.

(Allah) said: “O Iblis! What prevents thee from prostrating thyself to one whom I have created with my hands? Art thou haughty? Or art thou one of the high (and mighty) ones?”

(Iblis) said: “I am better than he: thou createdst me from fire, and him thou createdst from clay.”

(Allah) said: “Then get thee out from here: for thou art rejected, accursed.

“And My curse shall be on thee till the Day of Judgment.” (Saad 38:71-78)

Hallaj, in his book, the Tawasin, gives a different spin on the tale:

Sayadena Musa (Moses) met Iblis on the slope of Sinai and said to him: “Oh, Iblis, what prevented you from prostrating?” He said: “That which prevented me was a declaration of a Unique Beloved, and if I had prostrated I would have become like you, because you were only called upon once to ‘look at the mountain’ and you looked. As for me, I was called upon a thousand times to prostrate myself to Adam, and I did not prostrate myself because I stood by the Intention of my Declaration.

Sayadena Musa said: “You abandoned a command?” Iblis said: “It was a test. Not a command.”

Allah had originally commanded the angels to bow to no one other than him. According to Hallaj, by ordering them to bow to Adam, he is actually testing them. And only Iblis (Azazel at the time) refuses to go against the original commandment. His reward is eternal damnation and removal from the presence of God.

Melek TausTo Hallaj, Iblis is the tragic lover, doomed to separation because of his desire to obey Allah.

This Unity in Separation is compared to the Chinese Yin-Yang by Peter Lamborn Wilson in his essay Iblis, the Black Light, and mirrored in the words of another Sufi marty, Ayn al-Qozat Hamadani:

Not everyone can fathom that both Eblis and Mohhamad claim to be guides on the path. Eblis guides one away from God, while Mohhamad guides one toward Gods. God appointed Eblis the gatekeeper of his court, saying to him, “My lover, because of the jelousy-in-love that you have for me, do not let strangers approach me.”

If the Yazidis secretly borrow a page out of Hallaj’s book, as I believe they do, then they do worship the devil. Just not the one we know. Theirs is an emanation of darkness from the unified Source. The “Black light over Allah” described by Ayn al-Qozat (fittingly found in the titles Black Book and Book of Illumination).

Frankly, I prefer this interpretation to the dualistic one, where the devil is just plain evil.

Unfortunately, the world is a stark black and white to ISIS, meaning the Yazidis are likely to meet the same fate as Hallaj for their heresy.