Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Yazidis make the news

One common result of war or disaster is that stories you'd never hear otherwise show up in major media. Thanks to the current Iraq war, a formerly obscure group, known only to experts on Iraq, Kurdistan, or Middle Eastern religions, is now having its 15 minutes or so of fame.

This is the Yazidis, who live in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and who practice a religion that combines a lot of elements also found in major historic religions, such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. What exactly those elements are, however, are in serious dispute. A few moments cruising the Web will show you that everyone has a different understanding of the Yazidis and what they believe. Are they sun worshipers? Are they Manichaeans? Shiites? Anti-dualists? Step right up, pick your site and your interpretation.

It's often reported that the Yazidis worship Satan or Lucifer, in the form of Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel (illustration above taken from Wikipedia). This of course is the most famous thing about the Yazidis: that some people think they are devil worshipers. Whether the Yazidis worship or at least venerate Melek Taus, or fear him -- that's hard to say with any certainty. It sure wouldn't surprise me to hear that Yazidi opinions vary widely on these questions.

The Yazidis are one of several examples of the variety of Middle Eastern culture, even in a region long identified with the dominance of Islam (Baghdad being one of the greatest of Islamic cities over many centuries). Their current problems show how the continuing processes of history can wipe out or, more likely, scatter old cultures, and remind us how often that's happened in the last 100 years. In Iraq alone, it wasn't so long ago that Baghdad was the home of a thriving Jewish community derived, as far as anyone can tell, from the time when Babylon was the big city in those parts. We may see a situation where Yazidi culture -- which is only about 100,000 strong -- may end up being relocated to Los Angeles or some other new location.

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