Who are the Yazidis & What Are Their Beliefs?

The Yazidi people have appeared only briefly on the international media radar during the West's battle with ISIS. Their religious faith remains shrouded in mystery.

Feb 24, 2024By Paul Brian, PGDip Broadcast Journalism, BA Humanities
yazidsi beliefs


The Yazidi faith revolves around the belief in an all-powerful Creator named Yasdan (or “Kuda” in Kurdish) who entrusted stewardship of the world to seven holy angels (the heft sirr) in the distant past. These angels are led by the most powerful being of all besides Yasdan, an angel known as melek taûs, or the Peacock Angel.


Perceptions of the Yazidi

albert kahn yazidi chief 1910
Yazidi chief in Bashiqa, Iraq, by Albert Kahn, 1910s, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Yazidi people appeared only briefly in the international media thanks to the West’s battle with ISIS, and their religious faith remains shrouded in mystery. An estimated 5,000 Yazidis were brutally slain by the extremist militants in an attempted genocide and hundreds of thousands more were run out of many towns in their ancestral lands in Iraq and Syria. ISIS claimed that the Yazidis were Satan worshippers, and offered a choice between conversion to their version of Islam or summary execution.


The majority of Yazidis live in Iraq, followed by Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey, numbering between 400,000 to 800,000 worldwide depending on different estimates. The biggest Yazidi diaspora is in Germany.


In 2014, over 50,000 Yazidis were forced to flee into the remote Sinjar mountain range without supplies and sustenance. The horrific fallout and refugee crisis is ongoing for the Yazidi people a decade later, after the peak of their fight against ISIS, but the Yazidi people’s hope and faith have endured.


What’s in a Name? 

levi clancy yazidi new year
Ezidis celebrating Ezidi New Year in April 2018 at Lalish, by Levi Clancy, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


It’s firstly important to note that the name Yazidi comes from the Persian word ized meaning angel or supreme being. Yazidis, therefore, are simply “god worshippers,” and are known to each other as Dawaseen (which comes from an old name of an ancient Christian sect).


This is contrary to the claims of some Sunni scholars and extremists who say the name derives from the controversial and heterodox Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya or else that it is merely a trifling phonetic riff on the name of the Iranian city of Yazd, rather than a real faith with roots and significance.


Yazidis mostly pass on an oral tradition and have a faith stretching back over 7,000 years. Although it is true that they do not follow Islam or Christianity, the Yazidis do recognize the Bible and Koran as Scriptures worthy of respect and admiration. Their faith also has many elements of Sufism, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, with important differences and unique elements.


What Exactly do the Yazidis Believe?

hamdi hamad yazidi festival
Yazidis wearing traditional clothes during festival in Tel Keppe, by Hamdi Hamad, 2021, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Yazidis believe that the supreme Creator of all things, Yasdan, is beyond all creation, worship or communication. He made the world and all things, but he no longer takes part in them or sustains them; instead, that action is performed by seven angelic beings who carry out his will, known as the Heptad. This angelic crew carries out God’s desires and plans for the world, and responds to those humans who turn to them and venerate them.


The heptad is led by the Peacock Angel, melek taûs, who is actually conjoined with God in the sense of being God’s alter ego or active side rather than just a leader of the heptad. In this sense, melek taûs is God and God is melek taûs, only Yasdan’s original Creator function has retired and been replaced by his active, intercessor form, which is the eternal and all-powerful Peacock Angel. Melek taûs is venerated and prayed to five times a day by devout Yazidis and you will find a peacock depicted in many Yazidi temples and holy sites.


Accusations against Yazidis of being polytheists or devil worshippers didn’t start with ISIS and have been going on for centuries. According to the official version of the Yazidi faith set down by Sheik Adi ibn Musafir in the 11th Century, melek taûs did originally revolt against God but was reconciled with Him.


yazidi boy
Yazidi boy in traditional clothes. In Sinjar, male Yazidis used to wear pigtails similar to hasidic Payos, by Êzîdîxan, Source: Wikimedia Commons


This concept of rebellion shows the profundity contained in Yazidism that is sometimes interpreted in a dogmatic and simplistic way by those who find it confusing or upsetting. Regardless, it’s certainly true that Yazidi beliefs are technically theologically heretical to the beliefs of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.


Yazidis don’t really have the concept of a “devil” or “Satan” in their faith,  and thus the idea that melek taûs was Lucifer or Satan is seen as incorrect by many religious scholars. Others maintain that the Peacock Angel is Lucifer and interpret the reconciliation of God and Lucifer as a logical transcendence of the binary conception of good and evil in other Abrahamic faiths.


“Lucifer, the beautiful and vain angel of heaven, did not betray God and create evil, but simply manifested himself to the world, becoming the bridge between humans and the Creator,” writes Laura Cesaretti.


“Yazidis consider themselves the direct descendants of Adam and perceive good and evil as the same faces of the same reality. Choosing the right side is up to each person’s soul.”


Indeed, it’s most accurate to say that the Peacock Angel is a God’s emissary embodying the potential for good and evil. Yazidi theology has it that despite refusing to serve God’s creation of Adam, melek taûs later repented when he saw the needless suffering and damnation of humanity. God appreciated melek taûs’ repentance and then made this angel his main intermediary between Himself and created beings.


Professor Philip Kreyenbroek, of the University of Göttingen is a world-renowned expert on the Yazidi people and their faith. He explains that they essentially believe in the ancient, pre-Abrahamic God Mithras.


Religious Rites and Practices of the Yazidis

ziarat temple armenia
The Ziarat temple in Aknalich, Armenia by Vahemart, Source: WIkimedia Commons


In terms of religious rites, Yazidis share many similarities with the Abrahamic faiths. They have baptisms and services performed by a priest (pir) and they have weddings and religious funerals. They avoid pork and bury people with their arms crossed. They practice a three day fast in December before a wine drinking ceremony with the pir, as well as a week-long pilgrimage every mid-September (the Feast of the Assembly) to Lalish north of Mosul, Iraq where they venerate the grave of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir and wash themselves ritually in the nearby river.


Musafir, who died in 1162, is often considered to have been an earthly incarnation of melek taûs and was instrumental in formalizing the faith, mixing elements of Sufism with pre-Islamic beliefs.  Yazidis believe in reincarnation and that we go through many lives in the process of learning to love and serve each other. However, they do not believe in conversion and being a Yazidi is ethno-religious: you’re either born Yazidi or you’ll never be Yazidi. Prayers are also not done in front of non-Yazidis.


Yazidis have certain foods they avoid that are not permitted as well, including lettuce which they do their best to stay away from. Eating lettuce is prohibited because of the mass killings of Yazidis in the 18th and 19th Centuries by the Ottoman Empire in lettuce fields in northern Iraq. There are other taboos as well, including an aversion to stepping on doorsteps, and a ban on spitting on the ground into water or into fire. Obedience to these rules varies and they are not widely or strictly held, but some Yazidis do stick to them.


yazidi new year sitting on wall
Celebrating the Yezidi (Ezidi) New Year on 18 April 2017, the evening before the start of the new year, by Levi Clancy, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Wednesdays and Fridays are the Yazidi holy days and they light sacred lamps at dusk and pray facing towards the rising and setting sun. Most Yazidis pray twice a day and some as much as five times per day — another example of transference of outer rituals from the religions around them. Like Jews and Muslims, Yazidis usually circumcise young boys, although it is not required.


The Yazidi faith also retains a strong attachment to the locale and to the natural world. Yazidis who complete their pilgrimage to Lalish do their best to carry a bit of soil from it at all times and it is eventually also used for burial rites. The Yazidi New Year happens every spring and animal sacrifices also take place on various key dates, such as sacrificing an ox to celebrate and bring blessings at the start of Fall each year.


Luqman Mahmood, director of visitor relations at the Lalish temple complex north of Erbil, Iraq, explains that Yazidis have an important “belief in our oneness with the natural world, which has its roots in ancient nature worship.”


Yazidis aren’t allowed to marry outside the religion and if they do they are considered to have converted to a new faith. The Yazidi religion is also not egalitarian and does believe in a caste system. Its tripartite caste system is comprised of the leaders of the people (the sheikhs), the priestly class (the pirs), and the people (the murid). You are born into your caste depending on who your parents are and you can never change it.


Nonetheless, with modernity some strict rules around caste are beginning to relax a little. However, especially in remote areas, tribal rules do prevail and being excommunicated from the faith and community is a fate worse than death.


Looking Ahead for the Yazidis

janet biehl yazidi house
Yazidi SDF soldiers inside Yazidi temple, by Janet Biehl, Source, Wikimedia Commons


Much remains to be discovered and understood about the Yazidi people and their faith. Even the biggest experts in the world such as Kreyenbroek acknowledge that there is so much we just don’t know yet about these mysterious people and their traditions and beliefs. This is partly due to how much of their tradition is oral, as well as historical persecution making it harder for Yazidis to centralize and formalize their beliefs in one location.


As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic:


“It’s worth noting that Kreyenbroek is one of the few scholars in the world who studies the Yazidis, but he still went out of his way to say that a lot is unknown about the faith. 


Even as the ancient religion faces extinction, we still don’t understand it very well.”


As far as holy texts and hymns go, that also remains partly shrouded in mystery and is not entirely clear to religious scholars or archaeologists. Previously, researchers thought they had found books central to the Yazidi faith which are now widely regarded as forgeries.


“The Yazidi holy books were said to be the Kitêba Cilwe (Book of Revelation) and the Mishefa Res (Black Book),” notes Reverend and Professor Patrick Comerford. “But many scholars now believe the manuscripts published a century ago were forgeries by non-Yazidis. The core religious texts today are hymns or qawls, transmitted orally and laden with cryptic allusions difficult for outsiders to interpret.”


two yazidi men traditional dress
Pilgrims and festival at Lalish on the day of the Yezidi New Year in 2017, in Dohuk Governorate, Iraqi Kurdistan, by Levi Clancy, Source: Wikimedia Commons


At the end of the day, it’s important to be honest that much of Yazidism remains obscured. It’s clear that the religion has elements of many previous faiths and traditions but also remains unique. Much more research remains to be done on the Yazidis and their various beliefs, traditions, and holy texts, and it’s certain that an untapped gold mines of wisdom and esoteric knowledge remains in the oral tradition that continues today.


“Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean,” observes Avi Asher-Schapiro, though noting it is “often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq’s sectarian mosaic.”

While Yazidis do believe in salvation, it is not brought about by a savior or prophet, but rather by one’s own choices and living many lives to begin acting in alignment with the loving and proactive tendencies of the Peacock Angel. There is no Hell in Yazidism, only self-delusion, illusion, and estrangement from your purpose and potential. The seven angels led by the Peacock Angel are there to help us find our mission and carry it out to further our own well-being and that of others.


As Yazidi practitioner Dawood Saleh explains, “Yazidis believe that God is only good while evil is a result of human actions,” and “there are seven Angels who serve God and take care of our world.”

Author Image

By Paul BrianPGDip Broadcast Journalism, BA HumanitiesPaul is a freelance journalist and author specializing in culture, religion, and geopolitics who has contributed and reported for Foreign Policy, BBC, Reuters, the Spectator, the Critic, the Federalist, the American Conservative and more. He has reported from around the world including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine.