A very important genre of oral literature of the Yezidi community consists of sacred hymns, called Qewl, which literally means ‘word, speech’ (from Arabic qawl). The performers of these Hymns, called the Qewwal, constitute a distinct class within the Yezidi society. They are indeed a veritable source of ancient Yezidi lore. Until relatively recently, they would have monopolized the public performance of the Hymns, although prominent Yezidi members (from the Sheikhs and the Pirs) were able to recall many of these Hymns, too. They were traditionally recruited from the non-religious members of other Kurdish tribes, principally the Dimli and Hekkaris.
The Hymns are crucial in our understanding of the Yezidi mytho-mystical history. Indeed, they have become de facto a deposit of a “doctrinal canon”, consisting of historical and mythical anecdotes rather than purely abstract teachings. This “doctrinal canon” should not be defined in a traditional sense, i.e. with profound explanations, which would have brought about a logical order and linear coherence set by a group of dedicated theologians. This kind of faith-inspired scholarly pursuits is well attested in Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism. In the case of Yezidism, this is not the case, however, as a historic aversion to writing and reading among the Yezidis prevented a literary transmission of their religious tales and legends, via books or manuscripts. The history to which the Qewls are referring, can be generally divided in a period before and in a period after the arrival of Sheikh ‘Adi, the legendary reformer-founder of the Yezidi faith. Between these two periods frequent cross-references are made, by means of either “flashbacks”, “flash-forwards” or historic allusions. Eschatological themes are included as well. We shall give a short summary of this history as told or alluded to in the Qewls. For more details we can refer to the two handbooks published by Philip Kreyenbroek, Yezidism: its Background, Observances and Textual Tradition, Lewiston N.Y. (1995), and (in collaboration with Khalil Jindy Rashow) God and Sheikh Adi are Perfect Sacred Poems and Religious Narratives from the Yezidi Tradition, Wiesbaden (2005).
Based on the information of the Hymns, the period before Sheikh ‘Adi’s arrival to the (proto-)Yezidi community starts with the time before Creation, the “Pre-Eternity”, the phase that precedes the events that would result in the creation of the world. This is the phase in which God resides within a Primordial Pearl, all alone. The moment that God separated Himself from the Pearl, would set off a “cataclysmic” chain of events. A range of colours would develop from the white Light emanating from the Pearl. This would further trigger huge waves that became the primordial Ocean.
God Himself was responsible for the creation of the Holy Heptad of Divine Beings, which include the Sacred Peacock (called Tawus Melek), and the Four Elements (Earth, Water, Wind and Fire). Also during the Creation, He would separate the following dualities: Heaven and Hell, Sky and Earth, Day and Night, Sun and Moon, Truth and Law (the Heqîqet and Şerî‘et).
Several “manifestations” of God have come down to Earth. They play an important and identifying role in Yezidi beliefs, such as:
- the ‘Sacred Garment’, called xerqe, is a black tunic worn by Sheikh ‘Adi himself and the ascetic living Feqîrs. It symbolizes God’s authority and the Yezidi faith.
- Lalish is the spiritual centre, which was created beyond Heaven and Earth. It acted as the “leaven” that gave rise to the Earth in the primordial Ocean.
- the Sacred instruments, the Tambourine (Def) and the Flute (Şebab), which gave life to the first man, Adam.
- the ‘Tradition’, called Sunnet (from Arabic Sunnah), which was first hidden, but made manifest by Sheikh ‘Adi.
- Mystical Knowledge, called Me‘rifet (Arabic Ma‘rifah).
- the Mystical Path, the Terîqet (Arabic tarīqa).
The “Two Worlds”, which refer both to the Spiritual and Physical World, as well as to Heaven and Earth, are connected by the following forces:
- God’s Names, either 1001 or 3003 in total, encompass the totality of God, in all His Omnipresence.
- Jibrail or Gabriel, who is God’s Messenger to humanity.
- Love, Mihbet, the first Force to be created during the Creation, which, for instance, enables Adam to come to life in the Physical World.
- The Sacred Cup, Kase, provides a passage way from the Spiritual to the Physical World. From the sacred Hymns it becomes clear that it symbolizes Prophethood, which was first assumed by Adam, the first Man, and then passed on to subsequent generations, such as, Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and many, many others.
- the Sacred Lamp, called Qendîl, which also came down to Earth from the Sky. It serves as the “waiting room” for the souls before their physical incarnation on Earth. The Lamp is therefore the tool to make things visible, “manifest”.
- the “Pen of Destiny”, Qelemê qudretê, with which God’s Records are inscribed on the “Tablet Preserved”, Lewh il Mehfûz (= Arabic al-Lawhu’l-Maḥfūz).
The last phase of the Creation was the appearance of the Physical World and Earth, which would also entail the creation of the following:
- The Ocean and its Water, which came into existence thanks to the waves set off by God’s separation from the Pearl.
- The (Eternal) Ghewar Tree which rose in the middle of the Ocean.
- Two Birds settled in this Tree and are considered the representatives of God and the Tawus Melek.
- The Ark and the Serpent. The prototypes of mankind, animals and birds were inside the Ark. When the Ark traversed the Ocean, it suddenly sprang a leak. It was the Serpent who managed to seal the leak and thus saved the Ark. For this reason, the Serpent plays a particular role in Yezidi beliefs.
- Lalish, the spiritual centre within Yezidi beliefs. According to the Hymns, the Celestial Lalish was brought to the physical World, near the White Spring, where many rituals have to be performed.
- God, addressed as “My King”, created the World through the leaven thrown into the Ocean. The Ocean started to ferment and smoke came out, after which Heaven, Earth and the 7 Spheres came into existence. The Heaven rose above the Earth, and it became adorned with stars. Meanwhile, the Earth was still in motion, and only calmed down once a “Mystery” of Love was sent down to Earth and the Four Elements became present.
- Plants started to grow when Lalish came down as well.
- the body of the first Human, Adam, was formed with the Four Elements. However, Adam’s soul could not be persuaded to enter this physical body by the Angels, until the sacred instruments, the Daf (a kind of tambourine) and the Sibab (a kind of flute) accompanied him. The soul entered the body after the entrance of the Light of Love. He drank from the Cup (of Prophethood). A Houri, called Eve, was given to him as wife.
The Yezidis is a largely Kurdish-speaking, distinct religious minority living primarily in the Near- & Middle-East, the Caucasus and, recently, also in Europe. This community possesses one of the most elaborate religious, literary traditions, that has been passed on orally for centuries. This tradition is now under severe threat, as its members are fighting for survival in their homelands (Turkey, Syria and Iraq). The Yezidis exiled in the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia) or refuged in Europe often do not have access to this literary heritage. In the absence of a normative, sacred scripture, such as the Bible in Christianity or the Quran in Islam, many of the beliefs of the Yezidis are encapsulated in the orally transmitted canon of religious stories and chants performed traditionally by the privileged, endogamous classes of Sheikhs and Pirs (spiritual leaders / guidesmen of the community) and dedicated singers (Qewwal). It is only in the late 70’s of the previous century that parts of this tradition were published and Western researchers gradually realized their importance in the understanding of aspects of Yezidi religion. Further publications have been published, but a systematic analysis and interpretation of this canon, also with regard to the (inter)religious position of the Yezidis in the Middle East, is still lacking. This blog will serve as a platform of discussion among those interested in this corpus of religious texts of the Yezidis, keeping them also updated about new publications, conferences and talks on this subject.