On the Tales of Creation recounted by the Yezidi singers

[Transcript of a talk delivered at the conference “Years of “Iran and the Caucasus”: a Breakthrough”, Iran & Caucasus, Aghveran, October 20-23, 2016]


The Yezidi hymns, known as Qewls, provide a window to the thoughts and ideas of a Near Eastern community that has been historically marginalized for centuries, if not downright massacred. Centuries of bitter incrimination and accusations of being infidel or apostate have pretty much obscured the ancient tradition of oral transmission of beliefs by the Yezidi community. It is especially in the Qewls, whose existence was deliberately withheld from outsiders until the 1970’s, that may provide us glimpses and clues of the origin, if you will, the “ethnogenesis”, of the modern Yezidi minority. From the Qewls it is clear that the Muslim Arabic-speaking Sufi master ‘Adî ibn Musafir (1078-1162 AD), also known as Sheikh ‘Adî in the Qewls, arrived in medieval Kurdistan, in the Hekkari Mountains in. He managed to attract a following among a local Kurdish group and convert them (which was in all likelihood still “pagan” in the eyes of Muslims). This would explain the abundant references to the Islamic religion and its tenets, which include the mentioning of the clans of the Prophet Muhammad and Prophet Muhammad as the Chosen. Other references include the shahâda, i.e. the Declaration of Faith, the Pillars or erkân of the Islamic Faith, and even the traditional Muslim acknowledgment of the sole existence of 4 Holy Scriptures, i.e. the Thora, the Gospels, Book of David, a.k.a. Zebûr, and of course the Quran a.k.a. as the Ferqan. In fact, I shall show more examples of the Sufi-Islamic embedding.
It is only much later, under his successor, Yazîd or Sultan Ezîd in its Kurdish form, that these early Yezidis started to distance themselves from the normative, Sunni followers. The disenchantment of many, so-called “heterodox”, more mystically oriented Islamic groups living in the mountainous and often inaccessible region of northern Mesopotamia may have coincided with the new intellectual wind that was blowing from Baghdad, when the more literalist Hanbalist ideologues became the dominant force in the Islamic heartland. Under this new regime, there was little room for the incorporation of earlier pre-Islamic ideas and customs, let alone, antinomian thoughts espoused by the mendicant “holy men” or Qalandars, who insisted on sincerity of the heart rather than mindless orthopraxy. It is for this reason that Sultan Ezîd may have decided to discourage the reading and writing of books, taught at the local madrasas, schools run by Hanbalite clerics. It would be up to Sultan Ezîd and his chosen confidants to instill the religious teachings, which clearly show a distinctly, Suficized interpretation of earlier pre-Islamic, so-called “pagan” ideas and customs still held by their Kurdish-speaking followers. These ideas were shared with other Kurdish groups, notably the Ahl-i Haqq, a.k.a. Yāresān. As can be expected from such newly sprung religious groups, the eponymous founder, Sheikh Adi and reformers, such as Sultan Adi et al. would acquire an almost divine status in the Qewls. They are therefore inserted in the Qewls on the Creation.

the Pearl

The Creation started at the Moment, when God decided to separate himself from the Pearl. The Pearl is obviously an important Sufi metaphor, being the Symbol of a piece of divine wisdom. The description of this “Primordial” Pearl however is clearly not Sufi, with its description of a shiny white sphere, yet containing all colours, not to mention that God himself resided in this Pearl.
It is reminiscent of the Zoroastrian myth of Creation, which, as narrated in the Bundaheshn and in the Zadsparam, tells of Ahuramazd, in MP Ohrmazd, dwelling on high, in pure light. In this state, he became aware of his opponent, Ahriman, who dwelt in the lower dark. Ohrmazd decided to create his Seven Angels, in bright white fire. This is also echoed in the creation of the seven Mysteries by God himself, which included Sheikh Adi and Sultan Ezîd. However, it should be noted that not all Iranian speakers would have adhered to these Zoroastrian beliefs in all details. Zoroastrianism was pretty much a highly institutionalized religion with its intricate and elaborate literary canon, which would certainly not match the individual beliefs of Iranian tribes living in isolated areas, such as the Kurds, who might even have preserved pre-Zoroastrian traces too. If there are certain resemblances between Yezidi and Zoroastrian myths, they would have gone back to a common period, before the reformistic policies of Zarathushtra and his later followers.
As for this possible pre-Islamic origin of the Primordial Pearl, I would rather think that although the pearl plays an enormous role in Sufism, Christianity and Gnosticism (being the metaphor of Divine wisdom par excellence), its role in the Creation of Yezidi mythology is of a totally different calibre. It seems more likely that it was an attempt of a Sufi preacher / missionary, in this case, probably Sheikh ‘Adî himself, to win over a proto-Yezidi community by connecting an ancient, indigenous creation to this, favorite Sufi symbol of the Pearl.

A similar way to recast a clearly non-Islamic figure in a more acceptable, “Islamicized” role is that of Tawus Melek, who is the sacred “Peacock Angel” venerated by the Yezidi community. The Tawus Melek plays an important intercessory role between God and mankind, actually a crucial one in the creation of the first Man, Adam. For instance, Tawus Melek made Adam a physical, digesting person by giving him the neccessary orifices, which recalls Gabriel’s role as described in a very popular work in the Islamic world, viz. ‘Stories of the Prophets’ (Qiṣas al-Anbiyā):

Gabriel said: "Adam, drink your fill from it!" He drank of it and was satisfied. Afterwards he felt a pain worse than the first and second ones, and he said to Gabriel: "What is it that I feel?" He said: "I do not know." So God sent an angel to him and he slit openings in his front and in his back, before that there had been no way out for the food.

(Engl. transl. of the Arabic version of Abu Ishaq Ahmad Ibn Muhammed Ibn Ibrahim Al-Tha‘labi, ed. W.M. Brinner 2002).

Tales of Creation

We shall present here, in view of the restriction in time, only two Qewls that narrate the Creation, from which I will give a selection of the Sufi inspired themes:
Qewlê Zebûnî Meksûr
– Qewlê Afirîna Dinyayê
In the Qewlê Zebûnî Meksûr or ‘Hymn of Weak Broken One’, Melik Fekhredîn, one of the important personages in Yezidi beliefs, is asked to narrate the Creation. Several stages can be distinguished, the first one is that God came out of a Primordial Pearl, after which, with the help of Love, also the divine entities became manifest, i.e. “created”, notably Sultan Ezîd in his capacity as divine, spiritual leader of the later Yezidi community. The caşiq or ‘Lovers’ became thus aware of his existence. During the creation, after the separation, God prepared and consacrated the xerqe or the Sacred Gown. Afterwards, God defined the Creation according to rules and limits, i.e. the Ḥeqîqet and Şerî‘et, including the demarcation of Love, which acted as leaven (havên, hêvên in Kurdish) of the Creation.
The central Sanctuary, Lalish (the “Kaaba” of the Yezidis), near to the Sacred Spring, was also established, before the establishment of Heaven and Earth. Water started to come from the Pearl. Afterwards the Tradition became manifest, suspended in the air, then the sacred Light of the Lamp/Candle. Importantly, the Çar Yar or ‘Four Friends’ on their horses spread to the four corners of the creation, who then stopped at Lalish. Leaven was thrown in the Sea, from the Sea came smoke and the 7 layers of Heavens and the Earths were created, again with Love as the catalyst. Lalish came down on earth and plants started to grow. Earth, water, wind and fire were mixed, and consequently, the body of Adam could be formed. The 7 Angels were created by God and were asking why the body of Adam was motionless. In fact, Adam’s soul could only enter the body when they were in the presence of the two sacred instruments the Shibab and the Def, the ‘tambourine’ and ‘flute’. Once these instruments were present, Love entered the body and so did the soul. Adam drank from the Cup and he became alive, drunk and he trembled. He was then paired with a beautiful houri, called Eve, from whom also the Hashimites and the Qurayshi clan descended. This is further continued by referring to the Biblical and Quranic accounts of Noah.
Above all, the Cup was passed on further to Noah, then to Ibrahim aka as the ‘Friend’ or Khalîl. The Cup therefore represents the intimate closeness to God, i.e. the monotheistic Prophethood, being transmitted this way from one generation to another. It was passed on further Jesus, Moses and Muhammad Mustafa, and another 124 000 prophets, until we arrive at Sultan Ezîd and Sheikh ‘Adî.

The Qewlê Afirîna Dinyayê which can be translated as the ‘Hymn of the Creation of the World’ starts with a praise to God, when God brought life in the world of darkness. Actually the praise centers on the creative accomplishments of God, once He manifested himself from the Pearl. The active role of God in the Creation is emphasized in the praise. On the whole, the creative process is pretty similar to that of the Qewlê Zebûnî Meksûr, except it also included God playing the role of Noah, when he made a ship in which he sheltered Men, animals and birds two by two. The ship sailed to Lalish.

qelemê qudretê ‘the Pen of Power or Destiny’

Interestingly, according to the Hymn with the more straightforward title, the ‘Creation of the World’ (Qewlê Afirîna Dinyayê), the creation was put in place by ordering the Pen, the Qalam, to write. The expression qelemê qudretê ‘the Pen of Power or Destiny’ is actually a clear reference to a well-known Surah in the Quran, viz. Surah 68 of the Qalam. This Surah of the Qalam was seized upon by Sufi inclined poets to illustrate the predestined nature of Man’s Fate. The Pen of Power/Destiny implies that once God’s Decree was inscribed on the Tablet Preserved (Lawḥ al-Maḥfūẓ), the Pen dried up and thus, His Decree could not be undone.


An important Sufi concept is the fundamental role of Love in Creation, which needs not to detain us here as this will be discussed in detail by our esteemed colleague Artur Rodziewicz in this session.

havên ‘leaven, yeast’

I shall further discuss an actual passage from the ‘Hymn of the Creation of the World’, Kreyenbroek translates stanza 10 as follows:

10. Havên avête behrê
Behr pê meyanî
Dexanek jê dexinî
Çarde flebeq ‘erd û ezman nijnî
Êzdanê me dur deranî.
‘He threw rennet into the ocean
The ocean coagulated because of it
Smoke appeared from it
He built heaven and earth, fourteen spheres
Our God brought the Pearl out.’

As for the interpretation of the Kurdish form havên, which lit. means ‘leaven, yeast’. Kreyenbroek points out that “since the substance in question causes liquids to coagulate (meyanî), the translation ‘rennet’ seems preferable.”. The meaning imposed by Kreyenbroek on the passage is because of the word meyanî in the next line, which has been interpreted as a past participle of the causative verb meyandin ‘to let it freeze, coagulate’. It may actually be translated differently, as, according to the Kurdish Kurmanji-Russian dictionary compiled by Kurdoev, this verb can also mean заквáшивать ‘to ferment’, which thus reinforces the original meaning of havên ‘yeast, leaven’.
The process of throwing leaven in the sea would thus create bubbles, i.e. a foam, which would lead us again to a Sufi theme. The famous Sufi poet and Master Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī explains this metaphor in his layman’s manual Fīhi -ma- fihi (“What is it about ?”), that “This world is a mere foam fleck of the True Sea. That Ocean is the science of the saints, and within that Water is the Pearl Itself. This world is but foam full of floating jetsam. Yet, through the turning of the waves, and the rhythmic surging of the sea in constant motion, this foam takes on a certain beauty. ” (transl. A.J. Arberry). In fact, this is based on ‘The Stories of the Prophets’ (Qiṣas al-Anbiyā), which narrates God’s Creation as follows:

"It is related in the well-known transmitted accounts that when God wished to create the heavens and the Earth, he created a jewel like the seven heavens and the seven earths; then He looked at it with a frightful glance and it became water. He looked at the water and it boiled and rose up, and was covered with foam and smoke. From the foam He created the Earth, and from the smoke Heaven."

(Engl. transl. of the Arabic version of Abu Ishaq Ahmad Ibn Muhammed Ibn Ibrahim Al-Thaclabi, ed. W.M. Brinner 2002).

"It occurs in tradition: Before anything else the Lord, He is exalted, created a gem. He looked at the gem sternly and the gem became water. Then He created the wind. He caused the wind to blow across the water which became turbid and was whipped into foam. From the foam smoke arose; out of the smoke He created the sky. In His words, He is exalted: “Wait for the day when the sky will pour down blinding smoke."

(Engl. transl. of the Chaghatay version of al-Rabghūzī, eds. H.E. Boeschoten – J. O’Kane)

Without doubt, the Yezidi version reflects the oral adaption of this ‘Stories of the Prophets’, which belongs to the standard repertoire of Sufi masters.

Also the prelude of the Qewl to the actual narration of the Creation, contains a familiar Sufi “motif”, the ocean containing gems and pearls of wisdom. One may quote from the Lama’āt ‘Divine Sparks’ of the great Persian writer Fakr al-Dīn ‘Irāqī (from Hamedan), when he describes the ocean:

 ‘In the vast ocean of Your being, the cosmos is but a wave, which the wind of Your determining caused to roll toward every coast One-hundred thousand gems of meaning and form at every breath are made apparent and unseen by the bellows of this ocean.’

(Translated by Zargar 2011)

yar ‘friend’

Another important institution that I believe comes straight from Sufism is the existence of the yar literally ‘friend, companion’, which is a translation of the Arabic form walī, i.e. someone who is close to God, i.e. an experienced Sufi adept. The existence of the “four yar” during the Creation also recalls the role of the four awtād ‘supports’ (lit. ‘pegs’) of the world, mentioned in the Sufi literature. According to Ibn ‘Arabi (‘the Meccan Revelations’ Futūhāt al-Makkiya, Book IV, Chapter 383), these are Idris (Enoch), Ilyas (Elijah), ‘Isa (Jesus) and Khidr. They are responsible for the four corners of the universe: “C’est par les awtâd que Dieu protège ces quatre directions et eux-mêmes sont gardés contre tout ce qui peut en provenir.” (Futūhāt, Book II, cit. Chodkiewicz, 1986, p. 126). Moreover, the actual phrase “four yar”, in its Persian equivalent çahār yār, is also well-known among medieval Sufi orders, as it expresses the traditional Sunni “Four Righteous Caliphs” (Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali).

şaxa mihbetê ‘the branch of Love’

There are also several expressions that seem to be taken straight from Sufi sources, perhaps taken from Rumi’s works, to give one notable example:
-In the next stanza, 7, of the Hymn of the Weak Broken One, we encounter the expression şaxa mihbetê ‘the branch of Love’, whose interpretation has somewhat puzzled Kreyenbroek – Rashow 2005: 58, fn. 5: “This may imply that love is seen as a separate force deriving (branching off) from the unified potential essence symbolised by the Pearl.”.
Actually Rumi himself provides the answer to this technical Sufi term, in his manual, Fīhi mā Fīhi (Discourse 36), the visible Form is described as a branch of Love: “Form came as a branch of Love; for without love this form would have no worth. A branch is that which cannot exist without the root. Therefore God is not called a “form”; since “form” is the branch, He cannot be called the branch.” sūrat far‘-i ‘išq āmad kih bē ‘išq sūrat rā qadr nabūd far‘-i ān bāšad kih bē asl natawānad būdan pas allāh rā sūrat nagōyand čōn sūrat far‘ bāšad. (transl. Arberry, Discourses).
Hence in the Yezidi Hymn, this ‘branch of Love’ actually refers poetically to the formation of the Creation, the forms of the created beings becoming visible thanks to the creative force “Love”. Love has thus has made Sheikh its form, visible, manifest in the world. Interestingly enough, the Kurdish expression şaxa mihbetê seems to be a translation of the Arabo-Persian expression of Rumi’s far‘-i ‘išq (the Arabo-Persian form far‘ ‘branch; division’ is not attested in Kurdish).

In conclusion

In this talk I have given only a few striking examples of Sufi influences that can be detected in the Yezidi religious stories telling traditions of the Qewl singers, but they can be expanded with many more. A painstaking analysis of these Sufi references and allusions may further corroborate the profound, if not decisive, role that Sufism played during the early formation of this religious group that has often been labelled as “non-Islamic”, “pagan”, by outsiders, whether they were (orthodox) Muslims or preconceived Western travelers.

Selected bibliography

A.J. Arberry, Discourses of Rūmī, translated and with a commentary. London: J. Murray 1961.
H.E. Boeschoten – J. O’Kane. The stories of the prophets, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’: an Eastern Turkish version. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
W.M. Brinner 2002. Ara’is Al-Majalis fi Qisas al-Anbiya’ or “Lives of the Prophets”, as recounted by Abu Ishaq Ahmad Ibn Muhammed Ibn Ibrahim Al-Thalabi. Leiden: Brill.
M. Chodkiewicz 1986. Le Sceau des saints, prophétie et sainteté dans la doctrine d’Ibn Arabî. Paris: Gallimard.
– Ph. G. Kreyenbroek – Kh. J. Rashow 2005: God and Sheikh Adi are Perfect. Sacred Poems and Religious Narratives from the Yezidi Tradition. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
C.A. Zargar 2011, Sufi Aesthetics Beauty, Love, and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi. Columbia, S.C : University of South Carolina Press.

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