Yezidis canonizing sacred writings to preserve and modernize the faith

    Yazidi Book of Revelation (source: Wikipedia).

The publication of some Yezidi sacred texts for various purposes over the past 50 years, as well as the experiences of a growing Yezidi diaspora, are giving rise to a process of canonization of Yezidi holy scriptures, reports Thorsten Wettich (University of Bremen) in the Zeitschrift für Religion und Weltanschauung (5/2022). Persecutions against Yezidis by the so-called Islamic State have made the name of this independent monotheistic religion more widely known. One does not convert to Yezidism but needs to be born into it from two Yezidi parents, although there have been some signs of relaxation of that rule in recent years. Until eight years ago, a large part of the worldwide Yezidi population (which is around 800,000) resided in northern Iraq, but the jihadist offensive against them and the destruction it brought forced many to flee abroad. The largest Yezidi diaspora of around 200,000 people is now found in Germany, while more than 100,000 Yezidis live in the Caucasus and Russia. Wettich notes that Yezidi beliefs have drawn much attention from Western scholars, with one of the main questions of interest being whether Yezidis have a sacred book of their own. Repeatedly, since the nineteenth century, scholars claimed to have discovered the Yezidi’s holy scriptures, although Yezidi doctrines are actually not found in a single scriptural canon but a variety of documents.

Until only a few decades ago, only a minority of Yezidis were able to read and write. Trained religious experts from a specific caste within the community would recite prayers or hymns and read holy texts for the faithful, and those experts were also familiar with the interpretation of the texts. While much material is passed on as oral tradition, some families of the priestly caste keep written collections of the texts in their homes. And for the past 50 years, some collections have been published and have made access to the texts easier for ordinary faithful and outsiders. The first publications of Yezidi sacred texts by Yezidis themselves in the 1970s were meant for the use of religious education at Iraqi schools. This paved the way for a process of selection and prioritization of various materials, although there is no unanimous agreement about that selection. In Germany, too, some texts have been published, although those have been edited by Yezidis with an academic training rather than by Yezidi clerics.

The publication of these texts creates an unprecedented situation for Yezidis. Variations across different versions raise issues of authenticity and authority. Recent publications reveal a trend toward a systematic theology. Yezidi spiritual leaders are also engaging in a process of canonization of their sacred texts. Most of them no longer see the publication of these documents as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to preserve and modernize their tradition, although not everybody in the caste of religious experts is pleased to see lay people also dealing with these issues. Living in diaspora, for instance in Germany, has also contributed to changes, with Yezidis engaging in interreligious dialogue and having to present their beliefs in a way that is understandable to outsiders, which may overemphasize an intellectual approach. Wettich concludes that the process of canonization of Yezidi scriptures is far from completed.

(Zeitschrift für Religion und Weltanschauung,