Gurdjieff & Yezidism
Part One

(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

IN 1888 THE 16-YEAR-OLD GURDJIEFF WITNESSED a strange incident: he saw a little boy, weeping and making strange movements, struggling with all his might to break out of a circle drawn around him by other boys. Gurdjieff released the boy by erasing part of the circle and the child ran from his tormentors. The boy, Gurdjieff learned, was a Yezidi. He had heard only that Yezidis were "a sect living in Transcaucasia, mainly in the regions near Mount Ararat. They are sometimes called devil-worshippers." Astonished by the incident, Gurdjieff made a point of telling us that he felt compelled to think seriously about the Yezidis.(1) Inquiring of the adults he knew, he received contradictory opinions representative of the usual, prejudiced view of the Yezidis. But Gurdjieff remained unsatisfied.

This story is embedded in the narrative of Meetings with Remarkable Men, like one of the monuments in Turkestan which Gurdjieff said helps people find their way through regions in which there are no roads or footpaths. In chapter five Gurdjieff placed another such marker, an echo of the earlier story. There, he and Pogossian set off to find the Sarmoung Brotherhood, even if they must travel, as Gurdjieff says, "on the devil's back." Enroute, far from any city, Pogossian throws a stone at one barking dog in a pack, and he and Gurdjieff are immediately surrounded by fifteen Kurdish sheepdogs. Like Yezidis, the two men cannot leave the circle of dogs until they are released by the shepherds who own the dogs.(2)

Where does this incident happen? If we set out Gurdjieff's journey with Pogossian on a map and, following Gurdjieff's instructions, draw a line from Alexandropol through Van, we see it passes through the Lalish Valley, location of the tomb and shrine of Sheikh Adi, the principal saint of the Yezidi religion. Extending the line further, it reaches Mosul, the major town in the region and a center of Yezidism.(3) By setting such markers, is Gurdjieff advising that we too should "think seriously" about the Yezidis?

              Lalish Valley and the tomb of Sheikh Adi

Gurdjieff has said that the teaching he brought is completely self-supporting and independent of other lines, was completely unknown up to the present time, and its origins predate and are the source of ancient Egyptian religion and of Christianity. Why then, has he as much as asked us to look into Yezidism? Some, swayed in a superficial sense by the subtitle of Ouspensky's book, Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, went hunting for the "missing link" in Gurdjieff's supposedly incomplete teaching. They tried to find this or that source from which he put it together, little realizing that it was they who were fragmentary, not the teaching.

The questions become instead: what ideas do we encounter in a study of the Yezidis—and do these tell us anything? As we acquaint ourselves with the Yezidis and their beliefs, we may see that Gurdjieff has led us to materials for a deeper understanding of the nature of an esoteric teaching, of the implications of a teaching transmitted "orally," and of the reasons for his unlikely choice of Beelzebub as the hero of the First Series.

A Complex History

The story of the Yezidis can be traced back more than four thousand years—before they came to be called Yezidis—until the trail disappears into an unrecorded 'prehistory.' Based on few accounts, and those often contradictory, it is complex and difficult to follow.

Typical of the difficulties is a story told by the anthropologist Sami Said Ahmed, who completed a massive study of the Yezidis in 1975.(4) He was given two manuscripts at different times, written by a Yezidi friend. Each purported to explain the beliefs of Yezidism with seemingly superficial legendary tales taken as fact, and each contradicted the other. Working assiduously, Ahmed eventually found that the manuscripts contained real facts and genuine articles of Yezidi belief, but in disguised form. When told of this, the Yezidi friend replied, "The book which I presented to you contains only one (fact) of the thousands (of facts) of Yezidism."(5) Further, he maintained that "Yezidism is the mother of all Eastern religions."(6)

Here we see some of the problems commonly encountered in attempting to understand the Yezidis. The first, and apparently the easiest to grasp, is their legendary secrecy—the keeping of their beliefs and practices hidden for fear of persecution for holding beliefs and practices that lie outside the sphere of orthodox approval. Again and again, they resisted conversion to Islam—or Christianity—except when they took on the outward forms for a period of time to avoid certain destruction.

What "Yezidi" Means

Yezidi cawals The word Yezidi(7) is used as the name of a tribal group (several tribes, really) and a religion practiced by that tribe. The first time the name appears in writing is in the eleventh century A.D. There are many theories about its origin, each more or less likely, but for different reasons, so it is not known when they first were called Yezidis or why. Some consider the name stems from Ized (angel, God) or Yazata (worthy of worship), words found in the Avesta, the sacred writings of the Zoroastrians and the Parsees.(8) Most Muslim writers believed the Yezidis are admirers of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Mu'awiya who was responsible for the death of the Prophet's grandson, Hussein. The younger son of Caliph Ali by the prophet's daughter Fatima, Hussein refused to swear allegiance to Yazid when he became Caliph. In 680 A.D., on his way from Medina to join supporters of Ali's family, Hussein was waylaid in the desert by agents of Yazid and killed. Because of the belief in the Yezidis connection with Yazid (who was hated by the Shi'ites, the "partisans of Ali," and not well thought of by Sunnis either), Yezidis were hated and persecuted. There was, indeed, in the Kurdish mountains a religious movement which venerated Yazid and the Umayyad dynasty, but it isn't known if the Yezidis were part of it.

More importantly, because the Yezidis refused to have a written scripture, they were not given even the limited rights under Islamic law accorded to Christians and Jews as "peoples of a book." Unlike other Kurdish tribal groups, Yezidis could on the slightest of pretexts be regarded as outlaws, killed or sold into slavery, and their lands and possessions taken with impunity. It was not until 1849 that they were officially recognized as a legitimate people in an edict issued by the Ottoman Empire. It exempted them from "all illegal impositions, forbade the sale of their children as slaves, secured to them the full enjoyment of their religion, and placed them on the same footing as other sects of the empire."(9)

Yezidi women The edict was as honored in the breach as in the observation. In 1894, the Ottomans sent an expedition against Jebel Sinjar to convert Yezidis to Islam. Although the Yezidi villages on the lower foothills were burned, many Ottoman soldiers were killed and the expedition failed. The last Ottoman attacks on the Yezidis came at the end of the First World War. In September 1918, the Ottomans hammered their mountain refuge, the Jebel Sinjar, with airplanes and cannon, but that expedition, too, failed.

The connection with Caliph Yazid and the absence of a revealed book were more important in stigmatizing the Yezidis as pariahs before their later association with the devil. The accusation of devil worship—that by which they are principally known today—comes only at the end of the eighteenth century. It isn't mentioned, for example, in an account written in the late sixteenth century (that does refer to their connection with the Yazid faction), nor is it mentioned in an otherwise slanderous account written by a Turkish traveler fifty years later; nor in fatwas (religious edicts) issued against them in the early eighteenth century. It was not until the end of that century that the accusation was first made.

Angel Worshippers

Two cawals By all rights the Yezidis should have been known as angel—not devil—worshippers. No matter what the origin of the name, the primary associations for the word are similar. This is true whether the word is derived from the Persian, Izd, or a variant such as Azidi, Izidi, Izdi, or Yazata and Ized, or Yazd in Pahlavi, or Yajata in Sanskrit. All of these terms generally mean "worthy of worship," usually referring to an angel who intercedes between God and man, supervising the affairs of men after creation.

Yezidis seem to be mostly Kurds, who speak Kurdish not Arabic. But they probably have Persian, Assyrian, Armenian, and Arab forebears as well. Traditionally they lived in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. At the time Gurdjieff resided in the East, the religious life of the Yezidis centered in Baadri and the Lalish Valley, about fifty miles north of Mosul, and about one hundred miles north of Baghdad. When persecuted, the Yezidis traditionally sought refuge in remote, hard-to-access regions such as the Jebel Sinjar, a range of mountains in the middle of the desert, one hundred miles west of Mosul. Other communities settled in Kars and Erivan in Russian Armenia, and in Tiflis in the Caucasus.

No one knows how many Yezidis there are: Yezidi men have always hidden from census takers to avoid conscription for military service. In the eighteenth century there were upwards of one million. Today, there are perhaps one hundred- or one-hundred-fifty or two-hundred-fifty thousand. Many have been slaughtered or displaced from their traditional homelands in northern Iraq by the current unrest in the region. Many have emigrated in recent years from Turkey to Germany.

An Oral Teaching

The second type of difficulty in learning about the Yezidis arises from approaching them within the context of contemporary western intellectualism. Even if westerners are no longer a "people of the book," we yet remain a people who rely on writing for the transmission of our ideas and history. The Yezidis have not. Only recently, beginning in 1979, under the pressures of contemporary civilization, have they begun to encourage the transcription and translation of what now appears to be a large corpus of oral works. In an important recent work on the Yezidis, the Iranist Phillip G. Kreyenbroek summarizes the prior situation:

...Until recently, the only known texts of a religious nature whose authenticity was generally accepted were a few Arabic poems ascribed to Sheykh Adi(10) which contained practically no information about the faith as such. Two highly informative texts, the 'Sacred Books', came to light around the turn of the century. These, however, failed to meet the criteria normally adopted to judge the authenticity of written traditions, and were therefore regarded as suspect. Yezidism was thus believed to lack a substantial textual tradition, and to possess at most a number of distinctive observances. The ideas and methods of most researchers, moreover, derived from the study of written [emphasis added] religious traditions. This meant that it was assumed that the Yezidi tradition, like those of other religions of the Middle East, was based on an articulate, monolithic body of authoritative teachings. The views of contemporary Yezidis, which did not appear to reflect such a tradition, were therefore regarded as proof of the corrupt state of the contemporary religion.(11)

Interestingly, the land in which the Yezidis settled is one with a tradition of writing as ancient as that of any in the world, cuneiform first having come into use around 2500 B.C. So it is likely that the nonliterate mode was adopted and continued by choice.

Since Yezidism is fundamentally nonliterate, it has no "official" form. Yezidis adapt historical facts to their sacred history to suit the needs of oral recitation and transmission, dismissing much of the detail scholars insist upon as irrelevant to the purposes of advancing the spiritual life of the hearer. Different communities may emphasize or omit different elements, so that Sheikh Adi, the principal saint, for example, may be the subject of worship in some villages while playing a less prominent role in others. There is no intention to deceive or misrepresent. Rather the stress of valuation is consistently placed on the spiritual, not the secular or "factual"; on feeling and being, not linear thinking. "In the process of constructing a relevant—i.e. legendary—version of events, questions of time and of the separateness of individual identities are often disregarded."(12) Characteristically, the identities of many holy beings are indeterminate and Yezidis themselves frequently disagree about details of the faith—without needing to anathematize the alternate point of view. And, since holy beings are divine, their personalities as individuals are of no particular importance to the faithful.

Yezidis can hold contradictory views about elements of their faith, each view revealing something of value hidden in the other. That they feel no need to reconcile the views logically should be taken as evidence of a sophisticated development of intuition—not as an indication of carelessness or of ignorance.

Ultimately, as Kreyenbroek states, "...being a Yezidi is a matter of birth, not belief."(13) The implications of this are that membership in the community, observing festivals and practices, and formal obedience to spiritual leaders are the essential elements of religious life. The existence of a lived context, of faith in the divine beings, gives each act meaning—not formal knowledge or priestly teaching. It isn't that Yezidis aren't articulate about their faith, rather that "no particular virtue attaches to having such knowledge....In Yezidi communities, people listen to religious discourse primarily to gain some understanding of the deeper mysteries of reality."(14)

In the all-embracing context of a life lived as a Yezidi, prayer too, is mainly a non-verbal act of devotion. Among the acts described have been a morning ritual of washing the hands and face, turning toward the sun, bowing three times with arms crossed, kissing the tips of the fingers, and bringing the hands to the head. Also, kissing the spot where the first morning ray falls.

A History from "Heart to Heart"

Muslim and Western accounts of Yezidi history have stressed the outer events of record, the struggles for supremacy among different tribes and families, feuds and alliances, the impacts of external forces such as the Mongols, the Ottomans, or the English and French. These are more easily grasped than the inner concerns of the faith, which for the most part have not been recorded and so are not addressed.

Ismail Beg A rare instance was a report by a German journalist who in 1928 visited Ismail Beg, a Yezidi prince, and recorded his feeling for his religion and concern for the survival of the Yezidi heritage. "Pointing to his ten-year-old son, Ismail said that he would pass on to him the secrets of the Yezidi religion 'from the heart' and that he in turn would pass them on 'from the heart' to his son." Ismail's parting words to the journalist were, "Write down the principles of our religion and publish them in all the languages of Europe, so that our faith may be known before it perishes."(15)

The Sacred Texts

Modern western interest in the Yezidis has its origin in the eighteenth century Christian religious revival in Britain which, in the early nineteenth century, caused missionaries to be sent all over the world. They were to convert the heathen and regenerate Christian faith in groups such as the Nestorians (16) of Mesopotamia (often called Chaldeans) who had survived over the centuries after the advent of Islam. Parallel with their efforts at religious conversion, many missionary institutions also became involved in collecting, translating, and publishing ancient texts which had been handed down for centuries in their regions. Interest began with manuscripts relating to Christianity, then expanded to encompass other religions, among them Yezidism.

Layard To watch after the interests of the influx of visitors from Europe and America, consulates were established, where none had existed, in places such as Mosul. Some of the consular officials, in addition to the usual diplomatic duties, were charged with gathering archaeological information. Paul Émile Botta, the first consular agent of France in Mosul, discovered the ruins of Nineveh. By 1843 he was excavating a palace of the Assyrian kings at Khorsabad. Later that year he was forced to cease because local officials had become suspicious. Before stopping, Botta was visited by Austen Henry Layard, who, at the age of 22, was on his way by land from England to seek employment in Ceylon. Layard went on to Persia, then back to Baghdad where he learned about archaeology.

In 1845, Layard returned to Mosul with money and permission to dig anywhere in the region. By this time Botta had returned to France. Layard began digging in Nimrud where he discovered a huge winged lion with a human head. It was the first of the discoveries among the ruins of ancient Assyria which would make him famous. By 1846, he had developed close relations with the Yezidis and visited them in Baadri and Lalish. In 1849, Layard would prove his friendship to the Yezidis by assisting them in their petition for recognition and justice from the Ottoman empire and by helping recover moneys stolen from them.

Of the existence of sacred books, Layard wrote:

The language in general use amongst all the Yezidis is a Kurdish dialect; and very few, except the Sheikhs and Cawals, are acquainted with Arabic. The chants and hymns—the only form of prayer, which, as far as I could ascertain, they possess—are, as I have already observed, in Arabic. They have, I believe, a sacred volume, containing their traditions, their hymns, directions for the performance of their rites, and other matters connected with their religion. It is preserved either at Baazani or Baasheikha, and is regarded with so much superstitious reverence that I failed in every endeavor to obtain a copy, or even to see it. It is considered unlawful to know how to read and write. There are only one or two persons amongst the Yezidis who can do either: even Sheikh Nasr is unacquainted with the alphabet. Those who know how to read have only been taught, in order that they may preserve the sacred book, and may refer to it for the doctrines and ceremonies of the sect. (17)

Sheikh Nasr

In 1880, the French vice-consul in Mosul, N. Siouffi, had the existence of two sacred texts confirmed in an interview with the then Baba Sheikh of the Yezidis.(18) These were called the Jelwa ("Splendor," "Revelation," "Unveiling") whose subject is the sovereignty of Melek Tawus and the Meshaf Resh ("The Black Book") which sets forth accounts of creation and a history of the Yezidis and their practices. Written copies and summaries began appearing soon afterwards and fell into the hands of outsiders in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The earliest of these were most likely obtained by subterfuge. By the early twentieth century there were more than half a dozen manuscripts of the Yezidi sacred books in the west, translated into various western languages.

Typical of the stories that surround their appearance is that of a Yezidi named Habib, who, claiming to have been a "librarian"(19) for a Yezidi chief religious official, converted to Christianity, escaped to Baghdad, and sought refuge and instruction in the Carmelite mission there. He was baptized as Abd el-Mesih, and, as proof of his new faith, he divulged what he knew of the Yezidi religion. Before he died he handed over Arabic copies of the Jelwa and Resh to a Carmelite priest, Père Anastase, telling him that "the Yezidi sacred books had originally been written in Kurdish and had been handed by God to the Yezidis in the days of Adam. Long ago they had been translated into Arabic in order to shield the originals from human eyes or touch."(20)

Père Anastase visited the Sinjar in 1904 and bargained with the current "librarian" to pay so much per page for a traced copy of the Jelwa and a lump sum for the whole of the Meshaf Resh, which was written on a parchment scroll. The script used in the texts turned out to be a coded transposition of the Persian-Arabic alphabet(21) which was used to transcribe in Kurdish a text translated from an Arabic original. The translation of this text appeared in German in 1913. Typical of the problems of authenticity involved, it was contested by an ambitious scholar, a former Chaldean, who was later determined to have forged documents he himself claimed to have discovered, having baked the pages in an oven.

Were the texts forgeries, created to satisfy the emergence of a consumer market for such books? Most likely not. Accounts by travelers, which appeared prior to Siouffi's discovery, reported some Yezidis telling of the existence of carefully hidden and protected sacred books, and they are mentioned in various documents written before the existence of such sacred texts became an issue of concern and before any Yezidi denied their existence. The variances among the several versions that appeared are probably due to the differences in the original oral works which were transcribed. For example, some chanters used shorter summary versions of a work, then spoke expanded versions at another time.(22)

The Jelwa

"I was, am present now, and shall have no end. I exercise dominion over all creatures and manage the affairs of all who are under my possession,"(23) begins the Kitab el-Jelwa (The Book of Revelation, The Book of the Emergence) the first of the Yezidi "scriptures." In it, the speaker, Melek Tawus, a divine being, reveals his role not only as ruler over all creatures in the world, "the beasts of the earth, the birds of heaven, and the fish of the sea are all under the control of my hands," but also over other divine beings. "Every age has its own manager who follows my counsel. This office changes from generation to generation to generation, that the ruler of this world and his chiefs may discharge the duties of their respective offices every one in his own turn. ... I give counsel to the wise and discerning directors for I have appointed them for periods that are known to me." And definitively, "there is no place in the universe that knows not my presence."

He sets out a special relationship to the Yezidis, "those who trust me and call upon me in time of need." They are "under his possession," and he promises not just to rule them but to look after them. "I teach and guide those who follow my instruction. If anyone obeys me and conforms to my commandments, he shall have joy, delight and goodness." But while favoring the Yezidis, he is nevertheless fair to all. "I do not undertake the assistance of outsiders, neither do I withhold good from them."

Yezidi Dance

The Yezidis are referred to as the children of Adam, descended from Adam alone, not from the union of Adam and Eve as are the remainder of humanity. "I repay the descendants of Adam, and reward them with various rewards that I alone know." Furthermore, he promises that, "My own people, the sons of Adam, shall not die like the outsiders." This doesn't mean they won't die, but that "None shall live in this world longer than the time set by me; and if I so desire, I send into this world or into some other by transmigration of souls." Despite being favored, the Yezidis are reminded of their imperfections: "Now the sons of Adam do not know the state of things that is to come. For this reason they fall into many errors." And in seeming contradiction, "I allow everyone to follow the dictates of his own nature."

The oral sources of the teaching are clearly referred to when the speaker says he leads "to the straight path without a revealed book; I direct aright my beloved and my chosen ones by unseen means." Setting down a teaching in writing is risky, since books are often rewritten, revised, and the teaching contained in them debased. Also, when factionalism arises "each Sect endeavors to prove that the others are wrong and destroy their books." Inasmuch as the teaching has been committed to writing, Yezidis are warned not to "give them your books, lest they alter them without your knowledge," and despite the creation of books, to keep the teaching pure, to "learn by heart the greater part of them, in order that they should not be altered for you." The external meaning is to memorize books so they don't fall into the wrong hands; the internal, that the contents must be "taken into the heart" to be permanent. Yezidis are further instructed how to relate to other teachings. "The books of Jews and Christians accept in a sense, that is, so far as they agree with, and conform to, my statutes. Whatsoever is contrary to these they have altered; do not accept it."

If we take the Jelwa as a Legominism, as having a role not just in the embodying of a teaching, but in its transmission, we begin to recognize some of the complexity in the representation of Melek Tawus. He has many roles, exists at many levels. He appears as the chief being in a hierarchy, but is embodied also at lower levels, so that followers may be led to an understanding of the relationship between diversity and unity, between form and formless, between apparent and hidden. He proposes that some among humanity, the "sons of Adam," can understand their origins and possible destiny in a spiritual sense rather than the prevailing worldly sense of the children of Adam and Eve. But the teaching isn't exclusionary, since good is not to be withheld from "outsiders." Rather it promotes discrimination, such as between that which is in agreement with the teaching, as in the "books of Jews and Christians," and what is not. In an esoteric sense, we see the drawing of a hermetic circle, only within the boundaries of which can conditions be created for the possibility of spiritual development.


(1) G.I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950), pp. 65–66.

(2) Ibid, p. 94.

(3) Ibid, p. 93.

(4) Sami Said Ahmed, The Yazidis: Their Life and Beliefs (Field Research Projects, 1975).

(5) Ibid, pp. 8–10.

(6) Ibid, p. 15.

(7) Principal sources for the "facts" of Yezidis and Yezidism are: Ahmed, The Yazidis; Gibb and Kramers, The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (Cornell University Press, 1974); John S. Guest, The Yezidis: A Study in Survival (KPI, 1987); and Phillip Kreyenbroek, Yezidism—Its Background, Observances and Textual Tradition (Texts and Studies in Religion, Volume 62, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995).

(8) The Yazidis, p. 22–23.

(9) The Yezidis: A Study, p. 100.

(10) Sheikh Adi, b. Musafir [1073–1161], a descendant in the Umayyad line, after whom the Yezidis major shrine is named, is variously considered a principal saint, of divine origin, or an incarnation of an angel. His name appears in Arabic histories, which tell us that he was born in the Bekaa Valley in the Lebanon, studied in Baghdad and became a Sufi. Among his fellow students were Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, founder of the Qadiriyyah Order, Abd al-Qadir al-Suhrawardi, Abu Hamid Ghazali, and Ahmad Ghazali. He moved to the Hakkari mountains in Kurdistan early in the twelfth century where he studied under local Sufi masters. He was the inspiration for the Adawiyya Order of Sufis, with followers mainly in Egypt and Syria. Divested of Islamic characteristics, one branch of the Order has come to be identified as a precursor of the later form of Yezidism.

(11) Yezidism—Its Background, pp. vii–viii.

(12) Ibid, p. 19.

(13) Ibid, p. 18.

(14) Ibid, p. 19.

(15) The Yezidis: A Study, p. 179.

(16) Some of the beliefs of this group stemmed from Nestorius, a fifth-century Patriarch of Constantinople.

(17) Sir Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and its Remains (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1849), p. 210.

(18) Yezidism—Its Background, pp. 10, 11.

(19) It is not known if such a post actually existed.

(20) The Yezidis: A Study, p. 149.

(21) Ibid, p. 153.

(22) Yezidism—Its Background, pp. 13–15

(23) This rendering is primarily that which appears in Ahmed, with some additional material from a similar version which appears in Guest, taken from a translation by Professor E.G. Browne of Cambridge University in the last years of the nineteenth century.

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