Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Philip KREYENBROEK


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Traditions of the Yezidis and Ahl-e Haqq
as Evidence for Kurdish Cultural History

Par Philip G. KREYENBROEK (*)

Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to say that it is a great honour, as well as a pleasure to be here. It is fantastic to see the progress Kurdistan has made since I was last able to come here over ten years ago. I am very grateful to all those who organized this great event for inviting me, and to the people of Erbil for making us feel so very welcome.

My paper today is concerned with the cultural history of the Kurds. As I have said many times before, the cultural history of the Kurds has sometimes been misunderstood by Western scholars, because they were looking for exact equivalents to Western phenomena: for manifestations of ‘high’ culture, such as written, élite literature. Now, as we all know, although some major works of this kind were produced in Kurdish, those who wished to produce élite literature in Kurdistan generally tended to write in languages other than Kurdish. Therefore a search for ‘high’ culture in Kurdistan can only yield limited results, which led to a tendency to think of Kurdish culture as derivative, based largely on Persian, Arabic and Turkish models.

Of course, if one were to measure European culture by its oral literature and folk music alone, the result would be the much the same. Applying the wrong criteria automatically produces unreliable results. In fact, as most of us know, authentic Kurdish culture is extraordinarily rich and original. We must hope that closer collaborations between Kurdish and Western scholars will enable us to demonstrate this to the world in the coming decade.

To illustrate the richness and deep roots of Kurdish culture, I would like to discuss evidence from the traditions of two traditional Kurdish minorities, the Yezidis and Ahl-e Haqq or Kâkâ'i. I hope to show that these traditions can help us gain a better understanding of aspects of the cultural history of the Kurdish lands. Recent evidence makes it seem increasingly likely that many elements of Yezidi and Kâkâ'i culture go back to a common, more or less coherent cultural tradition, which developed inthe same way in most of the Kurdish lands and probably survived well into the Islamic era. It is possible that this culture was once shared by the population of most of the Kurdish lands but that, as the influence of Islam grew stronger, its coherence disintegrated so that smaller Kurdish communities developed their own variants as they became more isolated. When Sheikh Adi (d. ca. 1160 CE) and Sultan Sahhâk (15th century CE) re-organised the two communities, many elements of this common Kurdish culture must still have been alive. It is also likely that other minority traditions in Kurdistan, such as that of the Alevis in Turkey and the Shabak and others in Iraq, ultimately go back to the same tradition, but this requires further research.

My remarks today are largely based on research work on the Yezidi religious texts which I have done together with Dr. Khalil Jindy Rashow, and which culminated in our latest book, God and Sheih Adi are Perfect: Sacred Poems and Religious Narratives from the Yezidi Tradition. For the Ahl-e Haqq of Kâkâ'i, I have consulted the published literature available in the West and in Iran, and the evidence of a doctoral thesis that was written under my supervision, but has not yet been examined. [1] Unfortunately that means that so that I may not quote from it directly, but can only allude to its contents. This is a work on the Ahl-e Haqq kalâms in a Turkic language as they are transmitted by Ahl-e Haqq in the region of Hamadan. Until now only a few kalâms of that tradition were known in the West.T he striking thing about the Turkic Ahl-e Haqq poems is that their style and content are surprisingly similar to Yezidi Qewl or Beyt, more obviously so than to many Gurani kalâm.

All of these religious poems are to some extent allusive, i.e. they refer to a state of affairs that is assumed to be known to the listeners, and need not be explained in a wholly narrative manner. Still, Yezidi Qewl usually contain some narrative elements, and their simple rhyme schemes (end rhyme) and relatively free metrical structure allow the poet to include enough information to help the listener follow what is being said. Many Gurani kalâms, on the other hand, seem to be visionary utterances; they hardly contain any narrative elements, and the stringent rules governing their rhyme and metre render their style more difficult to follow. [2] The newly uncovered Kâkâ'i texts in an Iranian Turkic dialect, however, prove to be similar to the Yezidi Qewls: like these, they are edifying rather than visionary, contain narrative elements, and are simpler in style. The more narrative style of these Turkic kalâms, moreover, shows the striking similarities between the two traditions with special clarity.

Given this state of affairs, one can hardly escape the conclusion that both traditions have a common source—a well-defined, more or less coherent culture which comprised a literary and religious tradition. To account for the presence of offshoots of this culture in an area extending at least from Western Iraq to Western Iran, one has to assume that this common Kurdish culture was widespread, and deeply rooted.

If that is so, then it is likely that the extant traditions—those of the Yezidis and Kâkâ'i— can tell us something about the cultural history of the Kurdish people generally in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, because many generations the ancestors of the Kurds must have been members of that culture. As we will see, it is possible to distinguish various layers in the extant traditions: (1) one that existed before the Iranian tribes— the linguistic ancestors of the Kurds—came to the Kurdish lands; (2) a pre-Zoroastrian Iranian one; (3) which in the course of time adapted to some extent to Zoroastrian thinking; and (4) then a Gnostic, a (5) Christian and an (6) Islamic, particularly mystical one. All these waves of cultural influences were absorbed by the Kurds and incorporated into a tradition that remained peculiarly Kurdish.

It is thought that the Kurdish tribes entered the Near East together with other Iranian tribes around 1000 BCE or a bit earlier. By this time, of course, the Kurdish lands were already inhabited by people with other cultures. Around that time (1098-1044 BCE) the images I am going to show you could be seen in Mesopotamia. [3]

[Seidl C].....

Now if you compare these images to pictures of Lalish in the early 19th century,


you may well conclude that some ancient Mesopotamian symbols survived in Western Kurdistan:

—there is the snake,

—the staff-like object,

—the Yezidi ‘comb’, which may go back to the ancient representation of a temple,

— a scorpion, which also plays a role in Yezidi lore,

—and various ornamental shapes.

All these figures have apparently been preserved since the 10th century BCE until the 19th cenury CE. [4]

However, several of these symbols are incomprehensible to Yezidis. Only the bird, the snake and the scorpion play a role in Yezidi mythology as we know it. To the best of my knowledge, no such images or symbols exist in the Kâkâ'i tradition. If the similarities are significant at all, therefore, they suggest the tenacity of local traditions, and the readiness of the early proto-Kurdish tribes to accept new cultural elements found in their particular region. These figures, in other words, appear to have been adopted locally, but not to have become part of a wider common culture of the ancestors of the modern Kurds (CKC).

On the other hand, when we look at ancient Iranian mythology we notice a very different state of affairs! To explain this, I must bore you a little with ancient Iranian religion and folklore.

It seems likely that the ancient Indians and Iranians originally believed that there was one Creator God who, like a father, had engendered the essence of the world, which was small, and contained in rock as an unborn child is contained in its mother's body. The world was small, without movement, without light, floating in the ocean. On it were the prototypes of animals and plants one bull and one plant. Then Mithra—the Lord of Fire, the Sun, and Energy, who was the become the Lord of this world but who had been hidden in the rock—came from the rock into the cave that held the embryonic world (as fire can spring from flint). Mithra offered the first ritual sacrifice, killing the bull and pounding the plant to extract its juice, as many generations of priests were to do later for every major ritual. While Mithra did that, his element, the Sun, appeared in the cave, and rose up—thereby raising the roof of the cave to three times its original height, so that it became the sky we know. Mithra's ritual actions increased both earth and water three times, so that land and sea came into existence and the world became as we know it. From the sacrificed prototypes of animals and plants sprang all species of animals and plants. Mithra, who was probably the head of a group of seven divine Beings who were appointed to take care to the earth, had thus delivered the world from its confinement by the first religious ritual, which involved killing a bull and pounding a plant.

The myth I have just outlined is hypothetical; it is a reconstruction, based on a comparison of the creation myths of the Indian Veda, of Iranian Zoroastrianism, and of the Roman cult we call Mithraism. These three religious systems have myths that are essentially similar, but vary in details. Thus, in India, instead of a priest-like God sacrificing a bull, the world is delivered by a heroic god, Indra, slaying a dragon. In Zoroastrianism, which stresses the antithesis between good and evil, the immobile earth with the one bull and the one plant are described as the creations of the Good God, Ohrmazd. It is the Power of Evil, Ahriman, who enters the wonderful world of Ohrmazd, killing the First Bull and pounding the first plant. Sicne the world essentially belongs to Ohrmazd, however, the good creations fought back, which led to the origin of the world we know: with night and day, sweet and salt water, and may different species of animals and plants.

Only Mithraism—a cult associated with ancient Rome which apparently had its roots in an Iranian culture—seems to have preserved the myth in its original form. Mithraists said that their cult came from ‘Persia’, but it was obviously not based on Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in Iran at the time. If this is so, the question remains, where did the Romans get their information?

For a long time, one could only speculate about this. Then, by coincidence, I became aware that a similar cosmogony still existed in Kurdistan: a Creation myth involving a Creator God and a divine Lord of this world (like Mithra), who was the head of a group of Seven divine beings (Haft Tan); like Mithra, the Lord of this world brought the world to ‘birth’ by killing a bull. The first version I encountered in fact formed part of the mythology of the Ahl-e Haqq or Kâkâk'i. That was very interesting,of course, but , the myth appeared too be mentioned in one source only, [5] so it still did not constitute proof that an ancient Iranian myth lived on in modern Kurdistan. Then, a little later, I learned about the existence of the Yezidi Qewls, sacred hymns that had always been transmitted orally. I came to Kurdistan to study this tradition, and gradually discovered that this (hitherto unknown) tradition had very deep roots indeed. Among other things, I learned that the Qewls recognised God the Creator, who caused our world spring from a pearl, i.e a small cavity insie which the embryonic world had been contained. God then left the care of the world in the hands of Seven Beings (Heft Sirr), who were led by Tawusi Melek, the Peacock Angle. God made a Pact (Avestan mithra) with the Peacock Angel, and then the world became as we know it.

So far, no reference to the killing of a bull has been found in the Yezidi texts, but on the other hand the sacrifice of a white bull forms the culmination of the great Yezidi Autumn festival. This festival, it seems corresponds to the Iranian feast of Mithra (Mehragân), which was typically celebrated with animal sacrifice. Since the rest of the Yezidi myth is practically identical to the Ahl-e Haqq one, I think we may conclude that both go back to the original, ancient Iranian Cosmogony. Thus, the Roman soldiers who brought Mithraism to their homeland presumably learned about it, not in the Zoroastrian Persian heartlands, but in a Western Iranian milieu whose culture was apparently coherent and attractive enough make it interesting to Romans—i.e. in the CKC.

As far as I can see all this can only be explained by the assumption that a distinctive, deeply rooted culture flourished in Western Iran at this time, and was preserved for a very long time. Only a long common tradition can explain the near-identity of the Yezid and Ahl-e Haqq cosmogonies as they are transmitted now. Had the tradition not been deeply ingrained, then the two versions could hardly have remained so close to the original in the 1300 odd years of Islamic cultural dominance in the region.

So, it seems that proto-Kurdish culture had a conservative side, preserving age-old tradtitions. On the other hand, as I said earlier, the Kurds’ ancestors were also past masters at adopting features from other cultures, and adapting them in such a way that they enriched Kurdish culture without making it lose its authenticity.

For instance, Zoroastrianism was the religion of the culture that was dominant in the Sasanian Empire (ca. 220-650 CE), which included the Kurdish lands. Zoroastrian priests must have come to Kurdistan, where they found a religious tradition that was similar to their own, but strikingly different on an number of points. [6] Thus, both traditions claimed that the killing of the First Bull took place when the world was born. However, the early Kurds saw this as a good thing, resulting from Mithra’s first priestly sacrifice. On the other hand, the Zoroastrians regarded the killing of the Bull as a wicked act of Ahriman, which led to a fall from grace. So, Mithra's bull sacrifice was represented as wholly satanic by the newly dominant culture. Now we know from, the work of Eznik of Kolb, an Armenian author who wrote some 200 years before Islam, that the Zoroastrians believed that the Peacock was the only creature made by Ahriman, who was otherwise too lazy to create things. [7]

Given that a link existed between the Peacock and the Devil, and that an act by Mithra, was regarded by Zoroastrians as devilish, I think it is at least possible that the Kurds, using their usual genius for synthesis, decided that Mithra might be a devil, but they still loved him, and continued to worship Mithra in the shape of a Peacock. This might explain the presence, in Yezidism, of the Peacock Angel, a ‘good devil’ who has no similarity whatever with our idea of a devil, but is still associated with him in some way. The available evidence concerning the position of a 'good devil’ in Kâkâ'i culture is contradictory, indicating that the existence of a ‘good devil’ is recognised by certain communities, but is absent among others.

So far, ladies and gentlemen, we have seen the persistence in Kurdish culture (1) of ancient visual symbols of Babylonian/Mesopotamian provenance, (2) of a mythology of Indo-Iranian origin, which may have been transmitted to Roman Mithraism via Kurdistan, and (4) of adaptations made in Kurdistan to Zoroastrian ideas while preserving the essence of the Western Iranian world view (Mithra//Ahriman//Peacock).

A theme that is prominent both in the Yezidi Qewls and in the Turkic hymns of the Ahl-e Haqq is that of the Pearl. First of all, both religions believe that God created the world in embryonic form in a Pearl, which was smashed at the time of the evocation of the Seven Beings and the Bull Sacrifice, and from which the world was born.

Secondly, both traditions prominently refer to the symbol of divers for pearls of wisdom, and of merchants spending their capital to acquire such Pearls. Since Kurdistan is far away from the sea, and no pearl imagery is known from the Zoroastrian tradition, the question arises how this imagery came to be so influential in Kurdish culture. For the answer to this, I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Dr. Andrew Palmer, who drew my attention to the existence of a fairly exact parallel in the Christian tradition of the Middle East. Pearl symblism plays a central role in the poetry of St Ephraim of Syria (4th century CE), and was popular in Christian milieus certainly until the 7th century. [8] In Christrianity, the Pearl, pearl-diving, and merchants seeking to obtain the pearl naturally symbolise Christian ideals, but the images are strikingly similar to those found in Yezidi [9] and Ahl-e Haqq texts. The point here is not only that Christian imagery was adopted in Kurdish culture presumably around 600 CE, but also that, out of a whole system of Christian images, the same ones are found in Kurdish communities living so far apart.

Gnostic elements, which were presumably adopted in Kurdish culture in the early centuries of the Christian era, have been found in the Yezidi tradition. In an important publication, [10] Ms Esther Spaet has drawn attention to the Gnostic origins of the Myth of Shehîd bin Jerr, the ancestor of the Yezidis who was engendered by Adam alone, without Eve. In Yezidism, this myth is held to explain the Yezidis’ special nature, which requires them too marry endogamously. Endogamy is not part of the Ahl-e Haqq tradition, and I am not aware of the existence of a similar myth there. Further research is needed, however, to establish whether storylines of Gnostic origin are to be found in the Ahl-e Haqq, Kâkâ'i tradition.

Common Islamic/Sufi symbols are many, and prominently include references to:

— the concepts Shari‘a,Tariqa, and Haqiqa;
— the ‘Friend’ (Yar)
— the ark®n;
— the wine-up;
— the heart as a mirror that should be kept pure;

— Mansur al-Hallaj;
Stories that are peculiar to the Yezidi and Ahl-e Haqq traditions, and may have roots in both Zoroastrianism and Sufism include:
—the story of the creation of Adam, who was reluctant to come to life, was persuaded by the Seven Beings, and sneezed when he came alive;
—the traditions about the End of Time, with the coming of one or more Saviours, and a final battle between Good and Evil;
—the image of a Secret in a Lamp (qendîl)
—the quest to catch a falcon or eagle (sarb®z), symbolising divine knowledge; [11]
—and the storyline about a divine painter who uses many colours.

In the 13th century CE, the Christian Primate Barhebraeus (d. 1286), informs us [12] that many Kurds were still ‘majus’, i.e. followers of some religion that was identified as Iranian in origin:

In the year 602 of the Arabs [1205-6 C.E.], the race of those Kurds who live in the mountains of Maddaï [near ºulw®n ], and who are called (tyr’hy’), came down from the mountains and caused much destruction in those lands [near Mosul]. The Persian troups united against them and killed many of them. They did not follow Islam, but persisted in their original idolatry and the religion of the Magi (mgw>wt’). Moreover, there was mortal enmity between them and the Muslims.

A little before this, Sheykh Adi ibn Musâfir (d. ca. 1160 CE) is though to have acquired a large following among the Kurds, who became the ancestors of the Yezidis. Soltân Sahhâk, who ‘reorganised’ the religious tradition of the Kurds of the Gurân area and is regarded as the founder of the Ahl-e Haqq/Kâkâ'i religion as we know it, flourished in the 15th century. Neither, it seems, preached a new religion, their role was to help restore—and perhaps to some extent to redefine— an existing religious tradition. These two systems (one originating near Mosul in the 12th century, the other in what is now Iranian Kurdistan some 300 years later) are remarkably similar. Both contain a great many elements of ancient Iranian, non-Zoroastrian origin; both can be shown to have adopted the same symbols from the Christian tradition well before the coming of Islam; again, from the very many symbols and expressions found in Islamic and Sufi culture, the same ones became prominent in both traditions.

Until now, the links between ancient Iranian culture, and the traditions of the Yezidis and Ahl-e Haqq/Kâkâ'i, were usually explained as going back to very ancient times. A more careful analysis shows, however that, while it is true that many of the similarities between the two are ancient, several others were adopted in more recent times: between the 4th and the 7th centuries CE for the Christian elements, and much later for the common Sufi features.
I can see no other likely explanation for this than the assumption that the tradition from which both religions derive was a more or less coherent, pan-Kurdish culture (CKC) which was still vital enough in the Guran region to be revived as late as the 15th century CE.

[1] Behrouz Geranpayeh: “Yâristân—die Freunde der Wahrheit: Religion und Texte einer vorderasiatischen Glaubensgemeinschaft.”
[2] There are exceptions to this, such as the texts published by M. Suri, Sorudhâ-ye Dini-ye Yâresân. Tehran, 1344/1965.
[3] Ursula Seidl, Die baylonischen Kudurru-Reliefs: Symbole Mesopotamischer Gottheiten, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989, pp.80-88
[4] M. Mochiri (“Images symboliques des Yazîdîiya sur les monnaies Arabo-Sassanides”, Nâme-ye Irân-e Bâstân 3.1 (2003), pp. 15-31) has sought to demonstrate that many oof these sybols can be found on artefacts belonging to the Sasanian and early Islamic period.
[5] See M. Mokri, Sh®hn®meh-ye ºaqiqat / Le livre des Rois de Vérité : Histoire Traditionelle des Ahl-e ºa >qq, vol. 1, Tehran and Paris 1966.
[6] One might speculate that the ‘heretical and misguided ones inside the Iranian priesthood (mgwst’n')’ whom the High Priest Kirdêr sought to convert to orthodox Zoroastrianism in the 3rd century CE (witness his inscription at the Ka‘be-ye Zardosht, KKZ 13), may have included priests belonging to this culture.
[7] Eznik of Kolb in R.C. Zaehner,� Zurvan: a Zoroastrian Dilemma, 1955, p. 438.
[8]Information I owe to Dr. Andrew Palmer. See also; F. Ohly, Schriften zur mitelalterlichen Bedeutungsforschung, Darmstadt 1977, pp. 274-311.
[9] See P.G. Kreyenbroek and Kh.J. Rashow, God and Sheikh Adi are Perfect: Sacred Poems and Religious Narratives from the Yezidi Tradition, wiesbaden 2005, p, 38.
[10] ‘Shehid bin Jerr, Forefather of the Yezidis and the Gnostic Seed of Seth’. Iran and the Caucasus 000.
[11] See P.G. Kreyenbroek ‘Orality and Religion in Kurdistan’, in P.G. Kreyenbroek and U. Mazolph (eds): History of Persian Literature, Companion Volume II (forthcoming).
[12] Quoted in F. Nau and J. Tfinkdji, ‘Receuil de textes et de documents sur les Yézidis’, Revue de l'Orient Chrétien 2nd series, 20 (1915-17), pp. 188, n. 2.
(*) Professor at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen