The Peacock Angel and the Pythagorean Theorem

A thousand years ago, Yazidis and tiny pagan sects flourished under the caliphate. But the days of the tolerant Islamic state are over.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty images
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty images

The so-called Islamic State has marched into northwestern Iraq, an area rich in religious diversity, leaving a wake of bodies behind. It has driven the Christians who live there out of their homes. It has destroyed the crosses on their churches and demanded that they pay a tax or face the penalty of death. It has in the meantime offered the Yazidis, a people who practice an ancient and mysterious religion, a simpler choice: Convert to Islam or die.

Hundreds of Yazidis have already died of thirst or exposure, on occasion allegedly throwing their children off Mount Sinjar or shooting them in order to spare them a crueler fate. Basim Karim, one of a tiny number of American Yazidis who have settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, and who is from Sinjar, told me what had happened to his family: They woke up one day to find the Kurdish peshmerga, who once protected their village, gone and the Islamic State in their place. "They saw dogs dragging around human body parts in the towns before they fled," Karim told me on Friday by phone from Washington, where he was desperately trying to lobby for international assistance, "and there were surely at least a thousand corpses. It is a genocide, happening today in 2014." He added that many women were raped, something which has been alleged by several other witnesses. Indeed, the Islamic State seems to have a repugnant combination of religious intolerance and sexual rapacity.

What will the world lose if terrorists massacre the Yazidis and drive out Iraq’s Christians? Two things: complex, ancient religions whose ideas still have much to offer us; and a historic tradition of Islamic tolerance. 

The Yazidis are accused of worshipping the devil. In reality, they have maintained pre-Christian beliefs and practices from Nineveh and Babylon. To understand them best, think of the worshippers of Mithras who held secret prayer services and initiation rituals in subterranean chapels in second-century Rome. Like the Yazidis, the Mithras-worshippers adopted characteristics of ancient Near Eastern religions: the cult of the sun, a strict ethical code, and secret holy texts. The Yazidi scriptures, like those of the Mithraists, were never written down. Their prayers may never be witnessed by outsiders, but they pray in Kurmanji (a Kurdish language) for others first, before praying for themselves — and they use the mantra, adopted perhaps from the Zoroastrians of Iran, of "good thought, good word, and good deed."

The Yazidis survived for centuries in Sinjar because it was hardscrabble and remote, and they were tough fighters. They tended to make common cause with local Christians — who were themselves refugees from mistreatment; the two communities for a long time lived side by side. Other heterodox sects joined them there, and the communities would often tolerantly take part in each other’s ceremonies. Over the years, the Yazidis adapted their religion, accepting the teachings of Sufi Muslim preachers and creating a unique and esoteric belief system framed around the figure of the Peacock Angel, Malak Tawus. This figure is often identified with Lucifer, the fallen angel — except that the Yazidis, in keeping with a radically generous ideology that was once prevalent in the Middle East, believe that nothing is too evil to be redeemed; even Lucifer has repented, extinguishing Hell with his tears, and has been restored to favor.

The Yazidis also keep alive traditions that go back thousands of years — such as praying in the direction of the sun, believing in reincarnation, and practicing baptism in the waters of the sacred spring that runs beneath their principal temple at Lalish, north of Erbil. Malak Tawus’s peacock symbol resembles the cockerel that symbolized the god Nergal for ancient Babylonians.

As compared with its brutal would-be imitators today, the real Islamic state — the Umayyad caliphate, which ruled the region from Damascus from AD 661, and the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled it from Baghdad from AD 750 — was kinder. In theory, the modern-day Islamic State has the same rules as the ancient caliphate, whose approach resembled that of its Christian predecessor, the Byzantine Empire: promulgate the imperial faith, penalize the followers of other religions and forbid them from promoting their faith through external signs, and forbid polytheism — "paganism," as it was called — altogether. In practice, however, the early Muslims were often more tolerant than their Christian predecessors.

One prominent pagan, for example, complained bitterly about the Byzantine hostility to paganism. Pagans built the world’s great cities, he argued; without their achievements, the world would be destitute and ignorant. This pagan, Thabit ibn Qurra, was a member of a group called the Harranians, whose beliefs somewhat resemble those of the modern-day Yazidis. Here is the irony: He was given safe haven by the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century and lived out his life in Baghdad. While there, he was able to develop Pythagoras’s theorem of triangles to the form in which we know it today. Without such scholars, Baghdad would never have been a great imperial capital — built as it was with the help of a Hindu astronomer, a Zoroastrian, Jews, and Christians.

Here is the essential difference between the old Islamic state and the self-styled new one: The old one tolerated what would have been considered heretical beliefs, and in doing so built a great culture imbued with knowledge and learning. The new one is determined to stamp out all differences of opinion in a nihilistic orgy of destruction.

The other victims of the Islamic State’s brutality are equally historic. The Christians of northern Iraq are the last remnant of what was once one of the world’s greatest Christian communities, the Church of the East, which in its heyday sent the first missionaries to reach China and established monasteries as far east as Beijing. They evolved a form of Christianity that was different from that of their western co-religionists, trying to separate out the divine and human natures of Jesus so that the godhead could be uncompromised by the lowliness of humanity, and avoiding the use of icons (which may, ironically enough, have had an influence on early Islam). When Tamerlane razed Baghdad to the ground in 1401, giving orders that no building should survive unless it were either a mosque or a hospital, the adherents of the Church of the East fled north to the plain of Nineveh and settled in the villages which are now being overrun by Tamerlane’s modern-day equivalents.

These are the communities which now are being crushed by the Islamic State, whose fighters advertise their contempt for human life by posing with pictures of steaming pots full of human heads. Christians and Yazidis are not the only victims. Muslims are, too.

There is a broader issue at stake here. Will the future of the Muslim world be more like Sinjar was historically — ancient religions surviving through compromise with each other and with their Muslim neighbors — or like Sinjar under the Islamic State’s brutal rule? As the Islamic State wins battle after battle, even putting the sword to the famous Kurdish peshmerga, they gain in prestige and are better placed to terrify their enemies, win allies, and cement their rule.

The reaction of the West — which dropped humanitarian aid for the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, and began limited airstrikes on Friday, August 8 — has done nothing to effectively stop the Islamic State’s advance or give serious help to the Kurdish peshmerga. This is deeply depressing.

The United States, in particular, is surrendering to the view that the Middle East is doomed to be a place of sectarianism and violent intolerance. That is not what most Muslims want. But if intolerant terrorists are allowed to take and hold strongholds of diversity like Sinjar, then it’s what they’ll get.

What then is the answer? Basim Karim is desperately worried about his elderly father, and his brothers and sisters, who are stranded like hundreds of thousands of other refugees on Iraq’s border with Turkey. They have not been allowed to cross the border, but do not consider themselves safe in Iraq while the Islamic State is still on the rampage. Stranded where they are, in the desert, they have no water or medical supplies or even tents to sleep in. "We are a peaceful people," he told me. "We just want basic human needs." A refugee camp under U.N. auspices on Turkish territory could keep them alive during this hot, bloody summer.

Basim did not say it, but the defeat of the Islamic State will also require force. Washington’s airstrikes may hold back the terrorists’ advance on Erbil, but it seems likely that some kind of assistance will also be needed for the Kurdish peshmerga, who have proven less capable than anticipated against this new and ruthless enemy. Despite their setbacks, and the problematic context of ongoing Kurdish disputes with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the peshmerga are the only viable forces on the ground that could turn back the terrorist tide. The United States has experienced only setbacks when it has sought to involve itself in Middle Eastern wars; but it has largely succeeded when it has instead chosen to give its backing to forces already on the ground. In this case, it has a ready-made and known ally with which it can work. If it fails to do so, the United States risks letting the Islamic State grow to a point where no regional power will feel able to confront it. 

The Middle East has sometimes before been seduced by movements which had the glamour of success. Nasserist nationalism in the 1950s grew bold from its successes against British colonialism; al Qaeda gained immensely from its association with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Imagine if today the Islamic State were to add a perception of invincibility in the face of American bombs to its reputation for vicious brutality. Governments around the region might be forced to do deals with it, nervously buying the jihadists off rather than risking its vengeance. And its cruel acolytes would spread around the world.

The besieged Yazidis and Christians of Iraq feel now that this is their last stand. The world must make sure that, rather, it is the beginning of the end for the Islamic State.

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