They say our hearts are our books, and our sheikhs tell us everything from the second Adam until now and the future.
Appendix to Meshaf Resh
The Yezidi religion appears to possess two revealed books--the Kitab al-Jilwah (Book of Revelation) and Meshaf Resh (The Black Book)-- whose author (whether God or Melek Ta’us) maintains that Yezidi teachings are not contained in books, and that the Book of Revelation was (as opposed to the Bible or Qur’an) not a revealed text. The two books seem to have been unknown till the late nineteenth century, when versions of them began to appear in the very dodgy manuscript markets of Iraq. Were they forgeries, concocted for sale to credulous Western tourists and scholars? Yezidi legend says no, they are authentic, and that their originals were stolen by the British and hidden in the British Museum. And the texts as received contain real Yezidi teachings. It is true that books cannot be revealed, and that most Yezidis are forbidden to learn to read. Their tradition is canonical only as orally transmitted. Yezidism is not illiterate (or preliterate) but anti-literate, as we said above. The pen has been in the hand of the enemy ever since writing was invented as a means of magical control, of propagating ideology and alienation. Writing is paradoxically the sign of absence: when knowledge is reduced to data, it falls into a black hole of cultural amnesis because it is no longer contained in the soul, but merely in books (which can be lost). Only presence assures authenticity. Mediation is separation--and loss.
In the twenty-first century the Yezidi stricture on literacy has loosened, of course, under the influence of whiggish modernism, which has no concept of the positive valence of orality or the inherent “dark side” of the written (and especially the printed) word. “Education” must be good--any other attitude would constitute backwardness and reaction. The existence of what might be called revolutionary anti-progressism--the idea that liberal social control (including literacy and enlightenment) can easily become a form of oppression, and must be dialectically critiqued and in some cases actively opposed in the cause of liberation--this perspective is generally condemned as “Romantic” at best. For the record, then, allow me to say that I perceive an esoteric value in the Yezidi defense of orality. The limits imposed by the very structure of media can only be transcended by breakthroughs into pre-sentience and “heart-to-heart” transmission of knowledge--that is, of wisdom, which is existential--and not of mere information.
The pure orality of the Yezidi tradition has resulted in a wild polyvalence and delirium of mythopoesis. Answers to theological questions can differ from village to village, and from one believer to another. However, from the scholar’s perspective, coherence is not lost. One benefit (for outsiders at least) of modernity has been the transcription and publication of a great deal of oral material, most importantly the qewls or hymns that are memorized by hereditary bards (qawwals) and performed during rituals, and the stories that are told to contextualize and comment on the poems. These oral texts have only begun to appear since the latter half of the twentieth century, and they are still concealed by their rather obscure appearances in print, for example, in the English-language translations of Kreyenbroek. These hymns have “come from the sky” in a quasi-revelatory mode: God (or Melek Ta’us) taught them to the angels who transmitted them to the sheikhs, who revealed them to the Yezidi people--or, they are the work of Sheikh Adi--or by the wise and saintly men of Adi’s day.1
“Let not our hearts be corrupted [by] . . . interpreting books.”2
In one qewl it is said that the “Pen of Power” is in the hand of Soltan Ezi, the angel identified most often with the caliph Yazid.3 In a sense, this motif shadows that of the Tablet and Pen in the Qur’an; it represents creation itself as a kind of writing. “In the beginning was the Word”--already the written word. Here, however, we must speak of a paradoxical Pen of non-writing, of non-literacy. (It reminds one of the “sword of non-killing” which is said in Zen to be the highest form of the martial art of fencing.) Again, we are dealing here not with simple preliteracy or peasant backwardness, but with a subtle dialectic. The pen of non-writing reflects the motif of the lost book. In Eliade’s Shamanism we read that once upon a time shamans had a “book” in which their secrets were written, but the spirits became angry at its misuse and took it back--similar to the secret identity of soma/haoma, the entheogenic plant of immortality in Indo-Iranian tradition, which was lost, just as Gilgamesh lost the magic herb given to him by Utnapishtim. The fact is that wisdom is “always already” lost--otherwise it would not be wisdom; whereas simultaneously it is common as dung (as the alchemists say) and can be found in any cheap paperback edition of any decent mystical text--provided one reads with the angel.
According to another legend, the Black Book is in reality simply the Qur’an, with every mention of the name “Satan” covered over by black wax. This image haunts my thinking about Yezidism, even if it’s not true.4 John Guest, who gives the most complete account of the incredibly tangled history of the discovery and publication of the Jilwah and the Meshaf Resh (most of which need not concern us, since we are interested solely in their esoteric message) remarks that a scholar named Browski in 1884 claimed to have seen the Yezidi “sacred book with seven seals,” and that on its title page was the name Hasan al- Basri. Browski’s published articles “contain no direct quotations from the Meshaf Resh, but they accurately summarize portions of it.”5 Clearly this text “was” the Black Book. But Browski also mentions “traditions about Melek Ta’us advising Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem, rescuing Jesus Christ from the cross and inspiring Caliph Yazid to defy Islam,”6 none of which appear in the text we have today (although they may yet be canonical and subject to esoteric interpretation), suggesting that Browski had a second source, now lost.
Kreyenbroek points out that the qewls and other inspired/revealed oral material could have led to the assumption that a kind of Ur-book, the archetype of the Jilwah and the Black Book, could have existed and is now “hidden and lost.”7 Given Islam’s tolerance of other religions of the Book, and its condemnation of religions without books as unbelief, it may be that some Yezidis have wished into existence (at least as legend) a book of their own. Thus, a poem in praise of Sheikh Adi (translated by Badger in Nestorians and Their Rituals) mentions a Book of Glad Tidings, “a work which is still referred to by some Yezidis (under the title of Mijde) as the ‘original’ Yezidi sacred book, now probably lost” and probably influenced by the Christian Evangelium or “Good News.” Some Yezidis believe “hymns cannot be written”; others believe the true books are destroyed or lost, and “a minority” accept the existing texts as canonical.8