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Syncretism and the Peacock Angel

August 18, 2014

For some time now the onslaught of the Islamic State against anyone they deem as non-Muslim (including quite a lot of people whom everyone else thinks of as Muslims) has dominated the news. One of the hardest-hit groups is the obscure Yazidi sect which has been singled out by the Islamic State as not merely non-Muslim but as devil-worshipping. While there are a number of things that could be said about this matter the one that is on-topic for this blog is the mechanism by which the Islamic State decided that the Yazidis worship the devil and the mechanism by which most Western news sources have decided otherwise.

The mechanism by which the Islamic State (and, unfortunately, many other Muslims throughout history) has decided that the Yazidis worship the devil is fairly straightforward. The Islamic State has taken both Islam and the Yazidi religion seriously: it has accepted as a base premise that both religions describe real beings. It has also taken a rather obvious move for a state that describes itself first and foremost as “Islamic” and has decided that where Islam and the Yazidi religion differ Islam is correct. One of the central Yazidi figures is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, and the similarities between large parts of the story of Melek Taus and the story of the Islamic devil, Shaitan, are strong enough that many non-Muslim, non-Yazidi scholars believe that Melek Taus’ story borrows heavily from the Muslim story of Shaitan. If both Islam and the Yazidis worship real beings and Islam describes these beings more correctly then it would be fairly hard to avoid the conclusion that the Yazidis worship Shaitan.

However, most Westerner reporters deny this. This is probably an attempt at a neutral stance but it actually isn’t neutral. A perfectly neutral stance would be to say, “Yazidis worship a figure who the hardline Salafis of the Islamic State believe is the devil.” This tells us what both parties believe without stating whether either party is right or wrong. Instead, the reports I have read have all taken pains to tell us that the Islamic State is wrong. There are three possibilities if the Islamic State is wrong:

  • There is no devil and therefore Melek Taus is definitely not the devil.
  • There is no Melek Taus (only a figment of the Yazidi imagination) and so Melek Taus cannot be anything except his own imaginary self. Any attempt to identify him in another frame of reference is pointless.
  • There is both a Melek Taus and a devil but the differences between the two are substantial enough that they must be identified as separate figures[1].

Only the last statement avoids stating that one of these religions is just plain wrong. However, it introduces a whole host of other issues since Melek Taus inhabits a universe of a very different structure than that of Shaitan – one would really need to make up a new religion to accommodate both figures without completely altering them[2].

If this were all, this article would be an extremely pedantic slam on Western media sources (which are not generally known for great reporting on religion anyway). However, what is more interesting is that the principle that causes the Islamic State to identify Melek Taus as the devil is frequently celebrated when it leads towards religious reconciliation. After all, what is happening is syncretism.

Syncretism is simple: one person takes two religions and identifies figures in each religion with figures in the other religion. Syncretism is actually incredibly old (there is some evidence to suggest that ancient Egypt dealt with neighbors who assumed that the Egyptian pantheon was the same as their own just under different names[3]) although for some reason many of its modern proponents believe they are breaking new ground. In many cases modern Western syncretists deal only with gods – they find a few monotheisms and identify all of the gods as the same god and ask why everyone has to disagree. The minor figures (angels, demons, the devil, etc.) get kicked to the wayside because attempting to syncretize them is too difficult.

However, as the Melek Taus example suggests, real syncretism can be quite hard. (Real syncretism indicates syncretism that starts from the premise that both syncretized religions are describing real beings and that the task is to match these beings up.) Syncretists inevitably run across serious disagreements between religions. The response of the syncretist to these disagreements places them in one of two camps: the “we’re basically right” camp and the new religion camp.

The first camp is where most ancient syncretists and the Islamic State belong (along with certain modern Christians who identify the gods of other religions as demonic figures in Christianity). In this camp when two religions differ in their accounts of a religious figure, one religion always wins. So, for instance, when ancient Greeks described the Persian gods they did so from the perspective that they understood the gods better than the Persians and so while the Persians might have additional stories about particular gods (and perhaps even extra unrecognized gods[4]) if the Greeks and Persians said irreconcilable things about a deity (for instance, if they claimed different things about the marital status of the goddess of wisdom) the Greek version won.

The second camp is the province of most modern Western syncretists although at least one religion (Baha’i) has sprung up via this route. In this case if two religions disagree neither is assumed to be right. Instead the syncretist either invents an entirely new answer or picks whichever of the existing answers they prefer (to be fair this preference may be a very rational one). The primary issue with this is that it doesn’t bring two religions together but creates a third.

Many syncretists hope for a third camp wherein all disagreements between two religions can be harmonized without picking and choosing. Unfortunately, this requires a world in which there are no substantial disagreements between religions. While some syncretists attempt to make disagreements between religions insubstantial by declaring one or another part of a religion to be primary and letting all other parts fade into the background this is actually a more aggressive form of new-religion syncretism: instead of creating a single new, syncretistic religion, three new religions are created – a new version of each of the old religions and a syncretized new one.

The short version of what I have said here is that syncretism doesn’t lead to real reconciliation. Indeed, syncretism is much like something practiced by orthodox Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, and Mormons: the incorporation of prior established religious ideas into a new faith. If this actually worked as advertised then all Jews would have become Christians and then all Christians would have become Muslims (since each of these religions offers explanations for the previous ones). (In point of fact, syncretism exists along a continuous scale and drawing a line here and saying that incorporating prior religious traditions into a new faith is not syncretism is somewhat arbitrary.)

Not only does syncretism not work as advertised but it can actually be quite dangerous. If I believe that all your religious figures are real and attempt to fit them within my framework there is no guarantee that I’ll decide they are all good or bad in the same way that you did. While it sounds nice to say that everyone should take everyone else’s religious beliefs seriously our society actually functions along a model in which we treat belief (the act of believing something) seriously but the actual beliefs someone has as completely unrelated to the real world.

[1] The primary difference between Melek Taus and Shaitan is that Shaitan is unrepentant whereas Melek Taus has repented so powerfully that he actually quenched the fires of Hell and has been restored to his position.

[2] Specifically, one could make up a religion in which the stories of both Shaitan and Melek Taus were untouched but large sections of the rest of both religions were modified to accommodate two rebels, one repentant and one not. This would also require tweaking of Yazidi approaches to evil (since the Yazidis do not believe that evil comes from a supernatural figure opposed to goodness) and large changes to the basic structure of Islam which does not have the exalted place for angels that Melek Taus occupies for the Yazidis.

[3] One of the more complicated reasons to suspect this is that the Hyksos appear to have rearranged the Egyptian pantheon to put a storm god and not a sun god at the top, a Canaanite order instead of an Egyptian one. However, the Hyksos may be an Egyptian legend, the evidence for which deity they preferred is not enormously strong, and there are other possible reasons to rearrange pantheons other than identifying other people’s gods as your own and thinking they have the hierarchy wrong.
A more straightforward example of ancient syncretism is when Josephus has an Ptolemaic Egyptian identify the Jewish God with Jupiter (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12, Chapter 2).

[4] Serious polytheisms frequently have gods just lying around waiting to be discovered. Western polytheisms, which are normally grown from monotheisms, often assume that all the divine beings have been discovered.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. brambonius permalink
    August 18, 2014 2:03 am

    Very interesting and needed perspecive…

    There also is the possibility that the beings exist but that their stories are wrong/incomplete/exagerrated. Think about the ‘John Frum’ from the cargo cults and the myths that were built on an American soldier in a plane. If a mere human with unknown technology can instigate such myths, what difference could there be with the real nature of a rather elusive unvisible spiritual being and the the things the believers ake up about itand take as real…
    (And if we take the idea that some neo-pagans have that gods can be thoughtforms we have even more complications…)

  2. August 18, 2014 3:10 am

    it should be remembered that while Yazidi has certainly been influenced by Islam, it also has pre-Islamic elements. if the Qur’anic account of Shaitan were original to Islam it would be the only narrative in the entire Qur’an that wasn’t borrowed from another source, which is possible but highly unlikely. it seems more plausible that the story of Melek Taus is closer to an original tradition than the Qur’an, meaning the Qur’an is already an attempt at syncretism.

  3. dylanwolf permalink
    August 18, 2014 11:44 am

    The interesting subtext is that one’s approach (syncretism or not; and if so, what type) often pivots from “earnest mistake” to “destructive heresy” with no middle ground. One could say that the figure of Melek Taus tells you something about what the Yazidis believe about repentance–or they could say it’s a trick by the devil.

    It’s similar to hot-button political issues in American Christianity. For example, consider a group of Christians who disagrees with another group’s acceptance of gay marriage. They could consider this an innocent but flawed attempt to follow the golden rule and the great commandment–or they could see it as a diabolical subversion of the Bible as an authority and marriage as a symbol. Either way, choosing the wrong approach would appear to have dire consequences (though, of course, the whole thing may be a slippery slope or a false dilemma).

    Where there is no overlap or agreement between two belief systems, it seems easy to attempt to turn the minor, detail-oriented differences into the points through which the essentials of the entire system of belief will be corrupted.

  4. Eric permalink
    August 18, 2014 6:50 pm

    Three intelligent comments on one article! We may have a record!

    While I have little to add to this I do think it’s worth mentioning that most of what we know about the origins of Yazidism is conjecture. Maybe they incorporate ancient Zoroastrian traditions but we don’t know much about those traditions either and since the Yazidis don’t have an extensive written history we have to try to match the fragments we have of Zoroastrianism with Yazidism to make a history of religions story. (Which is automatically suspect since these stories always make large assumptions about how religions form.)

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