When the Americans rained fire from the sky around Mount Sinjar, suppressing, later destroying, Islamic State fighters, the world’s eye was drawn to that remote corner of the Middle East that is the home to some of its most obscure and apocryphal peoples and religions. The Ezidis (Yazedis), hasty research assistants for television networks quickly told us, were one of several of such groups: a reclusive, non-missional, but highly spiritual people. Some accused them of Devil worship, a confusing charge for the often magically purged faith of American Protestants to make sense of.
Ezidis revere Melek Taoos, whom they identify with Azazael or Iblis; in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions, these are names for great angels who rebelled against God and were cast down. Unlike Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the Ezidis believe these angels were not evil but misguided; moreover, they believe God’s saving grace not only will, but has already, covered these angels, restoring them to favor.
These are jarring extra-canonical conversations for most secular Christians, more at home on our big screens than in our Bible studies, and ones that expose latent elements of the tradition of Christian faith that have been, for North American purposes, lost, but which remain very alive in the Middle East. Gerard Russell, in writing his magnificent travelogue of the Middle East’s disappearing religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, wanted to capture some of that magical-historical dissonance for an English-speaking audience. Ezidis, but also Mandeans, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Kalasha, and Copts, provoke, for Russell, at least three things: “humanity’s collective ignorance of its own past, the growing alienation between Christianity and Islam, and the way the debate about religion has become increasingly the preserve of narrow-minded atheists and literalists.”
I loved this book (and you can find my full review of it at Books & Culture here). I loved it for its winsome and intelligent readability, how it brought to life corners of the world I not only barely understood, but had not in some cases even realized still existed. I loved it for the slow, ambling way it did all of the above. The book is barely academic and I wouldn’t treat it as an authoritative encyclopedia on these religions. But partly because of this, it is a beautiful and very human telling of stories we know in the merest part, stories that disturb and decenter the easy narrow-mindedness of literalists believers and dogmatic atheists alike.
Blessed are the peacemakers, Russell says, who by painful researches seek to remove those veils which have so long concealed mankind from each other. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is exactly such salve and balm for a Secular Age paradoxically brimming with religion.