Mandaeism or Mandaeanism (Arabic,مندائية) is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic tendencies. Its adherents, known as Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram, and especially John the Baptist. They describe Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as false Prophets. Mandaeans consider John the Baptist to be God’s most honorable messenger.
Worldwide, there are thought to be between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans and until the 2003 Iraq war, almost all of them lived in Iraq. The 2003 Iraq War reduced the population of Iraqi Mandaeans to approximately five thousand by 2007. Most Iraqi Mandaeans fled to Syria and Jordan under the threat of violence by Islamic extremists and the turmoil of the war.
Mandaeism has historically been practiced primarily in the area around the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris River Valley called the Shatt-al-Arab. This area is currently part of southern Iraq and the Iranian province of Khuzestan. Persecution in Iraq and Iran has caused many Mandaeans to leave for diaspora populations in Europ, Australia, and North America.
The Mandaeans have remained separate and intensely private—what has been reported of them and their religion has come primarily from outsiders, particularly from the Orientalists J. Heinrich Petermann, Nicholas Siouffi, and Lady Ethel Drower.
Origin of the term ‘Mandaean’
On the basis of cognates in other Aramaic dialects, Semitists such as Mark Lidzbarski and Rudolf Macuch have translated the term manda, from which mandaiia “Mandaeans” is derived, as “knowledge” (cf. Biblical Aramaic מַנְדַּע mandaʕ in Dan. 2:21, 4:31, 33, 5:12; cpr. Hebrew מַדַּע maddaʕ, with the typical assimilation of /n/). If this translation is correct, it would make the Mandaeans the sole sect from late Antiquity to identify themselves as Gnostics. Certainly, the Mandaean religion shares much with the ensemble of sects labelled as Gnostics, which date to the first C.E. and the following centuries; however, there are crucial differences, particularly in the realm of the behavioral ethics of the laity.
It should be emphasized that this identification is largely a product of western scholarship, and was not current in the Mandaean community itself until recently. Other scholars derive the term mandaiia from manda ḏ-hiia (“Knowledge of Life,” with reference to the chief divinity hiia rbia “the Great Life”) or from the word (bi)manda, which is the cultic hut in which many Mandaean ceremonies are performed (such as the baptism, which is the central sacrament of Mandaean religious life). This last term is possibly to be derived from Pahlavi m’nd mānd house.”
In Islam, the term Sabian (Arabic: صابئين) is used as a blanket term for adherents to a number of religions, including that of the Mandaeans.
Mandaeism, as the religion of the Mandaean people, is based more on a common heritage than on any set of religious creeds and doctrines. A basic guide to Mandaean theology does not exist. The corpus of Mandaean literature, though quite large, covers diverse topics such as eschatology, the knowledge of God, the afterlife. Apart from the priesthood. These texts are known only to a few laypeople.
According to E.S. Drower, the Mandaean Gnosis is characterized by nine features, which appear in various forms in other gnostic sects:
- A supreme formless Entity, the expression of which in time and space is creation of spiritual, etheric, and material worlds and beings. Production of these is delegated by It to a creator or creators who originated in It. The cosmos is created by Archetypal Man, who produces it in similitude to his own shape.
- Dualism: a cosmic Father and Mother, Light and Darkness, Right and Left, syzygy in cosmic and microcosmic form.
- As a feature of this dualism, counter-types, a world of ideas.
- The soul is portrayed as an exile, a captive: her home and origin being the supreme Entity to which she eventually returns.
- Planets and stars influence fate and human beings, and are also places of detention after death.
- A saviour spirit or saviour spirits which assist the soul on her journey through life and after it to ‘worlds of light’.
- A cult-language of symbol and metaphor. Ideas and qualities are personified.
- ‘Mysteries’, i.e. sacraments to aid and purify the soul, to ensure her rebirth into a spiritual body, and her ascent from the world of matter. These are often adaptations of existing seasonal and traditional rites to which an esoteric interpretation is attached. In the case of the Naṣoreans this interpretation is based upon the Creation story (see 1 and 2), especially on the Divine Man, Adam, as crowned and anointed King-priest.
- Great secrecy is enjoined upon initiates; full explanation of 1, 2, and 8 being reserved for those considered able to understand and preserve the gnosis.
Mandaeans believe in marriage and procreation, and in the importance of leading an ethical and moral lifestyle in this world, placing a high priority upon family life. Consequently, Mandaeans do not practice celibacy or asceticism. Mandaeans will, however, abstain from strong drink and red meat. While they agree with other gnostic sects that the world is a “prison” governed by the planetary archons, they do not view it as a cruel and inhospitable one.
The Mandaeans have a large corpus of religious scriptures, the most important of which is the Genzā Rabbā or Ginza, a collection of history, theology, and prayers. The Genzā Rabbā is divided into two halves — the Genzā Smālā or “Left Ginza” and the Genzā Yeminā or “Right Ginza.” By consulting the colophons in the Left Ginza, Jorunn J. Buckley has identified an uninterrupted chain of copyists to the late second or early third c. C.E. The colophons attest to the existence of the Mandaeans during the late Arsacid period at the very latest, a fact corroborated by the Harrān Gāwetā legend, according to which the Mandaeans left Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century C.E., and settled within the Arsacid empire. Although the Ginza continued to evolve under the rule of the Sassanians and the Islamic empires, few textual traditions can lay claim to such extensive continuity.
Other important books include the Qolastā, the “Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans,” which was translated by E.S. Drower. One of the chief works of Mandaean scripture, accessible to laymen and initiates alike, is the draša ḏ-iahia, the book of John the Baptist, which includes a dialogue between John and Jesus. In addition to these works, there are also many other religious texts such as ritual commentaries, which are generally only consulted by the members of the priesthood. The language in which the Mandaean religious literature was originally composed is known as Mandaic, and is a member of the Aramaic family of dialects. It is written in a cursive variant of the Parthian chancery script. The majority of Mandaean lay people do not speak this language, though some members of the Mandaean community resident in Iran (possibly 300-500 out of a total of about five thousand Iranian Mandaeans) continue to speak Neo-Mandaic, a modern version of this language.
Mandaean theology is not systematic. There is no one single authoritative account of the creation of the cosmos, but rather a series of several accounts. Some scholars, such as Edmondo Lupieri, maintain that comparison of these different accounts may reveal the diverse religious influences upon which the Mandaeans have drawn and the ways in which the Mandaean religion has evolved over time. On the other hand, Steve Wilson has suggested that these may be more akin to meditation manuals resembling the Merkabah and Heikhalot texts of first millennium Jewish mysticism, than explanatory texts for the entire faith.
The earliest Mandaean religious texts suggest a strictly dualistic theology, typical of other Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and the teachings of Mazdak. In these texts, instead of a large pleroma, there is a discrete division between light and darkness. The ruler of darkness is called Ptahil (similar to the Gnostic Demiurge), and the originator of the light (i.e. God) is only known as “the great first Life from the worlds of light, the sublime one that stands above all works.” When this being emanated, other spiritual beings became increasingly corrupted, and they and their ruler Ptahil created our world. The similarity between the name Ptahil and the Egyptian Ptah, followed by the semitic -il added to “spiritualise” a word should also be noted – the Mandaeans believe that they were resident in Egypt for awhile.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Ptahil alone does not constitute the demiurge but only that he fills that role insofar as he is the creator of our world. Rather, Ptahil is the lowest of a group of three ‘demiurgic’ beings, the other two being Yushamin (a.k.a. Joshamin) and Abathur. Abathur’s demiurgic role consists of his sitting in judgment upon the souls of mortals. The role of Yushamin, the senior being, is more obscure; wanting to create a world of his own, he was severely punished for opposing the King of Light.
Mandaeans recognize several prophets, among whom John the Baptist (Mandaic Iahia Iuhana) is accorded a special status, higher than his role in Christianity and Islam. In contrast to common belief, Mandaeans do not consider John the Baptist to be the founder of their religion but merely revere him as one of their greatest teachers, tracing their beliefs back to Adam.
Mandaeans maintain that Jesus was a mšiha kdaba or “false messiah” who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John. The word k(a)daba, however, derives from two roots in Mandaic: the first root, meaning “to lie,” is the one traditionally ascribed to Jesus; the second, meaning “to write,” might provide a second meaning, that of “book;” hence some Mandaeans, motivated perhaps by an ecumenical spirit, maintain that Jesus was not a “lying Messiah” but a “Book Messiah,” the “book” in question presumably being the Christian Gospels. This however seems to be a folk etymology without support in the Mandaean texts.
Likewise, the Mandaeans believe that Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad were false prophets, but recognize other prophetic figures from the monotheistic traditions, such as Adam, his sons Hibil (Abel) and Šitil (Seth), and his grandson Anuš (Enosh), as well as Nuh (Noah), his son Sam (Shem), and his son Ram (Aram). The latter three they consider to be their direct ancestors.
Priests and laymen
There is a strict division between Mandaean laity and the priests. E.S. Drower writes:
[T]hose amongst the community who possess secret knowledge are called Naṣuraiia – Naṣoreans (or, if the heavy ‘ṣ‘ is written as ‘z’, Nazorenes). At the same time the ignorant or semi-ignorant laity are called ‘Mandaeans’, Mandaiia – ‘gnostics’. When a man becomes a priest he leaves ‘Mandaeanism’ and enters tarmiduta, ‘priesthood’. Even then he has not attained to true enlightenment, for this, called ‘Naṣiruta’, is reserved for a very few. Those possessed of its secrets may call themselves Naṣoreans, and ‘Naṣorean’ today indicates not only one who observes strictly all rules of ritual purity, but one who understands the secret doctrine.”
There are three grades of priesthood in Mandaeism: the tarmidia (Neo-Mandaic tarmidānā) or “disciples,” the ganzibria (Neo-Mandaic ganzeḇrānā) or “treasurers,” and the rišamma or “leader of the people.” This last office, the highest level of the Mandaean priesthood, has lain vacant for many years. At the moment, the highest office currently occupied is that of the ganzeḇrā, a title which appears first in a religious context in the Aramaic ritual texts from Persepolis (ca. third century B.C.E.) and which may be related to Kamnaskires (from Elamite <qa-ap-nu-iš-ki-ra> kapnušgir “treasurer”), the title of the rulers of Elymais (modern Khuzestan) during the Hellenistic age. Traditionally, any ganzeḇrā who baptizes seven or more ganzeḇrānā may qualify for the office of rišamma, though the Mandaean community has yet to rally as a whole behind any single candidate.
The modern priesthood dates to the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1831, an outbreak of cholera devastated the region and eliminated most if not all of the Mandaean religious authorities. Two of the surviving acolytes (šgandia), Yahia Bihram and Ram Zihrun, reestablished the priesthood on the basis of their own training and the texts that were available to them.
According to the Fihrist of ibn al-Nadim, Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was brought up within the Elkasaites (Elcesaites or Elchasaite) sect. The Elkasaites were a Christian baptismal sect which may have been related to the Mandaeans. The members of this sect, like the Mandaeans, wore white and performed baptisms. They dwelled in east Judea and northern Mesopotamia, whence the Mandaeans claim to have migrated to southern Mesopotamia, according to the Harran Gawaitā legend. Mani later left the Elkasaites to found his own religion. In a remarkable comparative analysis, Mandaean scholar Säve-Söderberg demonstrated that Mani’s Psalms of Thomas were closely related to Mandaean texts. This would imply that Mani had access to Mandaean religious literature. This leads to the question of just how close the origins of the Elkasaites, the Manichaeans, and the Mandaeans are to one other.
Fred Aprim has suggested that the Mandaeans may be the descendants of the Babylonians.
Other associated terms
Within the Middle East, but outside of their community, the Mandaeans are more commonly known as the Ṣubba (singular Ṣubbī). Likewise, their Muslim neighbors will refer to them collectively as the Sabians (Arabic الصابئون al-Ṣābiʾūn), in reference to the Sabians of the Qur’an. Occasionally, the Mandaeans are also called the “Christians of St. John” (a misnomer, since they are not Christians), based upon preliminary reports made by members of the Barefoot Carmelite mission in Basra during the sixteenth century.
Other groups that have been identified with the Mandaeans include the “Nasoraeans” described by Epiphanius and the Dositheans mentioned by Theodore Bar Kōnī in his Scholion. Ibn al-Nadim also mentions a group called the Mughtasila, “the self-ablutionists,” who may be identified with one or the other of these groups. The members of this sect, like the Mandaeans, wore white and performed baptisms.
Whether it can be said that the Elkasaites, the Mughtasila, the Nasoraeans, and/or the Dositheans are to be identified with the Mandaeans is a separate question. While it seems certain that a number of distinct groups are intended by these names, the nature of their sects and the connections between them are less than clear.
The Mandaean canon is also utilized by a modern religious movement called the Order of Nazoraean Essenes; material from the former can be found on the latter’s websites. This latter movement, however, is entirely independent of Mandaeism.
In 2007, Mandaeans in Iraq were subjected to forced conversions, rape and murder by Islamic extremists. There were also reports of attacks on women who refuse to veil themselves. Most Iraqi Mandaeans fled as a result, and the Mandaean community in Iraq faces extinction.
Mandaeans in Iran are not subject to sectarian violence as they are in Iraq, but are prohibited from fully participating in civil life in Iran by the Gozinesh Law (passed in 1985). This law and other gozinesh provisions make access to employment, education, and a range of other areas conditional upon a rigorous ideological screening, the principal prerequisite for which is devotion to the tenets of Islam. These laws are regularly applied to discriminate against religious and ethnic groups that are not officially recognized, such as the Mandaeans.
Out of the over sixty thousand Mandaeans in Iraq in the early 1990s, only about five thousand to seven thousand remain there; as of early 2007, over 80 percent of Iraqi Mandaeans are now refugees in Syria and Jordan. There are small Mandaean diaspora populations in Australia (about 3500 as of 2006), Canada, the USA (about 1500) and Sweden (5000).
A darfash, “a cross with cloth hanging off it” is used by Mandaeans as a symbol of their religion.
- Nathaniel Deutsch, October 6, 2007, Op-Ed contributor, “Save the Gnostics” The New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Angus Crawford, BBC News, Damascus, Iraq’s Mandaeans ‘face extinction’ – Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Iraqi demography – Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Iran, Amnesty International report 2005 – Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- E.S. Drower. The Secret Adam. xvi
- Edmondo Lupieri. The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics. (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, ISBN 080283924X), 38-41
- Rudolf Macuch. Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic. (Berlin: De Gruyter & Co, 1965, OCLC 512701), 61 fn. 105
- E.S. Drower (The Secret Adam, p. ix)
- Fredrick Aprim, Mandaeans: The True Descendents of Ancient Babylonians and Chaldeans ninevah.com. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Genocide Watch: Mandaeans of Iraqgenocidewatch.org. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Ideological Screening (ROOZ :: English) – Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Chris Newmarker, Associated Press, Feb. 9, 2007, Survival of Ancient Faith Threatened by Fighting in Iraq washingtonpost. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- John Bolender, The Plight of Iraq’s Mandeans counterpunch.org. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- Ivar Ekman, April 9, 2007, Europe: An exodus to Sweden from Iraq for ethnic Mandaeans International Herald Tribune. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
- The Religion Report, June 7, 2006, Mandaeans persecuted in IraqABC National Radio (Australia) Retrieved November 2, 2007.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia