Manichaeism is an extinct dualistic religion of Iranian origin, founded in the third century C.E. by the Prophet Mani (c. 216-274 C.E.). Originating in Babylon (a province of Persia at the time), Manichaeism once flourished in the ancient world. At its height, the religion claimed followers from North Africa to China.
Theologically, Manichaeism is a dualistic religion that postulated an ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil in the universe. It is also an eclectic religion that attempted to provide a synthesis of previous religious teachings. Its founder, Mani, claimed to be the final prophet for all religions.
Manichaeism has a plausible explanation of the reason why evil as experienced in the world is substantial and virulent. As such, it compares favorably with the Augustinian Christian view that evil is non-being or non-substantial. However, its cosmic dualism of God and Satan is unacceptable to any monotheist who believes in one supreme God of goodness.
The original texts of Manichaeism were composed in Syriac Aramaic. However, most of the writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost. Augustine of Hippo, who formerly belonged to the Manichaean faith before converting to Christianity, passionately denounced Manichaeism in his post-conversion writings, and eventually the Manichaean religion was widely persecuted under Christian leaders of the Roman Empire. Although Manichaeism is extinct today, a revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manichaeism.
Manichaeism is named after the Prophet Mani (216-276 C.E.), who resided in the Persian Empire. According to biographical accounts preserved by Ibn al-Nadim (d. 995 or 998) and the Persian polymath al-Biruni (973-1048), a young Mani received a revelation from a spirit called the Twin, which allegedly taught him “divine truths” which would developed into the Manichaean religion. Therafter, Mani claimed to be the “Paraclete of the Truth” (as promised in the New Testament) as well as the Last Prophet.
Mani was eager to describe himself as a “disciple of Jesus Christ,” but the early Christian Church rejected him as a heretic. Nevertheless, despite having fewer adherents than Christianity or Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism won the support of many high-ranking political figures in the Persian Empire. With the aid of royal patronage, Mani initiated several missionary excursions. It is said that he traveled far and wide to foreign lands, including Turkistan, India, and Iran.
Manichaeism spread with extraordinary rapidity throughout both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq, by 280 C.E., who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. The faith was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312, during the time of Pope Miltiades. By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern France.
However, Manichaeanism was also widely persecuted. Mani himself was martyred by the Persian religious establishment in 277, which ironically helped spread the sect more widely. After failing to win the favor of the Zoroastrian clergy, Mani is reported to have died in prison awaiting execution by the Persian Emperor Bahram I. The date of his death is fixed between 276–277 C.E. In 291, persecution arose in the Persian Empire, with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, who also ordered the slaughtering of many Manichaeans. In 302, Diocletian issued an Edict against the Manichaeans and decreed that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures, resulting in numerous martyrs in Egypt and North Africa. In 381, Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. He issued a decree of death for Manichaean monks in 382.
The faith maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the west (Mesopotamia, Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, and flourished for a time in the land of its birth (Persia) and even further east in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet. It was adopted by the Uyghur ruler Bugug Khan (759–780), and remained a state religion for about a century before the collapse of the Uyghur Empire. In the east, it spread along trade routes as far as Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty in China. It is reported that the Muslim Caliph Ma’mun (ninth century C.E.) tolerated a community of Manichaeans.
In the later Jin and Yuan Dynasties of China, remnants of Manichaeanism continued to leave a legacy contributing to the variety of religious thought that created Neo-Daoist sects like the Red Turbans.
Sources for Manichaeism
Discoveries of Manichaean writings
Until the early 1900s, the only sources for Manichaeism were descriptions and quotations from hostile non-Manichaean authors, either Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian. While these writers were often criticizing Manichaeism, they also brought many quotations directly from Manichaean scriptures. Thus, there have always been quotations and descriptions in Greek and Arabic, as well as the long quotations in Latin by St. Augustine, and the extremely important quotation in Syriac by Theodor bar-Khonai.
In 1904, German scholars excavating at the ancient site of the Manichaean Uigur Kingdom near Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan (destroyed around 1300) discovered hundreds of pages of Manichaean scriptures, written in various languages—Middle Persian, Parthian, and Sogdian, as well as in old Turkish. These writings, while most of them were in very bad shape, were taken back to Germany, analyzed, and published in Berlin. The German researchers, perhaps for lack of suitable fonts, published most of the writings using Hebrew letters (which could easily be substituted for the 22 Syriac letters).
Additionally, in the early 1900s, German researchers found a large body of Manichaean works in Coptic, in Egypt. Although also damaged, there were many complete pages of Manichaean works, which again, were published in Berlin before World War II. Unfortunately, during the war, some of the Coptic Manichaean writings were destroyed.
After the success of the German researchers, French scholars went into China and discovered perhaps the most complete set of Manichaean writings ever, written in Chinese. They were translated into French, German, English, and Japanese.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, a Manichaean work, written in Greek, and describing the life of Mani, was discovered.
Mani composed eight writings, seven of which, including the Gospel of Mani, were written in Syriac Aramaic, the eighth being written in Middle Persian and dedicated to the contemporary ruler of Persia, Shapur I. The original seven Syriac writings are not preserved, although their Syriac names are known, as well as fragments and quotations from them. A lengthy quotation, brought by the Syrian Nestorian Christian, Theodor bar-Khonai, in the eighth century, shows clearly that in the original Syriac Aramaic writings of Mani, there was absolutely no influence of Iranian or Zoroastrian terms. All terms for the Manichaean deities in the original Syriac writings, are in pure Aramaic. The adaptation of Manichaeism to the Zoroastrian religion, however, did begin in Mani’s lifetime, with his eighth writing of the Shabuhragan in Middle Persian, mentining about Zoroastrian deities such as Ohrmazd and Ahriman.
As Manichaeism spread to the east, these writings by Mani passed through Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian, and, ultimately, Uyghur Turkish, and Chinese translations. As they spread to the west, they were translated into Greek, Coptic, and Latin.
One of the original eight Syriac writings of Mani was a section of the original Aramaic Book of Enoch, entitled the Book of Giants. With the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judaean Desert in the mid-1900s, and of the Manichaean writings of the Manichaean Uigur Kingdom in Turfan in the early 1900s, scientists came into possession of some scattered fragments of both the original Aramaic Book of Giants (which were analyzed and published by J. T. Milik in 1976) and of the other Manichaean version of the same name (analyzed and published by W.B. Henning in 1943), respectively.
Still another holy book written by Mani—which became remembered in later Persian history, although lost later—was called Arzhang, a Parthian word meaning “Worthy,” and was beautified with paintings. Therefore, Iranians gave him the title of “The Painter.”
The most striking characteristics of Manichaean theology were its dualism and syncretism. Regarding its teachings of dualism, Mani postulated two natures that existed from the beginning: light and darkness. The realm of light lived in peace, while the realm of darkness was in constant conflict with itself. The universe is the temporary result of an attack from the realm of darkness on the realm of light, and was created by the Living Spirit, an emanation of the light realm, out of the mixture of light and darkness.
A key belief in Manichaeism is that there is no omnipotent good power. This claim addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the infinite perfection of God and postulating the two equal and opposite powers mentioned previously. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: The good part is the soul (which is composed of light) and the bad part is the body (composed of dark earth). The soul defines the person and is incorruptible if there is complete abstinence, but it is under the domination of a foreign power. Humans are said to be able to be saved from this power (matter) if they come to know who they are and identify themselves with their soul. Conversion to Manicheanism was depicted both as an awakening and an illumination; and in death the converted spirit would escape the darkness of the body.
A good description of the cosmological-mythical dualism of Manichaeanism is preserved in two recovered scriptures, from which a detailed nature of the Manichaean creation story can be gleaned: The texts teach that the God of Light sent an “Original Man” to do battle with the attacking powers of darkness, including the Demon of Greed. The Original Man was armed with five different shields of light, which he lost to the forces of darkness in the ensuing battle. A call was then issued from the world of light to the Original Man (“call” is thus a Manichaean deity), and an answer (“answer” being another Manichaean deity) returned from the Original Man to the world of light. The myth continued with many details about how light was captured into the world of matter, and eventually liberated by entrapping some great demons and causing them to become sexually aroused by “Twelve Virgins of Light,” and expelling, against their will, the light from within their bodies. The light, though, was again entrapped in the world of darkness and matter, and, the myth continues, eventually arriving to the creation of living beings in the material world, Adam and Eve, and Jesus appearing at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.
The second important characteristic of Manichaeism was its overt religious syncretism. Mani made every effort to include all known religious traditions in his faith and he claimed to be the the final prophet for all religions. Furthermore, Mani declared that he was the Paraclete and Apostle of Jesus Christ, to appeal to Christian sentiments. However, his teachings were not limited to Christian ideas. Mani’s travels also exposed him to strong Buddhist influences. Following his visit to the Kushan Empire, various Buddhist ideas seem to have permeated Manichaeism. Richard Foltz writes:
- Buddhist influences were significant in the formation of Mani’s religious thought. The transmigration of souls became a Manichaean belief, and the quadripartite structure of the Manichaean community, divided between male and female monks (the “elect”) and lay followers (the “hearers”) who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha.
Once again, the influence of Buddhism can be seen in the story of the Death of Mani which reads:
- It was a day of pain
- and a time of sorrow
- when the messenger of light
- entered death
- when he entered complete Nirvana.
In the Great Song to Mani (thirteenth–fourteenth century), Mani is also referred to as the “Buddha Mani.”
Influences of other religions such as Zoroastrianism and gnosticism are also evident on Manichaeism as it spread beyond its original birthplace. As Manichaeism passed through cultures and languages, it also adapted new religious deities from the surrounding religions into the Manichaean scriptures. Thus, as the original Aramaic texts moved eastward and were translated into Iranian languages, the names of the Manichaean deities (or angels) were often transformed into the names of Zoroastrian yazatas. Thus Abbā dəRabbūṯā (“The Father of Greatness”—the highest Manichaean deity of Light) might either be translated literally as pīd ī wuzurgīh, or substituted for by the name of the deity Zurwān in Middle Persian texts. Likewise, the Manichaean primal figure Nāšā Qaḏmāyā “The Original Man” was rendered “Ohrmazd Bay,” after the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. This development continued to Manichaeism’s ultimate meeting with Chinese Buddhism, where, for example, the original Aramaic “karia” (the “call” from the world of light to those seeking rescue from the world of darkness), becomes identified in the Chinese scriptures with Guan Yin (觀音, literally, “hearing sounds [of the world],” the Bodhisattva of Compassion in Chinese Buddhism).
Due to the syncretistic nature of Mani’s teachings, the religion of Manichaeism preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that otherwise would have been lost.
Manichaeism is often presented as a Persian religion, mostly due to the vast number of Middle Persian, Parthian, and Soghdian (as well as Turkish) texts discovered by German researchers near Turfan, in the Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) province of China, during the early 1900s. Looking at the phenomenon of Manichaeism from the point of view of its origins, however, it is no more accurate to say that Manichaeism is a Persian or Iranian religion, than it would be to say that Jewish Talmudism or Babylonian Mandaeanism (both writing in Aramaic, as did Mani, and both originating in roughly the same time and place as Manichaeism—Babylon in the third century C.E.) are Iranian religions.
Manichaeism and Christianity
Manichaeism’s subsequent influence on Christianity is still being debated, and it has variously been suggested that the Bogomils, Paulicians, and the Cathars were deeply influenced by Manichaeism. However, they left few records of their rituals or doctrines, and the link between them and Manichaeans is tenuous. The Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars were certainly dualism|dualists and felt that the world was the work of a demiurge of Satanic origin, but whether this was due to influence from Manichaeism or another strand of gnosticism is impossible to determine. The charge of Manichaeism was often leveled by orthodox opponents, who often tried to fit contemporary heresies with those combated by the Church Fathers. Only a minority of Cathars held that the evil god (or principle) was as powerful as the good god (also called a principle) as Mani did, a belief also known as absolute dualism. In the case of the Cathars, it seems they adopted the Manichaean principles of church organization, but none of its religious cosmology. Priscillian, a fourth-century Christian ascetic mystic, and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they thought was the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.
Although the cosmic dualism of Manichaesism is not acceptable to believers in the existence of only one supreme God of goodness, it does provide a good explanation of why evil in the world is substantial and virulent. This was, in fact, one of the reasons why the young Augustine became a Manichaean as he was struggling about evil and sin within himself and in society. While Christianity rejects the Manichaean dualism, the classical Christian explanation of evil as non-being or privation of good, which was formulated largely under the influence of Augustine’s anti-Manichaean writings after he became a Christian, cannot explain the virulent reality of evil. The Manichaean view of evil as a real and primordial demonic power reminds us of the weakness of this Christian position. Hence, exploring a cosmically non-dualistic position that can still accommodate a view of evil as substantial remains as an important task for theology.
- “The Neo-Manichaean Church.” Retrieved May 21, 2008.
- Iain Gardner and Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 116-118.
- Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century, new ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).
- Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, eds., “The Story of the Death of Mani,” in The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds—Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Mandaean, Manichaean, Islamic, and Cathar (New Seeds, 2006), 581-92.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia