Mandaeism or Mandaeanism (Mandaic: Mandaiuta, Arabic: مندائية Mandā'iyya) is a monotheistic religion. The religion has a strong dualistic world view. Its followers, the Mandaeans, think highly of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram and especially John the Baptist.
Originally, Mandaeism was practiced mainly in the countries around the lower Euphrates and Tigris and the rivers that surround the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. Today, this area belongs to Iraq and Khuzestan Province in Iran. Because they were persecuted in that area, many Mandaeans have left that area and now live abroad. This is commnoly called diaspora. Most left for Europe, Australia and North America.
There are thought to be between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide, 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 5,000 by 2007. Most Iraqi Mandaeans fled to Syria and Jordan under the threat of violence by Islamic extremists and the turmoil of the war.
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.
Mandeism is the religion of the Mandaean people. It is based on a common history and heritage. There is no fixed set of religious creeds and doctrines. A basic guide to Mandaean theology does not exist. The corpus of Mandaean literature is quite large. It also covers topics such as eschatology, the knowledge of God, and the afterlife. It only does this in an unsystematic manner. Apart from the priests, very few people know it.
According to E.S. Drower, the Mandaean Gnosis is characterized by nine features, which also appear in various forms in other gnostic sects:
- There is a supreme entity without form. It expressed itself by creating a number of spiritual, etheric, and material worlds and beings. There is a Creator which came from it, and produced all these worlds and beings. The cosmos is created by Archetypal Man, who produces it resembling 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 is 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 help 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 on 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 is 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. They put a high priority on family life. Consequently, Mandaeans do not practice celibacy or asceticism. Mandaeans will, however, abstain from strong drink and red meat. They look forward to a future liberated from the influence of the Torah, which they consider to be evil in origin. 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.
Mandaean religious texts
The Mandaeans have many religious texts. The most important of them is the Genzā Rabbā or Ginza. The Ginza is 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".
Before the printing press was invented, people copied texts by hand. The people doing this were called scribes. Each person's handwriting is special in certain ways. This was the same with scribes. A scribe might join two letters in a certain way, or he might do the dots on those letters that have them in a special way. Jorunn J. Buckley looked at these special marks the copyists left in the Left Ginza. That way he was able to show that the copying of that text goes back to the to the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD. These special marks show that the Mandaeans existed during the late Arsacid period at the very latest. A legend called Harrān Gāwetā also strengthens this. According to this legend, the Mandaeans left Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century AD and settled inside 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 most important works of Mandaean scripture is the Draša d-Iahia "the Book of John the Baptist". This book is accessible to both laymen and initiates. 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 written is known as Mandaic, and is a member of the Aramaic family of dialects. It is written in a cursive variant of the Parthian chancellory script. The majority of Mandaean lay people do not speak this language. Some members of the Mandaean community in Iran ( about 300-500 out of a total of ca. 5000 Iranian Mandaeans) continue to speak Neo-Mandaic, a modern version of this language.
Mandaeans have several prophets. Iahia or Iuhana "John the Baptist" has a special status, higher than his role in Christianity and Islam. Mandaeans do not consider John to be the founder of their religion. They only worship him as one of their greatest teachers. They trace their beliefs back to Adam.
Mandaeans maintain that Jesus was a mšiha kdaba "false messiah" who changed the teachings given to him by John. The Mandaic word k(a)daba, however, comes from two roots: the first root, meaning "to lie," is the one traditionally given to Jesus; the second, meaning "to write," might provide a second meaning, that of "book". Some Mandaeans, who are 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 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. According to E.S. Drower (The Secret Adam, p. ix):
- [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 "disciples" (Neo-Mandaic tarmidānā), the ganzibria "treasurers" (from Old Persian ganza-bara "id.", Neo-Mandaic ganzeḇrānā) and the rišamma "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. 3rd c. BCE) and which may be related to the kamnaskires (Elamite <qa-ap-nu-iš-ki-ra> kapnuskir "treasurer"), 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 contemporary priesthood can trace its immediate origins to the first half of the 19th 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 wore white and performed baptisms like the Mandaeans. They lived in east Judea and northern Mesopotamia. According to the Harran Gawaitā legend, the Mandaeans migrated to southern Mesopotamia from there. Mani later left the Elkasaites to start his own religion. Mandaean scholar Säve-Söderberg showed that Mani's Psalms of Thomas were closely related to Mandaean texts. This would imply that Mani had access to Mandaean religious literature.
Other groups which 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.
It is difficult to say if groups such as the Elkasaites, the Mughtasila, the Nasoraeans, and the Dositheans are related to the Mandaeans or to one another. The names say that there are a number of different groups. Much of the teaching of these groups is secret. This makes it difficult to see the nature of these groups or the relationships between them.
Under Saddam Hussein, the Mandeans were recognised as a religious minority. Many of them are craftspeople, like smiths or traders of gold and silver. These people belonged to the middle classes. Since the change of government in Iraq, islamic extremists have harassed them. There are also reports of attacks on women who refuse to veil themselves. Most Iraqi Mandaeans have fled as a result, and the Mandaean community in Iraq faces extinction.
In Iran, Mandeans do not have a problem with violence, but they are prohibited from fully participating in civil life because of Gozinesh Law. This law and other gozinesh provisions require a religious screening for people who want to access employment, education, and a range of other areas. A very important part of this screening procedure 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.
Many left because of the Iraq War
There were over 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq in the early 1990s. In 2007, only about 5,000 to 7,000 remain there; over 80% of Iraqi Mandaeans were refugees in Syria and Jordan. This is a result of the Iraq War. There are small Mandaean populations in Australia (c. 3,500 as of 2006), Canada, the USA (c. 1,500), the UK (c. 1,000) and Sweden (c. 5,000).
The current status of the Mandaeans has prompted a number of American intellectuals and civil rights activists to call for their government to extend refugee status to the community. In 2007, the New York Times ran an op-ed in which Swarthmore professor Nathaniel Deutsch called for the Bush administration to take immediate action to preserve the community:
The United States didn’t set out to eradicate the Mandeans, one of the oldest, smallest and least understood of the many minorities in Iraq. This extinction in the making has simply been another unfortunate and entirely unintended consequence of our invasion of Iraq — though that will be of little comfort to the Mandeans, whose 2,000-year-old culture is in grave danger of disappearing from the face of the earth. . . . . When American forces invaded in 2003, there were probably 60,000 Mandeans in Iraq; today, fewer than 5,000 remain. . . . Of the mere 500 Iraqi refugees who were allowed into the United States from April 2003 to April 2007, only a few were Mandeans. And despite the Bush administration’s commitment to let in 7,000 refugees in the fiscal year that ended [September 30, 2007], fewer than 2,000, including just three Iraqi Mandean families, entered the country. If all Iraqi Mandeans are granted privileged status and allowed to enter the United States in significant numbers, it may just be enough to save them and their ancient culture from destruction. If not, after 2,000 years of history, of persecution and tenacious survival, the last Gnostics will finally disappear, victims of an extinction inadvertently set into motion by our nation’s negligence in Iraq.
– Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of religion, Swarthmore College, October 7, 2007
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