a ritual handshake or kušṭa
60,000 to 70,000
|Regions with significant populations|
|Ginza Rba, Qolusta|
Mandaeism or Mandaeanism (Mandaic: Mandaiuta, Arabic: مندائية Mandā'iyya, Persian: مندائیان) is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic worldview. Its adherents, the Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram and especially John the Baptist.
Mandaeism has historically been practised primarily around the lower Euphrates and Tigris and the rivers that surround the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, part of southern Iraq and Khuzestan Province in Iran. 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. Most Iraqi Mandaeans have since fled the country under the threat of violence by other Iraqis and the turmoil of the war. By 2007, the population of Iraqi Mandaeans had fallen to approximately 5,000. Most Iraqi Mandaeans now live in Syria and Jordan, with smaller populations in Sweden, Australia, the United States, and other Western countries.
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 Drower.
Origin of the term "Mandaean"
The term comes from Classical Mandaic Mandaiia and appears in Neo-Mandaic as Mandeyānā. On the basis of cognates in other Aramaic accents, Semiticists such as Mark Lidzbarski and Rudolf Macuch have translated the term manda, from which Mandaiia is derived, as "knowledge" (cf. Aramaic מַנְדַּע mandaʕ in Dan. 2:21, 4:31, 33, 5:12; cpr. Hebrew: מַדַּע maddaʕ without the nasal insert). This etymology suggests that the Mandaeans may well be the only sect from late Antiquity to identify themselves explicitly as Gnostics. Certainly, the Mandaean religion shares much with the ensemble of sects labelled as Gnostics, which date to the 1st century AD 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 comparatively recently. Other scholars derive the term mandaiia from Mandā d-Heyyi (Mandaic manda ḏ-hiia "Knowledge of Life", 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").
Other associated terms
Within the Middle East, but outside of their community, the Mandaeans are more commonly known as the Ṣubba (singular Ṣubbī). The term Ṣubba is derived from the word muṣbattah (Arabic: مصبتة), the baptism ritual of the Mandaeans. In Islam, the term "Sabians" (Arabic: الصابئون al-Ṣābiʾūn) is used as a blanket term for adherents to a number of religions, including that of the Mandaeans, in reference to the Sabians of the Qur'an. Occasionally, Mandaeans are called Christians of Saint John, based upon preliminary reports made by members of the Discalced Carmelite mission in Basra during the 16th century.
A mandá (Arabic: مندى) is a place of worship for followers of Mandaeism. A mandá must be built beside a river in order to perform maṣbattah because water is an essential element in the Mandaeic faith. Modern mandás sometimes have a bath inside a building instead.
This article is part of a series on Gnosticism
|History of Gnosticism|
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 topics such as eschatology, the knowledge of God, and the afterlife only in an unsystematic manner, and, apart from the priesthood, is 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: home and origin being the supreme Entity to which the soul 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 the 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 rebirth into a spiritual body, and 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 2nd or early 3rd c. AD. 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 Judea after the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st c. AD, 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 d-Iahia "The Book of John the Baptist", which includes a dialogue between John and Jesus. In addition to the Ginza, Qolusta, and Draša, there is the Dīvān, which contains a description of the 'regions' the soul ascends through, and the Asfar Malwāshē, the "Book of the Zodiacal Constellations". Finally, there are some pre-Muslim artifacts which contain Mandaean writings and inscriptions, such as some Aramaic incantation bowls.
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 chancellory script. The majority of Mandaean lay people do not speak this language, though some members of the Mandaean community resident in Iran (ca. 300–500 out of a total of ca. 5,000 Iranian Mandaeans) continue to speak Neo-Mandaic, a modern version of this language. It is from this that some people may be named Aram.
As noted above (under Mandaean Beliefs) 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.
In contrast with the religious texts of the western Gnostic sects formerly found in Syria and Egypt, the earliest Mandaean religious texts suggest a more strictly dualistic theology, typical of other Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism, 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 should also be noted—the Mandaeans believe that they were resident in Egypt for a while.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Ptahil alone does not constitute the demiurge but only 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 Yahia or Yuhana "John the Baptist" is accorded a special status, higher than his role in Christianity and Islam. Mandaeans do not consider John to be the founder of their religion but revere him as one of their greatest teachers, tracing their beliefs back to Adam.
Mandaeans maintain that Jesus was a mšiha kdaba "false messiah" who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John. The Mandaic word k(a)daba, however, derives from two roots: 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 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.
In 2009 there were two dozen Mandaean priests in the world, according to the Associated Press.
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 dwelt 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.
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.
Whether groups such as the Elkasaites, the Mughtasila, the Nasoraeans, and the Dositheans can be identified with the Mandaeans or one another is a difficult question. While it seems certain that a number of distinct groups are intended by these names, the nature of these sects and the connections between them are less than clear.
War in Iraq and diaspora
The prewar Iraqi Mandaean community was centered around Baghdad. Mandaean emigration from Iraq began during Saddam Hussein's rule, but accelerated greatly after the American invasion. Since the invasion Mandaeans, like other minorities, have been subjected to violence by Shiite and Sunni groups, including murders, kidnappings, rapes, evictions, and forced conversions. Mandaeans were also targeted for kidnapping since many worked as goldsmiths. Mandaeism is pacifistic and forbids its adherents from carrying weapons.
Most Iraqi Mandaeans have fled the country in the face of this violence, and the Mandaean community in Iraq faces extinction. Out of the over 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq in the early 1990s, only about 5,000 to 7,000 remain there; as of early 2007, over 80% of Iraqi Mandaeans were refugees in Syria and Jordan as a result of the Iraq War. There are small Mandaean diaspora populations in Sweden (c. 5,000), Australia (c. 3,500 as of 2006), the USA (c. 1,500), the UK (c. 1,000), and Canada. Sweden became a popular destination because a Mandaean community existed there before the war and the Swedish government has a liberal asylum policy toward Iraqis. The scattered nature of the Mandaean diaspora has raised fears among Mandaeans for the religion's survival. Mandaeism has no provision for conversion, and the religious status of Mandaeans who marry outside the faith and their children is disputed.
The contemporary 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 piece 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
Iraqi Mandaeans were given refugee status by the US State Department in 2007. Since then around 1200 have entered the US.
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. There are estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 Mandaeans in Iran. In 2002 the US State Department granted Iranian Mandaeans protective refugee status; since then roughly 1,000 have emigrated to the US.
- Iraqi people
- Jerusalem in Mandaeism
- Iraqi minority group needs U.S. attention, Kai Thaler, Yale Daily News, March 9, 2007.
- "Save the Gnostics" by Nathaniel Deutsch, October 6, 2007, New York Times.
- Iraq's Mandaeans 'face extinction', Angus Crawford, BBC, March 4, 2007.
- Drower, Ethel Stephana (1960), The secret Adam, a study of Nasoraean gnosis, London UK: Clarendon Press, xvi
- Lupieri, Edmondo (2002). The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. pp. 38–41.
- Macuch, Rudolf (1965). Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic. Berlin: De Gruyter & Co.. pp. 61 fn. 105.
- Genocide Watch: Mandaeans of Iraq
- Survival of Ancient Faith Threatened by Fighting in Iraq, Chris Newmarker, Associated Press. February 10, 2007.
- The Plight of Iraq's Mandeans, John Bolender. Counterpunch.org, January 8/9, 2005.
- An exodus to Sweden from Iraq for ethnic Mandaeans, Ivar Ekman. International Herald Tribune, April 9, 2007.
- Mandaeans persecuted in Iraq. ABC Radio National (Australia), June 7, 2006.
- Ideological Screening (ROOZ :: English)
- Annual Report for Iran, 2005, Amnesty International.
- Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen. 2002. The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Buckley. J.J. "Mandaeans" in Encyclopedia Iranica 
- Drower, Ethel Stefana. 2002. The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their Cults, Customs, Magic Legends, and Folklore (reprint). Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
- Newmarker, Chris, Associated Press article, "Faith under fire: Iraq war threatens extinction for ancient religious group" (headline in The Advocate of Stamford, Connecticut, page A12, February 10, 2007)
- Petermann, J. Heinrich. 2007 The Great Treasure of the Mandaeans (reprint of Thesaurus s. Liber Magni). Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
- Segelberg, Eric, 1958, Maşbūtā. Studies in the Ritual of the Mandæan Baptism. Uppsala
- Segelberg, Eric, 1970, "The Ordination of the Mandæan tarmida and its Relation to Jewish and Early Christian Ordination Rites", in Studia patristica 10.
- Yamauchi, Edwin. 2004. Gnostic Ethics and Mandaean Origins (reprint). Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
- Mandaean Association Union - The Mandaean Association Union is an international federation which strives for unification of Mandaeans around the globe. Information in English and Arabic.
- The first Iranian website about Mandaeism.
- An Ancient Religion Endangered by Iraq War - A video by News21.
- BBC: Iraq chaos threatens ancient faith
- BBC: Iraq's Mandaeans 'face extinction'
- BBC: Mandaeans - a threatened religion
- Commentary: The woes of a peaceful and persecuted people - CNN
- Shahāb Mirzā'i, Ablution of Mandaeans (Ghosl-e Sābe'in - غسل صابئين), in Persian, Jadid Online, December 18, 2008, .
• Audio slideshow (showing Iranian Mandaeans performing ablution on the banks of the Karun river in Ahvaz):  (4 min 25 sec).
Books about Mandaeism available online
- Mandaean scriptures: Ginza Rba and Haran Gawaitha texts and fragments—Take note the book titled Ginza Rba is not the Ginza Rba but is instead "The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans" as translated by E.S Drower.
- Gnostic John the Baptizer: Selections from the Mandæan John-Book: This is the complete 1924 edition of G.R.S. Mead's classic study of the Mandæan John-Book (in The Gnosis Archive collection - www.gnosis.org).
- Fragments of a Faith Forgotten by G.R.S. Mead a complete version (with old and new errors), contains information on Mani, Manichaeism, Elkasaites, Nasoraeans, Sabians and other gnostic groups. Published in 1901, still considered authoritative.
- Extracts from E. S. Drower, Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, Leiden, 1962
- The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran by Lady Drower, 1937 - the entire book
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