The Mandaeans: An Unknown Religious Minority
in the Near East
By Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley
The Mandaeans (literally, "the knowers") are the only surviving Gnostics from the time of late Antiquity. They have dwelled for the past eighteen hundred years in southern Iraq and southwest Iran, and increasingly, as a result of recent wars, in other parts of the world. They adhere to the typical Gnostic doctrines and mythologies regarding the soul's entrapment in earthly life and the existence of a heavenly Lightworld, the soul's true home. Being baptists, the Mandaeans consider John the Baptist their main prophet and renewer of the religion, which, they say, ultimately stems from Adam himself. The Mandaeans live next to but remain apart from their (mostly Moslem) neighbors, and throughout the centries they have preserved their traditions to a remarkable degree.
The Mandaeans are not an officially recognized minority religion in Iran. The Qur'an exempts them, as a "people of the book," from forced conversion to Islam. After the revolution in 1980, however, the government stopped supporting this protection. Since then, the Mandaeans have worked to regain it. About two years ago, the Iranian President, Khamenei issued a fatwa, an opinion, about the Mandaeans, stating that they seemed to be monotheists with a holy scripture and a prophet and should therefore be recognized as a protected religion. Since the fatwa, Mandaeans have had their hopes strengthened. I visited Iran in April, 1996. On What happened to be Easter Sunday, I saw my first Mandaean baptism as I sat on the bank of the Karun, the largest river in Iran. It was brown and flowing rapidly, swollen by melted snow from the mountains. Mandaeans practice repeated baptism, and full immersion must take place in flowing, fresh water, which is the form that the Lightworld takes on earth.
The religion is related to Judaism and Christianity but retains its own separate identity. Probably during the first century, and due to the persecution by the Jews, the Mandaeans were helped by one of the Parthian Kings to find refuge in Iraq and Iran, where they still survive. The Qur'an recognizes them as a "People of the Book," (and refers to them "Sabaeans"; not related to the Sabaeans of Yemen) as the Mandaeans fulfill the requirements of having a holy religious text and a prophet. However, the actual protection of the religion during the centuries has been disputed, and the "Mandaean question" remains a difficult legal-religious question in Islam.
Because Mandaeans are the smallest group and the least known among the people of the book (i.e. Christians and Jews), it has been harder for them to protect and assert themselves as a legitimate religion. Today, the Mandaeans enjoy official protection in Iraq (though under difficult circumstances due to the international embargo and the internal unrest), while the smaller Mandaean population in Iran, mainly centered in Ahwaz, Khuzistan, has lost its recognition since the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Especially following the wars and unrest beginning in 1980, Mandaeans have emigrated individually and in groups to other countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and various European countries.
At less than 100.000, these sole remaining ancient Gnostics subscribe to a tempered dualism in which the heavenly, pre-existent Lightworld and its inhabitants keep in constant contact with earthly, concrete life. Through elaborate rituals such contact between the worlds ensure present and future
life. Most important is the capacity of he soul, which is captive in the human body, to achieve knowledge, gnosis, of its Lightworld origin. At the end of the soul's imprisoned life here on earth it must ascend home to the Light.
Human beings, of both genders, are divided into three forces: soul, spirit and body. The two upper elements are understood as female, sisters, who merge at the body's death to rise as one into the Lightworld--the body being of no further account. A pervasive gender balance reigns in Mandaean symbolism, so that the direction right, light, and gold are male, while the direction left, darkness/ earth, and silver are female. Imitating its Lightworld models and abhorring asceticism, Mandaeism advocates marriage and fertility. Early on, this view caused friction with Christian ascetic ideals.
Even John the Baptist, the primary Mandaean prophet and renewer of the religion, was married. Mandaeans practice repeated baptism in running, fresh water (yardna), for water is the form by which the Lightworld manifests itself on the earth. So, Mandaean baptism does not imply an initiation, and is unlike, for instance, Christian forms of baptism. Complex rituals for the living and the dead, vast mythologies and extensive commentaries on rituals continue to sustain the religion, which possesses an enormous literature and has remained remarkably consistent for nearly two thousand years. Dependent on texts meticulously copied throughout the ages in Mandaic, the religion's own, Eastern Aramaic language, Mandaeism is hierarchical, with priests as leaders in matters religious, legal and communal. Learned lay people, yalufas, are ritual helpers, teachers and mediators situated between priests and the regular lay population. Today, between twenty and thirty priests exist in Baghdad, at least three in Ahwaz, Iran, while two recently emigrated priests serve the Australian congregation in New South Wales. The North American continent still has no priests, but Mandaeans here are now working to obtain a priest from Iraq, so that the communities on the North American continent might achieve a spiritual center in the traditional sense.
A few European scholars have studied Mandaeism during the past few hundred years. Today, almost nobody does. Apart from the works of the English Lady Ethel S. Drower (1879-1972), the primary field worker among the Mandaeans in Iraq (and still fondly remembered by many older Mandaeans), most of the scholarship is in the German language. Many Mandaean texts still remain to be translated, and some are unknown to the West. Mandaeans today take a keen interest in scholarly studies of their traditions, and some are becoming scholars themselves, eager to do research and to spread the knowledge about their religion among themselves and to others.
- Mark Lidzbarski translated into German The Book of John (Das Johannesbuch, 1915)
- Ginza. The Treasure or the Great Book of the Mandaeans (Ginza. Der Schatz oder das grosse Buch der Mandäer , 1925), the Mandaean holy text, which is separated into a right and a left part.
- E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (1937, 2nd. ed. 1962; still in print, available from Brill).
- An English translation of Kurt Rudolph's selection of Mandaean texts is in, W. Foerster, Gnosis. A Selection of Gnostic Texts. 2. Coptic and Mandaic Sources (Oxford, 1974).
- "Mandaean Religion," an article by Dr. Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley can be found in vol. 9 of The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade, (Macmillan, 1986).
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