Mandeans by country
Last column: % Mandeans of the populationIraq30,0000.1%TOTAL *)
30,0000.007%Other countries30,000*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.
The only surviving Gnostic religion, now with no more than 60,000 adherents, living in southern Iraq and southwestern Iran. Their main city is Nasiriyya.
They are often called the Christians of Saint John, as he is held as a very sacred person, but not indispensable, in their theology. Their name is Aramaic for ‘knowledge’, i.e. a translation from the Greek ‘gnosis’.
There are two theories to their origins. They may either belong to a group emerging from Palestine, who were followers of John the Baptist. The other theory links them the the Sabaeans, originally from Harran region.
Teaching and Practice
John the Baptist is central in their teaching, as a representative for their faith. Jesus is also central, but he plays a totally different role than in religions like Christianity and Islam, and is a false prophet, almost depicted as evil.
The central religious book to Mandeans is the Ginza, ‘Treasure’, containing mythological and theological moral and narrative tracts as well as hymns to be used in the mass for the dead.
There are many other, less central books, mainly written in East Aramaic (or Mandean) as the language is also called. The content in these books varies, and many has magical texts and exorcisms. The collection of books started in the time of Islam, which differs strongly between ‘book-religions’ and other religions, and the Mandeans soon fitted in to the Koranic concept of ‘Sabians’ — the 4th ‘book-religion’, which can be translated to ‘baptizers’.
Baptism is central to the cult of Mandeans, and the Mandean sanctuary, Mandi is a very simple and small house with slanting roof. In front of it is a pool which is connected to a nearby river.
The river is called ‘Jordan’ and is used for baptism. The whole area is surrounded by a high fence or a wall. Baptisms are performed on Sundays, and every believer pass through this several times every year. Mandean baptism can be compared to the Christian communion, and the Muslim prayer, salāt.
The other central ritual is the mass for the dead, with recitations form the Ginza. The soul is released from the body the third day after the moment of death. Meals are central in these rituals. Traditional Mandean graves are unmarked, as what is buried is only the dark body. But in modern times these customs have adjusted themselves to Muslim customs.
The ethics of Mandeans are not all too different from Jewish ethics and their laws apply to all Mandeans, man or woman, leaders or not. Monogamy, dietary laws, ritual slaughtering and alms-giving are all central acts.
According to the Mandeans, cosmos is made up of two forces, the world of light, located to the north, and the world of darkness, located to the south. There is a ruler to both, and around the rulers smaller gods, called kings. Between the two forces there are hostilities, and it is in the fights between the two that the world is created, but without consent the ruler of light. Man is created by the forces of darkness, but in every man, there is a “hidden Adam”, the soul, which has its origin in the world of light.
Death is the day of deliverance, the soul leaves the body, and starts on a dangerous journey to the realms of light. It is only Mandeans and non-sinners who manages to pass the whole journey — everyone else end in Hell. This hell is not everlasting, at the end of the world, a judgement is made on who will be wiped out for ever, and who will rise to the realms of light.
Origins and History
The religion’s origin is difficult to reconstruct, as there is so much unknown. They could be a continuation of traditions from Mesopotamia, or Palestine, or both. The Mandean religion could be pre-Christian, or it could date to 1st or 2nd century CE. It could actually be John the Baptist who founded the sect, or they could be a continuation of the Jewish sect that John the Baptist belonged to (guessed by some to be the Essenes).
However, elements of their language indicate that the community is of Jewish origin.
One of the texts of the Mandeans tell about a flight of a group called ‘Nasoreans’, from areas that probably were in today’s Jordan, to the Mesopotamian region, in the times of the Jewish wars following the destruction of Jerusalem in year 70 CE. The Mandeans appears first to have gained a strong position in Babylon, but lost this with the appearance of the Sassinids in year 226. In the time of Mani, there have been contacts between him and the Mandeans, resulting in both love and hate.
With the arrival of Islam in Iraq in 636, the Mandeans were considered as the third ‘people of the book’, as the mysterious Sabians of the Koran.
But the Mandeans still faced a difficult relationship with Islam, and Muhammad is in their writings called the ‘demon Bizbat’. The Mandeans moved from the cities to the marshlands in Southern Iraq. It is first in modern times that the Mandeans have moved back to the cities, especially Nasiriyya, Baghdad and Basra, where many of them work as gold and silver smiths, iron smiths and boat builders.
Mandeans are also found in medium-sized towns between Baghdad and Basra. Some small groups of Mandeans even live in Iran, in cities like Ahvaz and Shushtar in the southwestern corner of the country.
Today Mandean theology is seriously threatened, as recruiting new priests is difficult, and many offices are vacant. Mandean laymen are often highly educated, but know little of the old language and the scripts, and they attend ceremonies only seldom, as in weddings. Yet, there is a strong feeling of pride of their heritage, and they often claim to belong to a religion older than Judaism, Christianity and Islam.