Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Mandaeism or the Forgotten Monotheism

Specials- Mandaeism
An Iraqi from the religious Sabian-Mandaeism minority wait in line to be baptized in the waters of the Tigris river during the annual Golden Baptism Ceremony held in Baghdad 22 May 2006. Photo: WISAM SAMI / AFP

Little is known about Mandaeism, one of the oldest monotheisms in the world. Neither Jewish, Christian or Muslim, Sabian-Mandaeans constitute an ethno-religious group of less than 100,000 people who practise a monotheistic religion and whose first traces, according to French anthropologist Claire Lefort, may date back to Sumerian times, more than 3,000 years ago. However, experts have struggled to establish exactly when Mandaeism was born and no data are considered to be fully reliable.

After the advent of Islam, the name ‘Sabians’ was used to designate Mandaeans and some other groups. To this day, Mandaeans are still referred to as Sabians throughout the Middle East. Hence, many Mandaeans have come to describe themselves as ‘‘Sabian-Mandaean’, combining both exonym and antonym.

The lack of historical sources on the early history of Mandaeans explains why the religion has remained shrouded in myth and legend, according to Charles G. Häberl, a professor at Rutgers University and Mandaean expert. In a paper titled ‘Dissimulation or Assimilation? The Case of the Mandaeans’, he wrote that the Hran Gauaita text provides the primary historical account of the Mandaeans’ exodus from Palestine to southern Mesopotamia during the first century.

He explains that until the middle of the 20th century, the text was only known to Mandaeans. However, oral accounts of their resettlement were transmitted for more than a thousand years. It was only when British cultural anthropologist Ethel S. Drower managed to get hold of a copy of the text that the source became accessible to scholars.

Since the 10th century, Muslim scholars and lawyers have discussed whether Mandaeans are ‘people of the book’ or not. The Koran considers three groups to be people of the book: Jews, Christians and Sabians. “The Sabians appeared as an enigmatic group in the Koran. When you actually start reading the commentaries, it seems no one had a clue. They could have been Egyptians, Greeks or companions of the Prophet Muhammad,” Häberl told Fanack.

In Islamic territory, being people of the book gave believers the right to practise their religion, provided they paid a tax called the djizya. For a long time, Sabian-Mandaeans benefited from this status, but this was compromised when several other groups claimed to be Sabians to demonstrate their Koranic legitimacy, raising suspicions about the veracity of their identity.

Mandaeism derives from the Mesopotamian religions that emerged around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now southern Iraq and the Iranian province of Khuzestan. The Mandaeans gradually abandoned polytheism for a dualist system that hinges on an opposition between light and dark. In this regard, Mandaeism shares various features with other dualist Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manicheism and the teaching of Mazdak.

Despite this dualism, Mandaeans only believe in one God who lives in the World of Light. In contrast, in the World of Darkness, there is a chief called Ruha and a prince called Ptahil, who is similar to the gnostic Demiurge and who corrupted all spiritual beings to lead them to create our world.

As a gnostic religion, Mandaeism believes in the salvation of the soul through the esoteric knowledge of God. In contrast with other gnostic religions, however, Mandaeism supports marriage and prohibits sexual licence.

According to Mandaean beliefs, Adam was the first prophet, followed by Seth and Sem. While the Judeo-Christian tradition considers Eve as responsible for original sin, Mandaeans consider that both Adam and Eve carry this burden. Mandaeans also revere John the Baptist, whom they believe is their last prophet, drawing from this belief their most important rite, the baptism. They can be baptized several times in their lives, during weekly ceremonies on Sundays or during their celebrations.

Baptism can, however, only take place in flowing water. Water is the most significant element that comes from the World of Light and is therefore perceived as a source of life. Another key aspect of the religion is that Mandaeans cannot pray to idols or images. Their primary religious book is the Ginza Rabba, which means the ‘great treasure’ and is written in classical Mandaic, a form of Eastern Aramaic.

Today, Mandaeism is an endangered religion. Since the American-led intervention in Iraq in 2003, Sabian-Mandaeans have – like other minorities in Iraq – been subject to religious and ethnic persecution, including torture, murder, rape, forced conversion and marriage.

Although the Islamic State never reached the Mandaeans’ historical homeland in southern Iraq, the community has endured severe human rights violations linked to the rise of Islamic extremism and lack of security. Historically, Mandeans have been perceived as wealthy because many of them work in the goldsmith trade. In the chaos following the war, they thus became a target for criminal gangs and subject to looting, robberies and kidnapping. In addition, their religion categorically denounces violence, making them particularly vulnerable to attack.

In a report by the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) titled The Sabian-Mandaeans: Perceptions of Reconciliation and Conflict, a Mandaean student recounted: “We had a lot of kidnappings because of the money. We don’t know exactly who is behind it, but my brother was kidnapped in 2008. We had to pay a lot of money to get him back.”

The fact that Mandaean men are not circumcised is also a source of discrimination that, according to Lefort, is reminiscent of segregation in the United States or apartheid in South Africa. As examples, she writes that Mandeans cannot touch products on market stalls or enter the rest area at work. In the MERI report, a Mandaean goldsmith said: “In Missan [in south-eastern Iraq], we used to be called outcasts or negiz. When we go to a funeral and we drink tea, they do not even wash the dishes later but break them. This is the level of racism against us. In addition to that, the practice of wearing the veil was imposed on us.”

According to Häberl, “Mandaeans have been fully engaged in the contemporary identity of Iraq. Take the example of Abdul Jabbar Abdullah, who was the first director of the University of Baghdad, or the poets Lamia Amara and Abdel-Razzaq Abdel-Wahed. Many Mandaeans were jewellers. They were often literate. Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, they constituted an elite with a political activity.” He added, “It is true that the rule of Saddam Hussein was an authoritarian dictatorship, but one of its features was the secular culture.”

In recent decades, the number of Mandaeans in Iraq has considerably declined, with no more than 300 families remaining, according to Lefort.

Most have fled to Western countries, such as Sweden, Germany, Australia and the United States, raising concerns about the survival of the religion which, until now, has remained endogamous. Both men and women can only marry within their community, which poses various challenges as the community becomes increasingly scattered.

“Diaspora really began in 2003. Now, Mandaeans have no homeland. Everything is sort of up in the air,” Häberl concluded. “People say, ‘We need to acclimate to this new situation. Our children are going to grow up in the US or in Germany. They will date outside their religion. Like any community in crisis, we need to change’. But many others also believe they need to stick to what they know to survive as a community.”