The Gnostic School of Thought known as Mandaeism or Mandaenism is an inherently, deeply monotheistic Spiritual sect, and yet it also exhibits an exceedingly strong dualistic affinity within its Cosmogony and creation narrative. The religious adherents of this particular Gnostic Order are referred to as the Mandaeans and they are known to revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Noah, Shem, Aram, and most especially John the Baptist. Significantly, the Mandaen Gnostic sect has been included among the Semitic linguistic group and are known to speak a specific dialect that is Eastern Aramaic in origin, referred to as Mandaic. It has been postulated that the unique name of this Gnostic sect (Mandaean) is derived from the Aramaic term Manda which translates as "knowledge", interestingly similar to the Gnostic term Gnosis.
In the region of the world known today as the Middle East, but outside of their community, they have become typically, generally referred to as the Subba (singular Subbi) or as the Sabians/ Sabaeans. Linguistically, the term Subba is derived from the Aramaic which relates to Baptism, the Neo-Mandaic is Sabi. In the Islamic religious scriptures of their Holy Quran, the Muslims refer to the Sabians as The People of The Book, in conjunction with the Jewish Religion's and the Christian Religion's spiritual adherents. Additionally, the Mandaeans or Sabians have also been termed the "Christians of Saint John".
It has been postulated and generally accepted scholastically that the Mandaeans originated during sometime within the initial three centuries AD, with the sect either coalescing in southwestern Mesopotamia or in the Syro-Palestinian region of the Middle East. Contradistinctively, there are some historical and religious scholars that have postulated that Mandaeism is far older than supposed with it pre-dating and existing in before Christian times.
The Mandaean Gnostic Religion has primarily been practiced in the region of the Lower Kuran, Euphrates and Tigris along with the rivers that encircle the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, part of southern Iraq and the Khuzestan Province within Iran. The current official numbers have estimated that the Mandaean population currently existing is roughly approximated as being between 60,000 and 70,000. The proportion that resides within their native lands has collapsed due to the American War in Iraq, with the majority of the religious adherents becoming relocated to nearby Iran, Syria, and Jordan. Until the Iraq War orchestrated by the American Superpower, nearly the entirety of the Mandaeans lived peacefully within Iraq. Large numbers of Mandaean Iraqis have subsequently been forced to flee their home country due to the adverse chaos and turmoil generated by the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and proceeding occupation by U.S. military forces in conjunction with the rise of sectarian violence exhibited by Islamic extremists.
Consequently, by 2007 the Mandaean population residing within their native land of Iraq has depreciated to be approximately about 5,000 people. In 2011, Al Arabiya has postulated that the hidden and unaccounted for numbers of Iranian Mandaeans within Iran to be above 50,000. In contrast, according to a 2009 article in the Holland Sentinel, the Mandaean religious population inside Iran has greatly dwindled, numbering between 5,000 and at most 10,000. Lastly, it has been projected from tallies that large numbers of Mandaeans have created diaspora communities that exist outside the Middle East, and now a good portion are residing in Australia with about 10,000 being concentrated near Sydney and constituting approximately 15% of the Global Mandaean population.
The Mandaeans have reportedly maintained enormous secrecy and remained almost entirely private concerning their interactions with outside cultures. Accordingly, most of the accounts we have attained regarding their culture and spiritual beliefs have invariably come to us from outside sources. Specifically, these sources have been authored by Julius Heinrich Petermann (an Orientalist), Nicolas Souffi (a Syrian Christian who was the French vice-consul in Mosul in 1887), and from Lady E.S. Drower (a British cultural anthropologist). The term Vandaic or Mandaeic Mandaeism originates from classical Mandaic Mandaiia which is reportedly displayed in Neo-Mandaic as Mandeyana. Based upon certain cognates within other Aramaic dialects, Semitic linguists such as Mark Lidzbarski and Rudolf Macuch have translated this Mandaic term Manda, which the term Mandaiia is derived from, to mean knowledge.
This etymology is readily suggestive that the Mandaeans spiritual culture could be acknowledged as the sole ancient sect that has survived from late Antiquity and to have continuously identified their culture and specifically themselves as Gnostics, and this is significant. However, there remain other historical scholars that purport to derive the term Mandaiia from Mandā d-Heyyi , which is an alternative of the Mandaic term Manda ḏ'Hayyi translated as "Knowledge of Life" and is a seeming reference to the chief Deity Hayyi Rabbi "Great Life" or "Great Living God", or is perhaps derived from the term Beth Manda, which refers to the religious or cultist hut within which large numbers of Mandaean rituals and rites are enacted such as the Baptism, the central religious sacramental rite of the Mandaean Spiritual Life.
History: Within the body of a Mandaean scripture titled the Haran Gawaita, it is delineated that the recorded history of the Mandaean Gnostic culture began when a people called the Nasoreans (considered the Mandaean priestly caste) decided to vacate the region of Judea-Palestine to subsequently migrate into Mesopotamia during the first century AD. The reasoning for this departure has been theorized to be due to their pernicious persecution inside Jerusalem proper. These Nasorean migrants are supposed to have initially journeyed to the city of Haran, likely corresponding to the modern city of Harran in Turkey today, or Hauran followed by their migration to the Median Hills within Iran, and then ultimately, they migrated to settle within the southern provinces of Mesopotamia, in modern Iraq.
It has been reported that during the initiation of the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia, the chief leader of the Mandaeans, Anush son of Danqa, journeyed to present himself before the Islamic authorities to show them a copy of the Ginza Rabba, the Mandaean Holy Book, along with professing that their preeminent Mandaean prophet was John the Baptist, who is readily propounded within the Islamic Holy Book of the Quran as the individual Yahya Bin Zakariya. Accordingly, this delineation supports the identification of the Mandaeans with the Sabians that are reportedly intimated within the Quran as being counted among the religious peoples denoted as the Ahl al-Kitāb, the people of the Book. Consequently, this allocated the to the Mandaeans a privileged distinction or status as a legalized religious minority within the Islamic Empire.
Henceforth, the Mandaean religious community became associated with the historical people referred to as the Sabeans and also with the Jewish Christian community called the Eclesiastés, and this was done on account of the location of all three being mentioned within Mesopotamia in the early centuries AD as well as their readily attributable similarities in their cultural and religious belief structures. Moreover, the principle significance of ritual Baptism in the ceremonial rites and rituals of all three of these religious peoples is particularly prominent suggesting their subsequent correlation. In similitude to the Mandaeans, the Sabian Religious culture were also postulated to have readily associated themselves as a Gnostic sect originating from the legendary Noah.
Accordingly, the Mandaean religious community have continuously, repeatedly been associated or connected with the Sabian Gnostic sect up to the current day, however the precise classification & nature of the correlative interrelation between these three enigmatic communities has remained entirely ambiguous and equivocal. Notably, in the year of 1290, an educated Dominican Catholic from Tuscany, Ricoldo da Montecroce or Ricoldo Pennini, was reportedly in Mesopotamia where came across the Mandaeans and described them as follows, "A very strange and singular people, in terms of their rituals, lives in the desert near Baghdad; they are called Sabaeans. Many of them came to me and begged me insistently to go and visit them. They are a very simple people and they claim to possess a secret law of God, which they preserve in beautiful books. Their writing is a sort of middle way between Syriac and Arabic. They detest Abraham because of circumcision, and they venerate John the Baptist above all. They live only near a few rivers in the desert. They wash day and night so as not to be condemned by God…".
It has also been confirmed that the members of the Discalced Carmelite mission within Basra during the 16th century referred to the Mandaeans as the "Christians of Saint John". Furthermore, during the time when the Portuguese naval armada engaged in a militarily conflict with the Ottoman Turkish army in Bahrain, it was subsequently reported that a group of Portuguese Jesuits encountered a group of "Saint John Christians" in the proximity of the Strait of Hormuz in 1559. Lastly, it has been chronicled that the Mandaeans exhibited an apparent willingness to heed and obey the Catholic Church, and further that the Mandaeans even assimilated and implemented the seven Catholic sacramental rites and their concomitant ceremonies in their daily lives and religious activities.
Mandaean Religious Belief Structure: The spiritual belief structure known as Mandaeism, being the religion of the Mandaean or Sabian people, is almost entirely and fundamentally built upon an attributable prevalent and traditionally established heritage that permeates their community than upon any specific set of religious creeds or doctrinal belief structures. The readily accepted corpus of Mandaean literature, though of significant scope, covering topics which include eschatology, the knowledge of God and of the afterlife, is written in a desultory and inconsistent methodology. Furthermore, it is known and studied solely by the priestly class and a very few laymen.
Their core precepts and tenets of Mandaean Gnosis, according to E. S. Drower, consists of and is characterized by nine components and idiosyncrasies that generally occur in other Gnostic spiritual sects. The Mandaean Gnostic school of thought postulated that their existed one Supreme amorphous Entity or Deity, who's divine exhibition & proclamation corresponding within time and space is that of the manifestation of spiritual, etheric, and material worlds and beings. The celestial engineering of these three-fold types of worlds is allocated or delegated by it to a creator or creators who originate it. Moreover, the Universe is manifested by the Archetypal Man, who subsequently produces it in a similitude of his own form.
The Mandaeans postulate and assert that the Cosmos exists inherently as a Dualistic manifestation with a Cosmic Father and Mother, and it consists of attributes of Polarity such as Light & Darkness, Right and Left, and a Syzygy of macrocosmic and microcosmic formations. Another intrinsic feature of the Mandaean Dualistic Universe is the concept of countertypes and a world of Di-Polar ideas. The Mandaeans also delineate the notion that the soul exists in exile as a prisoner with her home and origin being the Supreme Primordial Entity to which she will inevitably return. The Mandaeans further postulate that the stars and planetary bodies readily regulate & manipulate humanity and fate itself along with existing as places of detention following death. Moreover, the Mandaeans asserted that there exist a savior spirit or savior spirits which are purported to assist the soul on her voyage through life and proceeding its expiration with its subsequent journey to "the worlds of light".
In the Mandaean religious structure there exists a cult-language or occult language of symbols and metaphors in which qualities and ideas are personified. Furthermore, their exist a collection of Mandaean Mystery rituals and sacraments which are utilized to assist and purify the soul, to assure and secure her reconstitution into a spiritual body, and her spiritual ascent and extrication from the world of materiality. These Mandaean ritual sacraments are typically acculturations and adaptations of pre-existing traditional, conventional, and seasonal rites to which an occult, esoteric exposition & interpretation is ascribed. In the incident and illustration corresponding to the Nasoreans, this interpretive exposition is predicated upon their Creation Narrative, specifically upon Adam, the Divine Man, as a consecrated, crowned, and anointed Priest-King.
Additionally, the Mandaean Mysteries exhibit and encourage Great Secrecy upon their neophyte initiates with the full explication and revelation of knowledge concerning the Supreme amorphous Deity, the concept of Cosmic Duality & Syzygy relating to cosmic/microcosmic forms, and the mystery rites performed for spiritual purification are solely reserved for those individuals with a capacity for comprehending as well as preserving the Mandaean Gnosis.
Mandaean Cosmology: The Mandaean cosmological narrative, as previously mentioned above, is not inherently organized or readily systematic in its delineations and renditions. There unfortunately exists no singularly recorded certifiable and authoritative delineation of the Mandaean creation story of the Universe, but instead there exists a sequential aggregation of accounts. There are certain historical and theological scholars, such as Edmund Lupieri, who reportedly maintain and assert that by comparative analysis of these disparate & dissenting expositions exhibit the potentiality to elucidate the manifold religious influences upon which the Mandaeans have derived their belief structures as well as the ways the Mandaean religion has subsequently evolved throughout time.
Contradistinctively, the religious scriptures and texts attributed to the Western Gnostic movements formerly discovered within Egypt and Syria, the prior and antecedent Mandaean religious scriptures are indicative of a more stringent emphasis upon a Dualistic Theology, which is quite typical of other Iranian Religious movements such as Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism, Manichaeism, and the teachings of Mazdak. Accordingly, in these Mandaean Gnostic scriptures, rather than the postulation of a great Pleroma as in other Gnostic cosmologies, there is the assertion of a distinct partitioning between Light and Darkness. The Mandaean Deity is referred to as Hayyi Rabbi, the Great Living God, and other names ascribed to the principle Mandaean Divinity are Mare d'Rabuta, the Lord of Greatness, and Melka d'Nhura, the King of Light.
The Cosmological scenario unfolds in sequential emanations. The Supreme Amorphous Divinity projected three great Demiurgic emanations into the celestial superstructure: Yushamin, Abathur, and Ptahil which manifested in sequential order. The First Emanation Yushamin along with his subsequent role in the cosmological narrative is rather obscure involving the predilection and desire of Yushamin to manifest his own personalized world realm for which he was severely punished as a result of His arrogant rebellion by the Primordial Amorphous Living Deity, and it is notable that his name possibly derives from Iao haš-šammayim, translated in Hebrew as "Yahweh of the Heavens".
The Second Emanation Abathur exhibited his celestial demiurgic role by presiding over the judgments dispensed upon the souls of mortals in the afterlife processes. The lowest of the trinity of Emanations was Ptahil, the third emanation, should not be signified as the sole Demiurgic principle but did exhibit the traditional role of the Demiurge by instigating the manifestation of the material world. Lastly, though the Mandaean Gnostic sect readily concur with the rest of the Gnostic movements that the terrestrial realm is a prison ruled by the planetary Archons, they dissented with them regarding the perception of the material world as cruel or inhospitable instead viewing it as a realm designated for spiritual evolution and saw it as one of great beauty.
Chief Prophets and Scriptures: There are prominent, key prophets or figures acknowledged and accepted by the Mandaean Gnostic Sect with these unique individuals causing Mandaeans to diverge in this aspect when correlated with the rest of the Gnostic movements. The Mandaeans revere as their principal teacher and prophet the individual known to them as Yahia-Yohanna, to others this is John the Baptist, and he is allocated a unique and special status by Mandaeans which greatly differentiates them from how Christians and Muslims acknowledge this prophetic, sagacious teacher.
The Mandaeans do not postulate that John the Baptist was in any way their founder but simply respect Him as their highest spiritual teacher. The Mandaeans also are purported to trace their spiritual belief system all the way back to Adam and the Genesis of Mankind. Moreover, the Mandaean Gnostics do not acknowledge or even believe in the typical Judeo-Christian prophets, founders, and teachers such as Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus himself. However, the Mandaean Gnostics do recognize several other key Abrahamic Prophetic and Religious individuals including the legendary Adam, his son Seth, his grandson Anush (Enos), Nuh (Noah), and Noah's descendants Sam (Shem) and Ram (Aram) in the Bible, and they specifically posit that these last three biblical individuals are considered by the Mandaeans to be their direct ancestral relatives.
Furthermore, the Mandaeans do not recognize the conception of the Holy Spirit that is acknowledged within the Bible and the Talmud holy books, but it is known by this Gnostic sect as Ruha, Ruha d-Qudsha, or Ruha Mastanita being allocated an exceedingly different spiritual status by them. In contradistinction from the positive and benign Jewish, Christian, and Islamic conceptualization of this Holy Entity, the Mandaean's perspective of Her is one which is negative and corresponds to it being the inherent personification of the lesser, emotional, and feminine aspects of the human psyche. Thus, overall, the Mandaean Gnostic school of thought is highly divergent in several key components and fundamental characteristics that are typically promulgated and generally accepted by other Gnostic sects as well as Abrahamic Religions making them unique in this aspect.
The Mandaean Gnostics are known to have an exceedingly substantial and voluminous corpus of spiritual scriptures with the most significant and prominent one being the Ginza Rba or Ginza which is a compendious aggregate work of their accepted history, theology, and prayers. The Ginza Rba is readily bifurcated into two distinct halves which are titled the Genza Smala, or the Left Ginza, and the Genza Yemina, or the Right Ginza, respectively.
The individual Jorunn J. Buckley, a comparative Historian of Religions at Bowdoin College, through a consultation of the colophons within the Left Ginza has readily discerned and uncovered an unbroken, successive string of copyists that date from the late 2nd or early third century AD. A colophon is typically a brief statement containing information about the publication of a book or written work such as the location of publication, the publisher, and the date of publication, but a colophon can also be emblematic or pictorial in nature.
The colophons referenced within the work of Professor Buckley and his study of the Left Ginza are apparently an indicative testament to the existence of the Mandaean Gnostics or their historical predecessors being around during the late Parthian Empire period at the very latest. The most ancient texts are lead amulets that date roughly from the 3rd century AD, and are followed by the second oldest which are magic bowls dating from about 600 AD. Unfortunately, the most significant religious scriptures and texts are accepted to be no more ancient than the sixteenth century and most of them originating from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
Though the Ginza is known to have successively transformed and progressed while under the dominion of the Sassanian Empire and the Islamic Caliphates, very few scriptural or textual traditions are capable of laying a claim to such a considerable and sweeping continuity. Another of the Mandaean's most significant scriptural texts is known as the Haran Gawaita which readily delineates upon the History of their Gnostic Religion. Within the recorded History of this textual work, it is reported that a group of Nazoreans, Mandaean Priests, migrated out of Judea before the imminent demolition and ruination of Jerusalem during the 1st century AD, subsequently coming to inhabit and settle within the Parthian Empire at this time.
There are several other prominent and significant books of this Gnostic Religion one of which is known as the Qolusta, and this is a canonical prayer-book of the Mandaeans that was translated by E. S. Drower. Another major textual work of Mandaean religious scripture, one which is available to both the laity and esoteric initiates, is the Mandaean Book of John, Das Johannes Buch der Mandaer, and apparently includes a unique dialogue that transpired between John and Jesus. In conjunction with the Mandaean texts of the Ginza, Qolusta, and the Drasa, there is also the Divan, which comprises and includes a specific elucidation referencing the zones or places that the soul ascends through on its post-life journey, and the Asfar Malwashe, the Book of Zodiacal Constellations. Lastly, there exist several pre-Islamic artifacts that incorporate certain Mandaean writings and inscriptions, examples being the Aramaic Incantation Bowls.
Furthermore, the language utilized for composing the Mandaean Religious Literature is readily known as Mandaic and constitutes a linguistic type that is a member of the Aramaic family of dialects. It is also known to be formulated out of a cursive variant of the Parthian chancellery script which is indicative of their habitation within the Parthian Empire. However, most of the Mandaean laity cannot converse in this language, though it is readily asserted and acknowledged that a portion of the Mandaean community residing within Iraq and Iran have continued to converse in Neo-Mandaic, the contemporary version of this language.
Mandaean Worship: The two religious ceremonies considered to be the principle and most significant aspects fundamental to Mandaean worship are the spiritual Baptism (masbuta) and the ritual mass enacted for the dead known as 'the ascent of soul ceremony'(masiqta). In contradistinction to many other Baptismal Religions, the Mandaean ceremonial rite of baptism is conducted cyclically every Sunday, which is the Mandaean Holy Day. This Mandaeic Baptism routinely involves the total and complete immersion in flowing water with all the rivers acknowledged as acceptable for the baptismal ceremonial ritual being termed Yardena, titled after the River Jordan. Once the individual becoming baptized has arisen from the flowing waters, the Mandaean worshiper is subsequently consecrated and anointed with holy oil followed by their participation in a communion of water and bread.
The Mandaean religious ritual referred to as the 'ascent of the soul ceremony' is postulated to be enacted in various forms, but it is generally conducted by engaging in a ritual meal in memory of the dead. This ceremonial ritual is thought to aid the departed souls upon their subsequent journey traversing through the purgatory realms into the World of Light. The place of worship for adherents of Mandaeism is referred to as a mandi or Mashkhanna, and it is reported to be specifically established and constructed in proximity to a river so that they can easily conduct masubta (baptism) due to the fact that water is a necessary and fundamental feature of the Mandaean faith. It has further been reported that contemporary mandis occasionally have a bath within the building instead of being constructed adjacent to a flowing river.
Every single mandi is reportedly emblazoned and decorated with a darfash, which constitutes cross of olive wood halfway covered with a piece of pure white silk cloth as well as seven branches of myrtle; however, it must be noted that this Mandaean cross bears absolutely no relation to the Christian cross or crucifix, with its four arms correlating to and symbolizing the four corners of the Universe, the pure white silk cloth representative of the Light of God, and the seven branches of myrtle corresponding to the seven days of divine creation. It has also been reported that the Mandaeans believe in marriage and procreation in conjunction with acknowledging the pivotal importance of exhibiting an ethical and moral lifestyle in this terrestrial realm.
The Mandaeans are also considered to be inherent pacifists and egalitarians, with the earliest Mandaean scribe able to be substantiated being one that is a woman, Shlama Beth Qidra, who is verified to have copied the Left Ginza corresponding to a time period in the second century AD. The Mandaeans are also known to place a high priority on family life, to not engage in practices of asceticism, to detest the Abrahamic rite of circumcision, and to refrain from consuming red meat and imbibing strong alcoholic beverages.
Mandaean Organizational Structure: The Mandaean organization and religious configuration is one which constitutes a strict segregation between the Mandaean priestly class and the common laity. In the written work by E.S. Drower known as The Secret Adam it is stated: "Those amongst the community who possess secret knowledge are called Naṣuraiia—Naṣoreans, or 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".
It has been reported that the Mandaeans have three initiatory grades within their priesthood which are the tarmidia "disciples" (Neo-Mandaic is tarmidana), the ganzibria "treasurers" (Neo-Mandaic is ganzebrana), and the risamma "the leader of the people". The final grade of Risamma is considered by the Mandaeans to be the preeminent office of the priesthood and has apparently remained vacant for a good number of years.
In the current era, the highest Mandaean office occupied by an individual presently is the one called the ganzebra, and it is a title that initially appeared in a religious scriptural text among the Aramaic ritual texts coming out of Persepolis from the third century BC which potentially corresponds to the kamnaskires, derived from Elamite kapnuskir "treasurer", being a title for the rulers of Elymais (modern Khuzestan) dating from the Hellenistic era. It has been a Mandaean tradition that any ganzebra who has baptized seven or more ganzebrana has the potential to become qualified for the highest office of Risamma, but the contemporary Mandaean population has not rallied as a unified religious body in support of a singular candidate.
As of today, the current Mandaean priestly class is capable of tracing their direct ancestral origins to the initial half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, in the year of 1831 a devastating outbreak of cholera resulted in the ruination of the region and nearly eradicated the entirety of the Mandaean religious authorities with a minute few surviving this horrendous event. Subsequently, the two most qualified surviving acolytes, Yahia Bihram and Ram Zihrun, are credited with reconstituting the priesthood due to their previous religious training and utilizing surviving scriptural texts still available to them after the devastating event. In 2009, there were reported by the Associated Press to exist at least two dozen Mandaean priests in the world; however, according to the Mandaean Society in America, the priestly numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years.