How much I look forward
to the day when my struggle is over,
to the day when my struggle is over
and my course is set towards the Place of Life.
I hasten and proceed thither,
until I reach the watch-house of the moon.
When I arrived at the water-brooks,
a discharge of radiance met me.
It took me by the palm of my right hand
and brought me over the streams.
Radiance was brought and I was clothed in it,
light was brought and I was wrapped in it.
The Life supported the Life....-From The Song of Ascent
Largely overlooked by history, the Mandaeans are a small ethnic and religious group considered to be among the last practitioners of ancient Gnosticism. Although the majority of Mandaeans live in Iraq and Khuzistan in Iran, many have immigrated to parts of Europe, North America and Australia. There are plans for a worldwide census of the members of this group, but for the time being, their numbers are estimated at 60,000.
Background and History
The Mandaeans (called Mandayye or Suba within their communities) practice a monotheistic, non-Christian form of Gnosticism which has a strong baptismal element. In order to become a Mandaean you must be born into the religion. Converts are not accepted and intermarriage with outside groups is prohibited.
Many outsiders debate the origins of the Mandaeans, but according to oral traditions and sacred texts, Mandaeans believe they are directly descended from Adam and Eve, the first Mandaeans. There is no doubt that they have their roots in antiquity with some researchers believing the religion predates Christianity.
Even though many believe that the Mandaeans were mentioned in the Koran as a group that Allah would save on Judgment Day due to their belief in the one true God, Muslims made many attempts to convert them. There are also historical records of European Christian attempts to teach the Mandaeans about Jesus. The Mandaeans were able to resist conversion nonviolently (Mandaeans are forbidden to take a human life and violence is strongly discouraged).
The Christian missionaries also invented a common misunderstanding regarding Mandaean culture. When the Portuguese returned from the Holy Lands, they brought word of a small sect of people descended from John the Baptist, referring to them as “The Christians of Saint John”. While there is a tradition that John the Baptist was Mandaean and rejected Jesus, they didn’t hold him in higher esteem than a very wise teacher.
According to Mandaeans, the soul is connected to the spiritual world or the “World of Light”. Baptism both serves as a connection to this world as a means of purification. While there are three forms of baptism in Mandaean rituals, all of them consist of full immersion in running water in its natural state.
- Rishana-daily before sunrise and before religious ceremonies; can be performed without a priest
- Tamasha-triple immersion in water. Performed when the body becomes unclean from activities like sexual intercourse or menstruation or when believers come in contact with someone in an unclean state. A priest does not need to be present
- Mabusa-full baptism. A priest is present during this form of baptism and a sacrament of bread, river water, and oil is administered. Mabusa is performed on Sundays (the day of Mandaean worship) or after a major defilement. This rite goes beyond physical ablution; it is performed when a Mandaean feels guilty or when they have sinned. If the transgression is serious, it may take more than one rite to purify the sinner.
Baptism is also an important component of birth and death rites and food and personal objects are often purified through immersion.
Brief Look at Other Aspects of Religious Life
The spiritual leaders of the Mandaeans are the priests, or Nasuri. This is a hereditary role, passed down from father to son and involves a lengthy training and initiation process beginning as soon as the child can speak. A potential priest must be physically without “flaw or blemish" and his bloodlines are scrutinized for unacceptable elements, such as foreign blood and deformity. According to their ancient texts, there were once women priests, but while there is nothing officially barring women from the priesthood, in practice women are excluded. As well as acting as spiritual and moral leaders of their communities, priests also are the only ones who can slaughter animals.
Mandaeans believe in eternal life, and their godhead is the personification of the life force. They hold ethereal spiritual beings such as angels, whom they believe reside in the stars, in high regard. Because of this and their custom of facing the North Star to pray, observers have erroneously classified Mandaeans as star worshipers. On the contrary, Mandaeans do not pray to the stars, but use Polaris as a focal point and do not use symbols, idols, or images in their worship.
Every Mandaean must own a white ceremonial garment, or rasta. It must be worn during most baptismal rites, religious ceremonies, and during periods of uncleanliness. If a Mandaean dies in clothes other than a rasta, it is believed that they will not reenter the "World of Light".
Perhaps surprising for a culture with menstrual taboos, Mandaean women have more freedoms than those from many other cultures in the Middle East. They are allowed to come and go as they please; do not need to wear face or hair concealment; are allowed to own and inherit property; and are not forced into arranged marriages. A person’s second, or zodiacal name is derived from their mother. It may be that this relatively unusual role of women in Mandaean society is due to the importance of fertility and its ties with the "Life Force". Because of Mandaean reverence of fertility, children are held in high esteem and Mandaeans are not allowed to divorce, but separation is permitted. Polygamy is also practiced by some Mandaeans.
Mandaeans adhere to strict dietary laws which force them to be primarily vegetarians. They can eat anything that grows from a seed, fish with scales, ravens, and birds that don’t eat meat or fish. Work animals are forbidden to be killed or eaten, as well as a long list of traditional food animals. Of the few allowed animals, it is unlawful to eat the female of the species. As mentioned above, any slaughter that does occur is performed by a priest.
Most Mandaeans speak Arabic, with the priesthood essentially having a monopoly on the language of their sacred writings. The Mandaean language is similar to some Aramaic dialects, supporting the Mandaean claim that they immigrated from the west to Mesopotamia. It has also encouraged research into a connection between Mandaeans and The Dead Sea Scrolls. The alphabet, seen as magical and sacred, consists of 24 letters, each representing an aspect of light and life.
In Iran, Mandaeans are not allowed into universities, and have faced discrimination and violence from some Muslims in other areas of the Middle East. They are sometimes labeled as infidels despite being recognized as true believers in the Koran. The secular rule of Saddam Hussein had helped to protect the group in Iraq, but since the fall of the Ba'thist government, persecution has been on the rise with some Mandaeans being mutilated and murdered.
Some, in an effort to escape the escalation of violence, have tried to immigrate to countries who have historically taken in political and religious refugees. Australia was one choice for many Mandaean refugees. Before making a decision on Mandaean immigration, the Australian government placed many Mandaeans without visas in detention centers. While there, many have had to share facilities with Muslims who are also awaiting immigration decisions. Tension has mounted between these two groups and allegations of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse of Mandaeans have surfaced. While representatives of the refugees do not feel that the climate in these centers is as bad as in Iraq and Iran, many fear deportation. In late 2003, Australian federal judge, Justice Richard Cooper found the Refugee Review Tribunal negligent in investigation Mandaean claims of abuse, and criticized the narrowness of the boards definition of “persecution” in more than 60 decisions on Mandaean visa applications. Opponents to granting the Mandaeans asylum assert Mandaeans are purely economic refugees and that their claims of persecution are exaggerated.
There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding regarding the Mandaean culture and religion, with some of it coming from the Mandaeans themselves. True to Gnostic practice, much of their culture and many of their sacred texts are kept from outsiders. Quality anthropological study has only occurred in the past eighty years with mixed success. One example of Mandaean manipulation is the figure of John the Baptist. In order to illicit sympathy from Christian communities, his role is sometimes emphasized. This has led to the persistence of the myth that Mandaeans “follow” him, or even see him as an important prophet. It is more likely that he was seen as a knowledgeable teacher. One cannot really blame such a threatened group for using what they have at their disposal to draw attention to their causes and to help preserve the future of their culture. This practice may have helped to preserve this group when so many ancient religions have been lost to us.
In choosing my sources, I was careful to pick sites that were closely tied to the Mandaean world community, some run by Mandaeans themselves. All of these sites were written for those curious about Mandaean culture and religion and not for Mandaeans themselves. I welcome factual correction, particularly from Mandaeans or those who have lived with Mandaeans.
Gnostic Society Library, http://www.gnosis.org/library/mand.htm, Accessed June 16-18, 2004
Mandean World, http://www.mandaeanworld.com/mandaeanworld1.html, Accessed June 16-18, 2004
Yardna: Living Water, a Mandaean Website, http://www.yardna.org/
, specifically: The Mandaeans
, Dr. Erica C.D. Hunter, 1995, first published in The Mandaean Thinker Journal
; Who are the Mandeans
, Yarna.org; Children of Adam
, Brian Mubaraki, 1995; All accessed June 16-18, 2004
Radio National, The Religion report, Mandaens in Australia
, Accessed June 17-18, 2004
Also of interest:
"I Write Freedom Till I Die",http://www.petitiononline.com/mandaean/petition.html
online petition to release the Mandaeans from Australian detention camps. Contains some background information on the Mandaean refugees in Australia.