The Last Gnostics 5 May 2015
Chris De Bie explores the religion and history of an ancient, and largely forgotten, faith.
This summer, the plight of religious minorities in Iraq briefly caught the imagination of the Western press. As Mosul fell to the forces of the self-styled Islamic State and refugees streamed north towards Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, the tribulations of the ancient communities that make up Iraq’s tapestry of faith were headline news.
As well as the many and varied denominations that make up the ancient Christian churches of the east, long a target of bombings and kidnappings in Iraq’s post-war anarchy, politicians rushed to speak out on behalf of less well known groups. The Yazidis, previously little known in the West except to scholars of obscure Middle Eastern religions, became a cause célèbre when thousands of refugees were trapped on Mount Sinjar, under imminent threat of enslavement or massacre. But even less well known, and almost unmentioned, were the members of Mosul’s tiny Mandaean community – adherents of an ancient Gnostic religion dating back 2,000 years – the Last Gnostics.
Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis meaning “knowledge”, was an influential movement that arose in the ferment of religious ideas that roiled the Near and Middle East during the later classical and early Christian period. The Gnostic churches and schools of thought were disparate entities, constantly evolving, but all exulted the idea of salvation through illumination by a hidden knowledge.
Gnostics saw a universe divided between conflicting principles – good and evil, light and dark. The material world, far from being the creation of an all-powerful and loving God was the creation an evil and ignorant deity – or ‘demiurge’ – often associated with the God of Hebrew scripture. Thus, to the initiate, all of sacred history was to be reread and reinterpreted in a light which turned much conventional Christian and Jewish interpretation on its head. Seen through this lens, it was the ancient enemies of Yahweh, from Cain to the Sodomites, who were the true inheritors of spiritual wisdom – slandered in scripture by the ignorant and locked in conflict with the flawed creator of a base and corrupt world.
The most successful and widespread of the overtly Gnostic religions was founded in the third century CE. by the Persian prophet Mani. At its height, Manichaeism claimed many thousands of adherents over a vast area stretching from China to the Roman Empire. Mandaeism, the only surviving Gnostic religion today, never existed on such a scale, but it pre-dates Manichaeism and there is strong scriptural evidence that Mani was influenced by the early Mandaeans. There was certainly contact between the two faiths in the early years, because Mandaean literature preserves polemics against the followers of Mani – but relations were not always hostile. As well as conflict, the Manichean “Psalms of Thomas” also document friendly relations between the two religions.
Manichaeism died out after the 14th century CE. and with it died large-scale, organised, Gnostic religion. But Gnostic ideas were more pervasive, influencing Christianity, notably via St Augustine (himself Manichaean in early life), and certain currents within Islam – particularly in connection with Sufism and Shi’ism. Since the nineteenth century there has also been a renewed interest in Gnosticism among figures as diverse as Arthur Schopenhauer, Philip K. Dick and Madam Blavatsky. Today there are a number of self-described Gnostic and Neo-Gnostic Churches – but the Mandaeans are the last practicing representatives of an ancient Gnostic religion with an authentic unbroken lineage.
The origins of the Mandaeans are obscure. Their surviving literature is extensive, but exclusively religious. It’s made up of ritual and magical texts; prayers and songs; and theological and mythological treatises. Extensive commentaries have also been added to the earlier texts by later scribes. The Mandaeans themselves say their religion is primordial – founded by the ‘world of light’. The history of the world in which we live is therefore held to be of little importance. That’s perhaps unsurprising, because the Mandaean footprint on history has not been heavy. There have been no Mandaean kingdoms or empires and we hear of no great Mandaean lords or generals stamping their mark on the wider history of the regions in which they lived. The Mandaeans do, however, record that in past ages their great priests were powerful magicians who could work wonders, read the future unerringly in the stars and planets, and were even impervious to fire!
The only text which provides us with any substantial information about the early history of the Mandaeans is the “Legend of the Inner Haran”. This tells us that three hundred and sixty ‘disciples’ (tarmide – the same word now used to describe the rank and file of the Mandaean clergy) were persecuted and driven out of Jerusalem by the Jews and their leader Adonai, before finding refuge in the lands of the Iranian empire. This is all supposed to have happened before the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 CE., since the temple was apparently destroyed by the powers of light as punishment for the mistreatment of the Mandaeans.
It therefore seems likely that Mandaeism begin life as a syncretic faith which incorporated eastern Gnostic elements into Judaism, before splitting off some time in the first couple of centuries of the Common Era. The early adherents were driven out of the Levant, most likely during the Jewish Wars of Liberation and found refuge and a certain degree of prosperity under the Parthians. A long process of marginalisation followed under the Sassanians and Byzantines, continuing after the Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia, during which the Mandaeans withdrew deeper into the relative safety of the inaccessible southern marshes of the lower Euphrates.
John the Baptist
Fascinatingly, these early traditions also make reference to John the Baptist (known to Mandaeans as Yahya or Yuhana). He is hailed as a prophet and it’s through him that Mandaeans trace their descent back to Noah – whom they regard as their forefather. This led the Portuguese missionaries who encountered them in the seventeenth century to confusedly label the Mandaeans Christiani di San Giovanni or “St John Christians” and for a long time Mandaeism was regarded in the West as an obscure offshoot of Christianity.
In fact, over the years, the Mandaean relationship to Christianity has been rather ambivalent. Christ is utterly condemned by the historical Mandaean tradition as an implacable enemy of Yahya. But in more recent times, Mandaeans have tended towards a more conciliatory position that emphasises the common ground between the two faiths. It is interesting to note that, during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi Mandaean prisoners of war asked for, and were granted, permission to pray with Christians in Iranian POW camps.
Today, the heartland of Mandaeism still lies far to the south of Mosul, in the southern marshes of Iraq and the Iranian province of Khuzestan. And it is here, if anywhere, that the ‘traditional’ Mandaean way of life was preserved.
From at least as far back as the seventeenth century, Mandaeans were renowned goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths and boat builders, differing only moderately from their Muslim neighbours in appearance and dress, and set apart chiefly by their religion and their liturgical language – one of the last surviving dialects of Eastern Aramaic.
Practice and Piety
By the twentieth century the community was regarded as being made up of two groups – the mandayya or “Gnostics” and the nasorayye usually translated as “observants”. The mandayya are the ordinary laypeople of the community. The nasorayye are the priests and any other individuals who hold the sacred knowledge. The priesthood itself consisted of ordinary priests known as the tarmide or “disciples”, the ganzibre or “treasurers” (similar to bishops) and the ris ama or “head of the people”. Today there are only a few ordinary priests and ganzibre and the position of ris ama has been vacant for over 100 years.
The priesthood is hereditary and exclusively male. It is responsible for interpreting the sacred texts (since few mandayya today are conversant in Eastern Aramaic) and representing the celestial beings during religious ceremonies. Only the priesthood lead the strict religious life of daily prayers at morning, midday and evening, and daily ritual washing. Only a priest or a ritually-pure layperson can perform the slaughter of animals for food.
The most important Mandaean ceremony is the masbuta or “baptism”, which takes the form of a ritual immersion, by a priest, accompanied by prayers, anointment and a sacred meal of bread and water. The masbuta serves to lessen the punishment that will be received in the next world for any sins committed in this life. It also restores the recipient to ritual purity. For serious ritual contamination up to 366 masbuta can be required – and there is debate as to whether some ritual contamination is so grave as to be irredeemable. Masbuta must be performed in “living” (i.e. flowing) water from a river or channel. This is because the Mandaeans believe that all rivers and streams, which they call Yardne (literally “Jordans”) are descended from the Heavenly Jordan which exists in the world of light.
Tumult and War
In the last 100 years, this ancient way of life has come under increasing strain from the forces of modernity and urbanisation. In a large city like Baghdad, it is virtually impossible to observe strictly precise Mandaean rituals concerning food and drink – a genuinely practicing Mandaean shouldn’t even drink non-flowing water from a tap or bottle. As early as the 1930s the British cultural anthropologist Lady Drower was also observing that the younger, state-educated generation was rejecting a cosmology which taught of a flat earth carried on the back of Ur, the great serpent of the abyss.
Of course, these sorts of challenges are by no means unique to Mandaeism. But belief is resilient – it continually finds ways to adapt and reinvent itself. So, if their problems were solely confined to the realms of theology, there would be no reason to think the Mandaeans would prove any less adaptable than those other faiths who confounded predictions of the inevitable triumph of post-Enlightenment atheism in the last decades of the twentieth century. Sadly however, Mandaeism has faced greater challenges – in the past 40 years, the Mandaean community has suffered the shattering impact of almost continual revolution and war.
1979 proved to be a dark watershed for the Mandaean community, as the Iranian Revolution overthrew the secular government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Though authoritarian, the Shah had been content to allow the Mandaeans as much freedom as he was prepared to allow anyone else. But all that changed under the new regime.
The Mandaeans have long been identified with the Sabians, a group who are included in the Qur’an, alongside Christians and Jews, as ‘people of the book’. In theory, this should grant them certain rights and protection under a Muslim government – but historically Muslim rulers were never quite sure what to make of Mandaeism. Under the Ottomans, the Mandaeans record organised pogroms and forced conversions as late as the second half of the nineteenth century. So when a delegation of Iranian Mandaean authorities approached Ayatollah Taleqani, an influential member of the new parliament, to find out just what their position would be under the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, they did so with some trepidation. As it turns out, they were right to be concerned – Taleqani told them to convert to Islam.
Fortunately, Taleqani’s position wasn’t enforced. But there is no doubt that the Iranian Mandaean community has found itself increasingly marginalised since the 1979 revolution. And then, just as the Iranian Mandaeans were coming to terms with their uncomfortable new reality, both they and their co-religionists across the border, were caught in the middle of the longest war of the twentieth century.
When Iran and Iraq fought their long war in the 1980s, the battlefield straddled the Mandaean heartlands on either side of the Shatt al Arab waterway that formed their contested border. Mandaeans were evacuated and conscripted on both sides, and many individuals relocated to the larger cities of Iraq during this period, as well as forming diaspora communities around the world, notably in Sweden, Australia and the United States, with smaller populations in Britain and other countries.
As well as the impact this had on their traditional beliefs and ways of life, internal migration also left many Iraqi Mandaeans scattered and vulnerable when civil strife engulfed Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion. As armed militias formed on sectarian lines, the Mandaeans were left isolated and without protection. To make matters worse, many of them still plied the traditional trade of goldsmithery. Coupled with their outsider status, this made them ideal candidates for extortion – whether by religious extremists or gangs of common criminals.
Today, it’s hard to say how many Mandaeans remain. As with the term ‘Jewish’, ‘Mandaean’ means both someone who adheres to a particular faith and someone who belongs to a particular ethnic group, but once someone ceases to profess that faith publically they fade into the background population. Given the position many Mandaeans find themselves in today, it’s understandable that many have taken that route.
Recent news reports have put the number of Mandaeans at 60-70,000 globally, but the literature suggests that, prior to the recent upheavals and wars, there were only around 20,000 people in Iran and Iraq who declared themselves to be practicing Mandaeans. Today most of them are refugees – with only 5,000 estimated to remain in Iraq.