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Mandaeism (or Mandaeanism or Sabianism) is a term for the religion of the Mandaeans, who consider Adam, Noah and John the Baptist as their prophets (but not Abraham, Moses or Jesus). Mandaeism is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic worldview, practiced primarily in southern Iraq and the Iranian province of Khuzestan, as well as among a small diaspora population in Europe, Australia, and North America. The exact number of Mandaeans worldwide is unknown, but probably around 50,000. The Mandaeans have remained separate and intensely private — what has been reported of them and their religion has come primarily from outsiders. They speak the Mandaic language.
The origins of the Mandaeans is a continuing mystery. Mandaeans believe that they are the last remaining active gnostic sect.
Unlike religions such as Christianity, Mandaeism is not specifically based upon conformity to religious creeds and doctrines. The only requirement to be a Mandaean is that one is born to Mandaean parents. Mandaean theology is unsystematic and even though the corpus of Mandaean literature is quite large a single basic guide to Mandaean beliefs and doctrines does not exist.
Mandaeans do not recognize Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. They do acknowledge John the Baptist, whom they revere as one of their greatest teachers. They also have a clergy, practice frequent baptism, and hold public worship on Sundays.
According to E.S. Drower, the Mandaean Gnosis is characterized by nine features:
- A supreme formless Entity
- Dualism - light and darkness
- As a feature of this dualism, counter-types, a world of ideas.
- The soul is portrayed as an exile - its home and origin being the supreme Entity
- Planets and stars influence humans
- A saviour spirit which assist the soul on its journey through life and after it to 'worlds of light'.
- A cult-language of symbol and metaphor
- 'Mysteries', that is, sacraments to aid and purify the soul, to ensure her rebirth into a spiritual body, and her ascent from the world of matter
- Great secrecy is enjoined upon initiates
Mandaeans believe in marriage and procreation, and in the importance of leading a moral lifestyle in this world, placing a high priority upon family life. Mandaeans do not practice celibacy or asceticism. Mandaeans will, however, abstain from strong drink and red meat.
Mandaen holy books
The Mandaeans have a large corpus of religious scriptures, the most important of which is the Genzā Rabbā or Ginza, a collection of history, theology, and prayers. One of the other chief works of Mandaean scripture, accessible to laymen and initiates alike, is the sidra ḏ-iahia, the book of John the Baptist, which includes a dialogue between John and Jesus. In addition to these works, there are also religious texts which are accessible only to the priests. The language in which the Mandaean religious literature was originally composed is known as Mandaic, and is a member of the Aramaic family of dialects. It is written in a cursive variant of the Parthian chancery script.
John the Baptist (Mandaic iahia iuhana) is recognized by the Mandaeans as a major prophet. There exists a widespread but erroneous belief that the Mandaeans consider John the Baptist to be the founder of their religion, analogous to Jesus within Christianity. In fact, they maintain that he was merely one of their greatest teachers - according to their beliefs, Mandaeism was the original religion of Adam. In Mandaeism, it is believed that John the Baptist was killed by an angel.
Mandaeans maintain that Jesus was a mšiha kdaba (false prophet) who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John. Likewise, the Mandaeans believe that Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad were false prophets, but recognize other prophetic figures such as Nuh (Noah), his son Sam (Shem), and his son Ram (Aram), and consider the latter three to be their direct ancestors, in addition to Adam, his sons Hibil (Abel) and Šitil (Seth), and his grandson Anuš (Enosh).
Priests and laity
There is a strict division between Mandaean laity and the priests. According to E.S. Drower
- Those amongst the community who possess secret knowledge are called Nazuraiia - Nazoreans. 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 'Naziruta', is reserved for a very few. Those possessed of its secrets may call themselves Nazoreans, and 'Nazorean' today indicates not only one who observes strictly all rules of ritual purity, but one who understands the secret doctrine.
There are three grades of priesthood in Mandaeism: the tarmidia or "disciples", the ganzibria or "treasurers," and the rišamma or "leader of the people". This last office, the highest level of the Mandaean priesthood, has lain vacant for many years.