Posted by on July 05, 2012 in Blog

By Taif Jany

2012 Summer Intern

One of the Middle East’s most extraordinary characteristics is its religious diversity. It is the cradle for many of today’s major religions. Religions in the Arabic-speaking world are not only sets of rules governing what people do; they constitute societies and cultures in which people are bonded together. It is commonly known that Islam is the dominant religion in the region, but the Middle East embraces about 12 more vibrant religions, one of which is called Mandaeism.

The Mandaeans

Mandaeism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world; its history goes back to the time of the Pharaohs. Mandaeans, also known as Sabians, are commonly and mistakenly referred to as the followers of John the Baptist, while they are in actuality distinct from Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Mandaeans follows several prophets: Adam, Sheetel (the son of Adam), Sam (Noah’s son), and John the Baptist (Yuhana). Mandaeans consider themselves the true children of Adam.

Mandaeans fled from the Jordan Valley in approximately 70 A.D. and settled in what is now southern Iraq near by the Tigris and the Euphrates, the two major rivers in Iraq, and in south Western Iran in Khuzestan near by the Quran River.

The population of the Mandaeans has been declining enormously, partly because of disease (especially the Cholera epidemic of the early 1800’s) and persecution. Nowadays there are around 60,000-70,000 Mandaeans worldwide, and 5,000-10,000 of them are concentrated in Khuzestan, Iran. After the 2003 Iraq War, many Mandaeans fled the country to the West. Mandaeans are currently found in large communities in Holland, Sweden, Australia, and to a lesser extent, in the United States.

One of the most important tenets of the Mandaean religion is Baptism. According to the Mandaeans, the soul is connected to the world of light and Baptism serves both as a connection to this world and as a means of purification. Baptizing must be done in running water, because Mandaeans believe that running water is the source of life. Mandaeans can get baptized as many times as they want and they can do it whenever they want, because it is an extremely important ritual in the Mandaean religion.

The place of worship for Mandaeans is called a Mandi and it is usually built close to the rivers and natural sources of running water for baptizing purposes. But recently, Mandaeans started to build indoor baths, where the water comes directly from the rivers (although it is forbidden by the Mandaean religion to do so), both for safety reasons and to avoid discrimination. Nowadays, there is only one Mandi in Baghdad, Iraq, and another one in Khuzestan, Iran.

The Mandaeans’ native language is called Mandaic, which is a dialect of Aramaic. But because of the pressures of cultural homogenization, the number of the Mandaeans native speakers has declined severely. Nowadays, Mandaeans generally speak only Arabic, or Farsi in Iran.

Mandaeans have a holy book called the Ginza Rabba (the great treasure), and it was originally written in Mandaic, but it was forced to be translated into Arabic, English, and German, although it is forbidden by the Mandaean religion to translate the Ginza into any other language. The Ginza is separated into two sections, a Right (GR), and a Left (GL). The GL part is written in a poetic form, and it deals largely with the soul’s connection with the world of light. While the GR part is a collection of histories, theologies, and prayers.

Before and After the Islamic Revolution 1979

The Mandaeans situation in Iran was positive until the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The government was secular, which gave the Mandaeans a chance to stand and prove themselves in the society as a recognized and a protected religious minority. Mandaeans had many opportunities to study in colleges which satisfied their curiosity for seeking better education. They had all legal rights that any other religious minorities had at that time. After the overthrow of the Shah and the start of the Iranian Islamic Republic, the Mandaeans’ status started to take another direction. Mandaeans started to be discriminated against and excluded from the society. They lost all of their legal rights, and now they are considered an “unofficial” religious minority. In spite all of the attempts Mandaeans leaders made in order to reclaim some of their legal rights, the Iranian authorities insisted on not recognizing the Mandaeans.    

Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988)

The eight years of this war affected the Mandaean community in Iran tremendously. Mandaeans usually straddle the borders between southern Iraq and southwestern Iran; so many Mandaean families were separated from each other between those two countries after the war, which brought ruin to both Iran and Iraq, but in particular to the communities living in the south of both countries. During the war, many Mandaean men were forced to join the Iranian military forces, even though the Mandaean religion strictly forbids carrying weapons. A lot of these men either got killed, or never returned back to their home countries. The back and forth battles of the Shaat-al-Arab waterway, which took place on the southern borders between Iran and Iraq, brought enormous devastation to that region and to the communities who lived there, especially the marsh Arabs, and the Mandaeans.

Mandaeans Today

Due to years of political and religious persecution, Mandaeans find themselves often muted from the political scene. Today’s Mandaean community is both small and scattered around the world. Thus, it is extremely difficult for Mandaeans to have a strong political presence and activism. However, few are attempting to bring the religion back to life and assist Mandaeans to become more recognized around the world, including a surprisingly active community here in North America. One of today’s most active Mandaean organizations is the Mandaean Association Union, which has its headquarters in Toronto, Canada and has satellites offices in New York.