Mandaeans

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Mandaeans

Mandaeans or Mandeans (măn´dēənz), a small religious sect who maintain an ancient belief resembling that of Gnosticism and that of the Parsis. They are also known as Christians of St. John, Nasoraeans, Sabians, and Subbi. There are about 60,000 Mandaeans worldwide, most now in Jordan and Syria (having fled there from Iraq), some near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq, others in the area of Shushtar, Iran, and in cities of Asia Minor; emigration has led also to communities in Sweden, Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Their customs and writings indicate early Christian, perhaps pre-Christian, origin. Their system of astrology resembles those of ancient Babylonia and the cults of the Magi in the last centuries BC Their emanation system and their dualism suggest a Gnostic origin, but unlike the Gnostics, they abhor asceticism and emphasize fertility. Although some of their practices were influenced by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, they reject all three. The Mandaeans respect St. John the Baptist because of his baptizing, since their principal concern is ritual cleanliness and their chief rite is frequent baptism. The custom, which antedated the baptisms of St. John, stems from the belief that living water is the principle of life. They have a communion sacrament, which is offered for the remembrance of the dead and resembles Parsi ritual meals. Their chief holy book, the Ginza Rba, like their other books, is a compendium of cosmology, cosmogony, prayers, legends, and rituals, written at various times and often contradictory.

The origin of the Mandaeans is not known; it is conjectured that they came from a mountainous region N of Babylonia and Persia, where they settled in ancient times; however, more recent scholarship places their origin in Palestine or Syria. The sect is diminishing because younger members tend to apostatize, and because Mandaeans do not practice conversion. They have been discriminated against in Iran under the Islamic republic and have been persecuted in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

See S. A. F. D. Pallis, Mandaean Studies (rev. ed. 1926); Lady Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (1937, repr. 1962) and Secret Adam: A study of Nasorean Gnosis (1960); E. M. Yamauchi, Gnostic Ethics and Mandaean Origins (1970).

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