23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Mandaeans (from Aramaic “manda” which means “knowledge”, as in the Greek word “gnosis”) is one of the two (Yezidism is the second) currently existing Gnostic religions.

These are religious movements of late antiquity based on the Old Testament, Eastern mythology and some early Christian teachings. Most Mandaeans live in Iraq.



In the heresiological literature, there is no information about Mandaeans. Perhaps this was caused by the early separation of the doctrine, which was very different from Christianity at first. Modern Muslims call Mandaeans fans of the star cult (worship of heavenly bodies).

The first mention of the group dates back to the 8th century AD. Much later, in the middle of the 17th century, the Carmelite preacher Ignatius “exposed” this sect to the world, calling its followers “disciples of John.” Ignatius considered them Christians because they recognized the ordinance of baptism. 

It was only in the second half of the 19th century when European scientists more carefully studied the religion of Mandaeans. This is largely thanks to the works of the German Semitics scholar Mark Lidzbarski who studied the religious literature of the Mandaeans The first translations of their writings appeared in 1915 and 1925. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, new publications were created. The works were translated from the Aramaic dialect. The writings first appeared in the sixth and seventh centuries, long before the manuscripts dated to the sixteenth.

The main writings are Sidra Rabba (the big book) or Ginza (treasure)—a treatise about the contradictions of the creation of the world; Sidra d’Yahya (The Mandaean Book of John) about the acts of John the Baptist, criticizing Christ; Colaste—a set of liturgies (prayers and hymns); Sfar Malvasia (The Book of the Zodiac)—an overview of horoscopes and means of magic— and the Baptism of Hibil Ziwa—a story about the purification of the heavenly saviour of Mandaeans. There are other works including Simurg and Himriz Shah and The Book of Adam.   

 Oral and written speech

The sacred texts of the Mandaean teaching are written in one of the dialects of the Aramaic language—the Mandaean language. These days people speak new-Mandaean. The Mandaean script is used for both of these languages. This script probably appeared between the period from the 2nd to the 7th centuries, from the cursive form of Aramaic writing or the Parthian stationery script.


According to the doctrine of Mandaeans, the “Great Life” is the main deity. Aeons came from it (Jordan is a symbol of emanation, origin), which were biblical forefathers and prophets. John, the son of Zechariah, is considered the last of them. Mandaeans believe that Jesus Christ and Muhammad were false prophets. They honour Adam, Abel, Enoch, Aram, Seth, and Shem, but deny Moses and Abraham.

Mandaeans perform sacred ablutions and hold ceremonial meals. Scholars believe that this religion originated as a result of the unification of the Gnostic sects of Babylonia and groups of followers of John the Baptist, who left Judea and settled in the Middle East.

The German scholars Bultmann and Reitzenstein promoted the theory that in the writings of Mandaeans there is a Gnostic pre-Christian myth about “the Savior”, which influenced the theology of the Gospel of John.

But Litzman, Gogel and other opponents of this opinion believed that at the time of the birth of Christianity, the Mandaean religion had not yet been formed.

The Mandaeans baptize the dead.

The appearance of Mandaeans is also associated with the Judeo-Christian sect—Elcesaites. The prophet Mani, who founded Manichaeism, came from this group.

Elcesaites inhabiting Assyria and Judea were similar to the Judaising Ebionites, who, like the Mandaeans, recognized the rite of water baptism and dressed in white. The Arab writer Ibn al-Nadim related information about the Mesopotamian religious group of Sabians. Probably, this was concerning Elcesaites, followers of Alchasaios, a preacher from Parthia (in ancient times, a territory located to the south-east of the Caspian Sea).

Basic principles of the doctrine

  1. The formless Devine Principle (the first principle of the world, the first principle of everything) is the source of all spiritual, incorporeal, physical worlds and beings. Creators who emerged from the Devine Principle became authors. The universe is a semblance of the Eternal Man (in Kabbalah, the name of the first and highest of the five spiritual worlds created after the First Reduction, as a system for correcting Creation), reflecting its shape and structure.
  2. Everything in the universe exists thanks to Duality: Light and Darkness, physical and spiritual, cosmic Father and Mother, etc.
  3. The world of prototypes (mental prototypes of any action, object, phenomenon) is opposed to the material world.
  4. The soul is in captivity of the material world, but it seeks to return to the Devine Principle.
  5. The fate of humans and the afterlife is influenced by celestial bodies.
  6. The Spirit of the Savior protects the soul during life and death and leads it to the Worlds of Light.
  7. The language of the cult is important, including symbol and metaphor. Thoughts and properties are personified (a recognition of natural phenomena, forces, objects, abstract concepts of human qualities).
  8. With the help of Holy Communion, one can purify the soul, revive spirituality and rise above the material world. Orthodox rituals are the interpretation and repetition of the creation of the world, in particular Eternal Man, acting as the Priest-King.
  9. The great mystery mentioned in paragraphs 1, 2 and 8 can be comprehended exclusively by enlightened people, only they can understand and preserve the True Knowledge.

Mandaeans and society

Mandaeans call themselves “sabba” (“baptized”). In Iraq, this name is confused with “Sabians”, adherents of one of the three monotheistic religions (along with Christianity and Judaism), which are recognized by the Koran.  In this regard, Muslims, considering themselves monotheists, do not persecute the sectarians. In some cases, Mandaeans are called Nazarites, although they only use the word to refer to especially pious people.

 Previously, Mandaeans inhabited mainly southern Iraq. For centuries, despite wars and various political events, the adherents of this religion have preserved their communities in the Middle East. However, as of 2010, as a result of cruel religious persecution, their number decreased to as few as seven thousand believers.