Mandaeans were possibly the earliest to practice baptism and may have originated Gnosticism.[1][2]: 109  Today, they are the last surviving Gnostics from antiquity.[1] The Mandaeans were originally native speakers of Mandaic, an Eastern Aramaic language, before many switched to colloquial Iraqi Arabic and Modern Persian, although being neither Arab nor Persian.

The Genesis Apocryphon, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls


There are several indications of the ultimate origin of the Mandaeans. Early religious concepts and terminologies recur in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Yardena (Jordan) has been the name of every baptismal water in Mandaeism.[3] One of the names for the Mandaean God Hayyi Rabbi, Mara d-Rabuta (Lord of Greatness) is found in the Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20) II, 4.[4]: 552–553  They formally refer to themselves as Naṣuraiia (Classical Mandaic: ࡍࡀࡑࡅࡓࡀࡉࡉࡀ, lit.'Nasoraeans') meaning guardians or possessors of secret rites and knowledge.[5][6] Another early self-appellation is bhiri zidqa meaning 'elect of righteousness' or 'the chosen righteous', a term found in the Book of Enoch and Genesis Apocryphon.[4]: 552–553 [5][7]: 18 [8] As Nasoraeans, Mandaeans believe that they constitute the true congregation of bnai nhura meaning 'Sons of Light', a term used by the Essenes.[9]: 50 [10] The beit manda (beth manda) is described as biniana rab ḏ-srara ("the Great building of Truth") and bit tuslima ("house of Perfection") in Mandaean texts such as the Qolasta, Ginza Rabba, and the Book of John. The only known literary parallels are in Essene texts from Qumran such as the Community Rule, which has similar phrases such as the "house of Perfection and Truth in Israel" (Community Rule 1QS VIII 9) and "house of Truth in Israel."[11]

The Damascus Document, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Mandaic language is a dialect of southeastern Aramaic with Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin,[12][13] as well as Akkadian[14] and Parthian[15] influences and is closely related to Syriac and especially Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.[16] Mandaic is mainly preserved as a liturgical language.

A priest holds the title of Rabbi[17] and a place of worship is called a Mashkhanna.[18] According to Mandaean sources such as the Haran Gawaita, the Nasuraiia inhabited the areas around Jerusalem and the River Jordan in the 1st century CE.[2][6] There is archaeological evidence that attests to the Mandaean presence in pre-Islamic Iraq.[19]: 4 [20] Scholars, including Kurt Rudolph, connect the early Mandaeans with the Jewish sect of the Nasoraeans, however Mandaeans believe their religion predates Judaism and that the Israelites descend from Mandaeans.[21][20][2][22][23] Gilles Quispel finds parallels between Mandaean names for divinities and names found in some Hellenistic magical papyri pointing to Mandaean ancient western roots.[7]: 21 [24] James F. McGrath believes the following Mandaean names to be of ancient Israelite origin: Yushamin, Yurba, Yukabar, Yusmir, Yuzataq, Ruha d-Qudsha, Taureil, Ptahil, Anath-Hayyi.[25] Mandaean scripture affirms that the Mandaeans descend directly from Shem, Noah's son, in Mesopotamia[21]: 186  and also from John the Baptizer's original Nasoraean Mandaean disciples in Jerusalem.[6]: vi, ix  Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was almost certainly influenced by the Mandaeans and the pre-Manichaean presence of the Mandaean religion is more than likely.[26]

Jorunn J. Buckley, who is one of the world's leading specialists on Mandaeism, maintains that the Mandaeans originated about two thousand years ago in Palestine/Judea and moved east due to persecution.[27] Buckley argues for Mandaeism's Israelite or Judean origins, placing Mandaeism (Nasoraeanism) alongside Judaism and Samaritanism as a religion with Israelite roots surviving to this day.[2]: 97 

Brikha Nasoraia, a Mandaean priest and scholar, accepts a two-origin theory in which he considers the contemporary Mandaeans to have descended from both a line of Mandaeans who had originated from the Jordan Valley of Palestine/Judea, as well as another group of Mandaeans (or Gnostics) who were indigenous to southern Mesopotamia. Thus, the historical merging of the two groups gave rise to the Mandaeans of today.[28]: 55  On the other hand, Gelbert argues that Mandaeans had formed a vibrant community in Edessa during the Late Antique period.[29]

River Jordan
Tarmida Sahi states that Mandaeism began in Mesopotamia with Adam but Mandaeans and converts to Mandaeism existed in Palestine/Jordan Valley during the time of John the Baptizer. He adds that these Mandaeans later migrated to Mesopotamia and that the Ginza Rabba, Niana, The Thousand and Twelve Questions, The Baptism of Hibil Ziwa, Book of Souls (Sidra ḏ-Nišmata) in the Qolasta, and Book of John all provide evidence for this.[30]

Gerard Russell quotes Rish amma Sattar Jabbar Hilo, "Ours is the oldest religion in the world. It dates back to Adam." Russell adds, "He [Rishama Sattar Jabbar Hilo] traced its history back to Babylon, though he said it might have some connection to the Jews of Jerusalem."[31] The Mandaean Synod of Australia lead by Rish amma Salah Choheili states:

Mandaeans are followers of John the Baptist. Their ancestors fled from the Jordan Valley about 2000 years ago and ultimately settled along the lower reaches of the Tigris, Euphrates and Karun Rivers in what is now Iraq and Iran. Baptism is the principal ceremony of the Mandaean religion and may only take place in a freshwater river.[32]

Early Persian periods

Kartir's inscription at Ka'ba-ye Zartosht claimed that he "struck down" the non-Zoroastrian minorities, such as the Mandaeans

A number of ancient Aramaic inscriptions dating back to the 2nd century CE were uncovered in Elymais. Although the letters appear quite similar to the Mandaean ones, it is impossible to know whether the inhabitants of Elymais were Mandaeans.[33]: 4  Rudolf Macúch believes Mandaean letters predate Elymaic ones.[33]: 4  Under Parthian and early Sasanian rule, foreign religions were tolerated and Mandaeans appear to have enjoyed royal protection.[33]: 4  The situation changed by the ascension of Bahram I in 273, who under the influence of the zealous Zoroastrian high priest Kartir persecuted all non-Zoroastrian religions. It is thought that this persecution encouraged the consolidation of Mandaean religious literature.[33]: 4  The persecutions instigated by Kartir seems to temporarily erase Mandaeans from recorded history. Their presence, however can still be found in Mandaean magical bowls and lead strips which were produced from the 2nd or 3rd to the 7th centuries.[33]: 4 [34]

Islamic Caliphates

Pages from Thābit ibn Qurra's Arabic translation of Apollonius' Conics

The Mandaeans re-emerged at the beginning of the Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia, when their leader, Anush bar Danqa, appeared before Muslim authorities in c. 640 CE (Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas)[35]: 164 showing them a copy of the Ginza Rabba, the Mandaean holy book, and proclaiming the chief Mandaean prophet to be John the Baptizer, who is also mentioned in the Quran by the name Yahya ibn Zakariya. Consequently, the Muslim caliphates provided them acknowledgement as the Quranic Sabians, who are People of the Book, people who followed a legal minority religion under Islamic rule.[36]: IX [33]: 5  Mandaeans appeared to have flourished during the early Islamic period, as attested by the voluminous expansion of Mandaic literature and canons. Tib near Wasit is particularly noted as an important scribal center.[33]: 5  Yaqut al-Hamawi describes Tib as a town inhabited by Nabatean (i.e. Aramaic speaking) Sabians who consider themselves to be descendants of Seth.[33]: 5 

The status of the Mandaeans became an issue for the Abbasid caliph al-Qahir Billah even though they had received recognition as People of the Book. To avoid further investigation by the authorities, the Mandaeans paid a bribe of 50,000 dinars and were left alone. It appeared that the Mandaeans were even exempt from paying the Jizya, otherwise imposed upon non-Muslims.[33]: 5 

The Sabian-Mandaeans played a vital role in Baghdad and in the rest of the Arab world during the Abbasid caliphate; serving as great scholars and a source of science as well as shaping intellectual life and were likely part of the Sabians in Harran. The most prominent of the Sabian-Mandaeans was Thābit ibn Qurra (Thebit), but there were others as well such as Abu Is'haq Al-Sabi'.[9]: 39 [36]: 111  Drower names other famous Sabian-Mandaean scholars and physicians such as Abu'l-Fath Al-Mandāi (i.e. 'the Mandaean'), Ibrahim ibn Zahrūn Al-Harrani and Hilal ibn Ibrahim ibn Zahrūn Al-Sābi Al-Harrani (Zahrūn is a favoured Mandaean name).[36]: 112  Maʿrūf al-Karkhi and Abu al-Fatḥ al-Wāṣiṭi are believed to have Sabian-Mandaean origins.[37]: 401  Jabir ibn Hayyan and Al-Battani are also mentioned to be originally Sabians from Harran and may have been Sabian-Mandaeans.[38]: 95 [39]: 233 [40][41]: 317 [42]

Late Persian and Ottoman periods

Early contact with Europeans came about in the mid-16th century, when Portuguese missionaries encountered Mandaeans in Southern Iraq and controversially designated them "Christians of St. John". In the next centuries Europeans became more acquainted with the Mandaeans and their religion.[33]: 5 

The Mandaeans suffered persecution under the Qajar rule in the 1780s. The dwindling community was threatened with complete annihilation, when a cholera epidemic broke out in Shushtar and half of its inhabitants died. The entire Mandaean priesthood perished and Mandaeism was restored due to the efforts of few learned men such as Yahya Bihram.[33]: 6  Another danger threatened the community in 1870, when the local governor of Shushtar massacred the Mandaeans against the will of the Shah.[33]: 6 

Modern Iraq and Iran

Mandaean silversmith at work in Baghdad, Iraq, 1932

Following the First World War, the Mandaeans were still largely living in rural areas in the lower parts of British protected Iraq and Iran. Owing to the rise of Arab nationalism, Iraqi Mandaeans were Arabised at an accelerated rate, especially during the 1950s and '60s. The Mandaeans were also forced to abandon their stances on the cutting of hair and forced military service, which are strictly prohibited in Mandaeaism.[43]

The 2003 Iraq War brought more troubles to the Mandaeans, as the security situation deteriorated. Many members of the Mandaean community, who were known as goldsmiths, were targeted by criminal gangs for ransoms. The rise of Islamic extremism forced thousands to flee the country, after they were given the choice of conversion or death.[44] It is estimated that around 90% of Iraqi Mandaeans were either killed or have fled due to the war.[44]

The Mandaeans of Iran lived chiefly in Ahvaz, Khuzestan, but have moved as a result of the Iran–Iraq War to other cities such as Tehran, Karaj and Shiraz. The Mandaeans, who were traditionally considered as People of the Book (members of a protected religion under Islamic rule), lost this status after 1979. However, despite this, Iranian Mandaeans still maintain successful businesses and factories in areas such as Ahwaz. In April 1996, the cause of the Mandaeans' religious status in the Islamic Republic was raised. The parliament came to the conclusion that Sabians were included in the protected status of People of the Book alongside Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians and specified that, from a legal viewpoint, there is no prohibition against Muslims associating with Mandaeans, who are identified as being the Sabians mentioned explicitly in the Quran. That same year, Ayatollah Sajjadi of Al-Zahra University in Qom posed three questions regarding the Mandaeans' beliefs and seemed satisfied with the answers. These rulings, however did not lead to Mandaeans regaining their more officially recognized status as People of the Book.[45] In 2009, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwā recognizing the Mandaeans as the Sabians (Sabeans) of the Qur'an and People of the Book (ahl-il-kitāb).[46][note 1] However, the Iranian constitution has not been amended to reflect this.


  1. The Mandaeans are recognized as Sabians (Sabeans) in the Iraqi constitution[47] and also recognized in Iran in the following fatwā numbered (S 322) in Persian and (Q 321) in the English translation:

    س 322. تعداد زیادی از مردم در خوزستان زندگی می کنند که خود را «صابئه» می نامند و ادعای پیروی از پیامبر خدا حضرت یحیی(ع) را دارند و می گویند کتاب او نزد ما موجود است. نزد علمای ادیان ثابت شده که آن ها همان صابئون هستند که در قرآن آمده است. لطفاً بیان فرمایید که این گروه از اهل کتاب هستند یا خیر؟
    ج. گروه مذکور در حکم اهل کتاب هستند.[48]

    Translation of the Persian original:
    S 322. There are a large number of people living in Khuzestan who call themselves Ṣābiʼah and who claim to follow God's holy Prophet Yahya (a.s.) and say that his book is available to us. According to religious scholars, it has been proven that they are the Sabeans mentioned in the Qur'an. Please state whether this group is from people of the book or not?
    J: The mentioned group are people of the book.

    Official English translation:
    Q 321: There live a large number of people in Khuzestan who call themselves Sabeans and claim that they are the followers of Prophet John [Yaḥyā] (a.s.) and that they possess his scripture. It has also been established for the religious scholars that they are the Sabeans mentioned in the Qur’an. Please explain whether they are among the People of the Book.

    A: The rule of the People of the Book is applicable to this group.[49]

    Fatwā S 316 (or Q 315 in English) also discusses the Sabeans of the Qur'an:

    س 316: مقصود از اهل کتاب چه کسانى است؟ معيارى که حدود معاشرت با آنها را مشخص کند چيست؟

    ج: مقصود از اهل کتاب هر کسى است که اعتقاد به يکى از اديان الهى داشته و خود را از پيروان پيامبرى از پيامبران الهى(على نبينا وآله وعليهم‌السلام) بداند و يکى از کتاب‏هاى الهى را که بر انبياء عليهم السلام نازل شده، داشته [48]باشند مانند يهود، نصارى، زرتشتى‏ها و همچنين صابئين که بر اساس تحقيقات ما از اهل کتاب هستند و حکم آنها را دارند. معاشرت با پيروان اين اديان با رعايت ضوابط و اخلاق اسلامى اشکال ندارد.

    Q 315: What are the religions whose followers are considered the People of the Book? What is the criterion for defining the limits of social relations with them?

    A: By the People of the Book is meant all those who profess a divine religion and consider themselves the followers of one of the prophets of Allah, the Glorious and the Exalted (may peace be upon our Prophet and his progeny and upon them) and who possess a heavenly scripture from those revealed to the Prophets (a.), such as the Jews, the Christians, the Zoroastrians and similarly the Sabeans who, on the basis of our research, are among the People of the Book. Therefore, the rule of the People of the Book applies to the followers of these religions, and there is no objection to associating with them socially, while observing Islamic laws and morals.[49]


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