Ginza Rabba, the longest of the many holy scriptures of Mandaeism
ScriptureGinza Rabba, Qolasta, Book of John (see more)
High Priest
(Rish amma / Ganzibra)
Sattar Jabbar Hilo-Iraq[2]
Salah Chohaili-Australia[3]
Najah Chohaili-Iran[4]
Salwan Alkhamas-Sweden[5]
(Rabbi) Rafid Alsabti-Netherlands[6]: 4 
RegionIraq, Iran and diaspora communities
LanguageMandaic language[7]
Mesopotamia (as descendants of Shem, Noah's son)[8]: 186  and Palestine/Judea (as descendants of the disciples of John the Baptizer in the 1st Century CE)[9][10]
Membersc. 60,000[11] – 100,000[12][13]
Other name(s)Sabianism, Nasoraeanism
Mandaic incantation bowl from Southern Mesopotamia c. 200–600 CE – Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada

Mandaeism (mandāyutā; Arabic: مَنْدَائِيَّة Mandāʾīya), also known as Sabianism (Arabic: صَابِئِيَّة Ṣābiʾīyah) and Nasoraeanism (Arabic: الناصورائية Nāṣurā'iyah), is a Gnostic, monotheistic and ethnic religion.[1]: 4 [14]: 1  Its adherents, the Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Aram, and especially John the Baptizer. Mandaeans consider Adam, Seth, Enoch, Shem and John the Baptizer prophets with Adam being the founder or first teacher of the religion and John being the greatest and final prophet.[15]: 45 [16] The Mandaeans speak an Eastern Aramaic language known as Mandaic. The name 'Mandaean' comes from the Aramaic manda, meaning knowledge.[17][18] Within the Middle East, but outside their community, the Mandaeans are more commonly known as the Arabic: صُبَّة Ṣubba (singular: Ṣubbī) or Sabians. The term Ṣubba is derived from the Aramaic root related to baptism, the neo-Mandaic is Ṣabi.[19] In the Quran, the Sabians (Arabic: الصَّابِئُون, aṣ-Ṣābiʾūn) are mentioned three times, alongside Jews and Christians as People of the Book.[20]

According to Jorunn J. Buckley and other scholars who specialize in Mandaeism, Mandaeans originated about two thousand years ago in Palestine/Judea and subsequently moved east due to persecution.[9][21][22][10] However, some scholars take the view that Mandaeism is older and dates back to pre-Christian times.[23] Mandaeans assert that their religion predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a monotheistic faith.[24] Mandaeans believe that they are the direct descendants of Shem, Noah's son, in Mesopotamia[8]: 186  and they also believe that they are the direct descendants of John the Baptizer's original Nasoraean Mandaean disciples in Jerusalem.[25]: vi, ix  Mandaeans do not believe in a Messiah or earthly redeemer.[15]: 30 

The core doctrine of the faith is known as Nāṣerutā (also spelled Naṣirutha) meaning Nasoraean gnosis or divine wisdom and enlightenment.[26]: xvi [15]: 31 [27]: 306  The adherents of Nasoraeanism (or Nazorenism) are called nāṣorāyi (Nasoraeans or Nazorenes). These Nasoraeans are divided into tarmidutā (priesthood) and mandāyutā (laity), the latter derived from their term for knowledge manda.[28]: ix [26] Knowledge (manda) is also the source for the term Mandaeism which encompasses their entire culture, rituals, beliefs and faith associated with the doctrine of Nāṣerutā. Followers of Mandaeism are called Mandaeans, but can also be called Nasoraeans (Nazorenes), Gnostics (utilizing the Greek word gnosis for knowledge) or Sabians.[28]: ix [26]

The religion has primarily been practiced around the lower Karun, Euphrates and Tigris, and the rivers that surround the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, part of southern Iraq and Khuzestan Province in Iran. Worldwide, there are believed to be between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans.[12] Until the Iraq War, almost all of them lived in Iraq.[29] Many Mandaean Iraqis have since fled their country due to the rise in sectarian violence by extremists.[30] By 2007, the population of Mandaeans in Iraq had fallen to approximately 5,000.[29]

The Mandaeans have remained separate and intensely private. Reports of them and of their religion have come primarily from outsiders: particularly from Julius Heinrich Petermann, an Orientalist;[31] as well as from Nicolas Siouffi, a Syrian Christian who was the French vice-consul in Mosul in 1887,[32]: 12 [33] and British cultural anthropologist Lady E. S. Drower. There is an early if highly prejudiced account by the French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier[34] from the 1650s.


The term Mandaic or Mandaeism comes from Classical Mandaic Mandaiia and appears in Neo-Mandaic as Mandeyānā. On the basis of cognates in other Aramaic dialects, semiticists such as Mark Lidzbarski and Rudolf Macúch have translated the term manda, from which Mandaiia derives, as "knowledge" (cf. Aramaic: מַנְדַּע manda' in Daniel 2:21, 4:31, 33, 5:12; cf. Hebrew: madda', with characteristic assimilation of /n/ to the following consonant, medial -nd- hence becoming -dd-).[35] This etymology suggests that the Mandaeans may well be the only sect surviving from late antiquity to identify themselves explicitly as Gnostics.[36]

Brikha Nasoraia defines Mandaeism as Mandaiutha (mandāyutā) or Gnosticism.[27]: 318 


An 18th-century Scroll of Abatur in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

According to the Mandaean text the Haran Gawaita, the Nasoraean Mandaeans, who were disciples of John the Baptizer, left Judea/Palestine and migrated to Media in the 1st century CE.[10][25]: vi, ix  The reason given for this was their persecution in Jerusalem. The emigrants went first to Haran (probably Harran in modern-day Turkey), or Hauran and then the Median hills in Iran, before finally settling in the southern provinces of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).[21] During Parthian rule, Mandaeans flourished under royal protection. This protection, however, did not last with the Sassanid Bahram I ascending to the throne and his high priest Kartir persecuting all non-Zoroastrian religions.[21]: 4 

At the beginning of the Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia, the leader of the Mandaeans, Anush bar Danqa, appeared before Muslim authorities c. 640 CE (Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas)[37]: 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 as Yahya Bin Zakariya. This identified Mandaeans with the Sabians who are mentioned in the Quran as being counted among the Ahl al-Kitāb (People of the Book). Hence, Mandaeism was recognized as a legal minority religion within the Muslim Empire. The importance of baptism in their rituals is particularly marked. Mandaeans continue to be identified with the Quranic Sabians to this day.[1][26]: IX 

Around 1290, a Dominican Catholic from Tuscany, Ricoldo da Montecroce, or Ricoldo Pennini, was in Mesopotamia where he met the Mandaeans. He described them as believing in a secret law of God recorded in alluring texts, despising circumcision, venerating John the Baptizer above all and washing repeatedly to avoid condemnation by God.[32]: 65 

Mandaeans were controversially designated as "Christians of Saint John" by members of the Discalced Carmelite mission in Basra during the 16th and 17th centuries, based on reports from missionaries such as Ignatius of Jesus.[20] Some Portuguese Jesuits had also met some "Saint John Christians" around the Strait of Hormuz in 1559, when the Portuguese fleet fought with the Ottoman Turkish army in Bahrain.[32]: 69, 87 


Mandaeism, as the religion of the Mandaean people, is based on a set of religious creeds and doctrines. The corpus of Mandaean literature is quite large, and covers topics such as eschatology, the knowledge of God, and the afterlife.[38]

According to Brikha Nasoraia:

The Mandaeans see themselves as healers of the "Worlds and Generations" (Almia u-Daria), and practitioners of the religion of Mind (Mana), Light (Nhura), Truth (Kušța), Love (Rahma/Ruhma) and Enlightenment or Knowledge (Manda).[15]: 28 

Principal beliefs

  1. Recognition of one God known as Hayyi Rabbi, meaning The Great Life or The Great Living (God), whose symbol is Living Water (Yardena). It is therefore necessary for Mandaeans to live near rivers. God personifies the sustaining and creative force of the universe.[39]
  2. Power of Light, which is vivifying and personified by Malka d-Nhura ('King of Light'), another name for Hayyi Rabbi, and the uthras (angels or guardians) that provide health, strength, virtue and justice. The Drabsha is viewed as the symbol of Light.[39]
  3. Immortality of the soul; the fate of the soul is the main concern with the belief in the next life, where there is reward and punishment. There is no eternal punishment since God is merciful.[39]

Fundamental tenets

According to E. S. Drower, the Mandaean Gnosis is characterized by nine features, which appear in various forms in other gnostic sects:[26]: xvi 

  1. A supreme formless Entity, the expression of which in time and space is a creation of spiritual, etheric, and material worlds and beings. Production of these is delegated by It to a creator or creators who originated It. The cosmos is created by Archetypal Man, who produces it in similitude to his own shape.
  2. Dualism: a cosmic Mother and Father, Light and Darkness, Left and Right, syzygy in cosmic and microcosmic form.
  3. As a feature of this dualism, counter-types (dmuta) that exist in a world of ideas (Mshunia Kushta).
  4. The soul is portrayed as an exile, a captive; his home and origin being the supreme Entity to which he eventually returns.
  5. Planets and stars influence fate and human beings, and are also the places of detention after death.
  6. A savior spirit or savior spirits which assist the soul on his journey through life and after it to 'worlds of light'.
  7. A cult-language of symbol and metaphor. Ideas and qualities are personified.
  8. 'Mysteries', i.e. sacraments to aid and purify the soul, to ensure its rebirth into a spiritual body, and its ascent from the world of matter. These are often adaptations of existing seasonal and traditional rites to which an esoteric interpretation is attached. In the case of the Naṣoraeans, this interpretation is based on the Creation story (see 1 and 2), especially on the Divine Man, Adam, as crowned and anointed King-priest.
  9. Great secrecy is enjoined upon initiates; full explanation of 1, 2, and 8 being reserved for those considered able to understand and preserve the gnosis.


Mandaeism prohibits suicide, ending life, abortion, torture, self mutilation including circumcision, divorce (except in special circumstances), consuming dead animals and blood, weeping for the dead, usury, drinking alcohol, sorcery and witchcraft, worshipping desires, bearing false witness, dishonesty, perjury and lying, stealing, committing adultery and murder.[37]: 162 


Image of Abatur from Diwan Abatur

The religion extolls an intricate, multifaceted, esoteric, mythological, ritualistic, and exegetical tradition with the emanation model of creation being the predominant interpretation.[1]: 7, 8 

The most common name for God in Mandaeism is Hayyi Rabbi ('The Great Life' or 'The Great Living God').[40] Other names used are Mare d'Rabuta ('Lord of Greatness'), Mana Rabba ('The Great Mind'), Malka d-Nhura ('King of Light') and Hayyi Qadmaiyi ('The First Life').[8][41] Mandaeans recognize God to be the eternal, creator of all, the one and only in domination who has no partner.[37]

There are numerous uthras (angels or guardians),[1]: 8  manifested from the light, that surround and perform acts of worship to praise and honor God. Prominent amongst them include Manda d-Hayyi, who brings manda (knowledge or gnosis) to Earth,[1] and Hibil Ziwa, who conquers the World of Darkness.[14]: 206–213  Some uthras are commonly referred to as emanations and are subservient beings to 'The First Life'; their names include Second, Third, and Fourth Life (i.e. Yushamin, Abatur, and Ptahil).[42][1]: 8 

Ptahil (Classical Mandaic: ࡐࡕࡀࡄࡉࡋ), the 'Fourth Life', alone does not constitute the demiurge, but only fills that role insofar as he is seen as the creator of the material world with the help of the evil spirit Ruha. Ruha is viewed negatively as the personification of the lower, emotional, and feminine elements of the human psyche.[6]: 188  Therefore, the material world is a mixture of 'light' and 'dark'.[8][1] Ptahil is the lowest of a group of three emanations, the other two being Yushamin (Classical Mandaic: ࡉࡅࡔࡀࡌࡉࡍ, the 'Second Life' (also spelled Joshamin)) and Abatur (Classical Mandaic: ࡀࡁࡀࡕࡅࡓ), the 'Third Life'. Abatur's demiurgic role consists of weighing the souls of the dead to determine their fate. The role of Yushamin, the first emanation, is more obscure; wanting to create a world of his own, he was punished for opposing the King of Light ('The First Life'), but was ultimately forgiven.[32]: 39–40, 43 [28]

Similar to the Essenes, it is forbidden for a Mandaean to reveal the names of the angels to a gentile.[8]: 94 

Chief prophets

John the Baptist, by Titian

Mandaeans recognize several prophets. Yahia-Yuhana also known as Yuhana Maṣbana (Classical Mandaic: ࡉࡅࡄࡀࡍࡀ ࡌࡀࡑࡁࡀࡍࡀ, lit.'John the Baptizer' Iuhana Maṣbana)[43] or John the Baptist and Yuhana bar Zakria (John, son of Zechariah)[44] is accorded a special status as their greatest prophet. Mandaeans do not consider John to be the founder of their religion but they revere him as their greatest teacher who renews and reforms their ancient faith,[21]: 101 [1]: 24  since they trace their beliefs back to their first prophet Adam. John is believed to be a messenger of Light (nhura) and Truth (kushta) who possessed the power of healing and full Gnosis (manda).[15]: 48 

Mandaeans recognize prophetic figures from the Abrahamic religions, such as Adam, his sons Hibil (Abel) and Sheetil (Seth), and his grandson Anush (Enosh), as well as Dinanukht (Enoch), Nuh (Noah), Sam (Shem), and Ram (Aram), whom they consider to be their direct ancestors. Mandaeans consider Adam, Seth, Enoch, Shem and John the Baptizer to be prophets with Adam the founder or first teacher and John the greatest and final prophet.[15]: 45 [16] Mandaeans believe that Abraham and Jesus were originally Mandaean.[37]: 164 [25][21][32]: 116  Mandaeans do not believe in a Messiah or saviour figure on earth.[15]: 30  Rather, Mandaeans see the uthra Manda d-Hayyi as a source for healing and spiritual aspiration.[15]: 27 

In Mandaeism, a 'Teacher of Righteousness' is passed on through generations in 'Great Fathers' or 'Teachers' such as Adam, Seth, Enoch, Shem and John the Baptizer. This earthly 'Teacher of Righteousness' is modelled after the Devine Teacher or Mara d'Rabuta (Hayyi Rabbi). According to Brikha Nasoraia, this Mandaean figure of the 'Teacher of Righteousness' may be the same historical Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls as the leader of the Essenes. Some scholars, such as Barbara Thiering, identify the Teacher of Righteousness of the Dead Sea Scrolls with John the Baptizer.[27]: 318 [45]


Image of Abatur at the scales, from the Scroll of Abatur

The Mandaeans have a large corpus of religious scriptures, the most important of which is the Ginza Rabba or Ginza, a collection of history, theology, and prayers.[46] The Ginza Rabba is divided into two halves—the Genzā Smālā or Left Ginza, and the Genzā Yeminā or Right Ginza. By consulting the colophons in the Left Ginza, Jorunn J. Buckley has identified an uninterrupted chain of copyists to the late second or early third century.[47] The colophons attest to the existence of the Mandaeans during the late Parthian Empire.

The oldest texts are lead amulets from about the second or third century CE[48], followed by incantation bowls from about 600 CE. The important religious texts survived in manuscripts that are not older than the sixteenth century, with most coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[49]

Mandaean religious texts may have been originally orally transmitted before being written down by scribes, making dating and authorship difficult.[8]: 20 

Another important text is the Haran Gawaita, which tells the history of the Mandaeans. According to this text, a group of Nasoraeans (Mandean priests) left Judea before the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century CE, and settled within the Parthian Empire.[21]

Other important books include the Qolasta, the canonical prayerbook of the Mandaeans, which was translated by E. S. Drower.[50] One of the chief works of Mandaean scripture, accessible to laymen and initiates alike, is the Book of John, which includes a dialogue between John and Jesus. In addition to the Ginza, Qolusta, and Draša d-Yahya, there is the Scroll of Abatur, which contains a description of the 'regions' the soul ascends through, and the Book of the Zodiac (Asfar Malwāshē). Finally, there are some pre-Muslim artifacts that contain Mandaean writings and inscriptions, such as some Aramaic incantation bowls.

Mandaean ritual commentaries (esoteric exegetical literature), which are typically written in scrolls rather than codices, include:[1]

Mandaean priest reads from a religious text, Baghdad, Iraq, 2008

The language in which the Mandaean religious literature was originally composed is known as Mandaic, a member of the Aramaic group of dialects. It is written in the Mandaic script, a cursive variant of the Parthian chancellery script. Many Mandaean laypeople do not speak this language, although some members of the Mandaean community resident in Iran and Iraq continue to speak Neo-Mandaic, a modern version of this language.

If you see anyone hungry, feed him; if you see anyone thirsty, give him a drink.
— Right Ginza I.105
Give alms to the poor. When you give do not attest it. If you give with your right hand do not tell your left hand. If you give with your left hand do not tell your right hand.

Ye the chosen ones ... Do not wear iron and weapons; let your weapons be knowledge and faith in the God of the World of Light. Do not commit the crime of killing any human being.

Ye the chosen ones ... Do not rely on kings and rulers of this world, do not use soldiers and weapons or wars; do not rely on gold or silver, for they all will forsake your soul. Your souls will be nurtured by patience, love, goodness and love for Life.
— Right Ginza II.i.34[51]

Worship and rituals

Mandaean Drabsha, symbol of the Mandaean faith

The two most important ceremonies in Mandaean worship are baptism (Masbuta), and 'the ascent' (Masiqta – a mass for the dead or ascent of the soul ceremony). Baptism is not a one-off event but is performed every Sunday, the Mandaean holy day, as a ritual of purification. Baptism usually involves full immersion in flowing water, and all rivers considered fit for baptism are called Yardena (after the River Jordan). After emerging from the water, the worshipper is anointed with holy sesame oil (misha) and partakes in a communion of sacramental bread (pihta) and water. The ascent of the soul ceremony, called the masiqta, can take various forms, but usually involves a ritual meal in memory of the dead. The ceremony is believed to help the souls of the departed on their journey through purgatory to the World of Light.[52][8]

Other rituals for purification include the Rishama and the Tamasha which, unlike Masbuta, can be performed without a priest.[8] The Rishama (signing) is performed before prayers and involves washing the face and limbs while reciting specific prayers. It is performed daily, before sunrise, with hair covered and after evacuation of bowels or before religious ceremonies[39] (similar to Muslim wudu). The Tamasha is a triple immersion in the river without a requirement for a priest. It is performed by women after menstruation or childbirth, men and women after sexual activity or nocturnal emission, touching a dead corpse or any other type of defilement[39] (similar to Jewish tevilah). Ritual purification also applies to fruits, vegetables, pots, pans, utensils, animals for consumption and ceremonial garments (rasta).[39] Purification for a dying person is also performed. It includes bathing involving a threefold sprinkling of river water over the person from head to feet.[39]

Mandaean Beth Manda (Mashkhanna) in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq in 2016

A Mandaean's grave must be in the north-south direction so that if the dead Mandaean were stood upright, they would face north.[8]: 184  Similarly, Essene graves are also oriented north-south.[53] Mandaeans must face north during prayers, which are performed three times a day.[54][55][8] Daily prayer in Mandaeism is called brakha.

Zidqa (almsgiving) is also practiced in Mandaeism with Mandaean laypeople regularly offering alms to priests.

A mandī (Arabic: مندى) (beth manda) or mashkhanna[56] is a place of worship for followers of Mandaeism. A mandī must be built beside a river in order to perform maṣbuta (baptism) because water is an essential element in the Mandaean faith. Modern mandīs sometimes have a bath inside a building instead. Each mandi is adorned with a drabsha, which is a banner in the shape of a cross, made of olive wood half covered with a piece of white pure silk cloth and seven branches of myrtle (klila). The drabsha is not identified with the Christian cross. Instead, the four arms of the drabsha symbolize the four corners of the universe, while the pure silk cloth represents the Light of God.[57] The seven branches of myrtle represent the seven days of creation.[16][58]

Mandaeans believe in marriage (qabin) and procreation, placing a high priority upon family life and in the importance of leading an ethical and moral lifestyle. They are pacifist and egalitarian, with the earliest attested Mandaean scribe being a woman, Shlama Beth Qidra, who copied the Left Ginza sometime in the 2nd century CE.[1]: 4  There were female priests, such as Haiuna beth Tihwia, a renowned female ethnarch in the early Islamic period.[59] God created the human body complete, so no part of it should be removed or cut off, hence circumcision is considered bodily mutilation for Mandaeans and therefore forbidden.[60]: 18, 185 [39][8] Mandaeans abstain from strong drink and most red meat, however meat consumed by Mandaeans must be slaughtered according to the proper rituals. The approach to the slaughter of animals for consumption is always apologetic.[39] On some days, they refrain from eating meat.[6] Fasting in Mandaeism is called sauma. Mandaeans have an oral tradition that some were originally vegetarian.[26]: 32 


Ganzibra Dakheel Edan (1881–1964), High Priest of the Mandaeans
Rish amma Sattar Jabbar Hilo, current patriarch of the Mandaeans in Iraq

There is a strict division between Mandaean laity and the priests. According to E. S. Drower (The Secret Adam, p. ix):

[T]hose amongst the community who possess secret knowledge are called NaṣuraiiaNaṣoraeans (or, if the emphatic ‹ṣ› is written as ‹z›, Nazorenes). 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 Naṣiruta, is reserved for a very few. Those possessed of its secrets may call themselves Naṣoraeans, and 'Naṣoraean' today indicates not only one who observes strictly all rules of ritual purity, but one who understands the secret doctrine.[61]

There are three grades of priesthood in Mandaeism: the tarmidia (Classical Mandaic: ࡕࡀࡓࡌࡉࡃࡉࡀ) "disciples" (Neo-Mandaic tarmidānā), the ganzibria (Classical Mandaic: ࡂࡀࡍࡆࡉࡁࡓࡉࡀ) "treasurers" (from Old Persian ganza-bara "id.", Neo-Mandaic ganzeḇrānā) and the riš amma (Classical Mandaic: ࡓࡉࡔࡀࡌࡀ) "leader of the people". Ganzeḇrā, a title which appears first in a religious context in the Aramaic ritual texts from Persepolis (c. 3rd century BCE), and which may be related to the kamnaskires (Elamite <qa-ap-nu-iš-ki-ra> kapnuskir "treasurer"), title of the rulers of Elymais (modern Khuzestan) during the Hellenistic age. Traditionally, any ganzeḇrā who baptizes seven or more ganzeḇrānā may qualify for the office of riš amma. The current riš amma of the Mandaean community in Iraq is Sattar Jabbar Hilo al-Zahrony. In Australia, the Mandaean riš amma is Salah Chohaili and in Iran, the current patriarch is Ganzibra Najah Chohaili.[2][62][63][4]

The contemporary priesthood can trace its immediate origins to the first half of the 19th century. In 1831, an outbreak of cholera in Shushtar, Iran devastated the region and eliminated most, if not all, of the Mandaean religious authorities there. Two of the surviving acolytes (šgandia), Yahya Bihram and Ram Zihrun, reestablished the priesthood in Suq al-Shuyukh on the basis of their own training and the texts that were available to them.[64]

In 2009, there were two dozen Mandaean priests in the world.[65] However, according to the Mandaean Society in America, the number of priests has been growing in recent years.


Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre) by Leonardo da Vinci showing infant John the Baptizer and Jesus

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.[66]: 55 

Scholars specializing in Mandaeism such as Kurt Rudolph, Mark Lidzbarski, Rudolf Macúch, Ethel S. Drower, Eric Segelberg, James F. McGrath, Charles G. Häberl, Jorunn J. Buckley, and Şinasi Gündüz argue for a Palestinian/Judean origin. The majority of these scholars believe that the Mandaeans likely have a historical connection with John the Baptizer's inner circle of disciples.[67][68][26]: xiv [69][70]: vii, 256 [1][71][46][72][73][74] Charles Häberl, who is also a linguist specializing in Mandaic, finds Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin influence on Mandaic and accepts Mandaeans having a "shared Palestinian history with Jews".[75][76] In addition, scholars such as Richard August Reitzenstein, Rudolf Bultmann, G. R. S. Mead, Andrew Phillip Smith, Samuel Zinner, Richard Thomas, J. C. Reeves, G. Quispel and K. Beyer also argue for a Judea/Palestine or Jordan Valley origin for the Mandaeans.[77]: 78 [78][60][79][80][81][82][83] Torgny Säve-Söderberg discovered considerable word-for-word reproductions of the Ginza Rabba, Qolasta and Book of John in the 3rd-4th century Coptic Manichaean Psalms of Thomas.[84]: 398  James McGrath and Richard Thomas believe there is a direct connection between Mandaeism and pre-exilic traditional Israelite religion.[85][80] McGrath believes the following Mandaean names to be of ancient Israelite origin: Yushamin, Yurba, Yukabar, Yusmir, Yuzataq, Ruha d-Qudsha, Taureil, Ptahil, Anath-Hayyi.[86] Lady Ethel S. Drower "sees early Christianity as a Mandaean heresy"[87] and adds "heterodox Judaism in Galilee and Samaria appears to have taken shape in the form we now call gnostic, and it may well have existed some time before the Christian era."[26]: xv  Barbara Thiering questions the dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls and suggests that the Teacher of Righteousness (leader of the Essenes) was John the Baptizer.[88][45] Jorunn J. Buckley argues for Mandaeism's Israelite or Judean origins[21]: 97  and adds:

[T]he Mandaeans may well have become the inventors of – or at least contributors to the development of – Gnosticism ... and they produced the most voluminous Gnostic literature we know, in one language... influenc[ing] the development of Gnostic and other religious groups in late antiquity [e.g. Manichaeism, Valentianism].[21]: 109 

The Mandaean author Aziz Sbahi in his book, The Origins of Sabians and their Religious Beliefs, traced the Mandaeans to the Babylonian Era. Sbahi acknowledges that Mandaeism may have been affected by religions in Mesopotamia and the Dead Sea region. Sbahi believes that Mandaeism originated in surroundings that had Hellenic, Babylonian, Gnostic and Judaic influence. However, due to Sbahi's lack of knowledge of the Mandaic language, he read only secondary sources on the Mandaeans.[89]

Scholars who specialize in other fields (mostly biblical studies) disagree with the Judea/Palestine origin. Edmondo Lupieri stated in his article in Encyclopædia Iranica,

The possible historical connection with John the Baptist, as seen in the newly translated Mandaean texts, convinced many (notably Rudolf Bultmann) that it was possible, through the Mandaean traditions, to shed some new light on the history of John and on the origins of Christianity. This brought around a revival of the otherwise almost fully abandoned idea of their Palestinian origins. As the archeological discovery of Mandaean incantation bowls and lead amulets proved a pre-Islamic Mandaean presence in the southern Mesopotamia, scholars were obliged to hypothesize otherwise unknown persecutions by Jews or by Christians to explain the reason for Mandaeans' departure from Palestine.

Lupieri believes Mandaeism is a post-Christian southern Mesopotamian Gnostic off-shoot and claims that Zazai d-Gawazta to be the founder of Mandaeism in the 2nd Century. Jorunn J. Buckley refutes this by confirming scribes that predate Zazai who copied the Ginza Rabba.[47][22] In addition to Edmondo Lupieri, Christa Müller-Kessler also argues against the Judea/Palestine origin theory of the Mandaeans claiming that the Mandaeans are Mesopotamian with no Western Aramaic influence on the Mandaic language which has been criticized by Charles G. Häberl.[90][91][75] Edwin Yamauchi believes Mandaeism's origin lies in the Transjordan, where a group of 'non-Jews' migrated to Mesopotamia and combined their Gnostic beliefs with indigenous Mesopotamian beliefs at the end of the 2nd century CE.[77]: 78 [92] Kevin Van Bladel claims that Mandaeism originated no earlier than 5th century Sassanid Mesopotamia.[93] However, Mandaean lead amulets have been dated to as early as the 2nd or 3rd Century.[48][1]: 4  Van Bladel's claim has been criticized by James F. McGrath[94] and Predrag Bukovec.[95]

Charles G. Häberl and James F. McGrath write:

In any model of scholarship, there is, was, and always will be a tension between the ways in which a reading’s merits are assessed, and the ways in which they determine its ultimate impact. Some readings are accepted primarily on the strength of the reader’s qualifications, and the level of prestige and support they enjoy from the scholarly establishment. This is frequently the case with secular scholars working on the religious traditions of others. Others are valued for the degree to which they affirm a scholarly or religious dogma. This is often the case with religious scholars elaborating their own religious traditions, who must necessarily deprecate originality in favor of orthodoxy.[96]: x 

In an interview, Charles G. Häberl stated:

... quite a lot of Christians trace their own lineage to the Assyrians and Babylonians in that region and I think that sort of ideology has also become very popular among Mandaeans of a secular background as well; they like to see their own origins in these ancient civilizations and understandably so. That being said, most people pushing in the first part of the 20th Century the Babylonian or Mesopotamian origins of the Mandaeans were actually sectarian Christians who wanted to kind of push Mandaeans as far away from anything to say about John the Baptist and delegitimize their claims upon the shared history between Jews, Christians, Mandaeans and Muslims as well. They are trying to delegitimize that and alienate them by making them Mesopotamian pagans...As with so many things, there's a kind of political impetus there.[97]

Other names


The Quran makes several references to the Sabians, who are identified with the Mandaeans.[98]: 5 [99][70]: 5 [100] Sabians are counted among the Ahl al-Kitāb (People of the Book), and several hadith feature them. Arab sources of early Quranic times (7th century) also make some references to Sabians. The word Sabian is derived from the Aramaic root related to baptism with the cognate in Neo-Mandaic being Ṣabi 'to baptize'.[19][98]: 5 [99][100] In the Middle East, they are more commonly known as the Ṣābi'ūn, i.e. 'the Sabians', or colloquially as the Ṣubba.[19][8][32][101][99][102]


The Haran Gawaita uses the name Nasoraeans for the Mandaeans arriving from Jerusalem meaning guardians or possessors of secret rites and knowledge.[103] Scholars such as Kurt Rudolph, Rudolf Macúch, Mark Lidzbarski, Ethel S. Drower, James F. McGrath and Frank Williams connect the Mandaeans with the Nasaraeans described by Epiphanius of Salamis, a group within the Essenes according to Joseph Lightfoot.[94][104][26]: xiv [69][105][72][106][107] Epiphanius says (29:6) that they existed before Jesus.[26]: xiv [108]

The Nasaraeans - they were Jews by nationality - originally from Gileaditis, Bashanitis and the Transjordan ... They acknowledged Moses and believed that he had received laws - not this law, however, but some other. And so, they were Jews who kept all the Jewish observances, but they would not offer sacrifice or eat meat. They considered it unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with it. They claim that these Books [Torah] are fictions, and that none of these customs were instituted by the fathers. This was the difference between the Nasaraeans and the others.
— Epiphanius' Panarion 1:18


Mandaeans are also known as Johannites (Arabic: اليحياويون al-Yaḥyāwiyūn) since they are followers of John the Baptizer who is considered their greatest prophet.[109]

Relations with other groups and religions

Abrahamic religions

Mandaeans share with Islam that God is indivisible and One; profession of faith (Shahada, Sahdutha), almsgiving (Zakat, Zidqa), fasting (Sawm, Sauma), daily prayer (Salah, Brakha cognate with Arabic Barakah) and ritual purification before prayer (Wudu, Rishama and Ghusl, Tamasha), Day of Judgement (Yawm ad-din, Yoma Dina).[110] Mandaeans also have their version of the Basmala known as the Bshuma.[6][37]: 161 

With Christians, they share reverence for Sunday and the significance of baptism (Masbuta) and John the Baptizer.[37]: 161  Mandaeans also partake in a communion of bread (pihta) and water (mambuha) during baptism.[1]

With Jews, Mandaeans share praying three times per day (Brakha cognate with Hebrew Berakhah), ethics, ritual purification (Tevilah, Tamasha), angelology, profession of faith (Shema, Sahdutha), almsgiving (Tzedakah, Zidqa), fasting (Ta'anit, Sauma), Day of Judgement (Yom ha-Dīn, Yoma Dina).[10][47][111]


The Elkesaites were a Judeo-Christian baptismal sect that originated in the Transjordan and were active between 100 to 400 CE.[112] The members of this sect, like the Mandaeans, performed frequent baptisms for purification and had a Gnostic disposition.[112][8]: 123  The sect is named after its leader Elkesai.[113]

According to Joseph Lightfoot, the Church Father Epiphanius of Salamis (writing in the 4th century CE) seems to make a distinction between two main groups within the Essenes:[107] "Of those that came before his [Elxai (Elkesai), an Ossaean prophet] time and during it, the Ossaeans and the Nasaraeans."[114]

Epiphanius describes the Ossaeans as following:

After this Nasaraean sect in turn comes another closely connected with them, called the Ossaeans. These are Jews like the former... originally came from Nabataea, Ituraea, Moabitis, and Arielis, the lands beyond the basin of what sacred scripture called the 'Salt Sea'. This is the one which is called the 'Dead Sea'... The man called Elxai joined them later, in the reign of the emperor Trajan after the Saviour's incarnation, and he was a false prophet. He wrote a book, supposedly by prophecy or as though by inspired wisdom. They also say that there was another person, Iexaeus, Elxai's brother... As has been said earlier, Elxai was connected with the sect I have mentioned, the one called the Ossaean. Even today there are still remnants of it in Nabataea, which is also called Peraea near Moabitis; this people is now known as the Sampsaean... For he [Elxai] forbids prayer facing east. He claims that one should not face this direction, but should face Jerusalem from all quarters. Some must face Jerusalem from east to west, some from west to east, some from north to south and south to north, so that Jerusalem is faced from every direction... Though it is different from the other six of these seven sects, it causes schism only by forbidding the books of Moses like the Nasaraean.
— Epiphanius' Panarion 1:19
Ossaeans have abandoned Judaism for the sect of the Sampsaeans, who are no longer either Jews or Christians.
— Epiphanius' Panarion 1:20


The Essenes were a mystic Jewish sect during the Second Temple period that flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE.[115]

Early Mandaean religious concepts and terminologies recur in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Yardena (Jordan) has been the name of every baptismal water in Mandaeism.[116] One of the names for the Mandaean God Hayyi Rabbi, Mara d-Rabuta (Lord of Greatness) is found in the Genesis Apocryphon II, 4.[117]: 552–553  An early Mandaean self-appellation is bhiri zidqa meaning 'elect of righteousness' or 'the chosen righteous', a term found in the Book of Enoch and Genesis Apocryphon.[117]: 552–553 [103][6]: 18 [118] As Nasoraeans, Mandaeans believe that they constitute the true congregation of bnai nhura meaning 'Sons of Light', a term used by the Essenes.[15]: 50 [119] Mandaean scripture affirms that the Mandaeans descend directly from John the Baptizer's original Nasoraean Mandaean disciples in Jerusalem and there are numerous similarities between John's movement and the Essenes.[25]: vi, ix [120] Similar to the Essenes, it is forbidden for a Mandaean to reveal the names of the angels to a gentile.[8]: 94  Essene graves are oriented north-south[53] and a Mandaean's grave must also be in the north-south direction so that if the dead Mandaean were stood upright, they would face north.[8]: 184  Mandaeans have an oral tradition that some were originally vegetarian[26]: 32  and also similar to the Essenes, they are pacifists.[121]: 47 [29]

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."[122]

Mandaeans use the title 'Teacher of Righteousness' to describe 'Great Fathers' or 'Teachers' such as Adam, Seth, Enoch, Shem and John the Baptizer. This Mandaean figure of the 'Teacher of Righteousness' may be the same historical Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls as the leader of the Essenes.[27]: 318 [45]


Bana'im were a minor Jewish sect and an offshoot of the Essenes during the second century in Palestine/Judea.[123][124][125] The Bana'im put heavy emphasis on the cleanliness of clothing since they believed that garments cannot even have a small mudstain before dipping in purifying water. There exists considerable debate around their activities in Palestine and the meaning of the name, some believe that they would put heavy emphasis on the study of the creation of the world, while some believe that the Bana'im were an Essene order employed with the ax and shovel. Other scholars instead have suggested that the name of the Bana'im is derived from the Greek word for "bath". In this case the sect would be similar to the Hemerobaptists or Tovelei Shaḥarit.[123]


Hemerobaptists (Heb. Tovelei Shaḥarit; 'Morning Bathers') were an ancient religious sect that practiced daily baptism. They were likely a division of the Essenes.[123] In the Clementine Homilies (ii. 23), John the Baptizer and his disciples are mentioned as Hemerobaptists. The Mandaeans have been associated with the Hemerobaptists on account of both practicing frequent baptism and Mandaeans believing they are disciples of John.[126][25][127]


Maghāriya were a minor Jewish sect that appeared in the first century BCE, their special practice was the keeping of all their literature in caves in the surrounding hills of Palestine. They made their own commentaries on the Bible and the law. The Maghāriya believed that God is too sublime to mingle with matter, thus they did not believe that God directly created the world, but that an angel, which represents God created the earth which is similar to the Mandaean demiurgic Ptahil. Some scholars have identified the Maghāriya with the Essenes or the Therapeutae.[123][128][129]


see Nasoraeans above


see Elkesaites above


Nathaniel Deutsch writes:

Initially, these interactions [between Mandaeans and Jewish mystics in Babylonia from Late Antiquity to the medieval period] resulted in shared magical and angelogical traditions. During this phase the parallels which exist between Mandaeism and Hekhalot mysticism would have developed. At some point, both Mandaeans and Jews living in Babylonia began to develop similar cosmogonic and theosophic traditions involving an analogous set of terms, concepts, and images. At present it is impossible to say whether these parallels resulted primarily from Jewish influence on Mandaeans, Mandaean influence on Jews, or from cross fertilization. Whatever their original source, these traditions eventually made their way into the priestly – that is, esoteric – Mandaean texts ... and into the Kabbalah.[130]: 222 

R.J. Zwi Werblowsky suggests Mandaeism has more commonality with Kabbalah than with Merkabah mysticism such as cosmogony and sexual imagery. The Thousand and Twelve Questions, Scroll of Exalted Kingship, and Alma Rišaia Rba link the alphabet with the creation of the world, a concept found in Sefer Yetzirah and the Bahir.[130]: 217  Mandaean names for uthras have been found in Jewish magical texts. Abatur appears to be inscribed inside a Jewish magic bowl in a corrupted form as "Abiṭur". Ptahil is found in Sefer HaRazim listed among other angels who stand on the ninth step of the second firmament.[131]: 210–211 


The Kentaeans were a Gnostic religious group of Mesopotamia from around the 5th century CE. They are often thought of as a Gnostic sect that is closely related to but distinct from the Mandaeans.[132]

The Kentaeans are mentioned near the end of Book 3 and at the beginning of Book 9.1 in the Right Ginza,[43] as well as in Qolasta Prayer 357.[55]: 251  The Ginza Rabba identifies the Kentaeans with Kiwan (Saturn) and criticizes them for their fasting.[43] They are also mentioned by Arab historians such as Ibn al-Malāḥimī as the Kintānīya, while aš-Šahrastānī refers to them as the Kintawīya.[132]: 41  Al-Masʿūdī briefly mentions them as the Kinṯāwīyūn.[132]: 42 

References to both the Kentaeans and Mandaeans can be found in three 6th-century Syriac Christian texts, namely the Cyrus of Edessa's Explanation for the Fasts, the Acts of Symeon bar Ṣabbāʿe, and the title of a lost work by Nathaniel of Šahrazur.[132]: 26–34 


According to the Fihrist of ibn al-Nadim, the Mesopotamian prophet Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was brought up within the Elkesaite (Elcesaite or Elchasaite) sect, this being confirmed more recently by the Cologne Mani Codex. None of the Manichaean scriptures has survived in its entirety, and it seems that the remaining fragments have not been compared to the Ginza Rabba. Mani later left the Elkasaites to found his own religion. In a comparative analysis, the Swedish Egyptologist Torgny Säve-Söderbergh indicated that Mani's Psalms of Thomas was closely related to Mandaean texts.[133] According to E. S. Drower, "some of the most ancient Manichaean psalms, the Coptic Psalms of Thomas, were paraphrases and even word-for-word translations of Mandaic originals; prosody and phrase offering proof that the Manichaean was the borrower and not vice-versa."[25]: IX 

An extensive discussion of the relationships between Mandaeism and Manichaeism can be found in Băncilă (2018).[134]

Samaritan Baptist sects

According to Magris, Samaritan Baptist sects were an offshoot of John the Baptizer.[135] One offshoot was in turn headed by Dositheus, Simon Magus, and Menander. It was in this milieu that the idea emerged that the world was created by ignorant angels. Their baptismal ritual removed the consequences of sin, and led to a regeneration by which natural death, which was caused by these angels, was overcome.[135] The Samaritan leaders were viewed as "the embodiment of God's power, spirit, or wisdom, and as the redeemer and revealer of 'true knowledge'".[135]

The Simonians were centered on Simon Magus, the magician baptised by Philip and rebuked by Peter in Acts 8, who became in early Christianity the archetypal false teacher. The ascription by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and others of a connection between schools in their time and the individual in Acts 8 may be as legendary as the stories attached to him in various apocryphal books. Justin Martyr identifies Menander of Antioch as Simon Magus' pupil. According to Hippolytus, Simonianism is an earlier form of Valentinianism.[136]


Kurt Rudolph has observed many parallels between Mandaean texts and Sethian Gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi library.[137] Birger A. Pearson also compares the "Five Seals" of Sethianism, which he believes is a reference to quintuple ritual immersion in water, to Mandaean masbuta.[138] According to Buckley (2010), "Sethian Gnostic literature ... is related, perhaps as a younger sibling, to Mandaean baptism ideology."[139]


A Mandaean baptismal formula was adopted by Valentinian Gnostics in Rome and Alexandria in the 2nd century CE.[21]: 109 


Mandaeans celebrating Parwanaya in Amarah, Iraq – March 17, 2019

It is estimated that there are 60,000–100,000 Mandaeans worldwide.[58] Their proportion in their native lands has collapsed because of the Iraq War, with most of the community relocating to nearby Iran, Syria, and Jordan. There are approximately 2,500 Mandaeans in Jordan.[140]

In 2011, Al Arabiya put the number of hidden and unaccounted for Iranian Mandaeans in Iran as high as 60,000.[141] According to a 2009 article in The Holland Sentinel, the Mandaean community in Iran has also been dwindling, numbering between 5,000 and at most 10,000 people.

Many Mandaeans have formed diaspora communities outside the Middle East in Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, USA, Canada, New Zealand, UK and especially Australia, where around 10,000 now reside, mainly around Sydney, representing 15% of the total world Mandaean population.[142]

Approximately 1,000 Iranian Mandaeans have emigrated to the United States, since the US State Department in 2002 granted them protective refugee status, which was also later accorded to Iraqi Mandaeans in 2007.[143] A community estimated at 2,500 members live in Worcester, Massachusetts, where they began settling in 2008. Most emigrated from Iraq.[144]

Mandaeism does not allow conversion, and the religious status of Mandaeans who marry outside the faith and their children is disputed.[65]

See also


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Primary sources

  • Buckley, Jorunn J. (1993). The Scroll of Exalted Kingship: Diwan Malkuta ‘Laita (Mandean Manuscript No. 34 in the Drower Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford). New Haven: American Oriental Society.
  • Drower, E.S. (1950a). Diwan Abatur, or Progress Through the Purgatories: Text with Translation Notes and Appendices. Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
  • Drower, E.S. (1950b). Šarḥ ḏ Qabin ḏ šišlam Rba (D. C. 38). Explanatory Commentary on the Marriage-Ceremony of the great Šišlam. Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico.
  • Drower, E.S. (1960a). The Thousand and Twelve Questions (Alf trisar šuialia). Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
  • Drower, E.S. (1962). The Coronation of the Great Šišlam, Being a Description of the Rite of the Coronation of a Mandaean Priest according to the Ancient Canon. Leiden: Brill.
  • Drower, E.S. (1963). A Pair of Naṣoraean Commentaries (Two Priestly Documents): The Great First World and The Lesser First World. Leiden: Brill.
  • Häberl, Charles G.; McGrath, James F. (2019). The Mandaean Book of John. Critical Edition, Translation, and Commentary. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter. doi:10.1515/9783110487862.
  • Häberl, Charles G.; McGrath, James F. (2020). The Mandaean Book of John: Text and Translation. Berlin: De Gruyter. (open access version of text and translation, taken from Häberl & McGrath 2019)

Secondary sources

Tertiary sources

External links

Mandaean scriptures

Books about Mandaeism available online

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