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Just to use the term ‘Sabaean Mandeans’ (also spelt Sabeaen Mandaeans or Mandeaens) will cause controversy, but it is being used for our purposes to identify a present day religious group of inhabitants of southern Iraq and south western Iran, whose estimated numbers vary from 80 000 to 200 000 worldwide. This group is also called Mandean Sabaeans and simply Mandeans. The latter appears to be their name of choice. There are tiny communities of those who have emigrated to the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.
In the present situation in Iraq (2003), this religious group is uncertain of its future. They were allowed to worship under Saddam, but the regime seized several of its temples and the group was not allowed to build new ones outside Baghdad. They believe that many of their followers were murdered during Saddam’s reign. The Sabaean Mandeans are uncertain of their future, especially with the majority of Shiite Muslims in Iraq. They are not happy that they have not been included in a new Governing Council set up by the Americans in Iraq.
The confusion as to the correct name of this group, and its history, seems to have come about because Sabaean (Subbi) is the name of a group or groups of people who are named in the Koran three times, along with Jews and Christians, as a people of the book, and hence believers in God. These people have been identified with several groups including the Mandeans, the Zoroastrians, and the star-worshippers of Haran (also spelt Harran). A Theosophical perspective is that Sabaeanism is an ancient mystery religion which left its mask on many present religions, including Judaism and Christianity. According to this point of view, they were not an ancient race, but were those who followed and practiced ‘the divine astrological astrolatry of the hoariest Antiquity’. [Encyclopedia Theosophical Glossary.] Of interest here is the opinion that older Moslem theologians who agreed that the Sabaean possessed manuscripts in the light of a revelation; therefore they are the true Sabaean mentioned in the Koran, and the Mandeans came under the protection granted to the Sabaean.
It seems that both the Mandeans and the star-worshippers of Haran (Haranians) chose to be named Sabaean in order to avoid persecution from the Muslims. The Mandeans claim that they are the true Sabaean, and go to considerable lengths to verify this, especially using the writings of Jewish philosopher and writer of the 13th Century, Moses Maimonides and the Bahai writings, to prove their point.
SABAEANS OF THE BIBLE
The Sabaeans who are mentioned in the Bible were a Semitic people who were living ‘far off’ (Joel 3:8), in the southwest Arabian Peninsula, roughly near modern Yemen. They were renowned in the Bible as traders in slaves (Joel 3:8), camels (1 Kings 10:2, Isa 60:6), gold (1 Kings 10:4 and other), spices (1 Kings 10:4), precious stones (1 Kings 10:4) and frankincense (Isa 60:6). Their capital city was Saba, which in Hebrew is Sheba [The Dictionary of Bible and Religion p 966], and they are associated with the Queen who visited Solomon (1 Kings 10). Some sources name Marib as the capital of the Kingdom of Saba, famous for its ancient dam. [Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-Rom] Modern discoveries confirm the classical and Biblical accounts of Sabaean prosperity. Ruins of fortresses and walled-towns of temples and irrigation works cover the land. The supreme god of Suba was II-Mukah, to whom was joined as spouse or daughter, the sun-goddess Shamsh. Other deities were Athar, the morning and evening star, and Sin, the principal moon-god. Submission towards and intimate affinity to the deity was the characteristic of the Sabaean religion. Some scholars have attributed the influence of Southern Arabia on the formation of the Mosaic institutions, e.g. their use of the Divine names, their designation of priests as Levites, their imageless worship and their sin-offerings.
THE SABAEANS OF HARAN (or the star worshippers)
Haran is a city on the Balikh River, a northern tributary of the Euphrates. It has an important place in the Old Testament history, and was the city from which Abram and Sarai left on route to Canaan. Following the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC it served as the Assyrian capital until it was sacked by the Babylonians in 609. It was associated with the Babylonian moon-god Sin since C2000 BC, and it remained a focus of lunar cults well into the Christian era. [Eerdmans Bible Dictionary p 462.] Some consider that they became Neoplatonists, and they translated Greek philosophy into Arabic, and were adept at medical and other sciences. [The Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion p 409] One line of thought is the Haranians were not Sabaeans, but a sect of polytheists who affiliated with the Sabaeans and shielded themselves under the same privileges accorded to the Sabaeans because of their mention in the Koran. Likewise, the Sabaean – Mandeans accuse the Haranians of the same. The Mandean argument is that the term ‘Sabians of Harran’ only appears in the 9th Century and before that they were referred to only as Chaldeans or Haranians or Nabataens. [Sabaeans of Harran ASUTA.] It does appear that the star-worshippers of Haran would not qualify to be called ‘People of the Book’ since they worshipped many gods and had idols. According to one source they flourished until the 13th Century. [Parrinder A Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions. P 239]
SABAEAN MANDEANS OF TODAY
It would appear that the Sabaeans mentioned in the Koran, could well be the Mandaeans, today called the Sabaean Mandeans in order to fulfill their place in the Koran. It seems, however, to be dubious, a claim by them to be the Sabaeans of the very ancient world. It is more likely that the Sabaean Mandeans are of Gnostic origin from either before the birth of Christ, or in the first and second centuries. Some scholars believe that the Mandaeans were a Christian-Gnostic group, followers of John the Baptist, who migrated from Palestine after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. This is not the opinion of an English scholar, Lady EJ Drower, who spent her life studying the Mandeans. In 1962 she wrote that they have been extremely tenacious, ‘while adopting the new at some far distant syncretistic period, they also conserved the old way faithfully’. [Farvardyn - Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran.] A current British report informs us that according to a joint British/Danish fact finding mission report 2002, that Sabaeans and Mandeans are different names for the same religious group, ie followers of John the Baptist. It also mentions a group of Sabeans, originally associated with the founders of the Kingdom of Saba. Their head is Sheikh Dakhil and they live mostly in Nasiriyah. [British Home-Office Immigration & Nationality Directorate.] This is quite confusing.
BELIEFS AND PRACTICES OF SABAEAN-MANDEANS
Their texts are written in an eastern Aramaic dialect known as Mandaic, and they are an important source of Gnostic teachings. The oldest texts are lead amulets from about the 3rd Century AD, and from magic bowls from about AD 600. The important religious manuscripts are not older than the 16th Century with most coming from the 18th and 19th Century. [Lion Handbook – The World’s Religions P110]
According to Lady Drower, [Farvardyn – Mandeans Of Iraq and Iran] the core of the Mandean religion is the ancient worship of the principles of life and fertility. The Great Life is a personification of the creative and sustaining force of the universe, but the personification is slight, and it remains a mystery. The symbol of the Great Life is ‘living water’, that is, it must be flowing. Drower saw this as a natural outcome of living on the banks of the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. It follows that one of the central rites is immersion in flowing water. Followers engage in many baptisms a year; weddings take place in water, as do funerals. The Mandean sanctuary, Mandi, is a very simple and small house with a slanting roof. In front of it is a pool which is connected to a nearby river. The Mandean baptism is comparable to the Christian communion, and takes place on Sundays.
The other central ritual is the mass for the dead, with recitations from their central religious book, the Ginza (‘Treasure’). The masiqta, the ‘raising up’ is celebrated primarily for the dead, but includes the living, because death does not separate those ‘in the body’ from those who have died – death is not a cessation of existence. After death the soul is released from the body the third day after the moment of death, and it starts on a dangerous journey to the realms of light. It is only Mandeans and non- sinners who manage to pass the whole journey – everyone else ends in hell.
According to the Mandeans, the cosmos is made up of two forces, the world of light, located to the north, and the world of darkness, located to the south. There are hostilities between the two forces. Man is created by the forces of darkness, but in every man, there is a ‘hidden Adam’, the soul, which has its origin in the world of light. Hence death liberates the soul to journey to the light.
In the ethical system of the Mandeans, cleanliness, health of body, and ritual obedience must be accompanied by purity of mind, health of conscience and obedience to moral laws. Many of the rules for conduct are set out in the ‘Book of John’. The main prohibitions include blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, magic, drinking alcohol and divorce. Many of their purity laws are similar to those in Judaism.
Some believe that John the Baptist is central in their teaching, and considered the last of the prophets. Lady Drower disputed this opinion and wrote that the ‘Mandaeans do not pretend that either their religion or baptismal cult originated with John, but rather that ‘the most that is claimed for him is that he was a great teacher, performing baptism in the sense of his function as priest.’ [Farvardyn - Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran.] They are sometimes called the Christians of Saint John. Drower believed that this came about because ‘like the followers of other secret religions, the Mandaeans, when talking to people of another faith, accentuate small points of resemblance between their beliefs and those of their hearers’. For example ‘John is our prophet like Jesus’ (that is, Jesus is yours). Jesus is acknowledged as coming to John for baptism, but the Mandaeans believe He then prevented the teachings of John, and so is considered a false prophet, and in fact, almost depicted as evil.’ [Encyclopaedia of the Orient Mandeans]
Again, from Lady Drower, we learn that most of the leading events in the Mandeans’ life are decided by recourse to the priests, who tell him, by means of astrology, when is the best time to marry, send a child to school, undertake a new enterprise, and so on. When ill, cures and herbs fall under the influence of certain planets and signs of the Zodiac, and the medications as such, are only taken according to the hour of the onset of the illness. They generally refuse to take medicine from a European doctor. Their beliefs and practices can provide problems for the health authorities. [Farvardyn - Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran.]
There are very exacting and rigorous selection and ordination rituals for the priesthood. To be a candidate for ordination, a man must be physically perfect. His hair and beard must remain uncut, and he must be of the priestly caste, and he must not marry out of it. The ordination takes a week, and no mistake may be made in the recitations by the ordinand. This means the ceremony may be performed many times before a successful completion. After ordination, he is an earthly representative of the divine Priest-King. He then becomes the ‘luck’ of his flock.
Back in the 1960’s Lady Drower was lamenting that the Mandaean ‘kingdom’ was crumbling. Even in the 1930’s, she claimed that they had begun to neglect ritual rules, and were wearing coloured clothes, cutting their hair and neglecting baptism. Then, few went to school, and they lived by crafts such as silver smithing and boat building. By the 1960’s, she observed that they were enjoying full education, cinema, television and prosperity. They had deserted their traditional homeland in the marsh villages and headed for Baghdad and Basrah. The sons of priests were not becoming priests. They cut their hair which immediately precluded them from the priesthood. She predicted the extinction of the priesthood, which would mean death of this Gnostic religion, for few ‘coronations’ would be taking place in the years ahead. [The Coronation of the Great Sislam – Introduction to the Commentary - Asuta.]
Whether these predictions have proved to be correct, is difficult to determine. Whether persecution under the reign of Saddam Hussain has consolidated their ranks, only time will tell. We do know there are still followers of this Gnostic tradition in Iraq and Iran, and other parts of the world. They are adamant that they are the true Sabaeans, and are concerned that their teachings are, in their opinion misunderstood. They are particularly keen to disassociate themselves from New Age occult groups which use the term ‘Sabaean’ – for example, the Sabaean Religious Order of Armen, which is in Chicago, USA. Whether the overthrow of Saddam Hussain means an easier existence for them remains to be seen. Whether their religion survives outside Iraq and Iran, as it adherents seek refuge in other countries is also unknown.
1. Drury, Nevill Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco
- 2. Gentz, William H (ed) The Dictionary of Bible and Religion Abingdon/Nashville Publishers
- 3. A Lion Handbook The World’s Religions Lion Publishing
4. Parrinder, Geoffrey A Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions Hutton Educational Publications
- 5. Smith, Jonathon .2. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion HarperCollins Publishers
- 6. The Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary William B Eerdmans Publishing Company
From the Internet
1. Alternative Religions Mandeism with Jenniger Emick
- http://altreligion.about.com/library/jags/bl mandeism.htm
- 2. British Home Office Immigration & Nationality Directorate
3. Catholic Encyclopedia on CD Rom: Saba and Sabeans
4. Encyclopedia of the Orient Mandeans http://lexicorient.com/e.o/Mandeans.htm
5. Farvardyn Mandeans ES Drower: Mandeans of Iraq and Iran
- 6. Introduction to Sabaeanism (Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary)
7. Mandean World (in the name of the great life)
- ASUTA The Journal for the Study and Research into the Mandaean
- Culture, Religion and Language
- ES Drower The Coronation of the Great Sislam - Commentary
- The Sabaaeams pf the Bahai Writings
- The True Sabians
- The Sabaeams of the Moses Maimonides writings
8. Mandaean Research Centre Council of General Affairs Baghdad Iraq 1999
9. News-:Leader.com Sabean Mandeans hold baptism in Iraq
- 10. Religion News Blog Iraqi Sect Holds onto old Ritual
11. The verse about Jews, Christians and Sabeans http://webpages.marshall.edu/~laber/sabeans.html
- 12. Worldwide Religious News