The Mandaeans are a religious minority whose origins are in the nation of Iraq, a group that largely remained unknown to the western world until the middle of the Iraq War that began in March 2003. The Mandaeans claim elements of Judaism and Christianity as part of the basis for their beliefs but their system is more commonly known as a form of gnosticism, which means “To know God.” The most important figure revered in the Mandaean religion is John the Baptist, who is the true messenger of God. From the Old Testament, Adam, Noah, Seth, and Enosh are among those who lived and walked with God.(1)
The word Mandaean is derived from “madda” which is Hebrew for “knowledge” and “Manda”, Aramaic for “knowledge.” Their origins date back to the first century of our common era when other Gnostic groups developed eschatologies to help humans understand their purpose on earth and the state of the afterlife. Mandaeism has a very simple doctrine of monotheism, dualistic morality, and afterlife where the soul of an individual is reunited with God. The soul exists in a temporary trapping, the physical body, which is not its true home. God is a spirit being who is to be worshipped and adored. Theologically, Mandaeism is close to Manicheism and Zoroastrianism although the latter considers the physical and spiritual creation to be in harmony with each other. Astrology also plays a role in Mandaeism, as it is believed stars and other worlds influence an individual’s life and be places of exile for some souls upon death. A number of sacraments are observed in the Mandaean religion, including baptism and a sacred meal similar to the Roman Catholic Eucharist. In practice, members of the religion marry and have children but avoid drinking alcohol and consuming red meat.(2) The symbol of the religion is a darfash, which is a cross draped with a white cloth over the crossbar.
The number of Mandaeans in the world is approximately 60,000 to 70,000, with a growing percentage of them in the western world, mainly in Germany(3) and the United States.(4) The scriptures of the Mandaeans, the Ginza and the Quolasta, which were originally composed in a dialect of Aramaic. The priesthood claims to have a deeper understanding of the religion’s theology while the laity shares a common element of belief among them. Like the Hebrews, the Mandaeans also claim their ancestors to have lived in Egypt for a brief period, in what they term a “dark period” where Ptahil ruled over them. Perhaps it is not unusual that the name of this leader is close to the Egyptian deity Ptah, who uses the power of speech to create with. With speech, the world came into being, and as Ptah is one of three demiurgic figures, the other two being Abathur and Joshamin(5)
The Nazorean Essenes in Iraq recognize the scriptures of the Mandaeans as being relevant to their own religious system although they are a separate religious group. With the growing population of Mandaean refuges from Iraq in the western world, their faith helps us to understand the evolution of different Gnostic sects that arose in the Middle East soon after the beginnings of Christianity.