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The Sabians and the Tolerance of Islam

Sabianism or Mandaeanism is an ancient Middle Eastern religion, still surviving


along the banks of the Lower Euphrates and Tigris rivers in southern Iraq, Iran and in
some cities of Asia Minor. The meaning of Mandaean in Aramaic is equivalent of
Gnostic and they claim to be Gnostics, or having knowledge of the soul or Life. They
are also known as the Baptists or the Christians of St. John or Nasoraeans. Their
customs and rituals indicate early Christian, perhaps pre-Christian, origin. Although
some of their practices were influenced by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, they
reject all three. The sect has about 65,000 followers worldwide.

Doctrines and Basic Tenets

Whereas most scholars date the beginnings of Mandaeanism somewhere in the first
three centuries AD, the matter of its origin is highly conjectural. Some scholars,
emphasizing the Babylonian elements in Mandaean magical texts, use of the Iranian
calendar, and the incorporation of several Iranian words into the Mandaic language,
argue that Mandaeanism originated in the area of south-western Mesopotamia in early
Christian or even pre-Christian times. Others argue for a Syro-Palestinian origin,
basing their case on the quasi-historical Mandaean document, the Haran Gawaita,
which narrates the exodus from Palestine to Mesopotamia in the 1st century AD of a
group called Nasoreans. Probably due to the persecution by the Jews, the Mandaeans
found refuge in Iraq and Iran, where they still survive.

The Mandaeans dress in white and have the same basic ethnic, cultural, and
religious makeup. They claim to be monotheistic who believe that Adam was the first
Mandaean who received the religious instructions directly from God. The Mandaeans
viewed Jesus as a false messiah but revered John the Baptist, who performed miracles
of healing through baptism, which the Mandaeans viewed as a magical process giving
immortality, purification, and physical health.

The Mandaeans consider John the Baptist their main prophet and renewer of the
religion, which, they say, ultimately stems from Adam himself. The Mandaeans
developed an elaborate ritual baptism and emphasized the importance of frequent
baptism in running fresh water (yardna), for water is the form by which the
Lightworld manifests itself on the earth and this serves as a ritual of purification.
They believe that fresh water is the principle of life and use the name Uardan (Jordan)
for any river.

Their chief holy book is the Ginza Rba, written in Aramaic. Like their other books,
it is a compendium of cosmology, cosmogony, prayers, legends, and rituals, written at
various times and often contradictory. The others include, the Book of John,
describing the activities of John the Baptist; the Book of the Zodiac, a collection of
magical and astrological texts; and the Baptism of Hibil Ziwa, describing the
purification of the heavenly saviour of the Mandaeans.

Like other dualistic systems, Mandaeanism stresses salvation of the soul through
esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of its divine origin. According to their cosmological
superstructure, evil Archons (rulers) obstruct the ascent of the soul through the
heavenly spheres to reunion with the supreme deity. Mandaeans believe that the
human soul is imprisoned in the body and the material universe. The soul can be
saved through revealed knowledge, a rigorously ethical life, and ritual observances.
They also believe in the mediation of a redeemer, called Manda da Hayye
("Knowledge of Life") or Hibel-Ziwa. This redeemer once dwelled on earth, where he
triumphed over the demons who are its rulers and who try to keep the soul
imprisoned. He can thus assist the soul in its ascent through the heavenly spheres
toward its final reunion with the Supreme God.

Unlike many Gnostic systems, however, Mandaeanism abhorring asceticism, they


strongly advocates marriage and forbids sexual license. Early on, this view caused
friction with Christian ascetic ideals. Even John the Baptist, the primary Mandaean
prophet, was married. There observe strict dietary requirements and have a
communion sacrament, which is offered for the remembrance of the dead and
resembles Parsi ritual meals. The Mandaeans have no symbols, no idols, and no
images that can be used to pray to. Sunday (with the exception of specific religious
holidays) is their holy day. Their language is called Mandaic and is still spoken in Iran
among the laypeople.

They have theories of Darkness and Light as in Zoroastrianism. The Mandaeans


believe that stars and planets contain animating principles, spirits subservient and
obedient to Melka d Nhura (the King of Light), and that the lives of men are affected
by their influences. Their system of astrology resembles those of ancient Babylonia
cults. The Mandaean priests are at the same time astrologers. Similarly many
Mandaean priests, in spite of the Ginza's prohibition of such practices, derive part of
their income from the writing of amulets, and from sorcery.

Mandaeism is hierarchical, with priests as leaders in matters religious, legal and


communal. The Mandaean priests, called Nasoreans ("observers" of the rites), form a
caste apart from the laity. Learned lay people, yalufas, are ritual helpers, teachers and
mediators situated between priests and the regular lay population. Today, between
twenty and thirty priests exist in Baghdad, at least three in Ahwaz, Iran, while some of
them recently emigrated to serve the congregation in Australia. Mandaeans are now
working to obtain priests from Iraq, so that the communities on the North American
continent might achieve a spiritual centre.

The Sabians and Tolerance of Islam

Some historians conclude that the Mandaeans were the Sabians recognized in the
Qur'an, as a "People of the Book."

"Those who believe (in the Qur'an) and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures)
and the Christians and the Sabians and who believe in Allah and the last day and work
righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor
shall they grieve." (2: 62)

Al-Biruni, the Muslim scholar (writing at the beginning of the eleventh century
A.D.) is positive about the 'real Sabians', who are, he says 'the remnants of the Jewish
tribes that remained in Babylonia when the other tribes left it for Jerusalem in the
days of Cyrus and Artaxerxes. These remaining tribes adopted a system mixed up of
Magism and Judaism.'
The Mandaeans fulfil the requirements of having a holy religious text and a
recognized prophet. Therefore, the Sabians enjoyed the tolerance offered by Islam and
lived in peace and harmony among their Muslim neighbors. However, the actual
protection of the religion during the centuries has been disputed, and the "Mandaean
question" remains a difficult legal-religious question in Islam.

Today, the Mandaeans enjoy official protection in Iraq, while the smaller Mandaean
population in Iran, mainly centred in Ahwaz, Khuzistan, has lost its recognition after
the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi. After the revolution in 1980, the government stopped
supporting this protection. However, the former Iranian President, Khamenei issued a
fatwa, an opinion, about the Mandaeans, stating that they seemed to be monotheists
with a holy scripture and a prophet and should therefore be recognized as a protected
religion.

Recently an Arab author who had been a student for some time in Lower Iraq wrote
an article in an Egyptian periodical about the Subba, or Mandaeans, in which he
described them as star-worshippers. Indignation broion broke out amongst the
Mandaean priesthood, for it was the old accusation of paganism, so imperiling to
Moslem toleration. Legal proceedings were taken against the author, and a head-
priest, was dispatched to Baghdad armed with the Ginza Rba, to translate before
witnesses passages in the holy writ denouncing the worship of planets.

The Diminishing Sect

Yahia-Bihram, a Mandaean high ranking clergyman wrote about the great plague or
cholera epidemic of the early 1800's, in Southern Iraq and Iran areas. The epidemic
spread like wildfire throughout the marshes of Lower Iraq. The end result was not
only thousands of Mandaean dying, but also the extinction of all ordained Mandaean
priests. When finally the disease passed away, fresh priests had to be consecrated and
it was years before there were enough priests for ritually pure weddings and funerals.

The sect is diminishing because younger members tend to apostatise. The Mandaean
community is also challenged by an increasing number of intermarriages and by
emigration. Rules of purity are continually challenged, and the recent wars have had
their effects. Still, ritual life continues, the priests enjoy undisputed authority, and
children receive instruction in the religious traditions.

There is no census to give accurate figures of all the Mandaeans worldwide. The
majority of Mandaeans come from Iraq with estimates ranging from 30-50,000.
Percentage figures range between 80 to 85% in Iraq; with the remaining 15 and 20 %
come from Iran. In 1997 they are reported to be an ethnic group of 6,000 to 10,000
Mandaeans in Khuzistan as estimated by the UNHC. The sect has about 65,000
followers worldwide. The Mandaeans today live in the larger cities such as Baghdad,
Basra and Ahwaz.

Especially following the wars and unrest in their homeland, beginning in 1980,
Mandaeans have emigrated individually and in groups to other countries, including
the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, European countries and various parts of the
world.