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R E L I G I O N
Mandaean Religion in Iran
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Encyclopedia Iranica
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In April 1996, in Tehran, Ayatollah Sajjadi of Al Zahra University in Qom posed three questions to the present writer about Mandaean religious beliefs and behavior, and he seemed satisfied with the answers. Still, the official status of the Mandaeans has not been changed. Significantly, during those very days of the present writer’s visit (indeed on 11 April 1996) the cause of the Mandaeans was raised in the Persian parliament. Questions number 228 and 335 (in the parliamentary publication: Ayatollah Khamenei, Ajwabat al-esteftāʾāt, part 1. al-ʿEbādāt, Beirut, 1996, pp. 98, 100) concern the Mandaeans. With regard to question 228, the Sabeans are listed as Ahl al-Ketāb, along with “Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians.” The question seeks a clarification of the Sabean position. The answer specifies that, from a legal viewpoint, there is no prohibition for Muslims against associating with Mandaeans. Question 335 focuses on the Sabeans as followers of John the Baptist, and the explicit issue is whether these people are indeed identical with the possessors of sacred book mentioned in the Koran. The reply is affirmative. Nevertheless, these answers have not led to the inclusion of Mandaeans among the protected religions in Article 13 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic (q.v.).

Consequently, Mandaeans experience various forms of pressure and persecution from their Muslim neighbors, especially in Khuzestan. Non-Muslim purveyors of food must set up a sign declaring their religion in their shops, and Mandaeans, not being legally recognized, therefore cannot enter the grocery business. Public sector employment is closed to them, as is, very often, higher education (see U.S. Department of State, 2004, Iran, Section II, Restrictions on Religious Freedom). Mandaean health and education professionals lost their positions after the revolution. Mandi events in Ahwaz are monitored by the authorities. Only recognized religious minorities are permitted to have community centers but, despite the decree, the Mandaeans still retain theirs. As in Iraq, some Mandaeans have changed their names to “generic,” non-Mandaean ones, in order to become more anonymous. For instance, one finds last names referring to well-known tribes, villages, or towns, and Mandaeans may avoid specifically Muslim accouterments or greetings. Traditionally, and even today, some Mandaean families live in specific parts of a town, where they have been known for generations, and are often recognizable by name, dress, occupation, or behavior (see Buckley, 2005 for Mandaean names). Mandaeans tend to avoid Muslim first names, often preferring more neutral ones, such as pre-Islamic or even Western names.

Mandaean identities, however, are often recognized, and forced conversion to Islam has become common, especially with respect to women (see above references to immigration court testimonies in asylum cases; refugee organizations; U.S. Dept. of State; UNHCR; etc.) Harassment in schools has forced some Mandaean parents to break off their children’s education. The Mandaean graveyard in Ahwaz has been partially destroyed by local authorities. Old ties between Mandaeans and their Muslim business associates and friends have become severely strained, even severed.

Still, the community in Ahwaz continues to form the center for Iranian Mandaeans. The social structure and the rituals endure. One of the best sources documenting the present-day life of the Mandaeans in Ahwaz is a book featuring large color photographs (see Tahvildar, Fourouzandeh and Brunet, 2001). In three languages—English, French, and Persian—this book deals briefly with Mandaean social life, baptism, ceremonies for the dead, ritual slaughter of birds for food, prayer, and the five-day Panja ritual. The book’s stunning photographs are unrivalled and serve to illustrate, beyond doubt, that the Mandaeans of Persia are still extant. In contrast, at least one recent academic book (Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran, Cambridge, 2000) makes no mention of the Mandaeans. For decades, other scholars have, as a matter of habit, declared the Mandaeans (whether in Iraq or in Persia) as a near-extinct group. On the whole, however, there is a re-emergence of international interest in Mandaeans and their religion. In 2002, Gorgias Press in the United States reissued Ethel Drower’s classic, but long unavailable, study of Mandaeans and their religion, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran. European documentary filmmakers have come to Khuzestan in order to record the Mandaeans and their rituals; linguists realize that fieldwork among speakers of Mandaic can be conducted mainly in Persia, and also among a few Mandaeans in emigration. International conferences on Mandaeism have begun, and there are increased contacts between Mandaeans and Western scholars. Also, the Mandaeans themselves have taken initiatives to launch their own conferences outside of their traditional homelands, in order to secure connections between their often far-flung members and to foster a continued communal identity. An international association of Mandaeans has been formed— the Mandaean Associations Union.

The number of Mandaeans in emigration is increasing, with Mandaeans from Iraq and Persia now living in many countries around the world, often in very difficult situations as asylum-seekers without international recognition. During the early fall of 2004, the infamous detention camps in Australia finally released the last of its incarcerated Iranian Mandaeans, who have been granted refugee status. One must hope that the Mandaean refugee problem may come to an end and, likewise, that the traditional communities in the homelands may continue to exist and flourish, so that the unique Mandaean culture and religion are not lost. However, the current war in Iraq has further endangered the situation for Mandaeans, with many of them kidnapped, maimed, and killed. As a contrast, in Tehran in the spring of 1996 it became obvious that the present author’s public appearances—as a spokesperson for the Mandaeans to Iranian students, academics, clerics, and intellectuals—presented the audience with an opportunity to realize that their own country still shelters a small and little known group of ancient Gnostics recognized by the Koran.

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Bibliography: (Websites were accessed 17 February 2005.) Salim Berenji, Qawm-e az yādrafta: kāveš-i dar bāra-ye qawm-e Sābeʾin-e Mandāʾi, Tehran, 1988. Jorunn J. Buckley, “With the Mandaeans in Iran,” Religious Studies News 11/3, 1996, p. 8. Idem, The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People, London and New York, 2002. Idem, The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History, 2005 (forthcoming). Ethel S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their Cults, Customs, Magic, Legends, and Folklore Oxford, 1937; repr., Piscataway, N.J., 2002. T. Fahd, “Ṣābiʾa,” in EI2 VIII, pp. 675-78. Edmondo Lupieri, The Mandaeans. The Last Gnostics, Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002; original Italian ed.: I Mandei. I Ultimi Gnostici, Brescia, 1993. Rudolf Macuch, “Masʾala-ye qadimtarin tāriḵ-e maḏhab-e Ṣobbi wa ahamiyat-e ān barā-ye maḏāheb,” FIZ 8, 1960, pp. 23-36. Rudolph Macuch and Klaus Boekels, Neumandäische Chrestomathie mit grammatischer Skizze, kommentierter Übersetzung und Glossar, Porta Linguarium Orientalium, N.S. 18, Wiesbaden, 1989. Idem, Neumancliuische texte Texte im Dialekt von Ahwaz, Neumandäische Texte im Dialekt von Ahwāz, Semitica Viva 12, Wiesbaden, 1993. M. Nicolas Siouffi, Études sur la religion des Soubbas ou Sabéens: leurs dogmes, leurs moeurs, Paris, 1880. Abbas Tahvildar, Massoud Fourouzandeh, and Alain Brunet,āeʾbin-e Irān-zamin/Baptists of Iran/Les baptistes d’ Iran, Tehran, 2001. Sayyed Ḥasan Taqizāda, “Ṣābeʾin,” in S. H. Taqizāda,, Maqālāt-e Taqizāda, ed. Iraj Afšār, IX, Tehran, 1978, pp. 42-48. U.S. Department of State: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, International Religious Freedom Report of 2004, available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2004/.

Mandaean websites: “Mandaean Associations Union,” at http://www.mandaeanu nion.com/. “Mandai Studies Center of Iran,” at http://www.iranmanda.com/.

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