About this site | Join our Book Club | About the Author  
Culture of IRAN
Enter Your Email Address: 
Culture of Iran
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN
Home » Religion » Manicheans in Iran
Culture of Iran Culture of Iran
Manicheans (Manavi) in Iran
A Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

European Heretics and Persian Sufi Literature


In 1904, an announcement was made by F.W.K. Muller, the head of the German archeological expedition in East Turkistan that changed the history of Manicheanism. It was announced that the deciphered texts brought back from Turfan in Turkistan were Manichean writings. Subsequent discoveries of more texts in the same area in a number of languages—Chinese and Turkic texts in China and massive number of texts written in Coptic discovered in Egypt—forever changed the history and development of this religion. New translations of St. Augustine's writings against Manicheans also provided substantial information. New evidence emerged that connected Manicheanism to Christianity, sectarian medieval movements such as Albigensians, Waldensians, and Cathari, and later the order of the Knight Templars and a Christian mystical sect called Rosicrucian. There are also suggestions of connections to the secret society known as Freemasons, though as yet there is no concrete evidence to substantiate this claim. In the context of Iranian studies, the discovered texts also indicate that the bulk of the Persian mystical or Sufi literature that was produced in Iran after the Islamic conquest is a continuation of the mystical Manichean literature translated into New Persian (Farsi).

The Persian sage, Mani, in the latter half of the third century, founded this religion. It aspired to be the true synthesis of the major religions known at the time, and consisted of Zoroastrian dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics and Christian/Jewish elements.

Mani was a Gnostic and believed in salvation by knowledge. Manicheanism professed to be a religion of pure reason; it claimed to explain the origin, the composition, and the future of the universe and proclaimed that it had an answer for everything.

Its dualism preached that there was good and bad. 'YHWH', the God of Jews in the Old Testament, is the good one, spiritual and light; the bad god, called Satan in the New Testament, is material and darkness, but equally eternal and powerful. The good one is responsible for souls and minds of humans. Satan is in charge of human bodies, passions and emotions. Humans therefore are the battleground between the two gods, since they blend mind and matter, the basic principles of the two gods. Manicheans were taught to avoid the material, the passionate and emotional and to strive to become fully spiritual and rational. Those who became fully spiritual and rational could shed their bodies at death and return to heaven.

Those who remained attached to their material and passionate selves were condemned to a continuing cycle of re-birth into physical bodies. In practice, Manichean avoided meat, sex, and subsisted only on "light-bearing" vegetables, such as melons and radishes, not even participating in its preparation, since food preparation destroyed some of its light. The followers of the fate therefore needed assistants, or 'Hearers' who prepared their food and attended to their other needs. These Hearers were free to live in the world and even to marry. St. Augustine, one of the founding fathers of the Christian Church, was a Manichean and a Hearer for eight years earlier in his life. He later turned against the Manicheans and criticized it harshly in his writings and proclaimed it to be heresy.

St. Augustine condemned Mani for teaching that Christ was not human, but a divine being temporarily inhabiting an illusory body, and that the Holy Spirit was none than the "other self" of Mani himself. As such Mani was more or less the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, though in a less purely divine form than Christ. Manicheans rejected the Old Testament entirely and most of the New Testament, keeping only the book of Matthew and praising Christ who became a central figure in the faith.

They developed a straightforward explanation for the existence of evil. Evil existed because of the bad god, and existed in humans because the principles of light and darkness were unnaturally mixed in human beings. The ultimate goal of existence was to keep the light and the darkness finally separated, notions borrowed from Zoroastrians. Those who entirely devoted themselves to this work were the "Elect" or the "Perfect", those who accepted the doctrine but were unable to abstain from all earthly joys, became "the Hearers". They followed Mani's Ten Commandments, which forbade idolatry, mendacity, greediness, murder (i.e. all killing), fornication, theft and seduction to deceit, magic, hypocrisy, and religious indifference. There was also prayer and fasting as common duties for all.

Manicheanism spread with extraordinary rapidity in the East and maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the West (Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, but it flourished mainly in the land of its birth, (Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Turkistan) and even further east in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet, where it survived for almost a 1,000 years. It was its popularity and rapid expansion that resulted in the murder of its founder Mani by the Sasanian King Bahram I, and persecution of his followers by both the Persians and the Christian rulers.

Manicheans Mani (Manytos, Manentos and by St. Augustine always Manichaeus) is a title and term of respect rather than a personal name. It is probably from the Babylonian-Aramaic Mânâ meaning "light-spirit" or the "Light King" and "the illustrious" as Mani came to be known. He was born into a noble Iranian family around 215AD, in the village of Mardinu in Ecbatana (Hamadan). His father was a man of strong religious conviction, and left Ecbatana to join the South Babylonian Puritans, Mandaean Baptists and had his son educated by them. Mani received his first revelation at age twelve. “The angel Eltaum (God of the Covenant; Tamiel of Jewish Rabbinical lore appeared to him, bade him leave the Puritans, and live chastely, but to wait still some twelve years before proclaiming himself to the people". He could have been trained as a painter and artist at this time. Manichean illustrated manuscripts became legends on their own.

Babylon was still a center of the pagan priesthood though controlled by Zoroastrian Persians. In Babylon, Mani became thoroughly permeated with their ancient speculations. Manichean propaganda literature assert that Mani first proclaimed his new fate in the royal residence, Jundaishapur, on the coronation day of Shapur I in 242 AD, when vast crowds from all parts were gathered together.

He is reported to have said; "as once Buddha came to India, Zoroaster to Persia, and Jesus to the lands of the West, so came in the present time, this prophecy through me, the Mani, to the land of Babylonia".

He had little immediate success and was compelled to leave the country. For many years, he traveled abroad, founding Manichean communities in Turkistan and India. When he finally returned to Persia he succeeded in converting king Shapur's brother Peroz, and dedicated to the king one of his most important works, the "Shapurikan". Peroz obtained an audience with Shapur I for Mani, the meeting went badly and he was forced to leave the country and ended up in jail and was only released after Shapur's death in 274. The new king Ormuzd I was favorable to Mani, but his reign was short. In 276 or 277, his successor Bahram I, crucified Mani, had the corpse flayed, the skin stuffed and hung up at the city gate, as a terrifying spectacle to his followers, whom he persecuted with relentless severity. Soon after the Romans would start their persecutions.

Mani's greatest success was achieved in countries to the east of Persia. The Iranian historian Biruni in 1,000 AD mentions, "the majority of the Eastern Turks, the inhabitants of China and Tibet, and many in India belong to the religion of Mani". Within a generation after Mani's death, his followers had settled all the way to the Malabar Coast. Their spread in China and Turkistan was rapid and successful and the sect became popular amongst Christians and, as a result, suffered persecutions by the church. They were successful missionaries and recruited many influential people such as Augustine and Lady Julia of Antioch (Syria). A noble and powerful woman, in 404 she tried to convert the citizens of Gaza to the new religion with no success. They also acquired many followers in Egypt and many other parts of the Eastern Roman Empire that became Byzantium. The Emperor Justinian himself is reported to have disputed with them; Photinus the famous Manichean Perfect publicly disputed with Anoshirvan's court philosopher Paul the Persian. They gained support among the highest classes of society and within four centuries planted communities from Spain to China. Manicheanism competed with and influenced other major religions of the time to the extent that historians refer to it as "one of the major forces in religious history" (Jason D. BeDuhn, 2000).

It also influenced heresies of eastern origin that prevailed during the Early and Middle Ages in Europe, such as Albigensians, Waldensians, and Cathari. All were dualistic sects of the later Middle Ages. They were similar in doctrine and rituals to Manicheans and were all opposed and persecuted by the Christian Church in Europe. There is also some connection with the Order of the Knight Templars that emerged during the Crusade wars with Muslims. The Christian Knights formed the first organized military order and in a short period of time rose from an impoverished group of mercenaries to an extremely powerful and wealthy military force throughout the Holy Land, Egypt, Syria and the Christian Europe. They performed as a secret society and it is this aspect of their function that has been influenced by Manicheans who themselves ended up as secret societies due to massive persecutions in both the East and West.

As influential as this religion was, it is barely known in Iran, where it was born. Besides its importance as a major force in religious history, the discovered writings are some of the oldest and most important pre-Islamic Iranian literary texts that have survived. Their availability in a number of languages such as Syriac (Soryani), Coptic (Ghebti), Sogdi, Turkish, Chinese and Middle Persian makes them remarkable literary sources equal to any major ancient text that has survived. Another very important aspect of the Manichean literature is its impact on the Islamic mystical literature of Iran. A close reading of the discovered Manichean texts and their comparison with the mystical Iranian literature of the Medieval Period (Sufi literature) shows remarkable similarities in concepts discussed above in this article, such as the notions of the good and evil, light and darkness, avoidance of the earthly and the preference for the spiritual. Despite such influences, there is almost no literature or research conducted on the relationship between this ancient sect and Iranian Medieval mysticism, a task that awaits the emergence of a new generation of Iranian intelligentsia that no doubt will and has emerged in Europe and North America.


Recommended Readings:

  • Jason D. BeDuhn. The Manichaean Body: In Discipline and Ritual. The John Hopkins University Press, 2000.
  • Aboulghasem Ismailpour. Zaboor Manavi,Fekr Rouz Publication, Tehran, 1375.
  • Iain Gardner.  Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Online Sources:

Culture of Iran Culture of Iran
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN
Copyrights 2006 Cultureofiran.com Site By:
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN