Manichaeism: Manichaeism in Iran

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Manichaeism, a basically Gnostic religion founded by Mani, was widespread in antiquity. In Iran, this religion very strongly made use of Zoroastrian motifs to look like a genuine Iranian religion. This fact led both to intensive interaction between Manichaeism and other Iranian religions, also stimulating some aspects of those religions, and to severe persecution of Manichaeans alike.

The Life of Mani

Mani (216277) was born into an Iranian family, but at the age of four his father took him to live with the religious community of the Elkasaites. Mani's father, Pattik, may have been of Arsacid stock, so it is assumed that Mani was well acquainted with Iranian and Zoroastrian tradition.

At the age of twenty-four, Mani began preaching. In 241, after Shāpūr I (r. 241272) had become king of the Sasanian empire, Mani began to spread his teaching at the Sassanian court. He was introduced by Pērōz, a high-ranking member of the nobility, possibly the king's brother. The central themes in his message were the "two principles of light and darkness" and the "three times." Both ideas have their roots in Zoroastrian cosmology: first, the original time when the realms of light and darkness existed side by side with equal strength but separated by a boundary; second, the time of mixture after the combat between light and darkness; and third, the time of the renewed separation of the two principles.

Mani strongly depended on and made use of Zoroastrian religious thoughts combined with his own Gnostic teachings to provide an Iranian framework for his cosmogonical and eschatological myth. He not only adopted the terminology and the dualistic mythology of the Zoroastrians, but also made dualism even more exclusive: The material world was considered the devil's (or Ahreman's) realm; only the spiritual world was good.

Shāpūr, who was driven to acquire and introduce new knowledge into his kingdom, listened to Mani because Mani presented his religion as a kind of "reform" of Zarathushtra's (Zoroaster's) ancient teachings. Further, according to Mani's teachings, all former religions had been included in this new religion. This idea fit Shāpūr's dream of establishing a large empire incorporating different peoples and their different creeds. Therefore, Shāpūr viewed Manichaeism as a suitable syncretistic yet still Iranian religion to serve as a common bond for all people in the emerging empire: for Christians in the West, due to the Gnostic tradition picked up in Manichaeism; for Zoroastrians, due to Mani's attempt to present himself as a "new Zoroaster;" and for Buddhists in eastern Iran, as a result of the Manichaean missionary Mār Ammō's journeys during the middle of the third century. Thus Manichaeism flourished for thirty years within the Sassanian Empire. Mani himself stayed in the Persis and western Iran, where he developed a good deal of his missionary work and his church organization.

This situation changed after Shāpūr's death. Although King Hormīzd (r. 272273) favored Mani, the religio-political career of the Zoroastrian priest Kerdīr (mid-third to early fourth century) started during this time. Following Hormīzd's short reign, his elder brother Wahrām I (r. 274277) became king. Kerdīr managed to influence the new king, strengthening Zoroastrianism and thus weakening Manichaeism. Mani was summoned to the court at Bēt Lāpāt (Gundēshābuhr) by Wahrām I and interrogated about his religion. Although Mani could heal Wahrām's servants from demons and fever, Wahrām sentenced him to prison in order to settle Zoroastrian accusations against Mani, possibly raised by Kerdīr. Mani died in prison on February 26, 277.

The years following Mani's death resulted in persecutions of the members of Mani's church, reaching their climax with the martyrdom of Sisinnos, then leader of the religion, in 286 during the reign of Wahrām II (r. 277293). These years focused on Kerdīr's career and his promotion of Zoroastrianism as the only religion in the Sassanian Empire. This led to the persecution of other religions, as stated in Kerdīr's inscription from Naqsh-i Rostam:

And the creed of Ahreman and the dēws was driven out of the land and deprived of credence. And Jews and Buddhists and Brahmans and Aramaic and Greek-speaking Christians and Baptisers and Manichaeans were assailed in the land. And images were overthrown, and the dens of demons were (thus) destroyed, and the places and abodes of the Yazads were established. (Boyce, 1984, p. 112).

The Spread of Manichaeism

Persecutions of the Manichaeans resulted in an exodus of Manichaeans from central Iran to Mesopotamia and the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Other refugees found shelter with the Arab king Amaro of Hira (end of third to beginning of fourth centuries), who in the last decade of the third century convinced the Sassanian king Narseh (r. 293302) to put an end to the persecutions of Manichaeans in Iran. Narseh had another reason to end the repression of the Manichaeans: when the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284305) issued an edict against the Manichaeans in 297, Narseh saw a chance to get Manichaean support for his military agitations against the Romans.

For some years the Manichaeans managed to live calmly, but during the reign of Narseh's successor Hormīzd II (r. 302309), the Zoroastrian priests again voted for the extirpation of the Manichaean creed. Once again the kingdom of Hira helped many Manichaeans to flee from Iran to the west; others sought refuge in eastern Iran, spreading Manichaeism along the Silk Road as far as central Asia in the following centuries. In eastern Iran (present-day Turkmenistan), Manichaeism had been known since the middle of the third century, due to the missionary efforts of Mār Ammō, and in the early fourth century, refugees could find shelter there. As a result, Iranian Manichaeism came into intensive contact with Buddhism that spread westward from the Kushāna Empire, thus leading to the further adaptation of Buddhist traditions by Manichaean missionaries, who partly adapted Buddhist terminology like nirvāa (Parthian: prnybr'n ) or "salvation" (Parthian: mwxš ) for Manichaean theological ideas.

In the sixth century, Manichaeism reached its climax in eastern Iran, with Samarkand as the religious and administrative center, independent from the Manichaean west. Shād-Ohrmezd (d. 600) was the most prominent East Iranian leader of the community of the Dēnāwars, the "Pure Ones"; he was very engaged in preserving and spreading Iranian Manichaean literature. Besides Parthian missionaries, Sogdians began to play an important part in transmitting Iranian religious ideas farther to the east. However, Manichaeism was accepted among Sogdians only from the end of the sixth centuryafter Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Buddhism had spread among them.

Zoroastrian Persecution of the Manichaeans

Even though Mani spent most of his life establishing his religion in the core area of Iran, from the early fourth century on, Manichaeism had its centers elsewhere and there are relatively few extant original Manichaean sources in Iran. From the Dēnkard, a theological compendium of the Zoroastrians in Middle Persian language, it is written that during the reign of Shāpūr II (r. 309379), the Zoroastrian priest Ādurbād ī Māraspandān (mid-fourth century) was the main adversary of Manichaeism, and the third book of the Dēnkard brings to light Ādurbād's refutation of Mani's doctrine, opening with the line: "Ten injunctions which the crippled demon Mani clamoured against those of the restorer of righteousness, Ādurbād ī Māraspandān." These refutations showed some differences between Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, mainly that the Zoroastrian world view was believed to be much more in agreement with the cosmos and not as anticosmic as Manichaeism. It is probable that this theological refutation of Mani's religion by an important Zoroastrian priest of the time gave an ideological justification for the persecution of Manichaeans during the mid-fourth century.

Although the persecution of Manichaeans during the reign of Shāpūr II seemed to be less fierce than the persecution of Christians by the same king, there is one interesting Syriac text referring to the martyrdom of the Christian Aitāllāh: The Sassanian authorities tried to persuade Aitāllāh to abstain from his faith by referring to the example of an imprisoned Manichaean who, after being tortured, had anathemized Mani and his faith. To prove his abrogation from his former religion, this Manichaean even killed an ant to show that he no longer followed the Manichaean prohibition of killing any animal. Manichaeans believed that some part of the divine light was included in every being, thus killing even an ant would harm the divine element in it. This episode not only highlighted the persecution of Manichaeans in the Sassanian Empire, it also indicated the attempts to reconvert them to Zoroastrianism. By killing the ant, the (former) Manichaean not only showed his willingness to break with his former religious behavior, but also acted according to Zoroastrian behavior: Killing ants and other creatures of this kind, which are Ahreman's creations bringing evil to the world, is a religious act to partake as a Zoroastrian in the cosmic battle against Ahreman's creations.

During the fourth century Zoroastrians tried to convince Manichaeans to convert to Zoroastrianism, even through pressure. But the Zoroastrian clergy also reacted against the still-practicing Manichaeans in another way. Several scholars have argued that the appreciation Manichaeans gave to their canonical "holy books" led to the creation of a written Avesta by the Zoroastrian clergy during the fourth century (see cf. Hutter, 2000, p. 314). This book was produced to compete with the Manichaean books. In theological disputes, Zoroastrians no longer had to rely solely on the oral tradition; they now had a book showing that it was not Zoroastrianism that had failed, but Mani who had falsified the teaching of Zoroaster.

With such a book, Zoroastrian priests and judges could act against Manichaeism. In the early fifth century, during the reign of Yazdegerd I (r. 339420), the persecutions of Manichaeans had been renewed. In the legal textbook Mādigān ī hazār dādestān (Book of thousand judgments), it is written that the property of heretics should be confiscated; heretics (zandīq ) in this passage referred to Manichaeans. Also Mazdak's movement during the reign of Kawād (r. 488497 and 499531) was not always distinguished from Manichaeism. Mazdak (about 460524) was a charismatic figure whose doctrine combined Gnostic thoughts with Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Greek elements. His doctrine focuses on a good god, but man is bound to earth in a pessimistic way. When man comes in contact with the divine he is able to remove all his earthly bonds. Mazdak also tried to abolish social distinctions and and reach equality among all people.

Still, during the reign of Khosrow I (Anūshirvaān, r. 531579), there lived some Manichaeans in the area of present-day Iran. Thus despite persecution, Manichaeans formed a part of the religious pluralism within the Sassanian Empire. After the decisive victory of the Arabs over the Persians in 637, the initial tolerance of the Arabs gave rise to Manichaeism in western Iran for a short period, with some Manichaeans returning from Khorasan and eastern Iran. But this was only a brief revival before the end of Manichaeism in Iran proper at the end of the seventh or at the beginning of the eighth centuries.

Manichaean Thought in Iranian Religious History

From the discoveries of Manichaean literature in the Turfan oasis in Chinese Turkestan during the early twentieth century, it has been determined that the Middle Persian language remainedeven in central Asiathe ritual language for Manichaeans, at least at a symbolic level. There are passages in this language inserted in Parthian and Sogdian liturgical texts showing that the origin of Manichaeism in the core area of the early Sassanian Empire was long influential.

Manichaean thought also lived on in Iran proper, influencing later periods. When Ādurbād ī Māraspandān opposed Manichaeism in the fourth century, he supported the positive Zoroastrian stance to the material world against the pessimistic and negative tendencies of the Manichaeans. On the other hand, the "heretical" Zurwānite interpretation of Zoroastrianism, showing the material world in a negative light and as Ahreman's work, was comparable to the Manichaean worldview. Such ascetic aspects in parts of the Zoroastrian religion that try to avoid contact with the material world are possibly the result of Manichaean influence on Zoroastrianism.

Another important aspect is the Manichaean symbolism of the divine light: the Column of Light/Glory (bāmistūn ) and the Maiden of Light (kanīgrōšn ) are also adapted within Zoroastrianism, as well as partly in Sufism and even in the recent Bahā˒ī religion. Mani's concept of the heavenly twin (yamag ) may also have had some impact on ūfī mystics. The idea that the succession of prophets, sent by God to different peoples at different times, was adopted by Mani to prove his claim to be God's last prophet for humankind. This same idea was taken up in Islamic thought (and transferred to Muammad), as well as in the middle of the nineteenth centurythrough Islamic intermediationwhen it was taken as the cornerstone of Bahā˒ī theology. The founder of Bahā˒ī, Bahā˒u˒llāh, saw himself as the latest in a line of subsequent messengers, continuing God's revelation.

Manichaeism as a living religion flourished in the central parts of Iran only for a relatively short period, but nevertheless Iranian influence remained integral for Manichaeism, and Manichaeism had a lasting effect on Iran. Mani's ideas form one important branch in the religious history of Iran, leaving an impact on Zoroastrianism, Iranian Islam, and the Bahā'ī faith.


Bausani, Alessandro. Religion in Iran: From Zoroaster to Baha'ullah (1959). Translated by J. M. Marchesi. New York, 2000.

Buck, Christopher. "Unique Eschatological Interface. Bahá'u'lláh and Cross-Cultural Messianism." In Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History. Vol. 3, edited by Peter Smith, pp. 157179. Los Angeles, 1986. Article focuses on continuing revelation according to Bahā'ī theology, also covering Mani's concept of prophetic succession within Iranian religions.

Corbin, Henry. The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. Translated by Nancy Pearson. Boulder, Colo., 1978.

Gignoux, Philippe. Les quatre inscriptions du mage Kirdīr. Paris, 1991.

Gignoux, Philippe, ed. Recurrent Patterns in Iranian Religions from Mazdaism to Sufism. Paris, 1992. Important collection of essays, covering also Manichaean topics.

Hutter, Manfred. "Manichaeism in the Early Sasanian Empire." In Numen 40 (1993): 215.

Hutter, Manfred. "Manichaeism in Iran in the Fourth Century." In Studia Manichaica. IV. Internationaler Kongress zum Manichaeismus, edited by Ronald E. Emmerick, Werner Sundermann, and Peter Zieme, pp. 308317. Berlin, 2000.

Hutter, Manfred. "Die frühe manichäische Mission unter Buddhisten im Ostiran." In Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 10 (2002): 1932. This is a series of three articles covering most of the history and religious history of Manichaeism in connection to the religious pluralism in the Sassanian Empire.

Lieu, Samuel N. C. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China. 2d ed. Tübingen, Germany, 1992. An overview on the historical development, especially pp. 106115.

Olsson, Tord. "The Refutation of Manichaean Doctrines in Denkard 3.200." In Manichaeica Selecta. Studies Presented to Professor Julien Ries on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, edited by Alois van Tongerloo and Soren Giverson, pp. 273293. Louvain, Belgium, 1991.

Sundermann, Werner. "Studien zur kirchengeschichtlichen Literatur der iranischen Manichäer IIII." In Altorientalische Forschungen 13 (1986): 4092; 239317; Altorientalische Forschungen 14 (1987): 41107. Very detailed study of the Iranian literature and historical sources for Manichaeism.

Tremblay, Xavier. Pour une Histoire de la Sérinde. Le Manichéisme parmi les peoples et religions de l'Asie Centrale d'après les sources primaires. Vienna, 2001. Focusing mainly on eastern Iran and the Sogdians, also with a valuable appendix containing many details on all relevant written sources for Manichaean history in eastern Iran.

Manfred Hutter (2005)