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Manichaeism: An Overview


The doctrine professed by Mani and the path to salvation that he revealed constitute a form of gnosis. It originated during the first half of the third century in Mesopotamia, a region of the Parthian empire in which a number of different religious and philosophical schools were actively present, notably Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The sects and communities of the region reflected the influence of one or the other of these cults to varying degrees and were often characterized by an evident Gnostic orientation. Hellenism was well rooted and widespread in Mesopotamia (as in neighboring Syria), especially in the urban centers of Seleucid origin. Open to commercial and cultural exchanges, Mesopotamia was the region within the vast Parthian empire that was most likely to absorb syncretic and eclectic cultural and spiritual trends. Manichaeism, however, was not only a gnosis in the narrow sense; it was primarily a universal Gnostic religionthe only great universal religion to arise from the Near Eastern Gnostic tradition. No other Gnostic school was as successful as Manichaeism, and no other aimed, as it did, to establish itself as a truly universal religion, founded and nurtured by an enterprising missionary spirit.

As with all Gnostic movements, Manichaeism holds that knowledge leads to salvation and that this is achieved through the victory of the good light over evil darkness. As with all Gnosticism, Manichaeism is permeated by a deep and radical pessimism about the world, which is seen as dominated by evil powers, and by a strong desire to break the chains holding the divine and luminous principle inside the prison of matter and of the body. Knowledge leads to salvation through an anamnesis, in which the initiate recognizes that his soul is a particle of light, consubstantial with the transcendental God.

Manichaean Literature and Sources

Very little remains of the rich and varied Manichaean literature. We know the canon of its scriptures mainly through the titles of individual works, of which seven were attributed to Mani himself, and through fragments preserved in quotations by authors who were hostile to Manichaeism. Sometimes we do have most of the text, as, for example, in the Living Gospel, which was translated from Syriac to Greek. So too was the Treasure of Life, some passages of which were quoted by Augustine and by al-Bīrūnī; the Mysteries, of which we know the subtitles quoted by Ibn al-Nadīm and a few passages preserved by al-Bīrūnī; the Treatise, the Book of Giants, and the Epistles, of which Ibn al-Nadīm gives a list; and the Psalms and Prayers. All of these works were attributed to the founder of the faith, and rare and scattered fragments of them have been preserved in Manichaean texts from Central Asia (Turfan) and Egypt (Fayum). Two more works were attributed to Mani but are outside of the canon: the Image and the Shābuhragān, the book dedicated to the Sassanid king Shāpūr I. The purpose of the Image was to illustrate the main themes of the doctrine in a way that would be clear even to those not able to read. The Shābuhragān, the only work written in Middle PersianMani usually wrote in Syriac or Eastern Aramaicdiscussed cosmology, anthropogony, and eschatology and is known to us through fragments preserved in the Turfan manuscripts and through an essential quotation by al-Bīrūnī concerning the Seal of the Prophecy.

Manichaean patrology is relatively better known to us than Mani's writings, mainly through the texts discovered at Turfan around the beginning of this century and those found at Fayum in 1930. Among the hagiographic works, we should mention the Manichaean Codex of Cologne, a Greek translation of a Syriac original, dating from the fifth century, and the Coptic Homilies; among the doctrinal ones, the Coptic Kephalaia and the Chinese Treatise of Dunhuang; among the hymns, the Coptic Psaltery and the Iranian hymn books, in Middle Persian and in Parthian, found in Turfan, as well as those in Chinese from Dunhuang; among the practical and liturgical writings, the Compendium of Doctrines and Rules of the Buddha of Light, Mani, a treatise dating from 731, found in Dunhuang, that was translated from Parthian into Chinese for use in the administration of the cult. To the last category also belonged the Khwāstwānēft, a handbook of formulas for the confession of sins, which has come down to us in a Uighur text from Central Asia.

Thus the discoveries of the twentieth century have brought to light, albeit only partially and in a fragmented fashion, a literature that in many cases, especially in the psalms and hymns, is distinguished by its considerable literary value and by its strong and delicate poetic sensibility. These writings substantially modified the picture of Manichaeism that had been reconstructed through indirect sources before the end of the nineteenth century.

These sources, however, are still valuable, and they contribute now in a more balanced way to a reconstruction of Manichaean doctrine and history. They are numerous, and all by hostile authors, Neoplatonic, Christian, Zoroastrian, Muslim. There are Greek sources, from Alexander of Nicopolis to the Acta Archelai; Latin sources, from the Pseudo-Marius Victorinus to Augustine; Syrian sources, from Aphraates and Ephraem of Syria in the fourth century to Theodoros bar Kōnaī in the eighth; Middle Persian and Pahlavi sources, from passages in the Dēnkard (The acts of religion) to a chapter of the Shkand-gumānīg Wizār (The definitive solution to doubts), a Zoroastrian apologetic work (ninth and tenth centuries); Arabic and Persian Muslim sources, from al-Yaʿqūbī (ninth century), al-abarī, al-Masʽūdī, and Ibn al-Nadīm (tenth century) to al-Bīrūnī, aʿālibī (eleventh century), al-Sharastānī (twelfth century), Abūʾl-Fidā, and Mirkhwānd (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries).

Until Manichaean literature was rediscovered, the works of Augustine, al-Bīrūnī, Ibn al-Nadīm, and the Acta Archelai were the cornerstones of Manichaean studies. Although the situation has undoubtedly changed considerably thanks to the more recent discoveries, the accounts of some anti-Manichaean authors remain extremely important, especially when viewed alongside those passages in Manichaean literature that discuss similar or identical subjects. It is now easier to distinguish between that which was written in polemic and apologetic ardor and that which resulted from accurate and intelligent information concerning Manichaean doctrines. Some of the sources are particularly relevant since they provide likely and precious data: for example, de Moribus Manichaeorum, de duabus animabus, de Genesi contra Manichaeos, the writings against Adimantus, Faustus, Felix, Fortunatus, Secundinus by Augustine, the Manichaean cosmogony of Theodoros bar Kōnaī, and a few quotations and excerpts by al-Bīrūnī and Ibn al-Nadīm.

The Fundamental Doctrines

Manichaean doctrine places great importance on the concept of dualism, which is deeply rooted in Iranian religious thought.


Like Zoroastrian cosmology, which we know through relatively late texts (ninth century ce), Manichaean dualism is based on the doctrine of the two roots, or principles, of light and darkness and the three stages of cosmic history: the golden age before the two principles mixed together; the middle, or mixed, period; the present age, in which the powers of light and darkness battle for ultimate control of the cosmos; and the last age, when the separation of that which had become mixed, and between followers of good and evil, occurs. According to the Zoroastrian doctrine, this is the time of frashgird (MPers., "rehabilitation"; Av., frashōkereti ) in which the two poles of good and evil will once again be distinguished. The holy books that he himself has revealed are those of the two principles and three stages. The two principles are light and darkness; the three stages are the past, the present, and the future; this information comes to us from a fragment of a Chinese text. This is the doctrine to which Augustine makes referenceinitium, medium, et finis in his anti-Manichaean treatises Against Felix and Against Faustus. It is more fully expressed in another Chinese text:

First of all, we must distinguish between the two principles. He who wishes to join this religion must know that the two principles of light and darkness have absolutely distinct natures; if he cannot distinguish this, how can he practice the doctrine? Also, it is necessary to understand the three stages, that is, the prior stage, the middle stage, the posterior stage. In the prior stage, heaven and earth do not yet exist: there are only light and darkness, and they are separate from each other. The nature of light is wisdom, the nature of darkness is ignorance. In all motion and in all repose, these two are opposed to each other. At the middle stage, darkness has invaded light. The latter lunges forward to drive it back and thus itself enters the darkness and attempts at all costs to drive it out. Through the great calamity we acquire disgust, which, in turn, drives us to separate our selves from our bodies; in the burning abode the vow is made to attempt an escape. (Chavannes and Pelliot, 1913)

The "great calamity" is a metaphor for the body, and the "burning abode" stands for the world, seen as a burning house from which one is saved by escaping. The text continues: "At the later stage, instruction and conversion are accomplished, truth and falsehood have returned each to its roots: light has returned to the great light, and darkness has returned to the mass of darkness. The two principles are reconstituted" (Chavannes and Pelliot, 1913).

The two roots are not generated and have nothing in common: they are irreducible opposites in every way. Light is good, equated with God; darkness is evil, equated with matter. Because good and evil are coeval, the problem of the origin of evil (a central dilemma of Christian doctrine) is resolved, in the most radical and extreme way. Its existence cannot be denied; it is everywhere, it is eternal and can only be defeated by knowledge (gnosis), which leads to salvation through the separation of light and darkness.

The way in which the two principles are represented is reminiscent of the two spirits, or mainyu s, in the original Zoroastrian concept. Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu are opposites in all things (Yasna 30.36), and their choice between good and evil, between asha ("truth") and druj ("falsehood"), is also prototypical of the choice that must be made by humankind. The ethical value of Manichaean dualism is no less strong, although its answer to the problem of evil is, of course, more typically Gnostic. The Manichaeans refused to consider Ōhrmazd and Ahriman, the Pahlavi equivalents of the two mainyu s, as two brothers who are opposed one to the other. The Uighur text Khwāstwānēft states: "If we once asserted that Khormuzta [Ōhrmazd] and Shīmnu [Ahriman] are brothers, one the cadet, one the firstborn I repent of it and I beg to be forgiven for that sin" (1c.34). Thus they were not so much addressing the dualism of the Gāthās, as opposing the later dualism of Zurvanism, which had demoted Ahura Mazdā to the role of a symmetrical opposite of Angra Mainyu and placed Zurwān, who personified infinite time, above the dualistic formula. In fact, it is interesting to observe how the Manichaeans restored Ōhrmazd to a central role in the drama of salvation and in the very Gnostic approach to the prōtos anthrōpos, while considering Zurwān as one of the namesthe other Iranian name was Srōshaw for the Father of Greatness, "sovereign god of the heaven of light," "god of truth," that is, one of the two terms of the dualistic formula. Terms for the opposite pole are Devil, Satan, Ahriman, Shīmnu, Hulē, Matter, Evil, the Great Archon, and the Prince of Darkness.

Rather than metaphysical speculation, we find at the root of Manichaean dualism a merciless analysis of the human condition, a pessimism largely common to all forms of gnosis and to Buddhism. By the mere fact of being incarnate, humans suffer; they are prey to evil, forgetful of their luminous nature as long as they remain asleep and dimmed by ignorance in the prison of matter. While the two principles remain mixed, all is waste, torture, death, darkness: "Liberate me from this deep nothingness, from this dark abyss of waste, which is naught but torture, wounds unto death, and where there is no rescuer, no friend. There can be no salvation here, ever! All is darkness all is prisons, and there is no exit" (Parthian fragment T2d.178).

This pessimistic attitude toward the world and toward life, which perpetuates itself in the snares of matter, accompanied Manichaeism throughout its history, increasingly strengthened by the bitter and often violent confrontations between its followers and the other established religions of the eastern and western empires. It was probably also at the root of an antinomic tendency of these "subversives," who could see nothing good in a world full of horror, evil, and injustice. This was probably also an important reason for the fierce persecutions they sufferedas is evident from the testimony of Zoroastrian sources (Dēnkard, Madan edition, pp. 216218)as well as for their refusal to conform to traditional customs and practices. It also helped to bring about that damnatio memoriae to which Mani and Manichaeism were universally subjected.

Knowledge as the path to salvation

An essential and specific characteristic of Manichaeism is its Gnosticism, that is, its mixture of religion and science in a sort of theosophy. Manichaeism was attempting to give a universal explanation of the world, and it did not believe that mere faith and dogma were effective instruments in the search for redemption. On the contrary, Manichaean soteriology was based on knowledge. So it is understandable that Augustine should confess that he had most been attracted by precisely this aspect of Manichaeism during the years of his adherence to it (377382), that is, to the promise that humankind could be freed of the authority of faith and tradition and led back to God simply by the strength of reason.

Manichaeans did not accept tradition, be it that of the New Testament or that of the Zoroastrian scriptures (Kephalaia 7), without first making a distinction between what they recognized as true and authentic in them and what, in their view, was simply the result of deceitful manipulations and interpolations by ignorant or insincere disciples. Only Mani's authority was worthy of trust, as it was based on reason and drawn from revelation. It was also set down in writing by him with extreme care and with the precise intent of not letting his teachings be misrepresented. Manichaeans, therefore, prided themselves on not asserting any truth without a logical and rational demonstration thereof, and without first opening the doors of knowledge.

Such knowledge was, ultimately, an anamnesis, an awakening; that is, gnosis was an epignosis, a recognition, a memory of self, knowledge of one's true ego and, at the same time, knowledge of God, the former being consubstantial with the latter, a particle of light fallen into matter's obfuscating mix. Thus God is a "savior saved," or one to be saved: a transcendental, luminous principle, spirit, or intelligence (nous). It is the superior portion of humankind's ego, exiled in the body, and is the subject of the act of knowledge, thanks to which we will know where we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Humans have forgotten their nature, a blend of light and darkness, spirit and matter. The enlightening power of knowledge makes them understand their own nature, that of the universe, and their destiny. It is, therefore, a universal science, blending theology, cosmology, anthropology, and eschatology. It includes everything: physical nature as well as history. Reason can penetrate anything: "Man must not believe until he has seen the object with his own eyes" (Kephalaia 142).

The cosmogonic and anthropogonic myths

It may appear paradoxical to find that the doctrine of Manichaeism, founded in reason, whose ability and dignity it praised, was expressed in a language of myth, one that was crowded with figures and images and painted in strong, often dark colors. In fact, its mythology, which was invented by Mani himself, is intellectualistic and reflexive, almost metaphorical in character: Manichaean myths serve the purpose of illustrating the truth about the drama of existence, both macrocosmic and microcosmic. They achieve their objective with the aid of powerful images, most of which are derived from the mythological heritage of previous traditionsa fact that lent them greater weight and authorityand by the use of divine figures, both angelic and demoniacal, familiar, at least in part, to the popular imagination. Because Mani's teachings were directed to all the world's peoples, the actors in the great play could, to be more easily understood, adopt different names in different countries, drawing from local pantheons. Thus, Manichaean mythology is like a great album of pictures arranged in a sequence aimed at awakening in the adept reminiscences and intuitions that will lead him to knowledge. Small wonder, then, that Mani, who was famous for his paintings, should also use a book of illustrations, the Image (Gr., Eikon; MPers., and Pth., Ārdahang ), to convey his doctrine, or that his disciples later continued to do the same in their missionary activities.

Such a mythology must, of necessity, have keys to its interpretation. The first of these is the omnipresent dominant theme: that of the soul which has fallen into matter and is freed by its nous. Next, in order to understand what are often described as the aberrations of Manichaean mythsthose repugnant acts of cannibalism and sexual practices with which they are studded, as well as the self-destructiveness and autophagia of matterone must keep in mind two basic concepts: the Indo-Iranian idea of the equivalence of spirit, light, and seed (Eliade, 1971, pp. 130) and that of the distillation of light through the "gastric machine" of the elect, an act that corresponds to the great purification of the luminous elements (Syr., zīwānē ), which was carried out by the demiurge and his children at the beginning of time (Tardieu, 1981). The premise of the first concept is that light resides in the seed and through procreation is decanted from one body into another, undergoing the painful cycles of births and deaths (Skt., sasāra ). This follows the related doctrine of metempsychosis (Syr., tashpīkā; Lat., revolutio; Gr., metangismos ), an idea that originally came from India and that Mani adopted as pivotal to his system. The premise of the second is that just as the universe is the place in which all luminous bodies are healed, so the stomach is like a great alchemist's alembic, in which the elect, thanks to the high degree of purification he has attained, is able to separate the light present in food from all impurities, through a double cycle of filtering and return. This cycle is a microcosm, whose corresponding macrocosm is the distillation of the zīwānē into the moon and the sun (Tardieu, 1981).

The Manichaean origin myth is based on the doctrine of two principles (light and darkness) and three stages of creation. During the first stage of existence, the two principles, personified as the Father of Greatness and the Prince of Darkness, are separate, residing, respectively, in the north and in the south, kept apart by a border between their two kingdoms. The Prince of Darknessthat is, agitated and disorderly matterwishes to penetrate the kingdom of the Father of Greatness. Thus begins the second stage, in which the Father of Greatness, not wishing to compromise his five "dwellings" (Intelligence, Science, Thought, Reflection, and Conscience), decides to battle the Prince of Darkness and engenders an avatar, the Mother of the Living, who, in turn, produces Primordial Man. But the Prince of Darkness defeats Primordial Man and devours his five children. The avidity and greed of the Prince of Darkness, however, bring about his downfall; the five children of Primordial Man are like a poison within his stomach.

The Father of Greatness responds by creating a second being: the Living Spirit (who corresponds to the Persian god Mithra). The Living Spirit, who is also the father of five children, and Primordial Man confront the demons of the powers of darkness, and so the demiurgic action begins: from the bodies of the demons arise the skies, the mountains, the soil, and, finally, from a first bit of liberated light, the sun, moon, and stars. The Father of Greatness then creates a third being, called the Messenger, who incarnates nous; he is also called the Great Wahman, the Good Thought (Av., Vohu Manah). The Messenger calls forth twelve Virgins of Light, and they show themselves nude to the demons, both male and female, so that they will all ejaculate at the sight of such beauty and thus free the elements of light that they had ingested and imprisoned. The seed spilled on the dry earth gives life to five trees: thus is accomplished the creation of the world.

The creation of the human race then occurs as follows. The she-demons, thus impregnated, thanks to the Messenger's ruse, give birth to monsters, who swallow plants in order to absorb the light contained within them. Then Matter (darkness), in the guise of Az, the personification of concupiscence, in order to imprison the elements of light in a more secure fashion, causes the demons Ashaqlun and Namrael, male and female, to devour all the monsters, and then to mate. They then generate the first human couple, Adam and Eve. At this point, the work of salvation begins: Adam, kept wild and ignorant by the snares of darkness, is awakened from this state by the savior, the son of God, sent by the powers above. The savior is identified with Primordial Man, Ōhrmazd, or, later, with the transcendental Jesus, or the god of nous. The savior awakens Adam from his slumber, opens his eyes, shows him his soul, which is suffering in the material world, and reveals to him the infernal origins of his body and the heavenly origins of his spirit. Thus Adam acquires knowledge of himself, and his soul, thanks to gnosis, is resuscitated.

The third stage is the Great War between the forces of good and evil, characterized on the one hand by the desperate attempt of the Prince of Darkness to spread evil throughout the world by means of procreationthat is, by the creation of more and more corporeal prisons to entrap the elements of lightand on the other hand by the efforts of the Father of Greatness to spread good. Through the practice of the laws of the religion and, in particular, by interrupting the cycle of reincarnation, light is liberated; that is, the soul is freed by knowledge. When the church of justice triumphs, the souls will be judged, and those of the elect will rise to Heaven. The world will then be purified and destroyed by a fire lasting 1,468 years. All, or most, of the light particles, will be saved; Matter, in all its manifestations, and with its victims (the damned), will be forever imprisoned in a globe inside a gigantic pit covered with a stone. The separation of the two principles will thus be accomplished for all eternity.


We now know something more about the origins of the Manichaean religion, by comparing the Manichaean Codex of Cologne to other available sources, mainly the Arabic ones. Mani was raised in the environment of a Judeo-Christian Gnostic and baptist sect, which had been founded by a figure, almost more mythical than historical, by the name of Elchasai (Gr., Alkhasaios; Arab., al-Khasayh). Elchasaism was a particularly widespread movement during the third and fourth centuries in Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Transjordan, and northern Arabia. It survived for many centuries and is mentioned by the Arabic encyclopedist Ibn al-Nadīm as still existing during the fourth century ah in what is today southeastern Iraq.

It would, however, be a mistake to view the origins of Manichaeism only, or even mainly, in the light of such information, for one might erroneously conclude that the principal inspiration for the Manichaean doctrine was Judeo-Christian Gnosticism. The origins of Manichaeism are still open to question (as are, in fact, those of Gnosticism). The most likely interpretation would recognize the dominating imprint of Iranian dualism since without a doubt the dualistic doctrine is central and pivotal to Mani's thought and to the teachings and practices of his church. We must, however, consider the presence of three different forms of religious doctrine: the Iranian, which is basically Zoroastrian; the Christian or Judeo-Christian; and the Mahāyāna Buddhist. Of these, the Iranian form held the key to the Manichaean system and provided the essence of the new universalistic religious concept that developed from the main themes and aspirations of Gnosticism. If we were to separate the Manichaean system from its Christian and Buddhist elements, it would not suffer irreparably.

Manichaeism was long thought of as a Christian heresy, but this interpretation was already being abandoned during the nineteenth century and has now been entirely rejected. We must also reject the approach that perceives the Judeo-Christian components, more or less affected by Hellenism, as dominant (Burkitt, 1925; Schaeder, 1927). There is a widespread tendency today to give equal emphasis to what we have called the three forms of Manichaeism and to consider it a great and independent universal religion, although such an approach is sometimes still weighted in favor of the relationship between Manicheaism and Christianity (Tardieu, 1981). Nevertheless, if we discount certain obvious differences, we can assert that Manichaeism has its roots in the Iranian religious tradition and that its relationship to Mazdaism, or Zoroastrianism, is more or less like that of Christianity to Judaism (Bausani, 1959, p. 103).


We can trace the beginnings of the religion to the second revelation received by the prophet at the age of twenty-four, that is, on the first of Nisan of 551 of the Seleucid era, which corresponds to April 12, 240 ce (his first occurred at the age of twelve while he was living in the baptist community). It was then that there appeared to him an angel, his "twin" (Gr., suzugos; Arab., al-Tawm ), described as the "beautiful and sublime mirror" of his being, and it was then that Mani began his prophetic and apostolic ministry, breaking off from Elchasaism and its strict legalistic ritualism. He presented himself as the Seal of the Prophets and preached a new doctrine aimed at all peoplesBuddhists, Zoroastrians, and Christians.

A number of factors lead us to believe that, at the beginning of his ministry, Mani saw the universalistic religion he was founding as one that could be adapted to the new political reality of the Persian empire of the Sassanids, founded by Ardashīr I. To the emperor Shāpūr he dedicated a work, written in Middle Persian, that opened with a declaration of the universalistic idea of the Seal of the Prophecy. Any ambitions that great Sassanid ruler might have harbored for a universal empire would have found congenial a religious doctrine that presented itself as the sum and perfection of all the great prior religious traditions.

A missionary spirit moved Manichaeism from its very inception. Mani traveled first in the direction of the "country of the Indians" (perhaps in the footsteps of the apostle Thomas), with the hope of converting the small Christian communities scattered along the coast of Fars and Baluchistan (Tardieu, 1981) and perhaps, also, in order to penetrate lands in which Buddhism was already widespread. Manichaean tradition remembers this first apostolic mission by its conversion of Tūrān-shāh, that is, the Buddhist ruler of Tūrān, a kingdom in the Iranian world. That mission was a relatively brief one owing to the turn of events in the Sassanid empire. The death of Ardashīr and the accession to the throne of Shāpūr, the "king of kings of Ērānshahr," recalled Mani to Persia. Manichaeism began at that time to spread to Iran, where it acquired a prominent position, thanks also to the conversion of high court officials and even members of the royal family, and encouraged, to a certain degree, by the king's support. In fact, the image of Shāpūr in Manichaean tradition is a positive one: Manichaeism almost became the official religion of the Persian empire. Mani himself, after obtaining a successful audience with Shāpūr, joined the ruler's court and obtained his permission to preach the new creed throughout the empire, under the protection of local authorities. During this fortunate period for Manichaean propaganda in Iran, in the 250s, Mani wrote the Shābuhragān, a work he dedicated to his royal protector and which has reached us only in a fragmented form.

Once the work of its founder had established it as a real church, Manichaeism soon spread beyond the borders of Persia, both in the Roman Empire and in the east, southeast, and south. Mani wrote: "My hope [that is, the Manichaean church] has reached the east of the world and all inhabited regions of the earth, both to the north and to the south. None of the [previous] apostles has ever done anything like this" (Kephalaia 1).

The political good fortune of Manichaeism in the Persian empire lasted only a few years. The official state religion, Zoroastrianism, grew increasingly hostile as the Magian clergy, guided by influential figures such as the high priest Kerdēr, organized it into a real national church, with its own strict orthodoxy and a strong nationalistic spirit. The reasons for the conflict between the Zoroastrianism of the Magi and Manichaeism during the third century are numerous: a hereditary clerical caste within a hierarchical social structure based on caste tended to be conservative and traditionalist; the eastern empire's cultural and spiritual horizons were narrow, typical of an agrarian and aristocratic society such as that of the Iranian plateau and very different from the ethnically and culturally diverse and composite one in the westernmost regions of the empire, where there had arisen a flourishing and cosmopolitan urban civilization. The alliance between the throne and the Magi, which remained strong despite some internal contrasts for the entire duration of the Sassanid empire, did not allow Manichaeism to take over and, by subjecting it to periodical and fierce persecutions, finally weakened its drive and confined it to a minority position.

On the one hand, Manichaeism accurately reflected the most widespread anxieties and aspirations of that period's religious preoccupations, through its soteriology, the idea of knowledge as freedom, and the value it placed on personal experience of the divine; on the other hand, the restored Zoroastrianism of the Magi reflected a tendency, widespread during the third century in both the Persian and Roman empires, toward the formation of a national culture. From this standpoint, we can view Manichaeism more as heir to Parthian eclecticism and syncretism"one of the last manifestations of Arsacid thought" (Bivar, 1983, p. 97)than as an interpreter of the vast cultural and political changes witnessed in Iran upon the ascent to power of the Sassanid dynasty.

The first anti-Manichaean persecution in the Iranian state began, after the death of Shāpūr and of his successor, Hormīzd I, with the killing of Mani himself, ordered by Bahrām I, probably around the beginning of the year 277. Many other episodes followed, affecting Manichaean communities in all regions of the empire, from Khorasan to Mesopotamian Seleucia (Ctesiphon), the seat of the Manichaean papacy. Manichaeism, however, was not completely eradicated from the Iranian world; in fact, it survived for centuries. Under the caliphate of the Umayyads it remained alive in those territories that had been Sassanid, despite internal schisms and disciplinary controversy.

During the third and fourth centuries Manichaeism moved west, into the Roman Empire. It spread through Egypt, North Africa, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Dalmatia, and Rome and as far north as southern Gaul and Spain. Its adherents were the subjects of persecution by both central and peripheral imperial authorities, meeting everywhere with the strong hostility of the political and religious establishment. The Manichaeans were seen by Rome as a dangerous subversive element and were often thought to be agents of the rival Persian power. Despite persecutions and imperial edicts, such as that of Diocletian in 297, the faith for the most part persisted, except in some western areas of the Roman Empire. Manichaeism was perceived as a threat well into the Christian era. Repressive measures were repeatedly taken by Roman imperial and church authorities (notably Pope Leo the Great, in 445); nevertheless, in 527 the emperors Justin and Justinian still felt the need to promulgate a law inflicting capital punishment on the followers of Mani's teachings.

Like Zoroastrianism and Christianity, Islam had at first been tolerant of Manichaeism but in the end acted with equal violence against it. The advent of the Abbasid caliphate marked a renewal of bloody repressive measures, which succeeded in pushing the Manichaeans east, in the direction of Transoxiana, during the tenth century. It was in Khorasan, Chorasmia, and Sogdiana that the Manichaean faith expanded and gained strength, and there it became an outpost for the dissemination of Mani's gospel to China and Central Asia. In the last decades of the sixth century, the religion suffered a schism with the so-called Dēnāwars ("observers of dēn, " i.e., of the true religion), a rigorist and puritan sect. Samarkand became the new see of the Manicaean papacy.

Toward the end of the seventh century, Manichaeism reached the Far East. As the great caravan route from Kashgar to Kucha to Karashahr was reopened following the Chinese conquest of eastern Turkestan, Manichaeism made its appearance in China, mainly through Sogdian missionaries. In 732, an imperial edict allowed Manichaeans the freedom to practice their cult there. The religion also spread to Central Asia and Mongolia, to the vast empire of the Uighurs, who adopted Manichaeism as their official religion in 763. But political and military events following the fall, in 840, of the Uighur empire caused Manichaeism's supremacy in Central Asia to be short lived, although it probably survived there until the thirteenth century. In China, where the Manichaeans were persecuted during the ninth century and banned by edict in 843, just after the collapse of the Uighurs, Manichaeism nonetheless survived until the sixteenth century, protected by secret societies, alongside Daoism and Buddhism.

The Manichaean Church

At the core of the ecclesiastical structure was a marked distinction among classes of clergy, which were subdivided into four. The first included teachers or apostles, never more than 12; the second, bishops, never more than 72; the third, stewards, never more than 360; and the fourth were the elects (that is, the elects in general). The laity made up a fifth class. Only men could belong to the first three classes, that is, the true clergy, and above these stood the leader of the faithful, the Manichaean pope. The clergy lived in monasteries in the cities and supported itself through the gifts and foundations of the laity, according to a system clearly derived from Buddhist, rather than Christian, monasticism (Baur, 1831; Widengren, 1965).

Different moral codes governed the clergy and the lay population. The former was required to observe the five commandments: truth, nonviolence, sexual abstinence, abstinence from meat and from food and drink that were considered impure, poverty. The laity was required (1) to observe the ten laws of good behavior, which, among other things, prescribed a strictly monogamous marriage and abstinence from all forms of violence, both against men and against animals; (2) to pray four times a day (at dawn, midday, sunset, and night), after observing particular rituals of purification; (3) to contribute the tenth, or the seventh, part of their worldly goods to support the clergy; (4) to fast weekly (on Sundays) and yearly for the thirty days preceding the celebration of the festival of the Bēma; and (5) to confess their sins weekly (on Mondays), as well as during a great yearly collective confession at the end of the fasting period.

The liturgy was simple: it recalled episodes of the life of Mani, his martyrdom, and that of the first apostles. The principal festivity was the Bēma (Gr.; MPers., gāh; "pulpit, throne, tribunal"), which, on the vernal equinox, celebrated Mani's passion through gospel worship; the collective confession of sins; the recitation of three hymns to Mani; the reading of the apostle's spiritual testament, the Letter of the Seal; chants glorifying the triumphant church; and a sacred banquet offered to the elect by the listeners. In Manichaean holy places the bēma, a throne on five steps, was left empty in memory of the one who, having left the world, nonetheless remained as an invisible guide and judge of his church. The empty throne was probably originally a Buddhist symbol.

Heritage and Surviving Elements

The survival of Manichaeism as a source of inspiration for a number of medieval heresies in the West poses complex questions. Manichaean dualism has been adduced as an explanation for the origin of those heretical movements that were based on dualism, on moral asceticism, and on a more or less pronounced antinomism. Accusations of Manichaeismthe most widely despised of Christian heresieswere pronounced by adversaries against heretics to show their relation to the doctrines of Mani, although such a connection has been generally hard to prove beyond doubt.

Priscillianism, which arose in Spain at the end of the fourth century, was probably not related to Manichaeism, although Paulicianism, in seventh-century Armenia, probably was, as was Bogomilism. The latter arose in Bulgaria during the tenth century and spread along the Balkan Peninsula to the coastline of Asia Minor, along with the Cathari in southern France and northern Italy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; together they were considered links in the same chain, which might be called "medieval Manichaeism" or "Neo-Manichaeism." A connection among these movements is probable, and in fact such a link is certain between the Bogomils and the Cathari. However, it is not possible to prove their derivation from Manichaeism. Their popular character, the social environment in which they developed, and the typically Gnostic nature of Manichaeism all suggest a generalized influence rather than a direct derivation, that is, a background inspiration from the great dualistic religion of late antiquity. It now appears certain that in some instances Manichaeism itself did survive in the West in clandestine groups and secret forms, especially in Roman Africa, despite the proscriptions and persecutions of the sixth century.

The problem is analogous in the East, except in China, where we know that Manichaeism did survive, camouflaged in Daoist or Buddhist guise, until the sixteenth century. A Manichaean origin has been ascribed to Mazdakism, a religious and social movement of Sassanid Iran between the fifth and sixth centuries (Christensen, 1925), and some degree of Manichaean influence upon it is undeniable, although a more accurate perception would probably see the movement as a heretical form of Zoroastrianism. There has been an occasional attempt to consider Manichaean any Muslim zindīq (Arab., "heretic, free thinker"). The word derives from the Middle Persian zandīg, used by Zoroastrians to describe those who used the Zand, the Middle Persian translation of and commentary on the Avesta, in a heterodox manner. Although it is true that zindīq is often used to mean "Manichaean," its sense is actually broader; zandaqah cannot, therefore, be strictly identified with Manichaeism.

In any case, Manichaeism survived in the Islamic world, even through the persecutions of the Abbasid caliphate, and exercised some degree of influence on Gnostic currents in this world. Finally, there is a great likelihood of a direct connection between Manichaeism and some Tibetan cosmological concepts (Tucci, 1970).

See Also

Frashōkereti; Mani; Mazdakism.


A work that by now belongs to the prehistory of Manichaean studies is Isaac de Beausobre's Histoire critique de Manichée et du manichéisme, 2 vols. (Amsterdam, 17341739), which presented Manichaeism as a reformed Christianity. A hundred years later, Manichaean studies reached a turning point with F. C. Baur's Das manichäische Religionssystem nach den Quellen neu untersucht und entwickelt (Tübingen, 1831), which gave particular consideration to the Indo-Iranian, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist backgrounds.

In the years following, a number of general studies were published that still remain importantG. Flügel's Mani, seine Lehre und seine Schriften (Leipzig, 1862); K. Kessler's Mani: Forschungen über die manichäische Religion (Berlin, 1889); F. C. Burkitt's The Religion of the Manichees (Cambridge, 1925); and H. H. Schaeder's Urform und Fortbildungen des manichäischen Systems (Leipzig, 1927)even though more recent studies and discoveries have, by now, gone beyond them. Also useful are A. V. W. Jackson's Researches on Manichaeism, with Special Reference to the Turfan Fragments (New York, 1932) and H.-J. Polotsky's Abriss des manichäischen Systems (Stuttgart, 1934).

A quarter of a century apart, two important status reports concerning the question of Manichaean studies were published: H. S. Nyberg's "Forschungen über den Manichäismus," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 34 (1935): 7091, and Julien Ries's "Introduction aux études manichéennes," Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 33 (1957): 453482 and 35 (1959): 362409.

General works that remain valuable, although they give a partially different picture of Manichaeism, are Henri-Charles Puech's Le manichéisme: Son fondateur, sa doctrine (Paris, 1949) and Geo Widengren's Mani and Manichaeism (London, 1965). We are also indebted to Puech for a very useful collection of essays, Sur le manichéisme et autres essais (Paris, 1979), and to Widengren for another, with an important introduction, Der Manichäismus (Darmstadt, 1977), pp. ixxxxii, as well as for a more recent essay, "Manichaeism and Its Iranian Background," in The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3, edited by Ehsan Yarshater (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 965990.

The volume Der Manichäismus contains some of the most important contributions to Manichaean studies, reprinted entirely or partially (all in German), by H. S. Nyberg, F. C. Burkitt, H. H. Schaeder, Richard Reitzenstein, H.-J. Polotsky, Henri-Charles Puech, V. Stegemann, Alexander Böhlig, Mark Lidzbarski, Franz Rosenthal, W. Bang-Kaup, A. Baumstark, Charles R. C. Allberry, Prosper Alfaric, W. Seston, J. A. L. Vergote, W. B. Henning, Georges Vajda, Carsten Colpe, and A. V. W. Jackson. Two noteworthy syntheses of Manichaeism in French are François Decret's Mani et la tradition manichéenne (Paris, 1974) and M. Tardieu's Le manichéisme (Paris, 1981); the latter is particularly full of original suggestions.

Two works from the 1960s are dedicated more to Mani himself than to Manichaeism, one concerning mainly the social and cultural background from which Manichaeism emerged and the other mainly dedicated to the religious personality of the founder: Otakar Klíma's Manis Zeit und Leben (Prague, 1962) and L. J. R. Ort's Mani: A Religio-Historical Description of His Personality (Leiden, 1967).

Although the once-classic work on Manichaean literature, Prosper Alfaric's Les écritures manichéennes, 2 vols. (Paris, 19181919), is now quite dated, there is a wealth of more recent works to which we can turn. A whole inventory of Iranian documents from Central Asia can be found in Mary Boyce's A Catalogue of the Iranian Manuscripts in Manichaean Script in the German Turfan Collection (Berlin, 1960). Excellent editions of Iranian and Turkic texts are due to F. W. K. Müller, A. von Le Coq, Ernst Waldschmidt and Wolfgang Lentz, W. Bang, and Annemarie von Gabain, F. C. Andreas, and W. B. Henning, published in the Abhandlungen and in the Sitzungsberichte of the Prussian Academy of Sciences between 1904 and 1936. W. B. Henning's pupil, Mary Boyce, has also published, in addition to the above-mentioned catalog, two other important contributions to Manichaean studies, The Manichaean Hymn Cycles in Parthian (Oxford, 1954) and A Reader in Manichaean Middle-Persian and Parthian, "Acta Iranica," no. 9 (Tehran and Liège, 1975). Editions of Iranian texts, as well as a number of extremely careful philological studies, can be found in W. B. Henning's Selected Papers, 2 vols., "Acta Iranica," nos. 1415 (Tehran and Liège, 1977), where are reprinted also Henning's fundamental Mitteliranische Manichaica aus Chinesisch-Turkestan, written in collaboration with F. C. Andreas between 1932 and 1934.

W. Sundermann and P. Zieme, two scholars from the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, are currently responsible for continuing research in the Iranian and Turkish texts from Turfan, which are preserved in Berlin. We owe to them, among other things, Sundermann's Mittelpersische und parthische kosmogonische und Parabeltexte der Manichäer (Berlin, 1973), Mitteliranische manichäische Texte kirchengeschichtlichen Inhalts (Berlin, 1981), Ein manichäisch-soghdisches Parabelbuch (Berlin, 1985), Der Sermon vom Licht-Nous (Berlin, 1992), Der Sermon von der Seele (Turnhout, Belgium, 1997), and Zieme's Manichäisch-türkische Texte (Berlin, 1975), Altun Yaruq Sudur. Eine Lehrschrift des östlichen Manichäismus (Turnhout, Belgium, 1996). On the state of research into Iranian texts, see also Sundermann's "Lo studio dei testi iranici di Turfan," in Iranian Studies, edited by me (Rome, 1983), pp. 119134. Recent research on Sogdian Manichaean texts has been done by N. Sims-Williams (London) and E. Morano (Turin), following the lead of Ilya Gershevitch (Cambridge). Again in the context of Central Asian texts, the handbook for the confession of sins has been carefully edited, after the work of W. Bang and W. B. Henning, and with an ample commentary, by Jes P. Asmussen in Xāstānīft: Studies in Manichaeism (Copenhagen, 1965); the Shābuhragān is the subject of an extremely useful work by D. N. MacKenzie, "Mani's Šābuhragān, " Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 42 (1979): 500534 and 43 (1980): 288310.

Concerning the Chinese texts, the following are useful works. On the Treatise, see Édouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot's "Un traité manichéen retrouvé en Chine," Journal asiatique (1911): 499617 and (1913): 99392. On the Compendium, see Chavannes and Pelliot's "Compendium de la religion du Buddha de Lumière, Mani," Journal asiatique (1913): 105116 (Pelliot fragment), and Gustav Haloun and W. B. Henning's "The Compendium of the Doctrines and Styles of the Teaching of Mani, the Buddha of Light," Asia Major, n.s. 3 (1952): 184212 (Stein fragment). On the London Chinese hymn book, see, in addition to the work of Ernst Waldschmidt and Wolfgang Lentz, Tsui Chi's "Mo-ni-chiao hsia-pu tsan," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 11 (1943): 174219.

On the Coptic texts of Fayum, a survey of the state of research can be found in Alexander Böhlig's "Die Arbeit an den koptischen Manichaica," in Mysterion und Wahrheit (Leiden, 1968), pp. 177187. Among editions of the texts are Manichäische Homilien, by H.-J. Polotsky (Stuttgart, 1934), Kephalaia, by C. Schmidt, H.-J. Polotsky, and Alexander Böhlig (Stuttgart, 19351940; Berlin, 1966), and Charles R. C. Allberry's A Manichaean Psalm-Book, vol. 2 (Stuttgart, 1938). On the Manichaean Codex of Cologne, see Albert Henrichs and Ludwig Koenen's "Ein griechischer Mani-Codex," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 5 (1970): 97216, 19 (1975): 185, and 32 (1979): 87200, and Ludwig Koenen and Cornelia Römer, Der Kölner Mani-Kodex. Über das Werden seines Leibes (Opladen, 1988).

Of indirect sources, I shall mention here only the following few. On Augustine, see R. Jolivet and M. Jourion's Six traités anti-manichéens, in Oeuvres de Saint Augustin, vol. 17 (Paris, 1961); on Theodoros bar Konai, see Franz Cumont's Recherches sur le manichéisme, vol. 1 (Brussels, 1908); on Zoroastrian sources, see J.-P. de Menasce's Une apologétique mazdéenne du neuvième siècle 'Škand-gumānīk vicār' (Fribourg, 1945); and on Islamic sources, see Carsten Colpe's "Der Manichäismus in der arabischen Überlieferung" (Ph.D. diss., University of Göttingen, 1954).

Three valuable anthologies of Manichaean texts are A. Adams's Texte zum Manichäismus, 2d ed. (Berlin, 1962), Jes P. Asmussen's Manichaean Literature (Delmar, N.Y., 1975), Alexander Böhlig and Jes P. Asmussen's Die gnosis, vol. 3 (Zurich, 1980), Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. Gnosis on the Silk Road. San Francisco 1998, and Il Manicheismo, edited by Gherardo Gnoli, vol. 1. Milan, 2003.

Concerning the spread of Manichaeism in Asia, in North Africa, and in the Roman Empire, there are numerous works. The old text by E. de Stoop, Essai sur la diffusion du manichéisme dans l'Empire romain (Ghent, 1909), heads the list, followed by Paul Pelliot's "Les traditions manichéennes au Fou-kien," Tʻoung pao 22 (1923): 193208; M. Guidi's La lotta tra l'Islam e il manicheismo (Rome, 1927); Uberto Pestalozza's "Il manicheismo presso i Turchi occidentali ed orientali," Rendiconti del Reale Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, 2d series, 67 (1934): 417497; Georges Vajda's "Les Zindiqs en pays d'Islam au debout de la période abbaside," Rivista degli Studi Orientali 17 (1937): 173229; Giuseppe Messina's Cristianesimo, buddhismo, manicheismo nell'Asia antica (Rome, 1947); H. H. Schaeder's "Der Manichäismus und sein Weg nach Osten," in Glaube und Geschichte: Festschrift für Friedrich Gogarten (Giessen, 1948), pp. 236254; O. Maenchen-Helfen's "Manichaeans in Siberia," in Semitic and Oriental Studies Presented to William Popper (Berkeley, 1951), pp. 161165; Francesco Gabrieli's "La zandaqa au premier siècle abbasside," in L'élaboration de l'Islam (Paris, 1961), pp. 2328; Peter Brown's "The Diffusion of Manichaeism in the Roman Empire," Journal of Roman Studies 59 (1969): 92103; François Decret's Aspects du manichéisme dans l'Afrique romaine (Paris, 1970); and S. N. C. Lieu's The Religion of Light: An Introduction to the History of Manichaeism in China (Hong Kong, 1979) and Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (Manchester, 1985).

Among studies devoted to special topics, note should be taken of Charles R. C. Allberry's "Das manichäische Bema-Fest," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 37 (1938): 210; Geo Widengren's The Great Vohu Manah and the Apostle of God (Uppsala, 1945) and Mesopotamian Elements in Manichaeism (Uppsala, 1946); Henri-Charles Puech's "Musique et hymnologie manichéennes," in Encyclopédie des musiques sacrées, vol. 1 (Paris, 1968), pp. 353386; and Mircea Eliade's "Spirit, Light, and Seed," History of Religions 11 (1971): 130. Of my own works, I may mention "Un particolare aspetto del simbolismo della luce nel Mazdeismo e nel Manicheismo," Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli n.s. 12 (1962): 95128, and "Universalismo e nazionalismo nell'Iran del III secolo," in Incontro di religioni in Asia tra il III e il X secolo, edited by L. Lanciotti (Florence, 1984), pp. 3154.

In the most exhaustive treatment of Manichaeism to have appeared in an encyclopedic work, Henri-Charles Puech's "Le manichéisme," in Histoire des religions, vol. 2, edited by Puech (Paris, 1972), pp. 523645, we also find a full exposition of the problem concerning the heritage and survival of Manichaeism, with a bibliography to which one should add Raoul Manselli's L'eresia del male (Naples, 1963).

Despite the length of the present bibliography, there are some works cited in the text of my article that have not yet been mentioned here. On the relationship between Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, see Alessandro Bausani's Persia religiosa (Milan, 1959); on the Parthian heritage in Manichaeism, see A. D. H. Bivar's "The Political History of Iran under the Arsacids," in The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3, edited by Ehsan Yarshater (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 2197; and on the influence of Manichaeism in Tibet, see Giuseppe Tucci's Die Religionen Tibets (Stuttgart, 1970), translated as The Religions of Tibet (Berkeley, 1980).

After 1987, among individual and collective works, proceedings of international conferences, etc., see: Julien Ries, Les études manichéennes. Des controverses de la Réforme aux découvertes du XX? siècle (Louvain-la-Neuve, 1988); Manichaica Selecta. Studies Presented to Professor Julien Ries, edited by Aloïs van Tongerloo and Søren Giversen (Louvain, 1991); Alexander Böhlig and Christoph Markschies, Gnosis und Manichäismus (Berlin, 1994); The Manichaen NOYΣ, edited by Aloïs van Tongerloo and J. van Oort (Louvain, 1995); Turfan, Khotan und Dunhuang, edited by Ronald E. Emmerick, W. Sundermann, Ingrid Warnke and Peter Zieme (Berlin, 1996); Emerging from Darkness, edited by Paul Mirecki and Jason BeDuhn (Leiden, 1997); Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China (Leiden, 1998); Jason BeDuhn, The Manichaean Body in Discipline and Ritual (Baltimore, 2000); Xavier Tremblay, Pour une histoire de la Sérinde. Le manichéisme parmi les peuples et religions d'Asie Centrale d'après les sources primaires (Vienna, 2001); Augustine and Manichaeism in the Latin West, edited by Johannes van Oort, Otto Wermelinger, Gregor Wurst (Leiden, 2001), The Light and the Darkness, edited by Paul Mirecki and Jason BeDuhn (Leiden, 2001).

Gherardo Gnoli (1987)

Translated from Italian by Ughetta Fitzgerald Lubin

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