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Manicheanism was a gnostic religious movement founded by Mani (c. 216–274 or 276), an Iranian religious figure who believed that he had received divine instruction from a spiritual "Twin." The Twin revealed to him "the mystery of light and of darkness" and "the battle which darkness stirred up" when its demons attempted to invade the kingdom of light and entrapped light particles in material bodies. In 240, the Twin commanded him to become the apostle of a new religion and church. The Manichean community was composed of the Elect, whose rituals and strictly regulated behavior helped liberate light particles, and the Auditors, who led less austere lives and provided the Elect with nourishment. To this essentially dualistic religion, and in an attempt to create a truly universal faith, Mani and his followers deliberately added elements drawn from other religions they encountered, including Mithraism, Christianity, and Buddhism. Mani won the support of the Sassanian ruler Shahpur I (239–270) for his far-ranging missionary activities but aroused the enmity of the Zoroastrian clergy, led by the high-priest Kartir, who eventually persuaded Bahram I (271–274) to imprison Mani. Mani either died in prison or was executed. Manicheanism was thereafter ruthlessly suppressed both in the Sasanian East and the Christian West.

The Muslim conquests temporarily ended persecution of Manicheanism in the land of its birth. The Umayyad governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf (d. 714), apparently sought to accord Manicheans protected (dhimmi) status and to regulate the affairs of their community through an archegos based in Ctesiphon (Mada˒in). Efforts were also made to heal the sectarian schism that had developed between the Mesopotamian Manicheans and those in the east (known as the Dinawariyya). The Abbasid caliphs, however, were increasingly intolerant of religious diversity, and al-Mahdi (775–785) and al-Hadi (785–786) carried out a systematic purge of individuals suspected of zandaqa. This term was virtually a synonym for Manicheanism, and it is claimed that those accused of zandaqa had to prove their innocence by spitting on a portrait of Mani. Yet only one of the victims of this campaign has been shown to have actually been a Manichean proper; the Abbasid repression was rather directed against Manichean tendencies in Islam and more generally against nominal Muslims suspected of holding Persianizing, dualistic, syncretistic, subversive, free-thinking, or atheistic ideas. It did make the practice of Manicheanism more difficult and led to a new migration of Manicheans from Iraq to Central Asia. According to al-Nadim, the last leader of the Manichean community in Iraq fled to Khurasan in the time of al-Muqtadir (908–932). He further indicates that he had personally known some three hundred "Zindiqs" in Baghdad during the time of the Buyid emir Mu˓izz-al-Dawla (946–967), but this number had dwindled to less than five a quarter-century later.

Manicheanism was strongest in eastern Iran and Central Asia, where Sogdian merchants served as able missionaries for the faith. Its position was strengthened when, in about 762, it became the official religion of the Uighur khaghanate. According to al-Nadim, the "ruler of Khurasan" (presumably one of the Samanids) wanted to follow the Abbasid lead and exterminate the Manicheans in his kingdom but was restrained by the threats of the Uighur khaghan ("lord of the Tughuzghuz") to retaliate against the Muslims in his lands. A Manichean text in Parthian from this period shows that Manicheans were attempting to assimilate the terminology and concepts of Islam, just as they had in the case of other religions. From the tenth century onward, Sufi missionaries, including al-Hallaj, actively proselytized among the Manichean and Turkish communities. By Mongol times, Manicheanism had been supplanted in Central Asia by either Islam or Buddhism.

An unresolved question is the extent to which Manicheans and Manichean tendencies (mixed with neo-Mazdakism) may have been involved in anti-Abbasid revolts in Central Asia. It is suggestive, for example, that the famous revolt of al-Muqanna˓ (c. 777–783) took place in Sogdia and was supported by the Turks; he and his followers were known as "wearers of white" (reminiscent of the traditional garb of the Manichean Elect), believed in the transmigration of souls, and made much use of the imagery of light. There is, however, no direct evidence linking the revolt to Manicheans, and the dietary and sexual practices attributed to the rebels were certainly non-Manichean.

Mani and Manicheanism are mentioned in numerous Islamic historical and literary texts. They sometimes depict Mani as a prototypical arch-heretic, but he is also often treated as a genuine religious leader and, especially in Persian works, remembered as an acclaimed artist (as he was in fact the founder of the rich Manichean tradition of illustrated manuscripts and fresco paintings).

See alsoIslam and Other Religions .


Decret, François. Mani et la tradition manichéenne. Paris: Seuil, 1974.

Flügel, Gustav. Mani, seine Lehre und seine Schriften. Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1862.

Henning, Walter B. "Persian Poetical Manuscripts from the time of Rudaki." In A Locust's Leg: Studies in Honour of S. H. Taqizadeh. Edited by W. B. Henning and E. Yarshater. London: Percy Lund, Humphries, and Co., 1962

Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim. Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993.

Lieu, Samuel N. C. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China: A Historical Survey. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Nadim, al-. The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey ofMuslim Culture. Edited and translated by Bayard Dodge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Vajda, Georges. "Les Zindiqs en pays d'Islam au début de la période abbaside." Rivista degli Studi Orientali 17 (1937–1938):173–229.

Widengren, Geo. Mani and Manichaeism. Translated by Charles Kessler. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.

Elton L. Daniel