The Mandaeans are a group of people defined primarily by their religious affiliation, which differs from that of their mainly Muslim neighbors in Iran and Iraq. Mandaean religion is related to the gnosticism of the third and fourth centuries, and it has affinities with both Judaism and Christianity. Based on evidence from Mandaean language and literature, it is thought that they migrated from the Jordan Valley eastward to Haran in the first century. From Haran, which is on the border between present-day Turkey and Syria, they moved on to southern Babylonia, where they have remained. Today they live along the rivers and waterways of southern Iraq and Khūzestān, Iran. The Mandaean language is related to Aramaic and contains West Syrian linguistic elements, which supports the belief that they migrated from west to east.
With the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, Muslim leaders declared that all religious groups must have a holy book and a prophet if they were to avoid being forcibly converted to Islam. The Mandaeans, then, proclaimed Ginza to be their holy scripture and John the Baptist to be their prophet. Ginza is a collection of mythological, revelatory, and hymnic writing divided into Right Ginza (material world) and Left Ginza (afterworld). The Right Ginza contains prose primarily concerned with the world of humans, and the Left Ginza contains verse primarily concerned with the fate of souls.
Ginza and other Mandaean holy books reflect the dualism that is inherent in all Mandaean beliefs and traditions. At least one of the major texts of Manichaeism, which is based on dualism, can be traced to a Mandaean original dated at about 250 A . D . In Mandaean dualism, diametrically opposed entities clash with each other—but are also intertwined and, to some extent, recognize the others' claims. Good and evil, light and darkness, soul and matter struggle with each other for control of the world. Mandaean mythology includes a preexisting lightworld (heaven), creation of the earth and humans, and the soul's journey back to the lightworld.
Mandaean rituals are also based on dualistic principles and center around the practice of baptism. Repeated baptisms take place on Sundays and specific festival days. There are two minor rites of ablution performed by individuals (not priests) and more important baptisms performed by a priest. Lay members get baptized as often as they want to, and baptisms are required at specific occasions, such as marriage, after childbirth (for a woman), and immediately before death (as close as can be predicted). Water acts to clean away sins and impurities; it also represents the lightworld as reflected in the earthly world. Because the baptismal river water symbolizes the lightworld, baptism becomes a kind of ascension preparing the individual for ascension at life's end. A more complicated, lengthy, and secret ritual is performed for the dead by priests.
The Mandaeans have never aspired to secular power or political expansion. As a non-Muslim minority within an Islamic society, the Mandaeans have not flourished, but they have generally been allowed to live in peace. An outbreak of cholera eliminated the priestly class in the 1830s, but they were replaced with new priests from the laity. With the rise of secularism, some scholars thought that they might be on the brink of extinction, but, with a renewed interest in traditional cultural and religious values and practices among this endogamous group, a Mandaean revival seems to be occurring.
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