Due to developments in Iraq in recent years, only a minority of the Mandaean population, with roots going back to ancient Gnosticism, remain there, while many more are attempting to establish themselves in Western countries as they attempt to organize themselves, reports Friedman Eissler in the German monthly Materialdienst der EZW (November).
The Mandaeans (called “Sabaeans” in the Quran) may be the only surviving group going back to a Gnostic religion of the early Christian era. They have their own sacred books (including ones that claim to report the teachings of John the Baptist), written in their own Mandaean language, which has fallen out of use in the daily lives of the faithful, but is used for religious purposes. They consider themselves as the most ancient religion, going back to Adam. They have priests, who are the only ones qualified to perform rituals, the main ones being baptism, marriage and funerals (complex ceremonies that take over 45 days for helping the soul during its ascension toward the world of light). They turn toward the North for prayer. Only people born in the faith can be Mandaean: one does not convert to this religion.
According to Mandaean sources, there are some 70,000 members around the world. A majority of them used to live in Iraq, with a smaller number in Iran. While there may still be 5,000 to 10,000 of them in Iran, they have dwindled to a small number in Iraq, where their survival seems to be seriously threatened. Only a few thousand are reportedly left there. Moreover, this comes after many decades of pressure toward assimilation after increased Mandaean migration toward Iraqi cities. This also has led both to tensions (even splits), due to a new assertiveness of laypeople as well as a movement of renewal and reform that includes efforts of maintaining the Mandaean legacy through education.
The article reports that Mandaeans in the diaspora are found in Sweden (around 5,000), in Australia (some 6,000, mostly from Iran), in Germany (2,200), in the United States and in a few other countries. Associations have been founded and a few priests are active in the diaspora. There are today a number of Mandaean academics with an interest in maintaining and strengthening their own cultural legacy, according to Eissler. Another positive factor is that the number of priests is increasing again. It is too early to predict the future of the Mandaean religion in a diaspora situation, but Eissler says the Mandaeans are expressing a strong interest for interreligious contacts.
(Materialdienst der EZW, Auguststrasse 80, 10117 Berlin, Germany – http://www.ekd.de/ezw/)