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Religion in Iran Manichaeism

Mar 29, 2018
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 14 min.

The Sassanian Dynasty ruled over Iran for more than four centuries (226-642 A.D.) to all outward appearance with great splendour and glory. Yet when the Sassanian Empire came to grips with the desert Arabs, inspired with the new Gospel of Islam, the whole of this vast and splendid fabric crumbled to pieces within a short time. There was something essentially wrong in the body politic of Iran from the very commencement of Sassanian rule. Hidden underneath the outward splendour and the vast military achievements of the Sassanians there lurked the germs of decay.

All through the four centuries of Sassanian rule Zoroastrianism continued to be the “official state religion”, but historians have also spoken of several “heretical sects”. Apparently these were suppressed, but “we lack here the material necessary for forming a judgment because the triumph of the orthodox doctrine doomed to oblivion most of the views that deviated from it”. In spite of this outward triumph of Zoroastrian orthodoxy, the fact remains that quite a number of “heresies” were formulated from time to time and two of them actually found a very considerable response among the masses. One such heresy was promulgated by Mani at the very beginning of the Sassanian era and another was the “heresy” preached by Mazdak almost at the end of the rule of the Sassanians. “It may be suggested that the simple fact of the existence of such heretical movements as Manichaeanism and Mazdakism is an indication of the presence of those germs of decay which foreshadowed the final downfall of the national faith in Persia”.

The Sassanian Dynasty was established by Ardashir Papakan of the house of Sasan in the year 226 A.D. Ardashir headed the national revolt against the fratricidal struggles and the irreligious misrule of the Arsacid (Parthian) rulers of Iran. The Arsacid rulers were Zoroastrians in name, but they thought more of their own power and position than of their country of their religion. Politically the nation had suffered in the eyes of all the world, for the national capital had been taken and sacked by the Romans no less than three times within the course of one hundred years. Added to this shame were the “irreligious” and unorthodox ways of the Arsacid rulers, which gave mortal offence to Ardashir and his zealous followers. Ardashir headed the national movement against the Arsacids, who, the people believed, had led the country to the brink of utter ruin. The province of Pars (Persis) over which Ardashir had been ruling was the centre and rallying point of whatever was left alive of the ancient Zoroastrian Faith. Ardashir and his followers believed that it was only by the restoration of the ancient religion that a stable rule could be established and the people made content. Fired by this enthusiasm Ardashir led the double movement for the restoration of the ancient Faith of Zoroaster and for the establishment of the pure Aryan form of government in the land.

Ardashir himself was a priest, and his priesthood had been inherited from a long line of ancestors. The whole nation rose to his call, and Ardashir was wholly successful in both his objects. And when he died in 242 A.D. he left his newly founded empire to his son Shapur I. And whit it he left the following “testament” for his son to follow:

“When monarchs honour

“The Faith then it and royalty are brothers,

“For they are mingled so that thou wouldst say:-

”‘They wear one cloak’. The Faith endureth not

“Without the throne nor can kingship stand

“Without the faith; two pieces of brocade

“Are they all interwined set up

“Before the wise….

“Each needeth other, and we see the pair

“United in beneficence”.

Believing in this Ardashir had established a full-fledged theocracy in Iran. Himself a priest he followed strictly all the complicated ceremonial prescribed by his Faith, and like an enthusiastic and sincere believer he built up his empire upon the solid foundations of religion. This is clearly depicted on his coins, as also on all the coins minted throughout the Sassanian period. On the reverse of each coin we see a fire-altar flanked on either side by a human figure fully armed. One of these represented royalty, the secular power; and the other represented the Dasturan-Dastur (the High-Priest of the Empire), representing spiritual might. These are the “two brothers”.

In this theocratic state established by Ardashir I there lurked already concealed the germs of decay. Such a theocratic constitution would naturally give special weight to the priesthood of one particular religion, and give special importance to one particular set of beliefs and dogmas. The Achaemenians had ruled over an empire much more extensive than that of the Sassanians, but their religious policy had been throughout one of tolerance toward all the various faiths of their subjects. The Sassanians, on the other hand, sought to achieve solidarity and unity through uniformity of belief (at least for the majority of their subjects) and in definitely assigning a higher position in the state to one particular Faith and to one set of religious practices and dogmas. This favoured position granted to Zoroastrianism naturally led the Zoroastrian clergy to think themselves as a sort of “chosen people” of God and slowly but surely worked into them a spirit of intolerance for all other beliefs.

It is indeed quite significant that the very first announcement of the new eclectic Faith of Mani should have been made on the very day that Shapur I, the son and successor of the founder of the Sassanian house, was crowned at Ctesiphon (20th March, 242 A.D.).

In Mani’s own lifetime and in the country of its origin this new faith was “combated and execrated as violently by orthodox Zoroastrianism as it was by orthodox Christianity when it spread westward into the imperial domains of Rome”. Until the beginning of the present (20th) century of Christ all the information we possessed about Mani and his teaching was from these two sources and we had nothing more. The Zoroastrian priesthood called him “the fiend incarnate” and “the crippled devil” (for he was lame), and Christian writers were equally abusive.

In 1902-1903 the first expedition to the Turfan region in Central Asia was sent from Berlin and it was led by Gruenwedel and Huth. This was followed by the second one in 1904 led by Le Coq, and by a third one led by Le Coq and Gruenwedel. This last carried on the work from 1905 to 1907 and it resulted in bringing “a veritable treasure trove” of Manichaean Fragments to Berlin. These documents from Turfan include fragments from the original works of the Manichaean Faith, and considerable portions of a once extensive Manichaean literature. These are in a dialect of Pahlavi, in Sogdian, in Old Turkish and in Chinese. All these have been deciphered and skilfully edited and translated, and they have shed considerable light on Mani’s life and teachings. From these we can conclude that “Manichaeism was not only an offshoot of Zoroastrianism in a way, and the parent of various heretical movements in Christianity, but was also a factor for centuries in the religious life of Central and Eastern Asia”.

Mani was a Persian by birth and was probably also brought up as a Mandaean 1. His father was a well-to-do man of considerable learning and with distinctly eclectic tendencies in matters of religion. Mani was born about 216 A.D. At the age of about twenty he had a spiritual vision and inspired by divine revelation he came forward as a new prophet. His endeavour was to make “a synthesis of elements from various existing religions to form a new religion, eclectic in character, and inspired by the favour of his own idealistic enthusiasm, one that should not be confined by national borders but be universally adopted. In other words, Mani’s aspiration was to bring the world, Orient and Occident, into closer union through a combined faith, based upon the creeds known in his day”.

Mani’s teaching is designedly a synthesis. He has specially acknowledged his indeptedness to Zoroaster, buddha and Jesus, whom he regarded as “poineer revealers of truth which he came to fulfil”. From Zoroastrianism he took the doctrine of the fundamental struggle between Spirit and Matter as the basis for the solution of the problem of Good and Evil. In the teachings of Buddha he found the essential lessons for the conduct of life which should be accepted by all men everywhere. And in Jesus he recognized “the verified ideal of Life”. He supplemented his teaching by incorporating the doctrines of Hinduism, and the old Babylonian beliefs which had survived to his days. And in his teaching we may also trace a strong admixture of Gnostic, Neo-platonic doctrines. This eclectic character of Mani’s teaching made it easier to be adopted by any person professing any faith, for they would pass themselves off as a sect of their original creed. As it was Mani’s teaching was received kindly at first, and even King Shapur I became his friend and protector.

But this new teaching did not quite suit the orthodox and narrow-minded Zoroastrian priesthood. Opposition to Mani’s views grew stronger daily and at least Shapur I had to advise Mani to leave the country and to go into exile. Mani thereupon left Iran and for many years wandered about all over Central Asia, penetrating as far east as China. It was during these years of wandering that he gave final shape to his teachings, which were then committed to writing. His creed spread rapidly throughout Central Asia and he had a considerable number of followers among the Chinese. His faith continued in the East till about the 17th century of Christ.

Mani remained in exile till the death of Shapur I in 272 A.D. He came back to Iran and was well-received by Shapur’s successor Hormazd I. But when Hormazd I died after a very short reign (272-273 A.D.) his successor, Bahram I, showed his strong dislike for Mani by putting him to a horrible death. His followers were cruelly persecuted and the Faith of Mani was banned throughout the whole Iranian Empire. So his followers migrated westward and southward. Passing through Egypt the religion spread all along the northern coast of Africa and from there it penetrated to Sicily and to Spain and thus spread all over Europe. For several centuries it continued active all over Europe disguised as various “heretical” sects of Christianity. One very notable Manichaean was St. Augustine, who was brought up in this Faith in his youth before he took up his active work for the Church of Christ. In Bulgaria Manichaeism appears as the sect of the Bogomil (beloved the God), in Italy it appeared as the Cathari, another “heretical” sect. The last record of this religion is found among the Albigensis in southern France, who were ruthelessly massacred by the orthodox Catholics there.

In the East the stranghold of the Manichaeans was the kingdom of the Uigurs, and there they flourished in peace until the Uigurs themselves lost their kingdom. In China they seem to have faded out gradually.

The main teaching of Mani concerned the struggle between Good and Evil. This is due, according to him, to the existence of the Twin Principles from the beginning and the struggle is to go to all eternity. Mani taught that Light was Spirit and hence “good” and that Darkness was Matter and consequently “evil”, Mani recognized three principal “Ages”. The first “Age” was before this visible universe came into being, when the Two Principles were entirely separated. In the second “Age” our present age, Darkness burst through the dividing partition into the region of Light, and this resulted in universal conflict. The third “Age”, which will see the final consummation, will bring the final triumph of Truth and Light and the complete separation, as in the first “Age”, of the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness.

Sketch of Mani’s life and the growth of his church

Mani was born on 14 April, A.C. 216, in northern Babylonia, which then formed part of the province of Asoristan, in the Parthian empire. His father, Patteg or Pattig, is said to have come from Hamadan. His mother, Maryam, was of the family of the Kamsaragan, who claimed kingship with the Parthian royal house, the Arsacids. Mani’s own name, a fairly common one, is Aramaic and not Iranian.

According to Ibn an-Nadim, Patteg left Hamadan for al-Madain in Babylonia. One day, in a temple which he frequented there, he heard a voice from the sanctuary summoning him to renounce wine, meat, and intercourse with women. Obeying this call, he left al-Madain to join a sect known as the “Mughtasila” (“those who bathe themselves”). The Mughtasila appear to have been baptizing gnostics, probably followers of Elchasaios. Mani himself was apparently brought by his father as a child of four to live among them.

According to his own account, preserved by Ibn an-Nadim and al-Biruni, Mani received, while still a boy, a revelation from a spirit whom he called the Twin, who taught him the diving truths of his religion. This was probably in 228, early in the reign of the Persian Ardashir, who had overthrown the Parthians. During the last years of Ardashir’s reign, some twelve years later, the Twin appeared again to Mani and summoned him to preach the truth he had learnt to mankind. Mani first expounded these to his own father and the elders of his family; and thereafter set out by sea on a missionary journey to India, that is, to Turan and Makran (modern Baluchistan and Sind). Here he met with success in that he converted the king of Turan and the number of his subjects. Probably in 242, the year of the accession of Ardashir’s son, Shapur I, Mani returned by sea to Pars, and travelled through it on foot, preaching but meeting with hostility. From Pars he reached Mesene, the little kingdom at the mouth of the Tigris, and thence returned home to Babylonia. He travelled through Babylonia, preaching, and back to Pars, and into Media, arousing much opposition; but at some point he suceeded in converting to his faith Peroz, bother of Shapur, who, according to Ibn an-Nadim, procured him audience with the king. According to the Manichaean Kephalaia, Shapur summoned Mani thrice from Ctesiphon, and on the third occasion accepted him as a member of his own court and gave him leave to preach his religion without hindrance throughout his realms.

According to Alexander of Lycopolis, Mani, as a member of Shapur’s court, accompanied the king on one of his Roman campaigns, either against Gordian III (242-44) or against Valerian (256-60). According to the Kephalaia, Mani spent many years in attendance on Shapur, and many years preaching “with good harvest” in Persia and Parthia, and up to Adiabene and the lands bordering on the frontier with Rome. It appears that, as well as preaching, the prophet practised medicine and healed the sick. At some time before A.C. 262 he converted another of Shapur’s brothers, namely Mihrshah, king of Mesene.

Between 244 and 261, at a time when Mani himself was in Weh-Ardashir (a part of al-Madain), he sent a mission to Egypt under Adda and Patteg, who had earlier been to “Rome”. (It seems probable that this Patteg was Mani’s own father.) This mission, which met with considerable success, reached as far as Alexandria. Another mission, sent out by the prophet from Hulwan (on the highway from Babylon to Hamadan) was led by Ammo, who was accompanied by an Arsacid prince. Ammo penetrated to the far north-east of the empire, to Parthia and Marv and beyond. There he founded communities, and converted the ruler of Waruch (modern Gharch). A third mission, led by Adda and Abzaxya, in 261-62, made converts among the Christian in Karkuk. There were doubtless many other missions of which no record survives.

By the time of Shapur’s death, probably in A.C. 273, Manichaeism appears to have been well established in his realms, although the state religion continued to be Zoroastrianism. Mani withdrew to Babylonia during the brief reign, lasting one year, of Shapur’s son Hormizd I; but some time after the succession of Hormizd’s brother, Vahram I, he travelled down the Tigris, visiting his communities, and having reached Hormizd-Ardashir (Ahwaz), intended to set out for the north-eastern provinces of the empire. This was forbidden him, and he turned back to Mesene, whence he travelled up the Tigris again to Ctesiphon. From there he visited Kholassar, where he was joined by the vassal-king Bat, another of his royal converts. There a summons came to him to attend Vahram’s court at Beth-Lapat (Gundeshapur). Here he encountered the hostility of Zoroastrian priests, and after a harsh audience with the king was imprisoned, in heavy chains. He died after 26 days in captivity, probably in A.C. 277.

The further history of the Manichaean church in Iran and the east

After Mani’s death, the leadership of his church was in dispute between two of his followers, Sisinnios and Gabriabos. The former was successful, and led the community until his martyrdom in 191-2. His successor, Innaios, appears to have won tolerance for the Manichaeans, which lasted until new persecutions broke out under Hormizd II. Little is known of the church during the rest of the Sasanian period, except that it endured many bloody persecutions at the hands of the Zoroastrian, and that its main strength gradually became concentrated beyond the Oxus, over the north-eastern border of Iran. Towards the end of the 6th century the transOxian community claimed independence, under Shad-Ohrmizd, from the Babylonian Leader. Under the name of the Denawars, they maintained their autonomy until the early 8th century, when this administrative schism was healed, the rule of the Babylonian Leader Mihr (c. 710-40) being accepted in Central Asia.

Although the Manichaean community beyond the Oxus was reinforced by refugees (Persians and Parthians) from within the borders of Iran, most of its members were Sogdians, an eastern Iranian people inhabiting those regions.

The Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century gave a brief respite from persecution to the Manichaeans there, and some even returned from beyond the Oxus to their homes. Under the ‘Abbasids harsh persecutions began again. Nevertheless the church maintained itself in Bagdad until the 10th century, when the seat of the Leader was transferred to Samarkand. After this century the Manichaeans virtually disappear from Iranian records.

From at least 692 (when, after a troubled period, the Chinese reopened the silk-routes across Central Asia), Manichaeism penetrated eastward through Sogdian merchant-colonies, strung out along the caravan-roads between the Sogdian city of Samarkand and China. A Manichaean missionary reached the Chinese court in 694; and in 732 an imperial edict gave permission for foreigners resident in China to practise this religion there.

In the 8th century a vast area of Central Asia was conquered by the Uigur Turks; and in 762 one of their rulers adopted Manichaeism, which became the state religion of this huge kingdom until its overthrow by the Kirghiz in 840. Manichaeism probably survived in Eastern Turkistan till the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, maintaining itself most strongly in and around Qocho (near modern Turfan), which remained a petty Uigur principality. In China the religion was proscribed in 863, but although persecuted it survived there at least until the 14th century.

by Iran Chamber

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