Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mandaeans – the Most Deeply Screwed Religion

I never even heard of them, but Harper’s had an interesting mini-article on these ancient people of mysterious origins. They only live in a small area on Iraq-Iran border (prime vacation real estate!) and only right on a major river (for reasons noted below). There were only 60,000 left there in the 90s. maybe 5,000 now. Oh yeah, and they don’t care for Jews, Christians and especially Muslims who also happen to completely surround them. And their religion prohibits them from carrying guns or participating in violence.

In short, Mandaeans are in serious trouble, like Dodo-level trouble or Shaker trouble, but without the handmade furniture.

Quotes from the Harper’s article:

[Mandaeans] live, or lived, on the Iraq-Iran border; who knows how many are left? They are old, older than Islam; who knows how old? Some say they are heretical Jews, some say one of the Nazarene Christian sects, some a branch of Gnosticism or Manichaeanism: some say they came from Ceylon.

They believe they are the descendants of Noah's son Shem. All the other peoples of the earth descend from the union of Noah and a demon who disguised herself as Noah's wife.

They dislike the Jews, whom they call "an evil nation" founded by the renegade Mandaeans Abraham and Moses, a people whose husbands abandon their wives and lie down with each other. They believe that Jerusalem was created when seven evil stars slept with their mother.

They say the Christians have secret rites in which they worship a female donkey with three legs. And Jesus is a false Messiah.

They call Muhammad the "son of the butcher," and believe that he is Mars, the planet of violence, and the lord of the end of time. They say that he "propagates a shout that is not a shout."

They say that Socrates was a Mandaean.

They recognize all the major figures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but believe that all three members of the fun-loving monotheistic club are big phonies. But there is one figure Mandaeans revere: John the Baptist (you know the Baptism guy, Baptistised Jesus). And to this day they baptize almost everything…i.e. they dunk it in water, often, to bless it…babies, horses, the food they cook -- and they require dunking in flowing river water. Sanitation be damned.

They are baptized, with total immersion, once a week, and also baptized when they have been polluted: traveling among Muslims or foreigners, or forced to accept food or drink from them; eating fruits or vegetables that have not been purified in running water; being bitten by an animal; having quarreled with someone; contact with blood, whether from a nosebleed or menstruation; having touched a Mandaean who was in a state of pollution:

They cannot drink water from a tap or a bottle, for that "cuts" or kills the water. Only free-flowing water, from a river or spring, is alive.

In conclusion, Mandaeans have to live surrounded by free-flowing water…in the desert. Encircled by people who they hate…and who hate them. In a country that has descended into full-scale civil war…without weapons of any kind. And they don’t accept children from mixed marriges or converts...not that people were lining up to join anyway.

7/30 Update: from the comments a fascinating 7-min video on the Manaeans: video link


Anonymous said...

Dear Heathen,

As a proud Mandaean and Arab, I take great offense at your implication that we are an ignorant group of hate-mongers.

We are not ignorant!

We have many well-informed reasons as to why we are the only true religion and why our God is more powerful than all the other gods in Jerusalem AND Hollywood's Scientology offices COMBINED!

Having visited your Blog of Misinformation I am now sullied and must immerse myself underwater with my computer.

Death to you and your animals,

- Steve

Paul said...

I mean no disrespect and don’t wish to incur God's wrath in the form of prune fingers or swimmer's ear. As an outsider, it’s hard to understand a beautiful and sincerely held belief system that is not my own. I ask for the Mandaean forgiveness and hope to enjoy their most sacred of all party games: bobbing for apples.

Chollie said...

The article in Harper's was a selection from Eliot Weinberger's latest book, An Elemental Thing. Weinberger takes a bunch of stories about the Mandaeans from their texts and what other people say about them, and creates a kind of composite image. It's as if someone were to write an article about Christianity using only some of the most outre parts of the Early Church Fathers and what Jews and Muslims have had to say about Christians over the ages, kicked up a few notches to sound sensational ("they worship an undead savior whom they ritualistically devour every Sunday, and despise Jews for having killed him"). Suffice it to say, it is not at all representative of the modern faith, or really of any one stage of the religion. Don't take it too seriously.

If you want to see what the Mandaeans are really like, watch this video.

Paul said...

Chollie, you’re right. Granted, Weinberger dished out a sensational mix of myth and reality, but it did have the important effect of raising awareness. Thousands of readers would’ve never heard of these people if his account weren’t so, for lack of a better word, entertaining. I assume that only international recognition can save these people now (if anything can). He made them sound interesting, romantic even, in a way most believers in robes aren’t. Perhaps he did them a service instead of a disservice?

Good point about how Christianity might look with the same treatment. They sound crazy, like horror-movie crazy.

That Canadian Mandaean video was intriguing and showed them in the hard position of immigrants past: assimilating or keeping it real.

Dispelled some of the weirder notions, but it did confirm that they need a lot of regular river dunking and that they really won’t accept converts, or the children of mixed marriage. I just feel if my survival as a group was severely threatened, as the they so clearly are…that I’d be a bit more flexible about who could join. Maybe offer a 2-for-1 membership special or something.

Chollie said...

They are becoming a bit more flexible. For example, most of the Iraqi priests drink tap water, they're having a very serious debate about intermarriage (just as the Zoroastrians are), and a few priests have even said that they're willing to consider conversion into Mandaeism, although they don't see the point as we all ostensibly worship the same God anyway. Of course, the sort of things that are decided in casual conversation don't necessarily translate into policy, especially with religions as traditional as this one. The question is, how far can they afford to assimilate to western or Islamic societies before their religion becomes a sort of IslamLite or ChristianityLite? It's a tough call.

Mandaeism is very close in some ways to Judaism. The English-speaking ones even call their dietary restrictions "keeping Kosher" and have a very fraternal attitude towards Jews, which like all fraternal relationships is complicated.

Paul said...

In terms of assimilation, it matters where they are. If they remain in Iraq, it doesn’t seem they can survive without it. If they have a Diaspora of critical mass in some relatively safe Western countries, then there’s no need to go Islam/ChristianLite. Not that it’d be easy to stay traditional since assimilation brings comfort, but it’d be possible.

Regarding Kosher, it might just be that English doesn’t have a more appropriate word for that type of diet. For example, Mormons refer to non-Mormon’s as “Gentiles” (even Jews!) presumably because the word best captures that minority island in a majority sea in a way other words don’t.

I grew up around Amish country and they’d refer to us as “The English”. Cars are English, modern dress is English. It’s kind of an honorific (like Sir almost), but also kind of a slur; and the term always reinforces their otherness. The Amish don’t need to be flexible, but unlike the Mandaeans, they’re in a safe place with critical mass for their communities.

Anonymous said...

Yet another proud Mandaean:

Paul, it is better to answer my fellow proud Mandaean than to answer you! Your words are full of hate, ignorance, misinformation, and provocation to others to hate, and are self condemning, and do not require my reply. It should only take you rereading them to feel the need to repent them.

Fellow Mandaean: WE DON'T call death to others. We have lived for as long as history can tell, in peace; never do we care to justify our existence and our values to others, neither should we ask other to justify theirs. People who unjustifiably attack others will have a better enemy in themselves that you can ever provide.

Just believe that justice IS DIVINE.

WE ARE NOT NECESSARILY the only true religion, though we are free to believe so, and others are free to believe the SAME. Yet from me to you, we are NOT.

If you are to wish someone who harmed you anything, wish him/her to purify themselves. As for you, I do think you should "immerse yourself underwater" and get rid of the aggression you showed.

May purity and peace fill your soul.

Yours truly,
Proud Mandaean
If by pride, and if belonging to a race is a source of pride then we, Mandaean people, should be the nation of plenty.

P.S. Mandaean people are a race, and they are not Arabs, but we have lived with Arabs and know what to appreciate about their culture.