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History of Mandeans and Their American Community

posted on: Oct 1, 2021

History of Mandeans and Their American Community
Mandeans performing baptism, one of their most important rituals. Source: Kirkuk Now

By Evan Ploeckelman / Arab America Contributing Writer

Many religions have risen and fallen throughout the history of the Middle East. One such community which has withstood the religious changes of the region is the Mandeans. Their unique faith is in trouble, however, due to the conflicts in Iraq over the last few decades and their dwindling numbers. Here, we are going to learn about their religion and how it has adapted in their diaspora communities, specifically in the United States.

Basics of Mandaeism

History of Mandeans and Their American Community
Abatur, the second emination of the Mandean God. Source: Wikipedia

Mandaeism is a monotheistic, Abrahamic faith, and they revere figures like Adam, Noah, Abraham, and especially John the Baptist. In fact, they view John the Baptist as the very first Mandean. Mandaeism is also a Gnostic faith, and one of the very few still surviving until the modern day. Gnosticism is a confusing term with many different aspects, but in its most basic sense, Gnosticism involves the belief that salvation comes from the personal knowledge of a purer, spiritual world beyond our own, which is why ancient church leaders often viewed Gnostics as heretics, since they did not adhere to their same beliefs. As such, Mandeans tend to believe in a personal connection with a God who is extremely remote and unknowable. They also are strongly dualistic, with their main God, who remains unknowable, being a God of light and the spiritual, whereas the lower Gods, such as Ptahil and Abatur, being gods of the material world. In fact, these lower Gods, or emanations from the one true God, are the creators of this world, and the goal of an individual is to reunite one’s soul, the non-material aspect of oneself, with the unknowable God.

History of Mandeans and Their American Community
Mandeans practicing baptism. Source: Ahwaz

One of the most important practices of the Mandeans is baptism. Unlike Christianity, where baptism occurs only once, baptism for Mandeans happens every Sunday. These take place at a Mashkanna, or structure next to a flowing river. All rivers that are acceptable to be baptized in are called Yardena, named after the Jordan River where John the Baptist performed his baptisms. Baptisms also require one to fully submerge themselves in the water, just as John the Baptist performed them. 

Mandeans also believe in abstaining from red meat and alcohol, and are typically egalitarian and pacifist. In fact, the earliest known Mandean scribe, Shlama Beth Qidra, was a woman. She copied down the Left Ginza, one of the most important texts of Mandaeism (the other being the Right Ginza). However, unlike other Gnostic faiths, such as Manichaeism, Mandeans do not practice asceticism nor do they abstain from giving birth. This is because, while they do view the material world as merely a prison for the spiritual part of themselves, they do not necessarily view it as evil. 

Mandeans in Diaspora

There are currently between 60,000 and 100,000 Mandeans worldwide. Even though they had a small number of adherents, their geography, being located in the swamps of the Tigris and Euphrates river deltas in southern Iraq, shielded them from most outside influence throughout the centuries. However, with the US invasions of Iraq in the 90’s and 00’s, many Mandeans have faced violence and were forced to flee to nearby countries, like Iran or Jordan. In fact, Iran has the most Mandeans out of any country in the world solely due to these refugees. 

Many Mandeans have also sought asylum in Western countries. Sweden has the most Mandeans at around 7,000, followed by Australia at around 6,900 as of 2016. The United States is also home to around 5,000 Mandeans, who came after they were given refugee status by the Bush Administration in 2007. The first wave came and settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is currently the largest Mandean community in the US. Another group, of mostly Iranian Mandeans, came and settled in Texas.

Mandeans in the US

History of Mandeans and Their American Community
A baptism performed in Worcester, Massachussets. Source: PRI

While the Mandeans are safe from persecution in the US, life is not always easy for them. Many people in the US think of them as muslim, and they face some prejudice that way. Furthermore, their community was split due to the Mandeans being sent to different countries around the world. This is a big deal because Mandeans must marry into their faith in order for their children to be Mandean. Since no one can convert to Mandaeism, many fear this could destroy the faith and culture of the Mandeans over the next few decades. Furthermore, for communities in Worcester or Sweden, baptism practices had to change due to the fact that it can get really cold in these places, freezing the rivers they use for their rituals. They have adapted to using pools in these areas, but it is not the same.

However, the Mandeans are building a solid foothold within the US. There are plans to build a Mashkanna in the US in Worcester in the near future, and many of their traditional practices are still being upheld. At the current moment, all is not lost for the community.

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