aka Mandaeanism or SabeanismAlthough almost everyone claims to be carrying out the One True Mission, there are extraordinarily few religions that actually live up to the hype. Modern Catholicism would baffle St. Peter if he were alive today. Moses wouldn't be able to make heads nor tails of a Woody Allen movie. Mohammed... Well, let's just say it's hard to imagine that Mohammed would be very happy about what people are currently doing in his name.
In a world full of changes, you have to admire a sect that knows the value of tradition. The Mandeans are one of a very few religions that can reasonably claim to be keeping the faith. They've stuck the script through thick and thin, through crusades and caliphates.
Unfortunately, their continued survival is now in question, thanks to George W Bush, but more on that in a moment.
Virtually all of the Mandeans in the world live in a tiny stretch along the border of Iran and Iraq. The sect claims to be the descendants of the original followers of John the Baptist, and the claim is actually fairly credible (as these things go). Although John is their most prominent prophet, the Mandeans themselves claim that their religion predates the Christian era by approximately all of history, and they could be half right. At the least, the religion has remained remarkably unchanged since John's time, mostly through a policy of extreme isolationism.
John the Baptist is familiar to most Christians as the guy who announced the coming of Jesus Christ, at least in the version of the story that survives in the Bible. At the time, however, John was a leading religious figure in his own right. Historically, it's not at all clear that he gave Jesus his endorsement as the Messiah.
In the Christian Bible, John baptizes Jesus, prompting the Holy Spirit to descend in the form of a dove, while the voice of God speaks from the heavens, naming Jesus as his beloved son. John jumps on the Jesus bandwagon, but is beheaded shortly thereafter by King Herod for excessive self-righteousness (or at the behest of Salome). Thus ends the story of John the Baptist.
The Mandeans tell a much different story. According to their primary sacred scripture, the Book of John the Baptizer, John lays the rhetorical smackdown on Jesus on the occasion of their first meeting.
According to the book, the Baptist greeted Jesus with a positively nasty reproach: "Thou hast lied to the Jews and deceived the priests. Thou hast cut off their seed from the men and from the women bearing and being pregnant. The sabbath, which Moses made binding, hast thou relaxed in Jerusalem. Thou hast lied unto them with horns and spread abroad disgrace (with a trumpet)".
John baptizes Jesus, despite seeing him as a big fat liar. The dove that subsequently appears, the Mandean text explains, was the spirit of Ruha, a female version of Satan in their cosmology.
The Mandeans claim to have carried on the traditions of the Baptist in more or less unchanged form since his death at the hands of Herod, and they still speak a variant of Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by both Jesus and John. They may also be related to a radical Jewish sect known as the Essenes, to which John may have belonged.
Mandean beliefs are gnostic in nature, which means they believe they have been the recipients of secret knowledge denied to such half-assed pretenders as Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Like most Gnostics, they believe the universe is ruled by dual deities of light and darkness (although light is the top dog). Their rituals include daily baptisms and elements of pre-Christian shamanism.
Some people talk about Mandean magic, and you can even buy tomes purporting to be Mandean spellbooks, but officially the religion bans all things occult, at least as far as outsiders are permitted to know. Some people believe the Mandeans are Satanists or Freemasons (or vice versa), but then some people believe a lot of things.
Even before the latest war in Iraq, the Mandeans were dying a slow death of attrition. No one knows exactly how many Mandeans are left in the world. Most estimates run between 30,000 and 60,000, but you can find numbers as high as 200,000 and as low as 20,000.
Membership has steadily declined over the years as the young people rebelled against the religion's strict behavioral codes, including bans on alcohol, lust and most forms of meat. Since the Mandeans discourage conversion, they haven't been able to cash in on the raging chic for all things gnostic that has swept Western society.
But the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq has led to a huge influx of Islamic fundamentalists who are not renowned for their tolerance of alternative lifestyles, even highly ascetic ones.
A Mandean expatriate group estimates that more than 80 Mandeans were murdered in the first year after the fall of Baghdad, though there are no numbers for 2004 -- a bloody year for all Iraqis. Other reports include numerous incidents of forcible conversion to Islam, forcible marriage of Mandean daughters, beatings and verbal abuse.
The new Iraqi government is strongly dominated by Shi'ite Muslim clerics, who particularly dislike the Mandeans on the pretext that they're "unclean". When Uncle Sam grows weary of keeping the ornery Iraqi government in line, the Mandeans fear that a Shi'ite-dominated regime will begin to enforce the many fatwas already issued against them.
While the Mandeans suffered under Saddam Hussein, many now believe the worst days are ahead. Fortunately, one of the Mandeans' more unusual laws is a ban on mourning for the dead.
According to Mandean theology, death is a cause for celebration, as the soul departs the body on its way to an elevated existence... if you're a Mandean of course. Outsiders get a short ride to the other place. In this, at least, the quirky Mandeans find some solidarity with their mainstream brethren.