Amidst Uncertainty – A New Place of Worship for Iraq’s Mandaeans

Back in May 2015, On Religion took at look at the plight of Iraq’s Mandaeans – the last practicing representatives of an ancient Gnostic religion with an authentic unbroken lineage. At last count there were estimated to be less than 5,000 Mandaeans remaining in Iraq after decides of war and persecution.

Now the Al Monitor news service reports on the recent completion of a new mandi (a Mandaean house of worship) in the predominantly Shi’a city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad.

The new mandi has been constructed on the banks of the River Tigris with terraces reaching the water to allow for the baptisms in ‘living’ water that are central to Mandaean religious ceremonies.

Ayham Nasser, a local Mandaean, told Al-Monitor, “The community members chose the Tigris River as the project’s location due to a link between their beliefs and the water.” He said that the mandi will begin operating in early 2017. Nasser said, “Many Muslims living nearby are proud of this achievement, which they see as a symbol of religious tolerance at a time when religious extremism is widely spread across the region.”

The Mandaeans have long been identified with the Sabians, a group who are included in the Qur’an, alongside Christians and Jews, as ‘people of the book’. The origins of the Mandaeans are obscure. Their surviving literature is extensive, but exclusively religious. It’s made up of ritual and magical texts; prayers and songs; and theological and mythological treatises.

Fascinatingly, these early traditions also make reference to John the Baptist (known to Mandaeans as Yahya or Yuhana). He is hailed as a prophet and it’s through him that Mandaeans trace their descent back to Noah – whom they regard as their forefather.

Gerrard Russell, who recently wrote a book on the religious minorities of the Middle-East, spoke of the relationship between Mandaeans and contemporary Abrahamic traditions, “[the Mandeans] recognise certain Jewish prophets such as Noah, but not Abraham. So you might think that is peculiar, because Abraham is the patriarch, but in fact they have this in common with many religions of two millennia ago. To the ascetics of the Middle-East, those who wanted a strict morality, they read about Abraham and they weren’t very impressed. The Mandaean rejection of Abraham is interesting because it connects us to that historic era, which is when the Mandaean religion was conceived.”

Despite this deep historic link, Mandeans remain a dynamic religious tradition, which thanks to the establishment of a mandi in Iraq proves to be undergoing a resurgence.The building of the mandi was completed with assistance from local government and the Iraqi Ministry of Construction, was overseen by the Iraqi Cabinet’s Office of Christian, Yazidi and Sabean Endowments. According to a press release on their website “the purpose of the creation of this building is to provide a space of freedom that allows for the independent practice of Sabian rituals deeply rooted in their homeland.”

This follows the allocation, in March this year, of land made by the governor of Basra to the local Mandaean community and the 2014 restoration of a mandi in Nasirayah.

“Ever since the restoration in 2014 of the Sabean mandi in Nasirayah … there has been a clear harmony between the Muslim majority and the Sabean minority, which freely practices its rituals and even enjoys cooperation from Muslims in the city,” says Samer Naeem Handal, head of the Mandaean community in Nasirayah. “There is a common understanding of the social mores and religious traditions. A good example is that Christian and Sabean women willingly wear a veil in Muslim communities, especially during religious occasions. Also, Muslim women attend Christian and Sabean religious ceremonies.”

Dr Layla Al-Roomi of the Mandean Human Rights Group confirmed that “There is still no Mandi for Sabean Mandaean in UK yet”.