AskDefine | Define Manichaeism

Dictionary Definition

Manichaeism n : a religion founded by Manes the third century; a synthesis of Zoroastrian dualism between light and dark and Babylonian folklore and Buddhist ethics and superficial elements of Christianity; spread widely in the Roman Empire but had largely died out by 1000 [syn: Manichaeanism]

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Alternative spellings


  1. A syncretic, dualistic religious philosophy that combined elements of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Gnostic thought.
  2. A dualistic philosophy dividing the world between good and evil principles, or regarding matter as intrinsically evil and mind as intrinsically good.

Extensive Definition

Manichaeism (in Modern Persian Āyin e Māni; Chinese: ) was one of the major Gnostic religions, which thrived between the 3rd-7th centuries, with smaller groups practicing it until the 16th century. Manichaeism was a revealed religion.
Although most of the original writings of the founding prophet Mani (Syriac, , c. 210–276 AD) have been lost, numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived. At its height, Manichaeism was one of the most widespread religions in the world, with Manichaean churches and scriptures existing as far east as China and as far west as the Roman empire. Although its last organized form appears to have died out before the 16th century in southern China, a minor contemporary effort to revive Manichaeism exists and refers to itself as Neo-Manichaeism.
The original six sacred books of Manichaeism, composed in Syriac Aramaic, were soon translated into other languages to help spread the religion. As they spread to the east, the Manichaean writings passed through Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian, and ultimately Uyghur and Chinese translations. As they spread to the west, they were translated into Greek, Coptic, and Latin. The spread and success of Manichaeism were seen as a threat to other religions, and it was widely persecuted in Christian, Zoroastrian, and later, Islamic areas.


Mani lived approximately 210–276 AD and resided in Babylon, which was then a province of the Persian Empire. According to the Cologne Mani-Codex, Mani's parents were Elcesaites of southern Mesopotamia. The primary language of Babylon at that time was Eastern Middle Aramaic, which included three main dialects: Judeo-Aramaic (the language of the Talmud), Mandaean Aramaic (the language of the Mandaean religion), and Syriac Aramaic, which was the language of Mani, as well as of the Assyrian Christians. Mani is a Persian name found in all three Aramaic dialects and therefore common among its speakers. Mani composed seven writings, six of which were written in Syriac Aramaic. The seventh, the Shabuhragan, was written by Mani in Middle Persian and dedicated to the contemporary King of Sassanid Persia, Shapur I, who was a strong supporter of Manichaeism and encouraged its spread throughout his empire. Mani also created a unique version of the Syriac script called Manichaean script, which was used in all of the Manichaean works written within the Persian Empire, whether they were in Syriac or Middle Persian, and also for most of the works written within the Uyghur Empire, which also included eastern Iranian languages and Uygur Turkish.
Manichaeism claimed to present the complete version of teachings only revealed partially by previous teachers. Accordingly, as it spread, it adapted new deities from other religions into forms it could use for its scriptures. Its original Aramaic texts already contained stories of Jesus. When they moved eastward and were translated into Iranian languages, the names of the Manichaean deities (or angels) were often transformed into the names of Zoroastrian yazatas. Thus ("The Father of Greatness", the highest Manichaean deity of Light), in Middle Persian texts might either be translated literally as pīd ī wuzurgīh, or substituted with the name of the deity Zurwān. Similarly, the Manichaean primal figure "The Original Man" was rendered "Ohrmazd Bay", after the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. This process continued to Manichaeism's meeting with Chinese Buddhism, where, for example, the original Aramaic "karia" (the "call" from the world of Light to those seeking rescue from the world of Darkness), becomes identified in the Chinese scriptures with Guan Yin (, literally, "spectating/perceiving sounds [of the world]", the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion).
The original six Syriac writings are not preserved, although we have their Syriac names, as well as fragments and quotations from them. A long quotation, brought by the Syrian Nestorian Christian, Theodor bar-Khonai, in the 8th century, shows that in the original Syriac Aramaic writings of Mani there was no influence of Iranian or Zoroastrian terms. The terms for the Manichaean deities in the original Syriac writings are in Aramaic. The adaptation of Manichaeism to the Zoroastrian religion appears to have begun in Mani's lifetime however, with his writing of the Middle Persian Shabuhragan, his book dedicated to the King Shapuhr. In it, we find mention of Zoroastrian deities such as Ohrmazd, Ahriman, and Az. Manichaeism is often presented as a Persian religion, mostly due to the vast number of Middle Persian, Parthian, and Soghdian (as well as Turkish) texts discovered by German researchers near Turfan, in the Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) province of China, during the early 1900s. As far as its origins are concerned, however, it is no more accurate to say that Manichaeism was a Persian or Iranian religion than it is to say that Talmudic Judaism or Babylonian Mandaeism (which were also written in Aramaic in Babylon in roughly the 3rd century AD) are Iranian religions.
Mani began preaching at an early age and was likely influenced by Mandaeanism. According to biographies preserved by Ibn al-Nadim and the Persian polymath al-Biruni, he allegedly received a revelation as a youth from a spirit, whom he would later call his Twin, his Syzygos, his Double, his Protective Angel or 'Divine Self'. It taught him truths which he developed into a religion. His 'divine' Twin or true Self brought Mani to Self-realization and as such he becomes a 'gnosticus', someone with divine knowledge and liberating insight. He claimed to be the 'Paraclete of the Truth', as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets finalizing a succession of figures including Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus.
Another source of Mani's scriptures was a section of the original Aramaic "Book of Enoch", called the "Book of Giants". This book was quoted directly, and expanded on by Mani, becoming one of the original six Syriac writings of the Manichaean Church. Besides brief references by non-Manichaean authors through the centuries, we had no original sources of "The Book of Giants" (which is actually part six of the "Book of Enoch"). Then, with the discovery in the twentieth century of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judaean Desert, and of the Manichaean writings of the Uyghur Manichaean kingdom in Turfan, we came into possession of some scattered fragments of both the original Aramaic "Book of Giants" (which were analyzed and published by J. T. Milik in 1976), and of the Manichaean version of the same name (analyzed and published by W.B. Henning in 1943). Henning writes there:
It is noteworthy that Mani, who was brought up and spent most of his life in a province of the Persian empire, and whose mother belonged to a famous Parthian family, did not make any use of the Iranian mythological tradition. There can no longer be any doubt that the Iranian names of Sām, Narīmān, etc., that appear in the Persian and Sogdian versions of the Book of the Giants, did not figure in the original edition, written by Mani in the Syriac language.
From a careful reading of the Book of Enoch and Book of Giants, alongside the description of the Manichaean myth, it becomes clear that the "Great King of Glory" of this myth (a being that sits as a guard to the world of light at the seventh of ten heavens in the Manichaean myth, see Henning, A Sogdian Fragment of the Manichaean Cosmogony, BSOAS, 1948), is identical with the King of Glory sitting on the heavenly throne in the Book of Enoch. In the Aramaic book of Enoch, in the Qumran writings in general, and in the original Syriac section of Manichaean scriptures quoted by Theodor bar-Khonai, he is called "malka raba de-ikara" (the great king of glory).
While Manichaeism was spreading, existing religions such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism were gaining social and political influence. Although having fewer adherents, Manichaeism won the support of many high-ranking political figures. With the assistance of the Persian Empire, Mani began missionary expeditions. After failing to win the favor of the next generation, and incurring the disapproval of the Zoroastrian clergy, Mani is reported to have died in prison awaiting execution by the Persian Emperor Bahram I. The date of his death is fixed at 276–277 AD.
In Egypt a small codex was found and became known through antique dealers in Cairo. It was purchased by the University of Cologne in 1969, and two of its scientists Henrichs and Koenen produced the first edition known since as the Cologne Mani-Codex, which was published in four articles in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. The ancient papyrus manuscript contained a Greek text describing the life of Mani. From this discovery, we know much more about the man who founded one of the most influential world religions of the past.


Manichaeism spread with extraordinary speed through both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by AD 280, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. The faith was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290 AD. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 A.D. during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades. By 354 AD, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern France. The Manichaean faith was also widely persecuted. Mani was martyred by the Persian religious establishment in 277 AD, which ironically helped to spread the sect widely. In 291, persecution arose in the Persian empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, and the slaughter of many Manichaeans. In 296 AD, Diocletian decreed against the Manichaeans: "We order that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures", resulting in many martyrdoms in Egypt and North Africa. In 381 AD Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. He issued a decree of death for Manichaean monks in 382 AD.
Manichaeism maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the west (Mesopotamia, Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, and flourished for a time in the land of its birth (Persia) and even further east in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet. While it had long been thought that Manichaeism arrived in China only at the end of the 7th century, a recent archaeological discovery demonstrated that it was already known there in the second half of the sixth century. It was adopted by the Uyghur ruler Bugug Khan (759–780 AD), and remained the state religion for about a century before the collapse of the Uyghur empire. In the east it spread along trade routes as far as Chang'an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty in China. In the 9th century, it is reported that the Muslim Caliph Ma'mun tolerated a community of Manichaeans. In the Song and Yuan dynasties of China remnants of Manichaeanism continued to leave a legacy contributing to sects such as the Red Turbans.

Influence on Christianity

Early 3rd-4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to these writers, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("He called himself a Buddas", writings of Cyril of Jerusalem). Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea where he met the Apostles "becoming known and condemned", and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of Manichaeism.
The Manichaeans preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that would otherwise have been lost. Mani was eager to describe himself as a "disciple of Jesus Christ", but the early Christian church rejected him as a heretic. Mani declared himself, and was also referred to as, the Paraclete: a Biblical title, meaning "comforter" or "helper", which the Orthodox Tradition understood as referring to God in the person of the Holy Spirit.
When Christians first encountered Manichaeism, they deemed it a heresy, since it had originated in a heavily Gnostic area of the Persian empire. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, in the year 387. This was shortly after the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had issued a decree of death for Manichaeans (in 382 AD) and shortly before he declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire (in 391). According to the Confessions of St. Augustine, after eight or nine years of adhering to the Manichaean faith (as a member of the Manichaean group of "hearers"), Augustine became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism, seeing their beliefs that knowledge was the key to salvation as being too passive and not being able to effect any change in one's life.
"I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it... I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner". (Confessions, Book V, Section 10)
Until the 20th century, most of the Western world's concept of Manichaeism came through Augustine's polemics against it after his conversion to Christianity, which included long theological debates with Manichaeans, which were completely recorded in writing. It is speculated by some modern scholars (Alfred Adam, for example), that Manichaean ways of thinking influenced the development of some of Augustine's ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity.
The extent to which Manichaeism influenced Christianity is still being debated. It has been suggested that the Bogomils, Paulicians, and the Cathars were influenced by Manichaeism. However, the Bogomils and Cathars, in particular, left few records of their rituals or doctrines, and the link between them and Manichaeans is tenuous. Regardless of its historical accuracy the charge of Manichaeism was levelled at them by contemporary orthodox opponents, who often tried to make contemporary heresies conform to those combatted by the church fathers. The Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars were certainly dualists and felt that the world was the work of a demiurge of Satanic origin (Cross), but whether this was due to influence from Manichaeism or another strand of Gnosticism is impossible to determine. Only a minority of Cathars held that the evil god or principle was as powerful as the good god or principle as Mani did, a belief also known as absolute dualism. The Cathars apparently adopted the Manichaean principles of church organization, but not its religious cosmology. Priscillian and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they considered the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.


The most striking principle of Manichaean theology is its dualism. Mani postulated two natures that existed from the beginning: light and darkness. The realm of light lived in peace, while the realm of darkness was in constant conflict with itself. The universe is the temporary result of an attack from the realm of darkness on the realm of light, and was created by the Living Spirit, an emanation of the light realm, out of the mixture of light and darkness.
A key belief in Manichaeism is that there is no omnipotent good power. This claim addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the infinite perfection of God and postulating the two equal and opposite powers mentioned previously. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the good part is the soul (which is composed of light) and the bad part is the body (composed of dark earth). The soul defines the person and is incorruptible, but it is under the domination of a foreign power, which addressed the practical part of The Problem of Evil. Humans are said to be able to be saved from this power (matter) if they come to know who they are and identify themselves with their soul.
Following Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire (several religious paintings in Bamiyan are attributed to him) at the beginning of his proselytizing career, various Buddhist influences seem to have permeated Manichaeism:
Buddhist influences were significant in the formation of Mani's religious thought. The transmigration of souls became a Manichaean belief, and the quadripartite structure of the Manichaean community, divided between male and female monks (the "elect") and lay followers (the "hearers") who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha. (Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road)
In some Gnostic writings of the Death of Mani, Mani attains Parinirvana. The word "Buddha" is frequently used in Manichean writings of later centuries according to the same work.
Other Indian religions might have influenced Manicheasm. In the 4th century, Ephraim criticized Mani for adopting "the Lie" from India, promoting "two powers which were against each other".
In the story of the Death of Mani (according to the Gnostic Bible by Willis Barnstone, here is one of many authenticating references proving the centrality of Buddhism in Mani's formulation of Gnosticism):
It was a day of pain
and a time of sorrow
when the messenger of light
entered death
when he entered complete Nirvana"
Also, in the Great Song of Mani (13th–14th century) Mani is many times referred to as Buddha Mani.
In China Manichaean theology featured structural repetitions of images of woken light liberated from darkness: the Son of God was woken from demonic imprisonment by the Holy Spirit and escaped its darkness; conversion to Manicheanism was depicted both as an awakening and an illumination; and in death the converted spirit would escape the darkness of the body. Converts were only guaranteed salvation if they could continue this repetition and convert another in turn.


Manichaeism presents an elaborate description of the conflict between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness. The beings of the world of darkness and the beings of the world of light both have names. There are numerous sources for the details of the Manichaean myth (see "Sources for Manichaeism", below). We do have two portions of Manichaean scriptures, however, that are probably as close as we will ever come to the original Manichaean writings in their original languages. These are the Syriac-Aramaic quotation by the Nestorian Christian Theodor bar-Konai, in his Syriac "Book of Sects" (8th century), and the Middle Persian sections of Mani's Shabuhragan discovered at Turfan (a summary of Mani's teachings prepared for Shapur I; published in BSOAS, 1979). These two sections are probably the original Syriac and Middle Persian written by Mani.
From these sources we can form a basic idea of Manichaean cosmogony: The God of Light sends a representative ("original man", in Aramaic), to battle with the attacking powers of Darkness, which include the Demon of Greed. The original man is armed with five different shields of light, which he loses to the forces of darkness in the ensuing battle. A call is then issued from the world of Light to the Original Man ("call" thus becomes a Manichaean deity), and an answer ("answer" becoming another Manichaean deity) returns from the Original Man to the world of Light. The myth continues with many details of how light is captured into the world of matter, and eventually liberated by entrapping some great demons and causing them to become sexually aroused by "Twelve Virgins of Light", and involuntarily expelling the light from within their bodies. The light is then once again entrapped in the world of darkness and matter. The myth continues, eventually arriving at the creation of living beings in the material world, Adam and Eve, and the appearance of Jesus at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.
The complete Manichaean story of the creation and purpose of the universe, from beginning to end, has been reconstructed from numerous original Manichaean sources, and can be read about in the works in the bibliography and in the external links (below).

Sources for Manichaeism

Until discoveries in the 1900s of original sources, the only sources we had for Manichaeism were descriptions and quotations from non-Manichaean authors, either Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian. While often criticizing Manichaeism, they also quoted directly from Manichaean scriptures. Thus we have always had quotations and descriptions in Greek and Arabic, as well as the long quotations in Latin by Saint Augustine, and the extremely important quotation in Syriac by Theodor bar-Khonai.
Then, in the early 1900s, German scholars excavated at the ancient site of the Manichaean Uyghur Kingdom near Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan (destroyed around 1300 AD ). While most of the writings they uncovered were in very poor condition, there were still hundreds of pages of Manichaean scriptures, written in three Persian languages (Middle Persian, Parthian, and Sogdian) and old Turkish. These writings were taken back to Germany, and were analyzed and published at the Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin. While the vast majority of these writings were written in a version of the Syriac script known as Manichaean script, the German researchers, perhaps for lack of suitable fonts, published most of them using Hebrew letters (which could easily be substituted for the 22 Syriac letters).
Perhaps the most comprehensive of these publications was Manichaeische Dogmatik aus chinesischen und iranischen Texten (Manichaean Dogma from Chinese and Iranian texts), by Waldschmidt and Lentz, published in Berlin in 1933. More than any other research work published before or since, this work printed, and then discussed, the original key Manichaean texts in the original scripts, and consists chiefly of sections from Chinese texts, and Middle Persian and Parthian texts transcribed with Hebrew letters. (After the Nazi party gained power in Germany, the Manichaean writings continued to be published during the 1930s, but the publishers no longer used Hebrew letters, instead transliterating the texts into Latin letters.)
Additionally, in the early 1900s, German researchers in Egypt found a large body of Manichaean works in Coptic. Though these were also damaged, many complete pages survived and were published in Berlin before World War II. Some of these Coptic Manichaean writings were destroyed during the war.
After the success of the German researchers, French scholars visited China and discovered what is perhaps the most complete set of Manichaean writings, written in Chinese. These three Chinese writings are today kept in London, Paris, and Beijing. The original studies and analyses of these writings, along with their translations, first appeared in French, English, and German, before and after World War II. The complete Chinese texts themselves were first published in Tokyo, Japan in 1927, in the Taisho Tripitaka, volume 54. While in the last thirty years or so they have been republished in both Germany (with a complete translation into German, alongside the 1927 Japanese edition) and China, the Japanese publication remains the standard reference for the Chinese texts. In the latter part of the 20th century another Manichaean work, written in Greek and describing the life of Mani, was discovered.

Manichaean sacred books

There were seven (or according to other lists, eight) books originally written by Mani, which contained the teachings of the religion. Only scattered fragments and translations of the originals remain.

Originally written in Syriac

  • The Evangelion: Also known as the Gospel of Mani. Quotations from the first chapter were brought in Arabic by al-Nadim, who lived in Baghdad at a time when there were still Manichaeans living there, in his book the "Fihrist" (written in 938), a catalog of all written books known to him.
  • The Treasure of Life
  • The Treatise
  • Secrets
  • The Book of Giants: Original fragments were discovered at Qumran (pre-Manichaean) and Turfan.
  • Epistles: Augustine brings quotations, in Latin, from Mani's Fundamental Epistle in some of his anti-Manichaean works.
  • Psalms and Prayers. A Coptic Manichaean Psalter, discovered in Egypt in the early 1900s, was edited and published by Charles Allberry from Manichaean manuscripts in the Chester Beatty collection and in the Berlin Academy, 1938-9.

Originally written in Middle Persian

Other books

  • The Ardahang, the "Picture Book". In Iranian tradition, this was one of Mani's holy books which became remembered in later Persian history, and was also called Aržang, a Parthian word meaning "Worthy", and was beautified with paintings. Therefore Iranians gave him the title of "The Painter".
  • The Kephalaia, "Discourses"

Non-Manichaean works preserved by the Manichaean Church

Later works

In later centuries, as Manichaeism passed through eastern Persian speaking lands and arrived at the Uyghur Empire, and eventually the Uyghur kingdom of Turfan (destroyed around 1335), long hymn cycles and prayers were composed in Middle Persian and Parthian. A translation of one of these produced the Manichaean Chinese Hymnscroll (the 下部贊), which we have today in its entirety (see the external links section).


  • (Cahiers D'Orientalism XVI) 1988a
  • (Cahiers D'Orientalism XVI) 1988b
  • (Original Manichaean manuscripts found since 1902 in China, Egypt, Turkestan to be seen in the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin.)
  • Heinrichs, Albert; Ludwig Koenen, Ein griechischer Mani-Kodex, 1970 (ed.) Der Kölner Mani-Codex ( P. Colon. Inv. nr. 4780), 1975–1982.
  • Mani (216–276/7) and his 'biography': the Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis (CMC):

Manichaean sources in English translation

Manichaean sources in their original languages

Secondary Manichaean sources in their original languages

Manichaean revival movements

Manichaeism in Arabic: مانوية
Manichaeism in Azerbaijani: Manilik
Manichaeism in Belarusian: Маніхейства
Manichaeism in Bulgarian: Манихейство
Manichaeism in Catalan: Maniqueisme
Manichaeism in Czech: Manicheismus
Manichaeism in German: Manichäismus
Manichaeism in Spanish: Maniqueísmo
Manichaeism in Esperanto: Manikeismo
Manichaeism in Persian: آیین مانی
Manichaeism in French: Manichéisme
Manichaeism in Galician: Maniqueísmo
Manichaeism in Korean: 마니교
Manichaeism in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Manicheismo
Manichaeism in Italian: Manicheismo
Manichaeism in Hebrew: מניכאיזם
Manichaeism in Georgian: მანიქეველობა
Manichaeism in Lithuanian: Manicheizmas
Manichaeism in Dutch: Manicheïsme
Manichaeism in Japanese: マニ教
Manichaeism in Norwegian: Manikeisme
Manichaeism in Polish: Manicheizm
Manichaeism in Portuguese: Maniqueísmo
Manichaeism in Russian: Манихейство
Manichaeism in Slovak: Manicheizmus
Manichaeism in Finnish: Manikealaisuus
Manichaeism in Swedish: Manikeism
Manichaeism in Vietnamese: Minh giáo
Manichaeism in Chinese: 摩尼教
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