Religious system founded by Mani of Persia (c. AD 215-76) and emphasizing fundamental dualism of good and evil as independent principles, represented by spirit and body and symbolized by light and dark.

Sometimes treated as a Christian heresy, Manicheism is rather a separate religion with its roots in Zoroastrianism (founded by Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) of Persia probably in the 6th century BC).

St Augustine (AD 354-430) briefly adhered to it, and the Albigensian creed of medieval France was strongly influenced by it.

Its adherents sought to ally themselves to Good by a thorough asceticism, including in Albigensian times an explicit readiness to go to the stake.


Life of Mani

Manichaean priests, writing at their desks. Eighth or ninth century manuscript from Gaochang, Tarim Basin, China.

Yuan Chinese silk painting Mani’s Birth.

Mani was an Iranian[15][16][17] born in 216 in or near Seleucia-Ctesiphon (now al-Mada’in) in the Parthian Empire.[18] According to the Cologne Mani-Codex,[19] Mani’s parents were members of the Jewish Christian Gnostic sect known as the Elcesaites.[20]

Mani composed seven works, six of which were written in the Syriac language, a late variety of Aramaic. The seventh, the Shabuhragan,[21] was written by Mani in Middle Persian and presented by him to the Sasanian emperor, Shapur I. Although there is no proof Shapur I was a Manichaean, he tolerated the spread of Manichaeism and refrained from persecuting it within his empire’s boundaries.[22]

According to one tradition, it was Mani himself who invented the unique version of the Syriac script known as the Manichaean alphabet,[23] which was used in all of the Manichaean works written within the Sasanian Empire, whether they were in Syriac or Middle Persian, and also for most of the works written within the Uyghur Khaganate. The primary language of Babylon (and the administrative and cultural language of the Sassanid Empire) at that time was Eastern Middle Aramaic, which included three main dialects: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (the language of the Babylonian Talmud), Mandaean (the language of Mandaeism), and Syriac, which was the language of Mani, as well as of the Syriac Christians.[24]

A 14th-century illustration of the execution of Mani

While Manichaeism was spreading, existing religions such as Zoroastrianism were still popular and Christianity was gaining social and political influence. Although having fewer adherents, Manichaeism won the support of many high-ranking political figures. With the assistance of the Sasanian Empire, Mani began missionary expeditions. After failing to win the favour of the next generation of Persian royalty, 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 estimated at 276–277.[18]


Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation, 13th-century Chinese Manichaean silk painting.

Mani believed that the teachings of Gautama Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus were incomplete, and that his revelations were for the entire world, calling his teachings the “Religion of Light”.[18] Manichaean writings indicate that Mani received revelations when he was 12 and again when he was 24, and over this period he grew dissatisfied with the Elcesaite sect he was born into.[25] Mani began preaching at an early age and was possibly influenced by contemporary Babylonian-Aramaic movements such as Mandaeism, and Aramaic translations of Jewish apocalyptic writings similar to those found at Qumran (such as the book of Enoch literature), and by the Syriac dualist-gnostic writer Bardaisan (who lived a generation before Mani). With the discovery of the Mani-Codex, it also became clear that he was raised in a Jewish-Christian baptism sect, the Elcesaites, and was influenced by their writings, as well. According to biographies preserved by Ibn al-Nadim and the Persian polymath al-Biruni, he received a revelation as a youth from a spirit, whom he would later call his Twin (Aramaic: תאומא‎ tɑʔwmɑ, from which is also derived the name of the Thomas the Apostle, the “twin”), his Syzygos (Koinē Greek: σύζυγος “spouse, partner”, in the Cologne Mani-Codex), his Double, his Protective Angel or Divine Self. It taught him truths that he developed into a religion. His divine Twin or true Self brought Mani to self-realization. He claimed to be the Paraclete of the Truth, as promised by Jesus in the New Testament.[26]

Manichaean Painting of the Buddha Jesus depicts Jesus Christ as a Manichaean prophet. The figure can be identified as a representation of Jesus Christ by the small gold cross that sits on the red lotus pedestal in His left hand.

Manichaeism’s views on Jesus are described by historians:

Jesus in Manichaeism possessed three separate identities: (1) Jesus the Luminous, (2) Jesus the Messiah and (3) Jesus patibilis (the suffering Jesus). (1) As Jesus the Luminous … his primary role was as supreme revealer and guide and it was he who woke Adam from his slumber and revealed to him the divine origins of his soul and its painful captivity by the body and mixture with matter. Jesus the Messiah was a historical being who was the prophet of the Jews and the forerunner of Mani. However, the Manichaeans believed he was wholly divine. He never experienced human birth as notions of physical conception and birth filled the Manichaeans with horror and the Christian doctrine of virgin birth was regarded as equally obscene. Since he was the light of the world, where was this light, they asked, when he was in the womb of the Virgin? (2) Jesus the Messiah was truly born at his baptism as it was on that occasion that the Father openly acknowledged his sonship. The suffering, death and resurrection of this Jesus were in appearance only as they had no salvific value but were an exemplum of the suffering and eventual deliverance of the human soul and a prefiguration of Mani’s own martyrdom. (3) The pain suffered by the imprisoned Light-Particles in the whole of the visible universe, on the other hand, was real and immanent. This was symbolized by the mystic placing of the Cross whereby the wounds of the passion of our souls are set forth. On this mystical Cross of Light was suspended the Suffering Jesus (Jesus patibilis) who was the life and salvation of Man. This mystica cruxificio was present in every tree, herb, fruit, vegetable and even stones and the soil. This constant and universal suffering of the captive soul is exquisitely expressed in one of the Coptic Manichaean psalms.[27]

Augustine also noted that Mani declared himself to be an “apostle of Jesus Christ”.[28] Manichaean tradition is also noted to have claimed that Mani was the reincarnation of different religious figures such as Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, and Jesus.[29][self-published source?]

Academics also note that much of what is known about Manichaeism comes from later 10th- and 11th-century Muslim historians like Al-Biruni and especially ibn al-Nadim (and his Fihrist), who “ascribed to Mani the claim to be the Seal of the Prophets.”[30] However, given the Islamic milieu of Arabia and Persia at the time, it stands to reason that Manichaens would regularly assert in their evangelism that Mani, not Muhammad, was the “Seal of the Prophets”.[31] In reality, for Mani the metaphorical expression “Seal of Prophets” is not a reference to his finality in a long succession of prophets, as it is in Islam, but, rather to his followers, who testify or attest his message, as a seal does.[32][33] Caution, then, must be taken from conflating the two terms.

10th century Manichaean Electae in Gaochang (Khocho), China.

Another source of Mani’s scriptures was original Aramaic writings relating to the Book of Enoch literature (see the Book of Enoch and the Second Book of Enoch), as well as an otherwise unknown section of the 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, no original sources of The Book of Giants (which is actually part six of the Book of Enoch) were available until the 20th century.[34]

Scattered fragments of both the original Aramaic “Book of Giants” (which were analyzed and published by Józef Milik in 1976)[35] and of the Manichaean version of the same name (analyzed and published by Walter Bruno Henning in 1943)[36] were found with the discovery in the twentieth century of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judaean Desert and the Manichaean writings of the Uyghur Manichaean kingdom in Turpan. Henning wrote in his analysis of them:

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.[36]

By comparing the cosmology in the Book of Enoch literature and the Book of Giants, alongside the description of the Manichaean myth, scholars have observed that the Manichaean cosmology can be described as being based, in part, on the description of the cosmology developed in detail in the Book of Enoch literature.[37] This literature describes the being that the prophets saw in their ascent to heaven, as a king who sits on a throne at the highest of the heavens. In the Manichaean description, this being, the “Great King of Honor”, becomes a deity who guards the entrance to the world of light, placed at the seventh of ten heavens.[38] In the Aramaic Book of Enoch, in the Qumran writings in general, and in the original Syriac section of Manichaean scriptures quoted by Theodore bar Konai,[39] he is called “malka raba de-ikara” (the Great King of Honor).[citation needed]

Mani was also influenced by writings of the Assyrian gnostic Bardaisan (154–222), who, like Mani, wrote in Syriac, and presented a dualistic interpretation of the world in terms of light and darkness, in combination with elements from Christianity.[40]

Akshobhya in the Abhirati with the Cross of Light, a symbol of Manichaeism.

Noting Mani’s travels to the Kushan Empire (several religious paintings in Bamyan are attributed to him) at the beginning of his proselytizing career, Richard Foltz postulates Buddhist influences in 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.[41]

The Kushan monk Lokakṣema began translating Pure Land Buddhist texts into Chinese in the century prior to Mani arriving there, and the Chinese texts of Manichaeism are full of uniquely Buddhist terms taken directly from these Chinese Pure Land scriptures, including the term “pure land” (淨土 Jìngtǔ) itself.[42] However, the central object of veneration in Pure Land Buddhism, Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, does not appear in Chinese Manichaeism, and seems to have been replaced by another deity.[43]


The spread of Manichaeism (300–500). World History Atlas, Dorling Kindersly.

Manichaeism spread with extraordinary speed through both the East and West. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by 280, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. It was flourishing in the Faiyum in 290.

Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 during the time of Pope Miltiades.[44]

In 291, persecution arose in the Sasanian Empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Emperor Bahram II, and the slaughter of many Manichaeans. Then, in 302, the first official reaction and legislation against Manichaeism from the Roman state to Manichaeism was issued under Diocletian. In an official edict called the De Maleficiis et Manichaeis compiled in the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum and addressed to the proconsul of Africa, Diocletian wrote

We have heard that the Manichaens […] have set up new and hitherto unheard-of sects in opposition to the older creeds so that they might cast out the doctrines vouchsafed to us in the past by the divine favour for the benefit of their own depraved doctrine. They have sprung forth very recently like new and unexpected monstrosities among the race of the Persians – a nation still hostile to us – and have made their way into our empire, where they are committing many outrages, disturbing the tranquility of our people and even inflicting grave damage to the civic communities. We have cause to fear that with the passage of time they will endeavour, as usually happens, to infect the modest and tranquil of an innocent nature with the damnable customs and perverse laws of the Persians as with the poison of a malignant (serpent) … We order that the authors and leaders of these sects be subjected to severe punishment, and, together with their abominable writings, burnt in the flames. We direct their followers, if they continue recalcitrant, shall suffer capital punishment, and their goods be forfeited to the imperial treasury. And if those who have gone over to that hitherto unheard-of, scandalous and wholly infamous creed, or to that of the Persians, are persons who hold public office, or are of any rank or of superior social status, you will see to it that their estates are confiscated and the offenders sent to the (quarry) at Phaeno or the mines at Proconnesus. And in order that this plague of iniquity shall be completely extirpated from this our most happy age, let your devotion hasten to carry out our orders and commands.[45]

By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that Manichaeism was a significant force in Roman Gaul. In 381, Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. Starting in 382, the emperor issued a series of edicts to suppress Manichaeism and punish its followers.[46]

Augustine of Hippo was once a Manichaean.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) 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 all Manichaean monks in 382 and shortly before he declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire in 391. Due to the heavy persecution, the religion almost disappeared from western Europe in the fifth century and from the eastern portion of the empire in the sixth century.[47] According to his Confessions, after nine or ten years of adhering to the Manichaean faith as a member of the group of “hearers”, Augustine became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism (which he expressed in writing against his Manichaean opponent Faustus of Mileve), seeing their beliefs that knowledge was the key to salvation as too passive and not able to effect any change in one’s life.[48]

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.[49]

Some modern scholars have suggested 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, and his dualistic theology.[50] These influences of Manichaeism in Augustine’s Christian thinking may well have been part of the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, a British monk whose theology, being less influenced by the Latin Church, was non-dualistic, and one that saw the created order, and mankind in particular, as having a Divine core, rather than a ‘darkness’ at its core.[citation needed]

A 13th-century manuscript from Augustine’s book VII of Confessions criticizing Manichaeism.

How Manichaeism might have influenced Christianity continues to be debated. Manichaeism could have influenced the Bogomils, Paulicians, and Cathars. However, these groups left few records, and the link between them and Manichaeans is tenuous. Regardless of its accuracy, the charge of Manichaeism was leveled at them by contemporary orthodox opponents, who often tried to make contemporary heresies conform to those combatted by the church fathers. Whether the dualism of the Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars and their belief that the world was created by a Satanic demiurge were due to influence from Manichaeism is impossible to determine. The Cathars apparently adopted the Manichaean principles of church organization. Priscillian and his followers may also have been influenced by Manichaeism. The Manichaeans preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that would otherwise have been lost.[51]

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 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 seventh century, a recent archaeological discovery demonstrated that it was already known there in the second half of the 6th century.[52]

Amitābha in his Western Paradise with Indians, Tibetans, and Central Asians, with two symbols of Manichaeism: Sun and Cross.

Some Sogdians in Central Asia believed in the religion.[53][54] Uyghur khagan Boku Tekin (759–780) converted to the religion in 763 after a three-day discussion with its preachers,[55][56] the Babylonian headquarters sent high rank clerics to Uyghur, and Manichaeism remained the state religion for about a century before the collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate in 840. In the east it spread along trade routes as far as Chang’an, the capital of Tang China.[57][58] After the Tang Dynasty, some Manichaean groups participated in peasant movements. The religion was used by many rebel leaders to mobilise followers. In the Song and Yuan dynasties of China remnants of Manichaeism continued to leave a legacy contributing to sects such as the Red Turbans. During the Song Dynasty, the Manichaeans were derogatorily referred by the Chinese as chicai simo (meaning that they “abstain from meat and worship demons”). An account in Fozu Tongji, an important historiography of Buddhism in China compiled by Buddhist scholars during 1258–1269, says that the Manichaeans worshipped the “white Buddha” and their leader wore a violet headgear, while the followers wore white costumes. Many Manichaeans took part in rebellions against the Song government and were eventually quelled. After that, all governments were suppressive against Manichaeism and its followers and the religion was banned by the Ming Dynasty in 1370.[59][60]

Manichaeism spread to Tibet during the Tibetan Empire. There was likely a serious attempt to introduce the religion to the Tibetans as the text Criteria of the Authentic Scriptures (a text attributed to Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen) makes a great effort to attack Manichaeism by stating that Mani was a heretic who took ideas from all faiths and blended them together into a deviating and inauthentic form.[61]

Manichaeans in Iran tried to assimilate their religion along with Islam in the Muslim caliphates.[62] Relatively little is known about the religion during the first century of Islamic rule. During the early caliphates, Manichaeism attracted many followers. It had a significant appeal among the Muslim society, especially among the elites. Due to the appeal of its teachings, many Muslims adopted the ideas of its theology and some even became dualists. An apologia for Manichaeism ascribed to ibn al-Muqaffa’ defended its phantasmagorical cosmogony and attacked the fideism of Islam and other monotheistic religions. The Manichaeans had sufficient structure to have a head of their community.[63][64][65]

Under the eighth-century Abbasid Caliphate, Arabic zindīq and the adjectival term zandaqa could denote many different things, though it seems primarily (or at least initially) to have signified a follower of Manichaeism however its true meaning is not known.[66] In the ninth century, it is reported that Caliph al-Ma’mun tolerated a community of Manichaeans.[67]

During the early Abbasid period, the Manichaeans underwent persecution. The third Abbasid caliph, al-Mahdi, persecuted the Manichaeans, establishing an inquisition against dualists who if being found guilty of heresy refused to renounce their beliefs, were executed. Their persecution was finally ended in 780s by Harun al-Rashid.[68][69] During the reign of the Caliph al-Muqtadir, many Manichaeans fled from Mesopotamia to Khorasan from fear of persecution and the base of the religion was later shifted to Samarkand.[47][70]

The four primary prophets of Manichaeism in the Manichaean Diagram of the Universe, from left to right: Mani, Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus.

Manichaeism claimed to present the complete version of teachings that were corrupted and misinterpreted by the followers of its predecessors Adam, Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus. 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 Abbā dəRabbūṯā (“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 Nāšā Qaḏmāyā “The Original Man” was rendered Ohrmazd Bay, after the Zoroastrian god Ohrmazd. This process continued in Manichaeism’s meeting with Chinese Buddhism, where, for example, the original Aramaic קריא qaryā (the “call” from the World of Light to those seeking rescue from the World of Darkness), becomes identified in the Chinese scriptures with Guanyin (觀音 or Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit, literally, “watching/perceiving sounds [of the world]”, the bodhisattva of Compassion).[citation needed]

Persecution and extinction

Manichaeism was repressed by the Sasanian Empire.[62] 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, the Roman emperor Diocletian decreed all the Manichaean leaders to be burnt alive along with the Manichaean scriptures and many Manichaeans in Europe and North Africa were killed. It wasn’t until 372 with Valentinian I and Valens that Manichaeism was legislated against again.[71] Theodosius I issued a decree of death for all Manichaean monks in 382 AD.[72] The religion was vigorously attacked and persecuted by both the Christian Church and the Roman state, and the religion almost disappeared from western Europe in the fifth century and from the eastern portion of the empire in the sixth century.[47]

In 732, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang banned any Chinese from converting to the religion, saying it was a heretic religion that was confusing people by claiming to be Buddhism. However, the foreigners who followed the religion were allowed to practice it without punishment.[73] After the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate in 840, which was the chief patron of Manichaeism (which was also the state religion of the Khaganate) in China, all Manichaean temples in China except in the two capitals and Taiyuan were closed down and never reopened since these temples were viewed as a symbol of foreign arrogance by the Chinese (see Cao’an). Even those that were allowed to remain open did not for long. The Manichaean temples were attacked by Chinese people who burned the images and idols of these temples. Manichaean priests were ordered to wear hanfu instead of their traditional clothing, which was viewed as un-Chinese. In 843, Emperor Wuzong of Tang gave the order to kill all Manichaean clerics as part of his Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, and over half died. They were made to look like Buddhists by the authorities, their heads were shaved, they were made to dress like Buddhist monks and then killed.[58] Although the religion was mostly forbidden and its followers persecuted thereafter in China, it survived till the 14th century in the country. Under the Song dynasty, its followers were derogatorily referred to with the chengyu 吃菜祀魔 (pinyin: chī cài sì mó) “vegetarian demon-worshippers”.

Many Manichaeans took part in rebellions against the Song dynasty. They were quelled by Song China and were suppressed and persecuted by all successive governments before the Mongol Yuan dynasty. In 1370, the religion was banned through an edict of the Ming dynasty, whose Hongwu Emperor had a personal dislike for the religion.[58][60][74] Its core teaching influences many religious sects in China, including the White Lotus movement.[75]

According to Wendy Doniger, Manichaeism may have continued to exist in the modern-East Turkestan region until the Mongol conquest in the 13th century.[76]

Manicheans also suffered persecution for some time under the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad. In 780, the third Abbasid Caliph, al-Mahdi, started a campaign of inquisition against those who were “dualist heretics” or “Manichaeans” called the zindīq. He appointed a “master of the heretics” (Arabic: الزنادقة صاحب‎ ṣāhib al-zanādiqa), an official whose task was to pursue and investigate suspected dualists, who were then examined by the Caliph. Those found guilty who refused to abjure their beliefs were executed. This persecution continued under his successor, Caliph al-Hadi, and continued for some time during reign of Harun al-Rashid, who finally abolished it and ended it.[68] During the reign of the 18th Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir, many Manichaeans fled from Mesopotamia to Khorasan from fear of persecution by him and about 500 of them assembled in Samarkand. The base of the religion was later shifted to this city, which became their new Patriarchate.[47][70]

Manichaean pamphlets were still in circulation in Greek in 9th century Byzantine Constantinople, as the patriarch Photios summarizes and discusses one that he has read by Agapius in his Bibliotheca.

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