Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 12:55 GMT
Sabian Mandaeans: A religion new to Kurdistan

A Sabian Mandaean clergyman takes ablution

By Abdul-Hamid Zebari
and Rebwar Karim Wali

Globe writers Abdul-Hamid Zebari and Rebwar Karim Wali explore a religion previously unheard of in Kurdistan, which has found its way to the region due to the unstable security situation in other parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad.

A religion based in the southern parts of Iraq and Iran, with its special traditions unfamiliar to people in Kurdistan and not found in other regions, is called Sabian Mandaeans. Now, some practitioners of the religion, including 78 families in Erbil and another 65 in Suleimaniya (about 250 people), are living in Kurdistan.
One of their traditions is to live near a river or stream bank, so their choice to live in Erbil, with neither of those, is odd.
The following report is not a precise academic research, but an attempt to introduce this religious minority to Kurdistan readers, since nowadays the term "Sabia" is frequently heard. The report reflects the day life of these people.

Sabian Mandaeans
The word "Sabia" and the name of these people is mentioned three times in Islam's holy book of Qur'an.
In the 62nd verse of Qur'an's 2nd Surah of Al-Baqara (The Cow), it says: "Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians-any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."
In the 69th verse of the Qur'an's 5th Surah of Al-Ma'idah (The Table), it says: "Those who believe (in the Qur'an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians-any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness-on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."
Also, in the 17th verse of the Qur'an's 22nd Surah of Al-Hajj (The Pilgrimage), it says: "Those who believe (in the Qur'an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists-God will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for God is witness of all things."
Though these Qur'an verses show that the Sabian religion is older than Islam, the real history of the Sabian religion is not known. The only fact known is that the religion rose in Palestine land and at the bank of the Jordan River where the Messiah (Jesus) had been washed in. Recent archaeological research referred to a Sabian Mandaean temple found in that area.
This religion's priests know Prophet John the Papist as their prophet and take his book for the rules and law of their lives of this world and the other. The priest's narrations come along with a historical fact that they had been forcefully deported from Palestine toward the Mesopotamia (the current Iraq) in the second century. According to historical research, the Sabian Mandaeans were forced to leave by the Jews of that era. They came to Mesopotamia and settled in the southern parts of Iraq and in the Ahvaz area in southern Iran. They chose this land after looking for rivers, and decided Mesopotamia's Tigris and Euphrates rivers were best for them.
The Sabians, as a movement for the Baptists Babylon religions at the early ages of Christianity, had a tight relation with water; like fish they never go without water. Water is the base of life in this religion and only water purifies dirtiness. All the Sabians' ceremonies are held at water sides (river banks); engagement, wedding, pilgrim, baptizing, praying, and their continuous worshipping are all done near rivers.
Sabia as a word morphologically comes from the Aramaic word "Saba," which means baptizing, and washing the soul of uncleanliness. Baptizing, which is a principle of most of the world's religions, is never mentioned in any religion as much as it is in Sabian.
As for the word "Mandae", it came from the Aramaic word "menda," which means knowledge. Before they went by Mandaean, they preferred to be called "Nazaré." At that time, the Matti's bible, in the 22nd verse, mentioned Jesus as Nazaré, and because the Mandaean hated them and were calling them Christians, they thought that the Christians were attempting to steal their names.
The Sabian Mandaeans had no textbook till the Islam religion came and spread in the Middle East. The coming of Islam made the Mandaeans think of rewriting their holy texts. Though their beliefs are mixtures of Judaism, Babylon's beliefs, Islam, Christianity, and Zarathustrism, historian researchers count this religion as a kind of Iranian old divinity. The historians think that, with the exception of the habit of baptizing (or washing), which is a belief of Babylon ages, the understanding of "spiritual elite to heaven" is a Zarathustian understanding. This understanding, in the Sabian Mandaean religion, is reflected in the ceremonies of blessing the dead in which the person who is dying takes part in the ceremony. Also, other understandings of the Sabian Mandaeans taken from the Iranians are receding devil, returning spirit to heaven, righteousness, seeing the face of spirit, giving back of crown and throne, sitting on throne in paradise (heaven), and meeting with God.

Sabian Mandaean beliefs
The Mandaeans' holy book is called Ginza Raba, which means God's treasure or the Great Treasure. The book, which is found in each Mandaean house, consists of 600 pages and is divided into two parts. The book is read from both sides, right and left. Part one, read from the right-hand side, includes the book of Genesis, the teachings of the Great Life with a translation of the Aramaic "Hiia Raba," which means the Creator.
The book also deals with the ever-lasting struggle between Good and Evil, and Light and Darkness. It relates details of how the "Soul" came down into Adam's body. The book contains prayers to the Creator, and religious and theological rules.

Part two of the book is read from the left-hand side, and deals with the Soul, reward, punishment, and also mentions eternal life. Mandaism calls for believing in monotheism and God, which is mentioned in the Ginza Raba as the Great Life. This God has created the world and all in it; the whole world is from Him. Adam, Eve, and the angels are created from the God in order to praise and thank him. Adam and Eva were ordered to convey Mandae religion to their descendants.

The five rituals of the Mandaean religion:
1- Monotheism (Sahdusa ad hii): recognizing the Great Life or the "Hiia Raba." It is mentioned in the Ginza Raba: "You don't have father. No one before you has ever been born. You don't have any brother to share the heaven with you and no twin to divide it?." With these sentences, the Mandaeans are counted within the monotheists and they believe in no one else except the god. It was this belief that made the Muslims respect them and allow them to live together in Mesopotamia and keep their religion.
2- Baptism: mentioned as "Masbuta" in the Ginza Raba. It is a basic ritual of the Mandaean religion. It is one of the Mandaean's religious doctrines imposed on them to wash and cleanse themselves of sin and uncleanliness. This ritual nears a Mandaean from the Great Life; thus, they have to wash every Sunday in fresh water, which is the source of life and brightness. They also wash or baptize during the Mandaean ceremonies, before weddings, after giving birth, and when praising their clergymen. This ritual is from Christianity and from when Jesus was baptized by Prophet John (Yahya) the Baptizer in the Jordan River. Thus, a tight relation connects Mandaean and Christianity.
3- Praying or (Baraxeh): This is also imposed on any Mandaean, who must perform it three times a day: in the morning at sunrise, one hour after noontime, and in the evening one hour before sunset. The aim of it is to approach god. The Ginza Raba mentions prayer: "And we ordered you to listen to the great god's voice in your standing, sitting, walking, going, coming, and in all your actions?." For praying, the Mandaeans perform an action like the Islamic ablution. In Mandaeism, it is called "Reshameh" and consists of washing hands, face, and feet; they also say prayer during simultaneously. For example, when they wash their mouths, they say: "Fill my mouth with thanks and blessings." While washing their ears, they say: "My ears are created for hearing the Great Life's speeches."
4- Fasting: There are two types of fasting, great fasting and small fasting. Great fasting consists of keeping away from the entire adulteries, forbids, and all those deeds that keep one from god. This fasting is for life. About it, the Ginza Raba mentions: "Fast the great fasting and do not break till the day you pass away. Be fasting, but not from eating and drinking, but by your mind, heart and conciseness?." Small fasting consists of not eating meat and not slaughtering animals during a period of 36 days in a year. The Mandaeans believe that the doors of sins are opened during these days and they must near them.
5- Alms-giving or (Zidqa): It is a condition that the alms must be given secretly and away from sight or it will be unacceptable. According to Mandaeism, this ritual is one of the great humanitarian duties a man must do for his fellow in this life. About it, the Ginza Raba says: "Give alms to poor people, feed the hungry people, and water thirsty people because you will receive back what you give?" About keeping the gift in secrecy, it mentions: "Those who give alms, if you gave alms with your right, your left should know it and vise versa. Anybody who gives alms and then talks about it is infidel and gets no award."

North as Mandaean direction
While praying or worshiping, the Mandaeans don't direct to a specific spot like Muslims, who face toward the Makka. Wherever they are, the Mandaeans direct to the north when performing their praying or during ceremonies. They believe that paradise (or the World of Light) is from the north and from there people elite to god reach immortality.

Forbids in Mandaeism

Mandaean, like any other religion, forbids its followers from doing some deeds lest they be counted as delinquent. The forbids include not carrying out duties, murder, adultery (one of the biggest sins that draws one to hell), stealing, lying, false wit, breaking vows, being miserly, backbiting, talking about given alms, false swear, luxury, witching, drunkenness, taking advantage of debt, morning or crying over dead, wearing black, divorcing (except in necessary cases), suicide, marrying non-Mandaeans, and others.


Baptism, which is called Masbetta in the Mandaean language, is one of the most important principles of the religion. It is an obligatory principle to make followers keep themselves clean and get rid of dirt and guilt.

The objective of baptism is to keep away from evil and guiltiness and from everything that one might do intentionally or unintentionally. This act among the Mandaeans is somehow similar to Islam's pilgrimage and is repeated frequently, unlike that of Christianity, which is done only once in a lifetime.

Religious researchers even believe that the Christians inherited this from the Mandaeans. Like Professor O'Leary said: "The Sabian Mandaeans who lived in southern Iraq were the first to baptize people and they are counted as the grandfathers of the Christians in this regard."

Mandaeans' language

Mandaeans generally speak Arabic and their sacred book is in Arabic, but in fact their original language is Aramaic. Their alphabet starts with A and ends with A, which suggests the philosophy that life is repeated. Every Mandaean has to learn the Aramaic language. For that purpose, Mandaean priests have Aramaic languages classes for their children and send them to ordinary schools for formal education. The children learn the language in two years.

Mandaean religious rank and class

Contrary to other small religions that have distinct classes and move from one class to another, this is prohibited. The Mandaeans have no social class distinctions except for their clergymen, who have a special ranking.

"In the first place, a religious man must be in good health, have good reason and mind, be uncircumcised, be able to preach on occasions such as birth, baptizing, prayer, slaughtering, and funerals, and so on," said Subhi Mubarak Malala, chief of the Mandaean Cultural Community in Kurdistan.
Besides the rank of Asganda, the assistant priest who is ready to become a priest, there are six other religious ranks in the Mandaean religion, each of which has its particular duties in society. They are as follows:

1-Al-Halali: Also called Shamas, he follows funerals and supervises slaughtering ceremonies. He does not marry; if he does, then he and his wife are baptized 360 times in a living river. If not, he loses this religious rank and will not be allowed to practice religious missions.

2-Tarmida: This is one rank higher than Halali. He performs engagements. For a Halali to reach the rank of Tarmida, he must not sleep seven days and nights. After that, a great deal of gold and money are spread for him to walk on to show that he is not eager for life's wealth.

3-Al-Abqis: He has the religious authority to engage religious boys and girls of law ranks.

4-Al-Katirbra: He is an unmarried, wise, and aware Tarmida, and can pass to Al-Katirbra rank after he memorizes all the Ginza Raba verses and is able to interpret them. Clergies of this rank enjoy rights that are not allowed for others; even if a person of this rank commits a crime or kills another one, he will not be punished because he is a representative of heaven's Lord.

5-Risha-Omma: He is the chief of the nation and must own effective power of speech. This rank does not exist now among the Mandaeans; nobody has reached it yet.

6-Rabbani: According to the Mandaean Sabian religion, nobody has ever reached this rank except Yahya Ben Zachariah (John the Baptist).

They think there shouldn't be two persons of this rank. The Mandaeans say that their Rabbani (Yahya) has risen to heaven and lives in the work of lights. From there, he sends religious instructions to the Mandaeans.
Characteristics of Mandaean clergymen

The Mandaeans generally drink from living water. One cannot see a Mandaean in the market carrying a water bottle to drink from it.
Sa'di Sajeel, once head of the Mandaean Council in Iraq, now lives with his family in a rented house in Setaqan quarter in Erbil. He is a pleasurable man. Nothing from his appearance or action shows that he is from a different religion. When they serve drinks to guests, they do not drink from them.

Urban life does not prevent them from practicing their religion. For ablution and drinking, which needs to be from a living river, the Mandaeans make artificial living water. They open a tap to a big bowl until it drops. Then, they put a smaller bowl under the water coming down from the big bowl; this makes the water look like a living stream. They drink and hold ablution from this semi-living water. They never drink still water.

This ritual of living water is for every Mandaean, while the clergymen are obligated to other duties despite those duties of reaching religious ranks. A clergyman must always be dressed in all white. From birds, he can eat only duck and pigeon; from four-legged animals, only the males; and from fish, only two types. A clergyman does not eat his wife's cooking and prepares food for himself.

Sabian Mandaeans in Kurdistan

Though there is no historical site that points to Mandaeans ever having lived in Kurdistan, they prefer the Kalak River (west of Erbil) for their religious ceremonies. About 250 Sabian Mandaeans now live in Kurdistan. Security reasons and secto-religious violence made the Mandaeans see Kurdistan as a safe place to settle.

"We have a peaceful religion, but still we were attacked. We could not stand it and had to come here," said Sa'di Sajeel, who is now working in the gold business, something he inherited from his fathers.

A long time ago, the Mandaeans were known for their gold businesses; also, there are tens of poets, doctors, and scientists among them. Even now, they consider the gold business, which is normally passed to them from their fathers, their preferred and suitable job.

As they say, it circulates in their blood. There are dozens of gold shops in Baghdad, Basra, and Ahvaz markets; even in Europe, the U.S. and in Australia they have markets. The Mandaeans are not only gold dealers but they have also invented 'Almina', a way to scribe on gold.

"We can change Kurdistan from a consumerist society to a producing society," said Sajeel, who spoke of their readiness to offer their gold arts to serve the Kurdistan Region. He also mentioned that Kurdistan Region's president and prime minister have welcomed them and offered them facilities.

Lack of a suitable place for them has caused the Mandaeans in Kurdistan difficulties in performing their religious rituals. For this reason and to solve the religious affairs, leader of the Mandaeans in Iraq and in the world, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Hallu, has to come to Erbil quite often.

Sheikh Hallu is a man in all white; when he travels, he does not drink until he arrives in Kirkuk or Erbil. He usually travels from Basra to meet the Mandaeans in Erbil. He flies to Tehran and then to Ahvaz before he returns to Basra.

While showing his passport, which carries many visas to Iran, he said, "Iran facilitates much for us (Mandaeans in Ahvaz). There are a large number of Sabian Mandaeans living in Ahvaz. The Islamic Republic of Iran has allowed us to own our temple to practice our religious ceremonies freely."

Before this, Sheikh Hallu mentioned about Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, when he was president of the Governing Council in 2003. Barzani had ordered the establishment of a school for learning the Aramaic language for Mandaean children. Later, the Iraqi government in Baghdad closed the school, he said.

The Mandaeans expect the Kurdistan Regional Government to help them perform their ceremonies freely near Erbil. They prefer the Aski-Kalak area, which is near the Big Zab River west of Erbil, and the Pirde area on the Small Zab, south of Erbil. They also ask the KRG to build them temples in these two places. "Our request is to build us a temple large enough for 60 families," said Sheikh Hallu.

The first engagement in Kurdistan
Away from their homeland and temples and after their move from Baghdad and other southern places to Kurdistan, a new Mandaean family was found.

A Mandaean never marries a non-Mandaean; if so, he or she will be banned from the religion forever. As in Judaism, no one from another religion can become a Mandaean. This forced their population to decrease. Believers of the religion in Iraq numbered about 60,000 in the 1990s. Only about 5,000 to 7,000 of them have remained in the country; as of early 2007, over 80% of Iraqi Mandaeans are now refugees abroad.

Engagement, like other Mandaean sacred ceremonies, is held at the river. For this purpose, Sheikh Hallu came from Basra to Erbil to engage a girl from the Asganda class to a boy of her rank.
A few Mandaeans, only those living in Erbil, attended. Both bride and groom were dressed in all white and while being baptized in river, the sheikh engaged them by uttering verses of the holy book. For engagement, they need a temple. Since there isn't one in Kurdistan, they built a hut by reed and white cloth in which to celebrate the ceremony, and then destroyed it.

Attitude of Kurdistan government
To study the Mandaeans' situation is Kurdistan and listen to their requests, the KRG formed a committee consisting of members of the ministers of Culture and Religious Affairs to prepare a report. According to the committee's recommendations, the government decided to offer the Mandaeans facilities and establish a general directory for Mandaean affairs at the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This attitude shows the government's formal recognition of this religion in Kurdistan Region.