Religion in Iran

By: I.J.S. Taraporewala

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Sketch of Mani's life and the growth of his church
Mani was born on 14 April, A.C. 216, in northern Babylonia, which then formed part of the province of Asoristan, in the Parthian empire. His father, Patteg or Pattig, is said to have come from Hamadan. His mother, Maryam, was of the family of the Kamsaragan, who claimed kingship with the Parthian royal house, the Arsacids. Mani's own name, a fairly common one, is Aramaic and not Iranian.

According to Ibn an-Nadim, Patteg left Hamadan for al-Madain in Babylonia. One day, in a temple which he frequented there, he heard a voice from the sanctuary summoning him to renounce wine, meat, and intercourse with women. Obeying this call, he left al-Madain to join a sect known as the "Mughtasila" ("those who bathe themselves"). The Mughtasila appear to have been baptizing gnostics, probably followers of Elchasaios. Mani himself was apparently brought by his father as a child of four to live among them.

According to his own account, preserved by Ibn an-Nadim and al-Biruni, Mani received, while still a boy, a revelation from a spirit whom he called the Twin, who taught him the diving truths of his religion. This was probably in 228, early in the reign of the Persian Ardashir, who had overthrown the Parthians. During the last years of Ardashir's reign, some twelve years later, the Twin appeared again to Mani and summoned him to preach the truth he had learnt to mankind. Mani first expounded these to his own father and the elders of his family; and thereafter set out by sea on a missionary journey to India, that is, to Turan and Makran (modern Baluchistan and Sind). Here he met with success in that he converted the king of Turan and the number of his subjects. Probably in 242, the year of the accession of Ardashir's son, Shapur I, Mani returned by sea to Pars, and travelled through it on foot, preaching but meeting with hostility. From Pars he reached Mesene, the little kingdom at the mouth of the Tigris, and thence returned home to Babylonia. He travelled through Babylonia, preaching, and back to Pars, and into Media, arousing much opposition; but at some point he suceeded in converting to his faith Peroz, bother of Shapur, who, according to Ibn an-Nadim, procured him audience with the king. According to the Manichaean Kephalaia, Shapur summoned Mani thrice from Ctesiphon, and on the third occasion accepted him as a member of his own court and gave him leave to preach his religion without hindrance throughout his realms.

According to Alexander of Lycopolis, Mani, as a member of Shapur's court, accompanied the king on one of his Roman campaigns, either against Gordian III (242-44) or against Valerian (256-60). According to the Kephalaia, Mani spent many years in attendance on Shapur, and many years preaching "with good harvest" in Persia and Parthia, and up to Adiabene and the lands bordering on the frontier with Rome. It appears that, as well as preaching, the prophet practised medicine and healed the sick. At some time before A.C. 262 he converted another of Shapur's brothers, namely Mihrshah, king of Mesene.

Between 244 and 261, at a time when Mani himself was in Weh-Ardashir (a part of al-Madain), he sent a mission to Egypt under Adda and Patteg, who had earlier been to "Rome". (It seems probable that this Patteg was Mani's own father.) This mission, which met with considerable success, reached as far as Alexandria. Another mission, sent out by the prophet from Hulwan (on the highway from Babylon to Hamadan) was led by Ammo, who was accompanied by an Arsacid prince. Ammo penetrated to the far north-east of the empire, to Parthia and Marv and beyond. There he founded communities, and converted the ruler of Waruch (modern Gharch). A third mission, led by Adda and Abzaxya, in 261-62, made converts among the Christian in Karkuk. There were doubtless many other missions of which no record survives.

By the time of Shapur's death, probably in A.C. 273, Manichaeism appears to have been well established in his realms, although the state religion continued to be Zoroastrianism. Mani withdrew to Babylonia during the brief reign, lasting one year, of Shapur's son Hormizd I; but some time after the succession of Hormizd's brother, Vahram I, he travelled down the Tigris, visiting his communities, and having reached Hormizd-Ardashir (Ahwaz), intended to set out for the north-eastern provinces of the empire. This was forbidden him, and he turned back to Mesene, whence he travelled up the Tigris again to Ctesiphon. From there he visited Kholassar, where he was joined by the vassal-king Bat, another of his royal converts. There a summons came to him to attend Vahram's court at Beth-Lapat (Gundeshapur). Here he encountered the hostility of Zoroastrian priests, and after a harsh audience with the king was imprisoned, in heavy chains. He died after 26 days in captivity, probably in A.C. 277.

The further history of the Manichaean church in Iran and the east
After Mani's death, the leadership of his church was in dispute between two of his followers, Sisinnios and Gabriabos. The former was successful, and led the community until his martyrdom in 191-2. His successor, Innaios, appears to have won tolerance for the Manichaeans, which lasted until new persecutions broke out under Hormizd II. Little is known of the church during the rest of the Sasanian period, except that it endured many bloody persecutions at the hands of the Zoroastrian, and that its main strength gradually became concentrated beyond the Oxus, over the north-eastern border of Iran. Towards the end of the 6th century the transOxian community claimed independence, under Shad-Ohrmizd, from the Babylonian Leader. Under the name of the Denawars, they maintained their autonomy until the early 8th century, when this administrative schism was healed, the rule of the Babylonian Leader Mihr (c. 710-40) being accepted in Central Asia.

Although the Manichaean community beyond the Oxus was reinforced by refugees (Persians and Parthians) from within the borders of Iran, most of its members were Sogdians, an eastern Iranian people inhabiting those regions.

The Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century gave a brief respite from persecution to the Manichaeans there, and some even returned from beyond the Oxus to their homes. Under the 'Abbasids harsh persecutions began again. Nevertheless the church maintained itself in Bagdad until the 10th century, when the seat of the Leader was transferred to Samarkand. After this century the Manichaeans virtually disappear from Iranian records.

From at least 692 (when, after a troubled period, the Chinese reopened the silk-routes across Central Asia), Manichaeism penetrated eastward through Sogdian merchant-colonies, strung out along the caravan-roads between the Sogdian city of Samarkand and China. A Manichaean missionary reached the Chinese court in 694; and in 732 an imperial edict gave permission for foreigners resident in China to practise this religion there.

In the 8th century a vast area of Central Asia was conquered by the Uigur Turks; and in 762 one of their rulers adopted Manichaeism, which became the state religion of this huge kingdom until its overthrow by the Kirghiz in 840. Manichaeism probably survived in Eastern Turkistan till the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, maintaining itself most strongly in and around Qocho (near modern Turfan), which remained a petty Uigur principality. In China the religion was proscribed in 863, but although persecuted it survived there at least until the 14th century.

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