Manichaeism was one of the major ancient religions. Though its organized form is mostly extinct today, a revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manichaeism. However, most of the writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost. Some scholars and anti-Roman Catholic polemicists argue that its influence subtly continues in Western Christian thought via Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from Manichaeism and whose writing continues to be enormously influential among Catholic and Protestant theologians.
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The religion was founded by Mani, who reportedly was born in western Persia and lived approximately 210-275 EV. The name Mani is mainly a title and term of respect rather than a personal name. This title was assumed by the founder himself and so completely replaced his personal name that the precise form of the latter is not known.
Mani was likely influenced by Mandaeanism and began preaching at an early age. According to biographical accounts preserved by Ibn an-Nadim and al-Biruni, Mani received a revelation as a youth from a spirit whom he would later call the Twin. This 'spirit' allegedly taught him the divine truths of what would become the Manichaean religion. He claimed to be the Paraclete, as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets that finalized a succession of men guided by God and included figures such as Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, and Jesus.
While Manichaeism was spreading, the large existing religious groups such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism were competing for greater political and social power. Although having fewer adherents than either group, Manichaeism won the support of many high-ranking political figures. With the aid of the Persian Empire, Mani initiated missionary excursions. After failing to win the favor of the next generation, and having 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 EV.
The most striking principle of Manichee 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 fight with itself. The universe is the temporary result of an attack of 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.
The Manichees made every effort to include all known religious traditions in their faith. As a result, they preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that otherwise would have been lost. Mani was eager to describe himself as a "disciple of Jesus Christ", but the Catholic 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 Catholic tradition understood as referring to God in the person of the Holy Spirit. The title was also later applied to Mohammed.
Following Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire (several religious painting in Bamiyan are attributed to him) at the beginning of his proselitizing carrier, 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 follower (the "hearers") who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha" (Richard Foltz, "Religions of the Silk Road")
Manichaeism spread with extraordinary rapidity throughout both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by 280 EV, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. The faith was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades. By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern France.
The Manichaean faith was also widely persecuted. In 291, persecution arose in the Persian empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, and the slaughtering of many Manichaeans. In 296, 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 numerous martyrs in Egypt and North Africa. In 38l Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. He issued a decree of death for Manichaean monks in 382.
The faith 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, where (c. EV 1000) the bulk of the population professed its tenets and where it died out towards the 13th century. The religion was adopted by the Uighur ruler Bugug Khan (759-780), and it remained state religion for about 500 years before the invasion of the Mongols. 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 Manichee.
Manichaeism and Christianity
One of the faith's most famous follower in the West was the leading Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo who, after eight or nine years abiding to the Manichaean faith, became an orthodox Christian and potent adversary of Manichaeism.
How much influence the Manichees actually had on Christianity is still being debated. It has been suggested that the Bogomils and the Cathars were only superficially orthodox Christians and were, in essence, Manichees. The record is often confused because medieval writers used the term Manichee as a synonym for heretic. Priscillian and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they thought was the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.
In the case of the Cathars, it seems they adopted the Manichee principles of church organization, but none of its theology.
Mani's holy book was called Arzhang and was beautified with paintings. This gave him the title "The Painter".
- Wikipedia. (2005). Manichaeism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manichaeism). Retrieved on July 15. 2005.