Sacred meal of the elect at a festival of thanksgiving for Mani. Headless figure may be Mani. Fragment of a Turfan Manichaen Illuminated Codex. China Museum für Indische Kunst (Berlin) [Source]
Shrine of Mani as Buddha in Quanzhou China [Source]
Bahram Shah executing Mani, the prophet of Manichaeism, and one of his adepts, from the Abu Said Shahname also known as the Great Mongol Shahname. Iran (c. 1330) Reza Abbasi Museum [Source]
Arnold de Hooghe Prophet Manes / Manichaeus Corbicus Netherlands (1701) [Source]
Let’s talk aboutManichaeism! This is another one of those religions that managed to go extinct without leaving an imprint on popular culture. Still, it was really successful in its heyday - it almost beat out Christianity as the official religion for the Roman Empire!
Of course, it all began with the Prophet Mani (c. 216–274 AD), depicted above. He was culturally Persian, but he was born in what’s now Iraq - part of the Sassanian Empire back then - and it’s said that his dad was part of a Jewish-Christian sect and his mum was Parthian. So it stands to reason that his religion would be a multicultural melting pot:
At ages 12 and 24, Mani had visionary experiences of a “heavenly twin” of his, calling him to leave his father’s sect and preach the true message of Christ. In 240–41, Mani travelled to “India” (i.e. to the Sakhas in modern-day Afghanistan), where he studied Hinduism and was probably influenced by Greco-Buddhism. Al-Biruni says Mani traveled to India after being banished from Persia.
Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process which takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light from whence it came…
Historians also note that Mani declared himself to be an “apostle of Jesus Christ”. Manichaean tradition is also noted to have claimed that Mani was the reincarnation of different religious figures from Buddha, Lord Krishna, Zoroaster, 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.
Muslim accounts claim that he propagated his faith through painting. In fact, one of his great divine revelations took the form of a book he illustrated: the Arzhang. Some sources claim he was the first to start the trend of illustrating West Asian manuscripts with miniatures.
Alishir Navoi Painter Mani presenting king Bahram-Gur with his drawing. Uzbekistan (1521-1522) [Source]
In the short term, this didn’t help him too much. He brought his teachings to the Persian Emperor, Shapur I, but didn’t manage to convert him from Zoroastrianism. A couple of decades later, Bahram I (depicted above) began to persecute the Manichaeans and threw Mani in jail, where he died in a month. So Mani ended up being a Christ-like martyr figure to his followers.
By this time, however, the religion was spreading fast, to the east, west and south. Part of this was due to the religion’s willingness to co-opt local divinities: Ahura Mazda and his yazatas in Iran; Guanyin in China.
Notably, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who grew up in Algeria, was born a Manichean, and later refuted his earlier beliefs when he converted to Christianity.
Attributed to Aert van den Bossche Augustine sacrificing to an idol of the Manichaeans Belgium? (c. 1480-1500) [Source]
In the historically Persian regions of Uzkbekistan and Turkmenistan, the Sogdian Empire was deeply involved in studying and translating its texts (along with Buddhist and Zoroastrian scriptures):
Sogdian text, Manichaean letter Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan (800s-1200s) [Source]
Painting depicting Manichean cosmology China (Yuan Dynasty, 1271 to 1368) [Source]
However, the faith also faced a lot of persecution, leading to its ultimate extinction:
In 732 Emperor Xuanzong of Tang [China] banned local conversion to the religion. In 843 Emperor Wuzong of Tang gave the order to kill all Manichaean clerics as part of his campaign against Buddhism and other religions, and over half died. Caliph Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah also killed thousands of Manichaeans and Al-Muqtadir killed so many that Ibn al-Nadim knew only 5 Manichaeans in Baghdad, the headquarters of the religion…
During the Middle Ages, several movements emerged which were collectively described as “Manichaean” by the Catholic Church, and persecuted as Christian heresies through the establishment, in 1184, of the Inquisition. They included the Cathar churches of Western Europe.
Pope Innocentius III excommunicating the Cathars (left), Massacre against the Cathars by the crusaders France (mid-1300s) [Source]
So, eventually the faith died out. Or did it? It seems there’s a still a little movement happening in Iran, of all places: