What Is Manichaeism?

The prophet Mani is flayed and his disciple hung from a tree
The death of Mani illustration from the Shahnama. via Wikimedia

Manichaeism is one of the major Iranian religions. It was founded by the prophet Mani, who lived from around 216 to 276 of the common era.  Mani taught that the world was divided into a spiritual world of light and goodness, and a material world of darkness and evil.  He urged his followers to reject the material world and concentrate on the spiritual - a belief system known as gnosticism.

Mani himself was born in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), which was ruled by the Sassanid Empire of Persia at the time.

 The Sassanids used Aramaic as the official language of their empire, rather than forcing their foreign subjects to learn Persian, and Mani wrote six of his seven religious texts in Aramaic.  (Incidentally, Aramaic was also Jesus Christ's mother tongue.)  Mani's family belonged to the Elcesaite sect of Judeo-Christians, but his religious ideas were profoundly influenced by Zoroaster's and the Buddha's teachings, as well.  Although he respected the earlier prophets, Mani believed that the teachings of the Buddha, Zoroaster, Lord Krishna, and Jesus were not complete.

According to Manichaeist texts, the prophet recieved his first revelation at the tender age of 12.  A spirit spoke to him; he later described this spirit as his twin or his divine self.  The spirit returned with further revelations when Mani was 24 years of age.

Soon, the young prophet began proselytizing around the Sassanid Empire and beyond.

 He traveled along the Silk Road, reaching the Kushan Empire's city of Bamiyan in what is now Afghanistan. The sudden advent and success of this new faith made the Sassanid emperor Bayram uneasy, so in 276, he had Mani arrested.  Contemporary accounts say that Mani died of an unspecified illness in prison while awaiting execution.

 Manichaean texts, however, report a grisly martyrdom as the fate of their prophet.  They claim that his skin was flayed from his body, that he was hanged, and that his head was then cut off and placed on a spike at the city wall as a warning to his followers.  Critics of this story suggest that the Manichaeists may have been trying to "one-up" the crucifixion of Jesus with this even more horrifying execution story.

In any case, during and after Mani's lifetime, Manichaeism spread with incredible speed both to the east and the west of Iran.  As early as 280 CE, it reached Rome, where it vied with Christianity to be the next major religion as paganism dwindled.  Manichaeist missionaries brought their faith as far west as the British Isles and as far east as China as early as the 500s CE.  

Manichaeism also prospered briefly in Egypt and North Africa, until Diocletian ordered the execution of Manichaeist monks and preachers in 296 and the burning of their texts.  Rome followed suit in 391, declaring Christianity the official state religion and decreeing death for Manichaean monks and believers.  Scattered Manichaean communities held out for more than 1,000 years in parts of Spain, France, the Balkans, and northern Italy, but the faith was more successful in Asia.

Adherants of Manichaeism in Asia included many Sogdians, who as successful Silk Road merchants could easily spread their ideas.  The faith also became popular in northern India, Tibet, and western China, as well as in Mani's home region of Mesopotamia.  When Islam appeared, it was initially tolerant of Manichaeist beliefs, but under the Abbasid caliphs Manichaeans were persecuted.  The Caliph Harun al-Rashid ended this persecution.  However, the Manichaeans were not secure under Abbasid rule.  In the 900s, they moved their spiritual base to Khorasan (northeastern Iran) and then to Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan.

To the east, life was easier for the followers of Mani.  In 763, the Khagan of the Uyghur Empire, Boku Tekin, converted to Manichaeism.  His state would remain Manichaeist until it collapsed in 840.


In China proper, Manichaeist beliefs spread as far east as Chang'an, the Tang Dynasty's capital city and the terminus of the Silk Road.  Chinese believers continued to build Manichaeist communities through the 13th century, but the empires that followed the Tang frowned upon this religion.  It was particularly repressed during the Song and Yuan eras, because it became associated with peasant rebellions such as the Red Turban Uprising.  In 1370, the new Ming Dynasty banned Manichaeism altogether.  Already swamped by Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism across its former range, Manichaeism quietly winked out of existence.