Mandaeism: Ancient Gnostic Religion; Living Religious Faith

Author: Keyvan Abak

Abak, Keyvan, 2018 Mandaeism: Ancient Gnostic Religion; Living Religious Faith, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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This thesis aims to present an as yet unseen perspective on the ancient gnostic religion of Mandaeism by giving a voice to the Mandaean community living in diaspora in Australia today. The author, a committed Mandaean, seeks to redress gaps in academic knowledge and hopes to create a more open environment within scholarship and religious dialogue for this religion that, contrary to predictions, is thriving.

Scholarly literature, to date, largely approached through the lenses of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has focused on the origins and history of the religion, and on understanding the gnostic nature of Mandaean literature. A review of this literature critically examines the perspectives and conclusions of key academics, suggesting that some have been highly conjectural in nature, the work of outsiders attempting to understand a mystical religion forced by centuries of persecution to practise secrecy in order to preserve its rich tradition. The two cornerstones of Mandaeism that have caused particular controversy are belief in one God and Immersion in running water. Monotheism is questioned most by Islamic scholars while Christian academics sometimes struggle to see the true nature and meaning of repeated baptism. As the survival and development of this religion is a key concern, this thesis examines the gnostic nature of Mandaeism as a living faith, as taught to believers, from religious sources. Gnosticism with its mystic and hidden truths is difficult for modern non-Mandaean scholars to understand. As for all Gnostics, duality of existence is at the heart of Mandaean Gnosticism.

The thesis then documents the results of an ethnographic qualitative process used to listen to eight voices (including two priests) from the Australian Mandaean community, with the author’s autoethnographic reflection intertwined. In order to honour the voice of this oppressed people the thematic framework is underpinned by anti-oppressive theory and the narrative approach. After consultation with the Mandaean community, the questions presented to participants related to life before and into diaspora, Mandaean religious life and practice, and the hopes and perceived challenges for the future. The result is a vivid picture of the lived experience of Mandaean people in Australia today. The importance of this process cannot be over emphasised as it gives voice to people who have been voiceless for millennia.

A sense of liberation and joy is palpable among the members of the Mandaean community interviewed. The author and the participants now live in a free democratic society where they feel empowered to practise their faith and work at developing a positive future. It is clear from this study that the survival and development of Mandaeans in Australia is in a strong place; Mandaeans in other countries are looking to Australia for leadership.

Keywords: Mandaeism, Diaspora, Mandaeans, Persecution, Monotheism, A living faith, Voice of oppressed Mandaeans.

Subject: Theology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Stephen Downs