Mani: Gnostic Prophet of Dualism
By Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin
Although the religion founded by Mani-known as Manicheism-is dead, its influence is still with us in subtle and indirect ways. Mani was born in 216 AD near the modern city of Baghdad in Iraq, which was then part of the Persian Empire. Although a Persian, Mani was raised in a Gnostic Christian sect known as the Elkesaites, whose founder, Elkesai, was a Christian prophet living in Jordan around 100 AD, to whom was revealed a heavenly book of scripture to supplement New Testament writings.
At age twelve Mani claimed to have received a vision from his angelic “celestial twin” who revealed heavenly secrets to him. As Mani himself describes it: “in the reign of King Ardashir [of Persia] the Holy Spirit came down and spoke to me. He revealed to me the hidden mystery, hidden from the ages and the generations of Man: the mystery of the Deep [underworld] and the High [heavens], the mystery of Light and Darkness, the mystery of the [apocalyptic] Contest, the War, and the Great War. The Holy Spirit disclosed to me all that has been and all that will be.”
At age 25 Mani left the Elkesaites, founding his own new religion. In the following years he preached in India and Iran with some success, eventually converting the brother of the Persian emperor Shapur, who introduced Mani at the imperial court. However, his success made him a threat to the Zoroastrian state religion, and, after Shapur’s death, Mani was imprisoned as a dangerous heretic. In 276 he was martyred by being flayed alive under the order of the famous Zoroastrian High Priest Kirder.
Mani believed that he was the last and greatest of the prophets, successor to the prophetic founders of the three great religions of Iran: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. He described himself as an apostle of Jesus, teaching the true form of Christianity. According to Mani there is a fundamental dualism between Spirit and Matter, Light and Darkness. The pristine world created by God was a world of Light and Spirit, but the powers of Darkness overcame the first man, imprisoning the spirits of light in the chains of dark matter. These sons of Light need to be freed from Darkness in order to ascend back to the presence of God. This liberation from the bonds of darkness was the goal of Mani’s revelation, or heavenly knowledge (gnosis). Mani’s attempt to integrate Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism led to some interesting twists of doctrine, such as Turkish texts which speak of the nirvana of the Buddha Jesus on the cross.
Mani’s followers were organized into two groups: the Elect, who were expected to live the higher law, and the Hearers, who were followers of a lesser law. The Elect lived by the “three seals”: that they would abstain from wine and meat, that they would harm no living thing, and that they would live in celibacy so as not to imprison new spirits of light in the bondage of matter. The Hearers followed and supported the Elect, but were not required to live these three higher laws.
Perhaps Mani’s most important convert was the famous Catholic theologian Augustine (354-430), who was a Manichean for nine years before his conversion to Christianity at age 33. Thereafter, Augustine wrote a book condemning Manicheism, and his doctrine of the Fall-which became normative for Catholics-was also in part a reaction to Manichean thought. Later medieval Christian heresies such as the Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathars were all probably influenced by Manichean ideas.
At its height in the sixth and seventh centuries, Manicheism was probably the most widespread religion in the world, with members found from Spain to India and China. However, Manicheans were almost everywhere in the minority. Suffering religious persecution under increasingly intolerant kingdoms, their religion eventually disappeared. Manicheism was most successful among the nomads of Central Asia, where it was declared the official religion by the king of the Uigur Turks in 762, and survived until the sixteenth century. Today only a few followers of neo-Gnostic New Age movements still revere the writings of Mani as scripture. Nonetheless, subtle influences of his ideas can be found throughout the history and doctrines of Christianity and Islam.