Manichaeanism Begins in Mesopotamia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the third century c.e., the self-proclaimed apostle Mani founded a dualistic religion that rivaled Christianity and spread from the Middle East to Africa, Europe, and China.

Summary of Event

Mani was born of Persian parents in southern Mesopotamia. His father, Patek (Patekios), was a member of a religious community preaching baptism and penance. Through his mother, Mani was related to the Parthian royal family, who were overthrown by the Sāsānians in 224 c.e. He was raised in southern Mesopotamia in a Judaeo-Christian Baptist community, speaking Aramaic. Mani

At the age of twelve, Mani underwent some type of religious experience accompanied by a vision of an angel, later referred to as his “twin.” Twelve years later, he experienced another vision, his “annunciation,” and he went forth to preach a new religion under the spiritual guidance of his twin. Mani viewed himself as the final successor in a long line of prophets including Buddha and Zoroaster; he especially acknowledged his debt to Jesus Christ, referring to himself as an “apostle of Jesus.” However, he viewed earlier revelations of the true religion as limited because they were local in scope, taught usually to only one people in one language. Mani also believed that all earlier religions had lost sight of the truth, and he regarded himself as the carrier of the universal message. As such, he wrote down his teachings, encouraged their translation into other languages, and vigorously engaged in missionary activity.

After receiving instruction, Mani preached throughout the Mesopotamian area of the recently established Sāsānian Empire. He sent early converts to Alexandria and Afghanistan to engage in missionary activities. In 240 or 241 c.e., he sailed to India, where he obtained many new converts, including a Buddhist king. After the death of King Ardashīr I and the coronation of his successor Shāpūr I (r. 240-272), Mani traveled to the Sāsānian capital and was favorably received by the king. Although the king did not convert, he permitted Mani to preach his religion throughout the realm. This event is remembered as the Manichaean Day of Pentecost. Mani’s privileges were renewed under the reign of Shāpūr’s successor, Hormizd I (r. 272-273). However, after the latter’s reign, Bahrām I (r. 273-276) ascended the throne. Representatives of the Zoroastrian church persuaded Bahrām to withdraw Mani’s privileges, and the Sāsānians began to persecute the Manichaeans. Mani was imprisoned, and after twenty-six days of trials, known as the Passion, he delivered a final message to his disciples and died in chains c. 277.

The persecution drove his adherents far and wide, and the religion soon spread eastward in Asia and westward toward North Africa and Europe. For a decade, Saint Augustine was a Manichaean “hearer,” or one who followed the teachings of Mani, before he converted to Christianity.

Mani’s teachings fall under the broad realm of Gnostic because they offered salvation through special knowledge (gnosis) of spiritual truth. As with all forms of Gnosticism, Mani taught that human life consists of suffering and evil; illumination can be attained only by means of gnosis.

Mani taught a dualistic religion consisting of the two eternal roots, or principles of light (good) and dark (evil). These two principles brought the world into being and would remain primary forces until the end. Mani devised a universal chronology consisting of three time periods with respect to the two principles: In the first time period, the kingdoms of light and dark existed apart; in the second, the darkness invaded the light and created a mixture; and in the third, future period, the two kingdoms would once again be separate.

According to Mani’s teachings, a cosmic conflict existed between the Prince of Light and the Demon of Darkness. Light had created only the spiritual; all matter was attributed to darkness. The two realms had become fused in an event known as “the seduction of the demons.” The forces of the dark stole some of the divine substance of light and used it to fashion the earth and all the organic and inorganic objects contained in it. Thus human beings are a mixture of the two opposing forces: spiritual substances trapped within an evil material shell. The goal of human beings is therefore to do good and to eliminate the material in their lives by means of fasting, abstinence, and relinquishing material possessions. At death, the soul of the righteous person returns to the light. The soul of a person who persists in things of the flesh is condemned to rebirth in a succession of bodies.

Mani’s community existed of a tripartite group of the faithful. The first, the elect, lived ascetic lives based on the belief that excessive speech, food, worldly acts, and desires were essentially evil. The second, the hearers, had to abjure magic and idolatry, follow Mani’s teachings, and support the elect with work and alms. The third, the adherents, were those who were interested in Mani’s teachings but undertook no obligations. Although the members of the elect were grouped at the apex of the Manichaean hierarchy, Manichaeanism never developed an organized priesthood.


In the nineteenth century, scholars studied Manichaeanism from material gleaned primarily from Greek and Latin sources and secondarily from Syriac and Arabic ones. All these sources were generally hostile to Manichaeanism. However, in the twentieth century, scholars unearthed a veritable plethora of Manichaean treatises in myriad languages including Bactrian, Chinese, Coptic, Old Turkic, Parthian, Middle Persian, New Persian, Sogdian, and Tokharian. The extant Manichaean corpus is extensive, consisting of hymn books, catechism, theological tractates, homilies, epistles, liturgies, prayers, poetry, and historical fragments. The Manichaean written record is still being discovered and translated; it provides an ample testament to the popularity and the extent of Mani’s religion.

Manichaeanism spread rapidly. In the West, Manichaeanism was a religious force by the end of the third century c.e.; it is mentioned in an edict of the emperor Diocletian in 297. Around the year 300, the Neoplatonist Alexander of Lycopolis in Upper Egypt wrote a treatise against the teachings of the Manichaeans, and in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christian theologians, both in the East and West, vigorously attacked Mani’s doctrines. By the fourth century, the Manichaeans had founded churches in Spain and southern Gaul, but because of attacks by both the Christian Church and a Christianized Roman Empire, Manichaeanism disappeared from Western Europe by the fifth century. Although it was ousted from the Eastern Roman Empire through the combined pressure of church and state by the sixth century, it continued to thrive in Asia, notably in China, for another thousand years.

Mani’s teachings spread through Persia throughout his own lifetime. Despite frequent persecutions, Manichaeanism survived in the Middle East until the persecutions of the Muslim ՙAbbāsids in the tenth century. As a result of these persecutions, the Manichaeans moved northward out of Persia and toward Samarqand in modern Uzbekistan.

Manichaeanism spread yet farther east in the seventh century c.e. along the caravan routes following China’s conquest of east Turkestan. By 694, a Manichaean missionary had reached the Chinese court; in 732, an edict ensured its followers the freedom to worship in China. Although Manichaeanism was prohibited in China in 843 and afterward persecuted, it endured there at least until the fourteenth century. The Italian traveler Marco Polo found Manichaean communities there at the end of the thirteenth century.

In the eighth century c.e., when the Uighur Turks conquered east Turkestan, one of the leaders leaders converted to Manichaeanism, which remained the state religion of the Uighur kingdom until its overthrow in 840. Manichaeanism probably survived in east Turkestan until the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century.

Various dualistic sects surfaced throughout the Middle Ages in a variety of guises; however, it is difficult to ascertain exactly the nature of their relationship to Manichaeanism. The Paulicians appeared in Armenia (seventh century), the Bogomils in Bulgaria (tenth/eleventh century), and the Albigensians (Cathars) in France (twelfth century). Although contemporaries noted their similarities to Manichaeanism, no direct historical links have been established with the religion of Mani.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">BeDuhn, Jason. The Manichaean Body: In Discipline and Ritual. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. A scholarly treatment of Manichaean religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mirecki, Paul, and Jason BeDuhn, eds. Emerging from Darkness: Studies in the Recovery of Manichaean Sources. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997. An important collection of essays on Manichaean sources and the state of Manichaean studies at the end of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mirecki, Paul, and Jason BeDuhn, eds. The Light and the Darkness: Studies in Manichaeism and Its World. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2001. A scholarly collection of essays dealing with the reconstruction of Manichaean literary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oort, Johannes van, Otto Wermelinger, and Gregor Wurst, eds. Augustine and Manichaeism in the Latin West: Proceedings of the Fribourg-Utrecht International Symposium of the IAMS. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001. A scholarly series of essays concerning Manichaean penetration of North Africa during the period of Saint Augustine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Widengren, Geo. Mani and Manichaeism. Translated by Charles Kessler. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1965. An excellent survey of Mani’s life and teachings.
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Categories: History