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Manicheans from a manuscript by Khocho , Tarim Basin

The Manichaeism was a greatly from the Gnosis influenced revealed religion of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages . Its organized following was divided into the elite of the "chosen" ( Latin electi ), from which the officials were recruited, and the simple parishioners, the "listeners" (auditores) . From the electi in particular , he demanded asceticism and an endeavor for purity, which was considered a prerequisite for the desired salvation.

Manichaeism is named after its founder, the Persian Mani (Latin Manes or Manichaeus, 216–276 / 277). It is counted among the syncretistic teachings, since Mani recognized older religions as authentic and incorporated some of their ideas into his religion. Manichaeism is sometimes referred to as a world religion because of its expansion into the west of the Roman Empire and into the Empire of China ; the justification of such a designation depends on the definition of the vague term world religion.

With the approval of the Sassanid king Shapur I , who ruled from 240/42 to 270, Mani was able to spread his teachings in the Persian Empire, first in Babylonia and in southwestern Iran . The Sassanid king Bahram I , who ruled from 273 to 276/77, had him arrested at the instigation of the Zoroastrian high priest Kartir . Mani died in captivity of the hardships suffered there; but it was not an execution. In Manichaean sources, his death is called the crucifixion in a conscious analogy to the death of Christ , but this is only meant metaphorically.

Mani's teaching is characterized by the distinction between two natures or principles and three epochs of salvation history . The two natures are that of light and that of darkness. The three epochs are the past time in which the two natures were completely separated, then the (still ongoing) time in which the realm of darkness is mixed with elements of light, and finally a future time in which they are again (finally) separated will be. Because of the distinction between two absolutely different and opposing natures and the realms assigned to them, Manichaeism is counted among the dualistic models.


The sources are both writings by Manichaean authors and works by Christian and Muslim authors who polemicized against Manichaeism. Although Mani left works that were of fundamental importance to his followers and therefore found widespread use, no original Manichaean writings were known until the 20th century. In the early modern period and in the 19th century only anti-Manichaean sources were available, from which at least individual quotations from Manichaean literature could be taken. Manichaean writings were destroyed in antiquity and the Middle Ages , as Manichaism was suppressed or superseded by other religions in all areas in which it had spread over time. It was not until the 20th century that a large number of Manichaean manuscripts were discovered, some of which have only survived as fragments in a poor state of preservation. A part of these manuscripts that had not yet been evaluated was lost again after the end of the Second World War.

Territorial situation around 300 AD for the establishment of Manichaeism: Roman Empire ( Tetrarchy ) and Sasanian Persia

While the polemical writings of the opponents largely paint a distorted picture, the Manichaean books, which were intended for edifying or liturgical purposes, are problematic as sources for the historical processes because they are interspersed with many legendary elements. However, they convey authentic information about teaching and liturgical practice.

Important non-Manichean sources are:

  • various writings by the church father Augustine of Hippo , who had been a Manichaean before turning to Christianity, especially his confessions and the Genesis commentary against the Manicheans .
  • the Acta Archelai of the Greek church father Hegemonius from the 4th century, which are only completely preserved in a Latin translation. They fabricate two arguments between Mani and the Christian bishop Archelaos. The Acta Archelai have greatly influenced Christian anti-Manichean literature.
  • the large Arabic literature catalog kitāb al-Fihrist of the Shiite scholar ibn an-Nadīm , written in Baghdad in 988 . His information, like reports by later Arabic-speaking authors, is based on a lost account of the Manichaean Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq, who lived in the 9th century.
  • the work The Remaining Monuments of Past Generations (also known as Chronology ), written by the Persian scholar al-Bīrūnī in the year 1000.

Among the Manichaean sources we can highlight:

  • the fragments of ancient Manichaean literature from the Turfan Oasis in East Turkestan . They were discovered between 1902 and 1914 by researchers from the Berlin Ethnographic Museum . The Turfan texts are partly written in Iranian languages ( Parthian , Middle Persian and Sogdian ), partly in Uighur .
  • Manichaean texts in Chinese that were found in Dunhuang at the beginning of the 20th century .
  • Texts from Manichaean manuscripts in Coptic (including sermons) found in Medinet Madi in Egypt and published between 1933 and 1940. They date from the late 3rd and 4th centuries.
  • the Cologne Mani Codex , a Greek parchment manuscript from Egypt, which was only discovered in the Cologne papyrus collection in the late 1960s. It contains a late antique biography of Mani under the title About Becoming His Body, which is compiled from older representations ; it transmits mani's autobiographical statements and is based on reports from his disciples. Thanks to this first-rate source, the information from the sources previously evaluated could be corrected and supplemented.

historical development

Origin and self-image

Fragment of the late antique biography of Mani in the Cologne Mani Codex

At the time when Mani was growing up, the Persian Empire was shaped by Zoroastrians, but Mani grew up in a Jewish-Christian environment. According to the description of his life handed down in the Cologne Mani Codex, as a youth he belonged, like his father, to the Elkesaiten , a Christian Anabaptist community. Mani had revelation experiences in his youth . According to his information, at the age of twelve he experienced an apparition of his God-sent companion for the first time, who up to the age of twenty-four revealed “everything that was and will be, everything that the eyes see, the ears hear and the Thought thinks ”. After completing these revelations, he broke away from the elke strings.

Travel to the East brought him into contact with the Mahayana - Buddhism . Mani considered the religions with which he was concerned to be inadequate because their teachings were not set out clearly enough in writing and their followers therefore argued over their interpretation. Therefore he tried to have the contents of his religion written down while he was still alive, to formulate the teaching clearly in order to avoid schisms and to spread them worldwide. He proselytized in the Persian Empire, his followers brought Manichaeism to the west into the Roman Empire, to the east to the Empire of China.

Mani saw himself as the successor of the great religious founders Zarathustra , Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and Jesus . Accordingly, Manichaeism is a syncretic doctrine that contains Zoroastrian and Christian as well as Buddhist elements. The spiritual trend of Gnosticism also had an influence on Mani's religion. This led to Manichaeism appearing in the Mediterranean area as the “Church of the Holy Spirit” and the prophet Mani to be seen as the Paraclete promised by Christ , while in other parts of the world the founders of religion were seen as the rebirth of Laozi or the new Buddha .


The spread of Manichaeism; the area in the middle of the map is not only the Sassanian Empire, but the area in which Manichaean influence prevailed, 300 to 500 AD.
Manichean priests, wall fresco from Khocho , Xinjiang , tenth and eleventh centuries AD ( Museum of Asian Art in Berlin-Dahlem)
Akshobhya in his eastern paradise with a cross of light, a symbol of Manichaeism

Manichaeism spread rapidly in Persia and the surrounding regions in late antiquity in the 3rd and 4th centuries . A brother of the Persian great king Shapur I converted to Manichaeism, but the Manichaeans were persecuted under Shapur's successors.

By the end of the 4th century, Manichaeism was also present in many parts of the Roman Empire . Diocletian , who saw the divinely derived interpretative sovereignty only with the emperor, did not want to leave attempts at ideological explanations to either Christianity or the Manichaeans and took legal action against both dogmas . His Manichean edict threatened the followers with death if the doctrine spread and the subsequent confiscation of their property. The rescript was successively inlet to the Codex Gregorianus and besides preface to the Mosaicarum et Romanarum legum collatio , so it gives precise information today. Another edict under Valentinian , handed down through the Codex Theodosianus , branded the Manichaeans as dishonorable and had to be driven out.

Through active missionary activity , Manichaeism spread to the empires of China and Spain. Manichaeism became the state religion of the Uyghurs under Bögü Khan in 762 . The reasons for the great missionary success of Manichaeism have not yet been fully clarified. One factor was certainly its adaptability to local conditions: the Manichaeans adapted the vocabulary of their teaching to Buddhism in the east and Christianity in the west, with the specific content of their religious message and their identity being remarkably homogeneous despite the different terminology.

In Western Europe, the influence of the Manichaean communities mainly reached northern Italy, Spain, southern France, and in some cases even as far as the Rhine plain, as well as Flanders and Holland. At times it was a serious competitor for Christianity and, despite severe persecution, lasted into the fifth century. In China, religion went under around the 14th century. The Manicheans in southwest China were among the most influential rebel groups.

Reactions from Neo-Platonists, Christians and Muslims

The Manichean cosmogony

In the late third century, the Neoplatonic philosopher Alexander von Lykonpolis took a critical look at Manichaeism. He considered it the most extreme of the perverted varieties of Christianity introduced by sect founders. It is an irrational doctrine that makes claims without being able to make them plausible. The Manichaeans are uneducated and incapable of logical thinking; their cosmology and cosmogony are confused and fantastic.

In North Africa, the later Christian church father Augustine of Hippo was a listener (auditor) of the Manicheans for ten years. After he turned away from this doctrine (and turned to Neo-Platonism and then to Christianity), his polemical writings against the Manichaeans determined European ideas of Manichaism until the 20th century. The extent to which Manichaeism helped to shape Augustine's thinking and thus found its way into (especially Western) Christianity has not been fully clarified. Alfred Adam advocates the thesis that Augustine was also influenced by Manichaeism as a Christian, and teaches doctrines such as strong dualism (states of good and evil in his work De civitate dei ), the doctrine of purgatory (incarnation of the "hearers"), the doctrine of hell , the doctrine of original sin , the doctrine of double predestination , the cycle (two states at the beginning and at the end) and hostility to the body and sex go back to Manichaeism.

In Islam, too, there was a dispute with representatives of Manichean teachings. Important personalities who were assigned to Manichaeism were Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq. However, the Manichaeism of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿs depends on a script that has only survived in fragments within a refutation of the Zaidite al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm (died 860). It is unclear whether Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ was really the author.

As a result of Christian and Muslim refutations and political persecution, Manichaeism fell heavily on the defensive in the 6th and 7th centuries. Neumanichaean groups such as the Bogomils and the Cathars were persecuted as heretics in the High Middle Ages .

Organization of the Manichaean Community

Mani divided his followers into two groups, the listeners ( auditores ) and the elect ( electi ) . Three ethical principles (or seals) were imposed on the elect. Listeners should at least follow them on Sunday.

  • Seal of the mouth with the abstinence of flesh, blood, wine, fruit and curses.
  • Seal of the hands, with the abstinence from all physical labor. The right hand was only allowed to be offered as a greeting. The ritual laying on of hands was not affected by the hand seal.
  • Seal of abstinence , with the prohibition of any sexual intercourse.

Important for the rite were prayers, the recitation of hymns , the Eucharist , weekly confession and magical rituals.

Manichean salvation history

The focus of the Manichaean teaching is the presentation of the past and future history of mankind as a history of salvation. In the beginning there was the kingdom of light of God, whose essence comprised five forms of thought: reason, thinking, insight, senses and reflection. In contrast, there is the realm of darkness, consisting of smoke, fire, wind, water and darkness. There is struggle and disagreement in this realm. During his inner struggles, the darkness attacks the light. God the Father is peace and therefore does not want a fight. For this reason he sends his son into battle so that he can be captured by the darkness. Through the sacrifice of his son, on the one hand the kingdom of light remains intact, on the other hand the final victory over darkness is prepared with it. To save the light elements, the world is created; The “living spirit” forms the remaining light elements for the sun, moon, stars, heaven and earth, which thus represent a mixture of light and darkness. Only the “third messenger”, according to primeval man ( Gayomarth ) and living spirit, sets the wheels (fire, water and wind) in motion, which divert the light upwards to the Milky Way and ultimately pass it on to the sun. Then the “third messenger” reveals himself to the human couple ( Adam and Eve ), who are henceforth responsible for the fate of the world. In order to be able to do justice to their role, the “third messenger” finally also sends “Jesus the splendor”, who enlightens people about “divine reason”.

In the Manichaean worldview, the divine kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness are in absolute opposition. One of the main tenets is that the light elements trapped in darkness must not be harmed under any circumstances, as this will hinder their release. It is therefore forbidden to kill living beings. The “elect” have a key role to play in the liberation of the light elements. They avoid any violation of the trapped light and anything that can prolong its captivity by abstaining from sexual intercourse and not harming people, animals or plants. The "hearers" provide them with food. In the digestive process of the elect, light is separated from darkness, and through song and prayer it can return to God. When the liberation of light is almost complete and the material world has melted into a lump, the end time of the Manichaean salvation history comes. A new resurrection, after the final separation of light and darkness, does not take place. The history of salvation ends with the complete and final separation of light and darkness.

Transfer of the term "Manichaeans" to other groups

Even in late antiquity, the term "Manichaeans" was often used by Christians as a synonym for " heretics ". Therefore, in some cases it is difficult to determine whether the so-called heterodox groups were actually Manichaeans. Even after Manichaeism had disappeared as a separate religion in Europe, the term was used as a polemical expression for heretical groups, even if their content did not match the Manichaean doctrine. Parallels to the Manichean dualism can be seen in the medieval Bogomils and Cathars (Albigensians). Both are referred to as Manicheans in contemporary writings by their opponents. A historical connection between these currents and Manichaeism has not been established.

In the present, the term is used to denote ideologies that divide the world into good and bad without any nuances, while stylizing the enemy as an existentially threatening, essentially evil . This is mostly based on an eschatological trait. In the social sciences, for example, Christian millenarianism , anti-Semitism , National Socialism and various conspiracy theories are described as Manichaean in this sense .

Text editions and translations

  • Alexander Böhlig (Ed.): The Gnosis. Volume 3: Manichaeism. Patmos, Düsseldorf 2007, ISBN 978-3-491-69146-9 (translated source texts with informative introduction).
  • Iain Gardner (Ed.): The Kephalaia of the Teacher. The Edited Coptic Manichaean Texts in Translation with Commentary. Brill, Leiden 1995, ISBN 90-04-10248-5 .
  • Iain Gardner, Samuel NC Lieu (Eds.): Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004, ISBN 0-521-56090-X (source texts in English translation).
  • Hans-Joachim Klimkeit (Hrsg.): Hymns and prayers of the religion of light. Iranian and Turkish liturgical texts of the Manichaeans of Central Asia (= treatises of the Rhenish-Westphalian Academy of Sciences. Volume 79). Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1989, ISBN 3-531-05096-6 .
  • Markus Stein (Ed.): Manichaica Latina (= Papyrologica Coloniensia. Volume 27.1–4). 4 volumes in 5 parts. Edited by the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences . 1998–2006 (critical edition of the Latin versions of Manichaean writings with translation and commentary):
    • Volume 1: Epistula ad Menoch. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen / Wiesbaden 1998, ISBN 3-531-09946-9 .
    • Volume 2: Manichaei epistula fundamenti. Schöningh, Paderborn u. a. 2002, ISBN 3-506-71481-3 , OCLC 63753688 (also Cologne, University, habilitation thesis, 1999-2000).
    • Volume 3.1: Codex Thevestinus. Schöningh, Paderborn u. a. 2004, ISBN 3-506-71779-0 .
    • Volume 3.2: Codex Thevestinus. Photographs. Schöningh, Paderborn u. a. 2006, ISBN 3-506-72982-9 .
    • Volume 4: Manichaei Thesaurus. Schöningh, Paderborn u. a. 2016, ISBN 978-3-506-78699-9 .
  • Werner Sundermann (Ed.): The Speech of the Living Soul, a Manichaean hymn cycle in Middle Persian and Soghdic language. Brepols, Turnhout 2012, ISBN 978-2-503-54627-8 (critical edition with translation).
  • Nahal Tajadod (Ed.): Mani, le bouddha de lumière. Catéchisme manichéen chinois. Éditions du Cerf, Paris 1990, ISBN 2-204-04064-9 (text with French translation and commentary).


Overview representations

Introductions and general presentations

Collections of essays on individual topics

  • Jason BeDuhn (Ed.): New Light on Manichaeism. Papers from the Sixth International Congress on Manichaeism. Brill, Leiden 2009, ISBN 978-90-04-17285-2 .
  • Jacob Albert van den Berg u. a. (Ed.): 'In Search of Truth': Augustine, Manichaeism and other Gnosticism. Studies for Johannes van Oort at Sixty (= Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Volume 74). Brill, Leiden 2011, ISBN 978-90-04-18997-3 .
  • Paul Mirecki , Jason BeDuhn (Ed.): The Light and the Darkness. Studies in Manichaeism and its World. Brill, Leiden 2001, ISBN 90-04-11673-7 .
  • Paul Mirecki, Jason BeDuhn (Ed.): Emerging from Darkness. Studies in the Recovery of Manichaean Sources. Brill, Leiden 1997, ISBN 90-04-10760-6 .
  • Siegfried G. Richter , Charles Horton, Klaus Ohlhafer (eds.): Mani in Dublin. Selected Papers from the Seventh International Conference of the International Association of Manichaean Studies in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, September 8-12, 2009 (= Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Volume 88). Brill, Leiden 2015, ISBN 978-90-04-28836-2 .

Studies on Manichaeism in the West

Studies on Manichaeism in the East

  • Michelangelo Guidi: La Lotta tra l'Islām e il Manicheismo. Un libro di Ibn al-Muqaffa 'contro il Corano confutato da al-Qāsim B. Ibrāhīm. Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome 1927.
  • Samuel NC Lieu: Manichaeism in Central Asia and China. Brill, Leiden 1998, ISBN 90-04-10405-4 .
  • Werner Sundermann: Manichaeism on the Silk Road. Rise, flowering and decay. In: Ulrich Hübner u. a. (Ed.): The Silk Road. Trade and cultural exchange in a Eurasian network of routes. 2nd Edition. Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-930826-63-1 , pp. 153-169.
  • Christiane Reck u. a. (Ed.): Manichaica Iranica. Selected writings by Werner Sundermann (= Orientale Roma series. Volume 89). 2 volumes. Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente, Rome 2001, ISBN 8863231036 .


  • Zsuzsanna Gulácsi: Mediaeval Manichaean Book Art. A Codicological Study of Iranian and Turkic Illuminated Book Fragments from 8th – 11th Century East Central Asia. Brill, Leiden 2005, ISBN 90-04-13994-X .
  • Manfred Heuser, Hans-Joachim Klimkeit: Studies in Manichaean Literature and Art. Brill, Leiden 1998, ISBN 90-04-10716-9 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Manichaeism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Manichaeism  - collection of images, videos, and audio files


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  11. Michael Barkun : A Culture of Conspiracy. Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. 2nd edition, Berkeley 2013, p. 3.
  12. ^ Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke : Black Sun. Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York 2002, p. 3; Thomas Haury : Anti-Semitism from the left. Communist ideology, nationalism and anti-Zionism in the early GDR. Hamburg 2002, pp. 109, 230 ff.
  13. ^ Robert S. Wistrich : Hitler's apocalypse. Jews and the Nazi legacy. London 1985, p. 29.
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