Saturday, March 05, 2005


The Iraqi Baptists

I was born and raised in Baghdad. Our home was right on the bank of The Tigris. In my early childhood, I was always fascinated by people who performed what seemed like funny-looking rituals in the river.

They invariably came at dawn… groups of less than 20 people clad in white. Some of them waded knee-deep into the water and stood there making graceful, studied motions. On several occasions, I could signal out a small group of three people: a young man and a young woman facing an old bearded man who orchestrated the rituals. Obviously a wedding ceremony. There was always an atmosphere of tranquility and dignity surrounding the proceedings.

Later in life, I had the chance to meet a number of these people, have the acquaintance of a few and cherish the friendship of at least two. Invariably, they portray a peaceful non-aggressive attitude towards life and other people.

Iraqis colloquially call these people “Subba” [Sabi’a in classical Arabic] – The Sabians, Sabaeans or Mandaeans. It is noteworthy that although the name is reportedly rooted in Aramaeic, the word in Arabic is also related to the ‘pouring’ of water.

The origins of both the people and of the religion are a mystery. Their language is Semitic. In any case, they are definitely an integral part of the rich Iraqi mosaic.

It is estimated that there are around 50,000 of them. Their communities tend to concentrate near the major rive basins in southern Iraq because natural running water is central to many of their religious rituals. As I remember, they were only allowed to use tap water for the rituals in recent decades. This central role of water in their faith has led many people to believe that they are followers of John the Baptist. There are a number of other aspects that give that impression.

They are definitely monotheistic and have several holy books. They believe that they descended from Adam, but have no ‘founder’ for their religion. They believe that their teachings were received by Adam directly from God [The Great Life or The Eternal Life]. They have several Prophets, notably: Sheet and Sam son of Noah. Their “last” great teacher was Yahya bin Zekaria (or John the Baptist).

They have fasting days, a rigid dietary system, a holy day (Sunday), but their faith goes beyond simple rituals; It is a complete system and a way of life. It regulates personal conduct and social structure. Family and children are precious. Life is sacred. The Mandaeans believe that all things return to their origins and beginnings. A distinguishing feature of their religion is that they have no idols or images used to pray to. The abstraction of worship is a significant sign of sophistication of concept.

Their most distinguishing belief is that no one except God has the right to take away life. This is perhaps a surprising attitude to hold (and keep) in harsh and frequently violent surroundings. It should certainly be a lesson to the rest of us!


Prohibitions in Mandaeasim:

3- Adultery
5-Telling lies
6-False testimony
7-Disloyalty and dishonesty
9-Magic and witchcraft
11-Alcoholic drinks
13-Crying over the dead
14-Eating dead animals, pregnant animals or animals attacked by other furious animals and blood
15-Divorce (save in some exceptional cases)
16-Suicide and abortion
17-Self-torturing and body-hurting

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