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The Sabians of Iraq – A historic community under threat

Notes From KurdistanNotes From Kurdistan

By: Nawroz Sinjari – 

“Everything was white”, recalls Ahlam Saaed, describing her baptism. “It is a beautiful and amazing experience – everyone dressed in white, while the priest splashes you with water”. Ahlam is a Sabian Mandaean – an ancient ethno-religious group originating in Mesopotamia that stresses the importance of baptism – and, like other believers, she undergoes the ritual on a regular basis.

The Sabians have lived in Iraq and parts of south west Iran for thousands of years, with a growing diaspora movement now active in Europe, the US and Australia. The community is estimated to number around 70,000 people worldwide, but the Sabian presence in Iraq has shrunk massively since the American invasion of 2003, with up to 80% of the population now seeking refuge abroad.

Although the everyday language of the Sabians is either Arabic in Iraq or Persian in Iran, the community still uses Classical Mandaic in its liturgical rites – a Northwest Semitic language derived from ancient Aramaic. In fact, the very word ‘Sabian’ is itself believed to come from the Aramaic root seba, meaning to soak, wash or baptise. A Sabian, therefore, is simply ‘one who has been baptised’.

The Sabian Mandaeans are monotheists, with a religion has been greatly influenced by ancient Gnostic and Babylonian beliefs. The community considers John the Baptist to be its most important prophet, and has an extensive written tradition of religious texts. TheGinza Rba, or ‘Great Treasure’, is the community’s most important text, and contains both mythical and theological writings along with a series of prayers for the dead. Other significant texts include the Qolasta, or ‘Praise’, which represents the movement’s canonical prayerbook, and the Drasha Ad Yahaya, ‘Book of Kings’, which includes the teachings of John the Baptist.

As reflected in the group’s name, the practise of baptism, or misbata, is a central tenet of Sabian belief, with adherents repeating this rite of passage at regular stages in their lives. Babies are first baptised at around six weeks old, with adults undergoing the ritual on regular holidays, and again before marriage. Dressed in sacral white clothes, or rasta, and holding a myrtle wreath, believers are immersed three times in running water, before being anointed with oil.

Sabian dogma promotes a strict moral code, placing great emphasis on passivism and dietary requirements. Believers are rewarded in the afterlife by admission to the Almi ad Nhora, or ‘World of Light’, with the souls of the departed passing through different levels of purgatory depending on their earthly sins. In addition to baptism and an adherence to monotheism, the community follows a number of religious tenets, fasting, giving alms, and praying three times a day.

Recent Sabian history is filled with tragedy, and the community has faced widespread persecution in post-Saddam Iraq. Ahlam Saeed’s story is typical of the community’s suffering. “When I got out of school, kids started throwing rocks at me, and I came home bleeding”, she recalls. “They didn’t like us, and used to call us Sabian infidels”.

But Ahlam, who is now the chairperson of the Mandaean Cultural Society in Erbil, stresses that hostility towards Sabians was not universal in her home region of southern Iraq. “Not everyone was like this”, she remembers, “some people loved and respected us, and knew better than to discriminate against other religions”.

In her new job, Ahlam is seeking to improve people’s understanding of her religion, and stresses that the Sabians represent a welcoming and open society that are keen to interact and coexist with the wider Iraqi community. Sabians, for example, are actively involved in the country’s political landscape, and have an elected member in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, and also enjoy a longstanding reputation as skilled carpenters and goldsmiths. “Sabians are a peaceful people”, Ahlam continues with cautious optimism, “and we have love for all people”.

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