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Manichaean painting (Turfan, western China, ca. 900s AD)

Manichaean painting (Turfan, western China, ca. 900s AD) – Who were the Manichaeans?

The prophet Mani in the Sassanian Empire

In the 300s and 400s AD many Christians turned to believing in Manichaeism, a form of Christianity. A man named Mani started this movement in the late 200s AD. Mani lived in the Sassanian Empire, where lots of people were Zoroastrians. So Zoroastrianism influenced Mani’s thinking a lot.

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Manichaeans believed that the world was divided into the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. God was the leader of the good side and the Devil was the leader of the bad side. (Does this remind you of the plot of the movie Star Wars? Star Wars has strong Manichaean tendencies). This is a lot like the old Zoroastrian belief that the world is divided between the Truth and the Lie.

Bahram persecutes Mani and the Manichaeans

A gold coin of Bahram, with a Zoroastrian fire altar on the back

A gold coin of Bahram, with a Zoroastrian fire altar on the back

At first the Sassanian ruler, Shapur, tolerated religious diversity and let the Manichaeans worship however they wanted.

Shapur and Bahram
The Roman Empire 

But after Shapur died, in 270 AD, his son Bahram I wanted everyone to be Zoroastrian. He put Mani in prison, and Mani died there. Bahram started persecuting Manichaeans and trying to force them to become Zoroastrians. Many Manichaeans moved to the Roman Empire, where they convinced a lot of people to convert to Manichaeism.

Diocletian: a white man with a short beard and an uncertain expression

The Roman emperor Diocletian, who organized the Great Persecution of Christians

Diocletian persecutes the Manichaeans

In 301 AD the Roman Emperor Diocletian also started to persecute the Manichaeans. He succeeded in pretty much wiping out Manichaeism in the Western Mediterranean and Europe. Some Manichaeans were killed.

Diocletian’s persecutions
Who was Diocletian?
Narses and Sassanians

But by now, the new Sassanian king Narses was encouraging religious freedom. So most of the Manichaeans moved back home to the Sassanian Empire. Others converted to Christianity. But even into the 400s AD there were a lot of Manichaeans among African Christians. The great African theologian Augustine, for instance, was a Manichaean first. He only later abandoned Manichaeism for Catholicism.

Who was Augustine?

A silver coin of Narses, the Sassanian ruler

A silver coin of Narses, the Sassanian ruler

Manichaeism and monotheism

What’s wrong with Manichaeism? Why didn’t Catholics like it? Well, Catholics believed that there was only one God, who was all-powerful. If God and the Devil had the same amount of power, or even similar amounts of power, then there were really two gods, a good one and a bad one.

If God was all-powerful, then why didn’t he just kill the Devil and get rid of evil in the world? People have been struggling with this question for a long time. Nobody has any definite answers. But Catholics felt that the answer could not be that there were two gods.

Manichaeans from Turfan (ca. 900s AD)

Manichaeans from Turfan (ca. 900s AD)

Manichaeans and Islam

So thousands of Manichaean believers moved to the Sassanian Empire in the 300s AD. They kept their Manichaean beliefs there, and they convinced many more people to join them.

What is Islam?
End of the Sassanian Empire

So by the 600s when the Arabs conquered the Sassanian Empire, most ordinary people there were either Manichaeans or some other form of Christian. Gradually, over the next hundred years, most of these people converted to Islam.

Manichaeans in Central Asia and China

Emperor Wuzong, an Asian man in a blue robe

Emperor Wuzong

But some of the Sassanian Manichaeans fled even further east into Central Asia. In Central Asia, they convinced the Uighurs to convert to Manichaeism, and many Chinese people as well.

Who were the Uighurs?
Central Asian religions
Medieval Chinese religion

Most of these eastern Manichaeans were killed in Emperor Wuzong’s great religious persecution at the end of the T’ang Dynasty, in the 840s AD. So Manichaeism started in Iran and spread east and west from there.

T’ang Dynasty persecution

Today hardly anyone would say they were Manichaean, but movies like Star Wars show that many people actually do think that God and the Devil, or the forces of good and the forces of evil, are fighting it out for your soul.

More about the T’ang Dynasty
More about the Sassanian Empire
And more about Islam

Bibliography and further reading about the history of Christianity:


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