“The exploration of Gnosticism (sic) happily still offers the invigorating opportunity for those dramatic clashes of main interpretation which in more settled fields of historical inquiry have yielded to the paler and sometimes tedious wrangle about finer points.” – Hans Jonas
“Perhaps one day we shall even be able to demonstrate the secret thread linking one gnosis to the other.” – Henry Corbin
This volume presents a series of interlocking studies whose overarching focus is a morass of sectarian groups dwelling at the margins (both culturally and geographically) of the medieval Near Eastern world, an assemblage of religious fanatics and social misfits whom Ibn al-Nadīm, a remarkably industrious tenth-century archivist of Baghdādī intellectual life, labeled ‘the sects of the Chaldean dualists.’ Among these ‘sects’ he included some relatively familiar but officially proscribed religious communities like those of the Manichaeans, the ‘gnostic’ Mandaeans, and the eighth and ninth-century heirs of the sixth-century Zoroastrian reformer Mazdak among an intriguing roster of smaller and more obscure religious and social movements. Presenting and developing the verbal portraits supplied by Ibn al-Nadīm in tandem with a diverse variety of Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, and Persian language religious and historical sources, the present book focuses on the many conceptual and literary connections that can be discerned between the distinctive ideas and doctrines attested among these so-called dualist or ‘gnostic’ groups and the larger Islamicate intellectual universe within which they flourished.
Chapter One initiates a broad discussion of these topics by rehearsing and then critiquing and refining the primary issues surrounding the oft-debated question of the possible genealogical relationship of eastern Mediterranean ‘gnosticism’ to religions like Zoroastrianism or Judaism. I concur with one stream of recent scholarship which views the scholarly quest for the ‘origins’ of gnosticism as a distinct religious system to be methodologically flawed and hopelessly mired in apologetic presumptions and claims. Yet I seek to progress beyond the present impasse in this debate by showing that categorical labels like ‘gnostic’ continue to have a heuristic utility in controlled discursive arenas where the parameters of study and the semantic fields of meaning can be precisely delineated. A successful rehabilitation of the adjective ‘gnostic’ is in my view intimately linked with the advent of a book culture and the new structures of authority which this scribal technology creates, along with a dawning awareness that the religious mentalités of the late antique Near East are grounded in or counterpoised to a heretofore unappreciated common koine of scripturally (i.e., biblically) based characters, narrative episodes, and social institutions.
Chapter Two collects a select group of testimonies about the ‘Chaldean dualists’ primarily (but not exclusively) from two invaluable indigenous sources which have rarely been placed in conversation with one another: (1) the Syriac language Scholion of Theodore bar Konai, the late eighth-century Nestorian Christian bishop of the city of Kashkar in southern Mesopotamia; and (2) the aforementioned Arabic language Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadīm, an encyclopaedic compendium of literary and quasi-scientific lore compiled by its author in Baghdād near the end of the tenth century. These testimonies are arranged and analyzed under two rubrics reflecting the genetic strains of a ‘classical gnostic’ (i.e., Valentinian and/or Sethian) and a ‘baptizing’ (i.e., Nasorean, or so-called ‘Sābian’) affiliation. Each passage drawn from these Semitic language sources is freshly rendered into English, copiously annotated upon the basis of parallels gathered from a wide range of primary and secondary sources, and firmly situated within its cultural milieu. While heresiological literature is notoriously mimetic and often derivative in character, the accounts provided by Theodore bar Konai and Ibn al-Nadīm about most of these sects feature elements which are not attested in other Christian or Muslim writings, or which at least with regard to their respective reports about the notorious heretic Mani and the religion which he founded (Manichaeism), exhibit an unusual fidelity to the contents of authentic primary sources which preserve accounts of Mani’s life and teachings. It is therefore possible that their respective testimonies about the other ‘dualist’ teachers and groups may contain some reliable snippets of information that has been gleaned from a perusal of authoritative writings or an individual interaction with and observation of contemporary dualist sympathizers.
Chapter Three, entitled ‘A World of Prophets and Messiahs,’ unpacks a characteristic doctrine which functions as a marker for identifying an ideological affinity with the proscribed beliefs and/or practices of the ‘Chaldean dualists.’ Near Eastern constructions of the phenomenon of religious prophecy and the role of the prophet within the formative and institutional structures of religious life are subjected to a close comparative examination, and I devote special attention to the emerging cyclical patterns of prophetic revelation which are depicted and predicted in diverse Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and ‘gnostic’ literatures from late antiquity until roughly the end of the ‘Abbāsid period (i.e., the middle of the thirteenth century). Embedded in this discussion is an exploration of the role played in some of these prophetologies by non-Abrahamic figures like the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, the Indian teacher known as Buddha, or the Graeco-Egyptian figures of Hermes Trismegistus and Agathodaimon. I also engage in a thorough inter-religious re-examination of the contested origin, meaning, and implications of the qur’ānic locution ‘seal of the prophets’ (Q 33:40) and its intriguing reverberations in several non-Muslim literary works.
Chapter Four complements the preceding narrative about prophets and the prophetic office by directing attention to the increasing authority being granted to books or ‘written scriptures’ by the various religious communities, both large and small, who were resident in the Near East of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. An initial case study focusing upon Manichaeism and its hypothetical candidacy for attracting notice as an ahl al-kitāb, or ‘People of the Book,’ argues that some of the commonly held assumptions about the content and scope of the canonical scriptures in Byzantine-era forms of Judaism and Christianity now require a drastic revision and reformulation. Extensive portrayal and discussion of the scriptural polemics waged both within and across religious boundaries highlights the remainder of this chapter, and I strive to show that the kinds of questions and criticisms first raised among the adherents of a ‘dualist’ religiosity often play a catalytic role in the final textual codification of monotheistic canons of scripture like the Jewish Tanakh, the Christian Bible, and the Muslim Qur’ān.
Chapter Five attempts to reconstruct some of the historical and social currents associated with the spread of Manichaeism–probably the most famous of the medieval schools of Chaldean dualism–in the pre-Islamic Near East and the initial centuries of Islamic hegemony in Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. The contentious issue of the identity of the mysterious group which the Qur’ān calls ‘Sābians’ (2:62; 5:69; 22:17) and which some scholars argue actually encodes ‘Manichaeans’ is re-examined in the light of the wider religious history of the region, and some attention is also devoted to the presence of Graeco-Egyptian hermetism and its characteristic ideology in the northern Mesopotamian city of Harrān. The prevalent confusion (or deliberate conflation?) in both Syriac and Arabic language sources between ‘Manichaeans’ (zanādiqa) and ‘Sābians’ is exemplified by an exposition of a gruesome ritual of human sacrifice that I have termed the ‘Manichaean blood-libel.’ Some attention is also devoted to the enigmatic religio-historical background of the religious group known as the Mandaeans (Aramaic for ‘gnostics’), and I review and reassess some recent proposals and new textual evidence that pertain to the disputed question of their possible western origin in first or second-century Syria-Palestine.
Concluding the volume is Chapter Six, wherein I present a short series of thematic studies that illustrate the thoroughly interlaced nature of a small group of roughly contemporaneous writings and testimonies emanating primarily from Babylonian Jewish and ‘Chaldean dualist’ scribal circles. Herein I explore some intriguing specimens of speculative literature concerned with cosmogonic and cosmological traditions, some shared affinities in angelology and demonology, and the evidence for a survival of certain classical ‘gnostic’ topoi in Islamicate Jewish esoteric literature like that of the Hekhalot genre, Re’uyot Yehezqel, Sefer Yesirah, and Sefer ha-Bahir. I also pursue the long overdue exegetical task of unpacking the alleged ‘Chaldean dualist’ background for the conceptual and ideological substructure of the maverick Shiite Isma‘īlī tract known as the Umm al-Kitāb, an understudied work that several previous scholars have sought to align with earlier Jewish and ‘gnostic’ forms of esoteric speculation and tradition.
There are simply no present works with which the book might be compared in terms of its scope and interests. Academic studies of ancient gnosticism typically conclude their discussion of this phenomenon with the triumph of Christian orthodoxy, a point reached well before the advent and spread of Islam. The few works which do pursue their historical investigations of gnosticism into the medieval period concentrate on Byzantine and European movements. The persistent existence of ‘Chaldean dualist’ sects in an Islamicate context has attracted only sporadic scholarly attention since the fundamental studies of Israel Friedlaender in a series of lengthy journal articles which are now a century old. Those sections of Theodore bar Konai’s Syriac language Scholion that are devoted to the teachings of these sects have never even been completely translated into English. Most analytical work of more recent vintage concentrates only on small facets of the topics outlined above and usually circumscribes its critical gaze within the boundaries of a single religious community, typically either Judaism or Islam. Steven Wasserstrom’s magnificent Between Muslim and Jew is however a remarkable exception to this general procedure: his work showcases the types of new insights that can be gained into the Islamicate social milieu when we juxtapose and analyze the ‘symbiosis’ at work in the conceptual structures and hermeneutic interests of at least two geographically contiguous and contemporaneous religious communities during this period. The present volume builds on and extends the foundational labors of scholars like Friedlaender and Wasserstrom by adding further ‘ingredients’ to this percolating stew of ideas, such as the discernible contributions of religiously dissident and intellectually active minority groups like those mentioned above. As a result, we as scholars will be in a better position to understand the cultural dynamics driving the complex network of intellectual and literary interfaces which fascinated and engaged an urban intelligentsia of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, ‘gnostics,’ and other religious outsiders in the medieval Islamic world.
Tentative Outline of Contents
1. Gnosis, Judaism, and a Syro-Mesopotamian ‘Crucible of Religions’
‘Classical gnosticism’ and ‘Judaism’
2. A Profile of the Chaldean Dualist Milieu
Valentinian and Sethian strains
a. Marcion in the East
b. Bardaisan and his school
c. Quq and the Quqites
d. Hewyāyē (Ophites or Naasenes)
‘Baptizing’ (Nasorean? Sābian?) strains
g. Early life of Mani
h. Kantaeans, Battai, the Nerigiyya, and the Dōstaeans (Mandaeans)
j. Khusraw al-Az-Rūmaqān
3. A World of Prophets and Messiahs
a. Manichaean prophetology
b. Seth, Zoroaster, and Jesus
c. Zoroaster and Chaldean lore
d. Jewish echoes: Abū ‘Īsā al-Isfahānī and Yudghan
e. Echoes among other Islamicate sectarian movements
f. ‘Seal of the prophets’: The significance of a trope
4. Manichaeans as Ahl al-Kitāb: Studies in scriptures and scripturalism
a. Scriptures and scripturalism in the Near East of late antiquity
b. A Manichaean counter-version of Genesis 1-6?
c. Two powers in heaven redux
d. Hīwī al-Balkhī: Marcionite or crypto-Manichaean?
5. Reconstructing the contours of Islamicate Manichaeism
a. Assessing the evidence: Manichaeism in Roman Arabia
b. The disputed identity of the qur’ānic Sāb’iūn
c. The Manichaean ‘blood-libel’
d. The ‘marshland’ Sāb’iūn: Mandaeism and the West
6. Dualist gnosis and Islamicate Judaism
a. The demiurgic angel and the Tree of Knowledge
b. An origin for Barbēlō?
c. The Daysāniyya and Sefer Yesirah
d. A textual collection of dualist cosmic imagery
e. The Umm al-Kitāb and its sources