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The Silk Road in World History


Manichaeism on the Silk Road

Silvia Mantz


     Commonly associated with its movement of goods between the East and the West, the Silk Road also contributed to the exchange of cultural ideas and religious beliefs between cultures. Even though it did not survive to modern times, Manichaeism became one of the most widespread Silk Road religions. Its influence extended into the Roman Empire and reached all the way across Asia into China.

     As a world religion, Manichaeism promoted itself as a universal tradition and gained followers through its ability to adapt to the cultural and religious diversity found on the Silk Road. The Manichaean tradition of incorporating the terminology, imagery, and symbolism of other established religions, such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, became a primary factor in the successful movement of Manichaeism along the Silk Road. The inclusion of elements from other dominant religions made Manichaeism more appealing to foreign communities and cultures by creating a sense of familiarity with local beliefs and by promoting a doctrine of universal truth; in addition, Silk Road trade routes allowed merchants and missionaries to spread Manichaean teachings throughout Europe and across Asia.

The Life of Mani

     Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was born in 216 ce in Parthian Babylonia, a region located in Mesopotamia.1 During the time of Mani's youth, multiple religious traditions converged and interacted in Mesopotamia, creating a religiously diverse environment.2 As a result, Mani would have encountered a variety of religious traditions from an early age, such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Babylonian mythology, and local Iranian religions. 3 While some of the religions originated in Mesopotamia, many travelled along the commercial networks that passed through the region. For example, Babylonian ports became primary access points for people travelling to India and other areas in the East.4

     At the age of four, Mani went to live with his father in an ascetic community called the Elchasaites, a Jewish-Christian "Baptist" sect.5 Founded by Elchasaios around 100 ce, the Elchasaites saw themselves as a Christian community even though they had distinctly Jewish traditions; despite their Jewish-Christian belief system, the Elchasaites sought to become a world religion and create a syncretistic religious tradition.6 Mani's years with the Elchasaite community gave him the time to develop his own teachings, many of which contradicted the traditional beliefs and practices of the Elchasaites.

     On his twelfth birthday, Mani claims to have had his first revelation from his divine "Twin," or alter ego. In this first revelation, Mani received knowledge of the divine truth that would eventually become the foundational core of Manichaeism; in addition, the "Twin" instructed Mani to remain with the Elchasaites until he had reached adulthood at the age of twenty-five.7 After receiving his first revelation, Mani began to make attempts in reforming the Elchasaite community. In one example, the Elchasaites believed in adhering to a vegetarian diet and repeated baths as a means of purifying the body and attaining salvation; in contrast, Mani believed that purification and salvation only occurred at the cosmic level through the separation of light and matter.8 Mani received a new vision from his "Twin," also identified as "the Living Paraclete" in Manichaean literature, on his twenty-fourth birthday.9 This time, the "Twin" instructed Mani to create his own Church and do missionary work to spread his teachings.10 Mani addresses some of his concerns in establishing his own church in an excerpt from the Cologne Mani Codex:

I was reared and brought up in this sect of the Baptists, and to its leaders and presbyters I was related through the upbringing of my body. If they, then, did not give me room for the acceptance of the truth, how will the world or its mighty or its doctrines accept me, in order to listen to these secrets and to accept these commandments which are heavy? How shall I perform in front of the kings and dynasts of the world and the founders of the sects? For behold, they are mighty and powerful in their wealth and their licence and their riches, whereas I am alone and poor in these things?11

     In this passage, Mani questions how he can preach to wealthy and powerful kings when he could not convince the "Baptists," the Elchasaites, to accept his divine truth. He further considers how he can approach kings when he himself does not hold any political power or wealth.

     Mani began his missionary activity in Mesopotomia, which had come under the control of the Persian Sassanids in the third century.12 Soon after leaving the Elchasaite community, Mani's father also left the sect and joined his son in his missionary efforts. Mani and his father eventually gained a small following as travelling holy men that shared wisdom and even performed miracles. 13

     In one of his first missionary journeys outside of the Sassanian Kingdom, Mani travelled to India where he also became more familiar with Buddhist beliefs and practices.14 While in India around 240, Mani had an audience with the Shāh of Tūrān, ruler of a kingdom located in modern Baluchistan.15 Although the king devoted himself to the practice of Buddhism, he converted to Manichaeism after witnessing Mani perform a miracle. According to Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, sources in the Cologne Mani Codex depict Mani as having performed the miracle in the air while conversing with a divine being; after seeing such an event, the Shāh of Tūrān regarded Mani as a reincarnated version of the Buddha and adopted Manichaeism.16

     After returning from India, Mani went to the Sassanian capital to attend the coronation of Shāpūr I, the successor to King Ardashīr.17 As the new ruler of the Sassanian Empire, Shāpūr had an interest in acquiring new knowledge and opened himself to hearing about new religions.18 For Mani, Shāpūr's reign presented an opportunity for Manichaeism to gain the approval and support of the Sassanids, which would have greatly benefited the new religion. While Mani had some followers among the general public by this time, he also realized that he needed to win the patronage of the wealthy and powerful to ensure the success of his religion.19 Patronage by members of the ruling elite could have meant earning the freedom to preach without fear of persecution, state sponsorship of missionary activity, construction of temples, and increased political influence.

     Peroz, the brother of Shāpūr and governor of Khurāsān, arranged the first meeting between Mani and the Sassanian king.20 To make his religion more familiar and appealing to Shāpūr, Mani presented himself as reforming the teachings of Zarathustra, founder of Zoroastrianism, but Shāpūr may have also seen Manichaeism as way of uniting the various peoples that he ruled within the borders of his empire.21 Although the Sassanians claimed Zoroastrianism as their official religion, Mesopotamia held a diverse religious culture, including Judaeo-Christian sects and Semitic pagan cults. Shāpūr's military victories brought a large number of captive Roman Christians into the Sassanian Empire; in addition, Buddhism had gained a significant amount of influence in eastern Iran, especially in the areas conquered from the Kushan Empire.22 Even though Shāpūr never converted to Manichaeism, Mani's religion did offer a universal religious system that had the potential to unite the various peoples and the numerous religions within the borders of the Sassanian Empire.23

     Samuel N. C. Lieu disagrees with the argument that Shāpūr wanted to use Manichaeism to unify his religiously diverse empire.24 While Mani enjoyed many privileges under Shāpūr's rule, Lieu notes that Shāpūr never publicly acknowledged his support for Manichaeism and always portrayed himself as a follower of Zoroastrianism.25 Lieu further argues that the success of Manichaean missions in the kingdoms between Rome and Persia actually became a factor in Mani's eventual execution. On his last visit to the Sassanian court, King Baat, possibly from Armenia and a vassal of Vahram I, accompanied Mani as a newly converted follower of Manichaeism. King Baat's conversion displeased Vahram I, who viewed Mani's missionary successes as a dividing force in his western territories, especially with the possibility of war with Rome.26

     Shāpūr may have never publicly proclaimed his support for Manichaeism, but the religion did prosper during his reign and that of his successor Ohrmizd I; however, Vahram I acted less favorably towards Mani.27 Under the influence of a Zoroastrian leader named Kartēr, Vahram began to persecute the Manichaean religion and its followers. Eventually, the Persian king had Mani imprisoned, claiming that he had encouraged apostasy.28 Manfred Hutter also suggests that Vahram may have disliked the fact that Mani had received divine knowledge from the gods instead of himself, a king. 29 Regardless of the reason for his imprisonment, Vahram had Mani executed in 276.30

Manichaeism as a Universal Religion

     After Mani's execution, the Sassanian Empire turned more towards Zoroastrianism causing followers of Manichaeism to seek refuge outside of Persia in order to escape persecution. According to Peter Brown, Mani's death caused Persian society to turn away from Manichaeism and actually split the religious movement causing missionaries to spread into the northeastern territory of Sogdiana, Central Asia, and westward into the Roman Empire.31 After the conquest of the Arab Muslims in the 640s, many Manichaeans returned to Iran and Mesopotamia where the Umayyad Arabs did not interfere in the religious affairs of their subjects. The Abbasid revolution in the eighth century began a cultural revival that persecuted anyone suspected of following Manichaeism, causing many Manicheans to once again flee to the east for safe haven.32

     Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Mani's death, Manichaeism continued to grow into a world religion by expanding both east and west outside of Mesopotamia. Mani spent a majority of his life creating and preaching what he believed represented a universal religion, a belief system that could find acceptance in any culture in the East or the West. 33 Hans Jonas describes Mani's intention in his book The Gnostic Religion:

Mani's work was not to penetrate the secret aspects of a given revelation and to establish a minority of higher initiation within an existing church but to supply a new revelation himself, a new body of Scripture, and lay the foundation for a new church that was meant to supersede any existing one and to be as ecumenical as ever the Catholic Church conceived itself to be.34

     The process of creating this new universal religion began with Mani's awareness of a divine truth. The central core of Manichaean belief stemmed from the revelations Mani received during his years at the Elchasaite community. In these revelations, Mani became aware of the true state of the universe, the physical world, and the role of human beings. Hans Jonas notes that Manichaeism represents a form of Gnosticism and that both religions share similar cosmogonies.35

     Gnostics, an umbrella term representing several different sects, viewed the universe as the scene of a cosmic battle between Good (Light) and Evil (Darkness). Particles of this Light have fallen to the material world, usually a result of the fall of a divine being to a lower state of existence. These particles of Light remain imprisoned in matter, like human bodies, until their eventual release through the separation of Light from matter. Humans have no knowledge of this divine truth, except for a few chosen souls that have received gnosis. Those who have gained gnosis can escape their bondage to the material world.36

     As in other Gnostic religions, Manichaeans believed that Light and Darkness fought in a cosmic battle for control of the universe.37 Manichaean beliefs have a dualistic nature and focus on the "two principles," Light and Darkness, and the "three times," the original separation of Light and Darkness, the present time where two cosmic forces have mixed, and the future time when they will once again separate, or the end of days.38

     Unlike Christianity, but similar to Zoroastrianism, Mani did not view evil as having originated from the forces of good or from a divine being falling into a lower state or heavenly realm; instead, Mani viewed evil and good as having existed in opposition to one another from the very beginning of time. The mixing of Light and Darkness creates a cosmic battle, but this war also rages on a microcosmic scale within mankind where the physical body, represented as evil, struggles against the human soul, represented as good.39

     To assist mankind in their struggles against evil, the gods send the Nous to deliver the knowledge about man's divine nature and the delusion of the physical world. Man can conquer these evil forces by separating themselves from the physical world in mind and body. The gods seek to save all human souls, or Light Elements, and all who have attained this knowledge will attain salvation at their time of death.40

     In an effort to make his religion more familiar in foreign cultures, Mani included ideas, symbols, and religious terminology from other religions he encountered in his lifetime.41 For instance, Manichaeism adopted the concept of dualism from Zoroastrianism.42 While preaching in Persia, Mani presented his religion as a form of Zoroastrianism by associating the Manichaean gods with the names of Zoroastrian ones; as a result, Zoroastrian priests labeled Manichaeans as heretics.43 Since Mani portrayed Zoroaster as a forerunner of himself, Manichaean writers claimed that Zoroaster's teachings had been incorrectly recorded, which explained its divergence from Manichaeism44

     Manichaeism also looked to the West and borrowed the concept of salvation from Christianity.45 In addition, the Manichaean Church had twelve disciples and seventy-two bishops, which resembled the structure of the Catholic Church in the West.46 From the East, Manichaeism included terminology and imagery from Buddhism and even constructed cave temples along Silk Road trade routes in Central Asia, sometimes placing them next to Buddhist temples.47

     While Mani used a syncretistic approach, he did not create a syncretistic religion. Manichaeism drew extensively from Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism and Mani himself recognized Jesus, Zoroaster, and Buddha as his forerunners, but the central core of Manichaean belief, that of cosmic struggles and salvation, retained a Gnostic perspective.48 Brown believes that viewing Manichaeism as a direct result of religious syncretism ignores the complexity and originality that characterized the religion.49 Samuel N. C. Lieu also disagrees with the idea that Mani picked elements from established religions to form his world religion; instead, he asserts that the Zoroastrian and Buddhist elements only appeared as a result of missionary activity and did not form the fundamental basis of Manichaean theology.50 Brown asserts that the distinctly Christian and Western characteristics of Manichaeism began to appear after Mani's execution.51

     Even though Mani claimed his faith preached the universal truth, he maintained a belief that Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism all derived from the true faith, but that the followers of these faiths had misinterpreted their teachings over time. He believed that he had a responsibility of restoring the true faith and delivering its message to the people.52 Mani claimed that Jesus, along with other religious teachers, made a mistake in leaving their disciples with the responsibility of preserving their messages for future generations; by not committing their messages to writing themselves, religious leaders left their teachings open to interpretation and alteration.53

     To avoid the mistake made by past prophets and to ensure consistency, Mani wrote his own sacred books for his religion and encouraged his disciples to accurately record his speeches, sermons, and religions wisdom.54 Manichaean scribes often travelled with Manichaean missionaries and used shorthand to record the teachings of Mani. In Mani's view, his efforts to personally commit his teachings to writing secured the authenticity of Manichaean sacred texts. Even Mani's disciples took measures to preserve the authenticity of their recordings. In the Kephalaia, the names of Manichaean authorities often accompany the quotations found in the collection of texts. Scholars can identify these names as Manichaean authorities because these same names also appear in other Manichaean texts or in Christian documents that confirm their close connections with Mani.55

     As another measure of ensuring authenticity, Manichaeans viewed their beliefs as literal truths, even if it contradicted the other areas of human knowledge, such as geology, astronomy, botany.56 By making his followers understand Manichaean cosmogony in a literal sense, Mani prevented multiple interpretations of his teaching.57 Christians accused Manichaeans of disregarding reason and replacing it with revelation.58 In return, Manichaeans argued that the people who regarded such things as geology and astronomy as fact remained ignorant of the definitive truth. According to Lieu, the literal interpretations of Manichaean cosmogony and theology made it a static religion since it refused to explore the philosophical and metaphysical meanings of their teachings; however, Manichaean literalism may also have had an advantage in that it allowed the religion to spread its message across cultural boundaries since it did not associate itself with any aspect of human history or with one particular group of people.59 Additionally, the literalism and focus on the cosmic struggles allowed Manichaean missionaries to associate the deities of local polytheistic religions with their own divinities.60

     Manichaeism had a canon of seven works, all written by Mani himself in Aramaic. He also wrote another book in Persian called the Šābuhragān for Shāpūr I that summarized the main tenets of Manichaeism.61 The Šābuhragān sometimes takes the place of a canonical book entitled Psalms and Prayers, a book of Manichaean poetry.62 The Kephalaia claims to record Mani's discourses with his closest disciples and regarded as one of the most important Maichaean works.63

     Despite the wide geographical diffusion of Manichaeism, the surviving textual evidence reveals the extreme cohesiveness that characterized the religion. Even though Manichaeism often adapted the terminology of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and even Taoism in their respective regions, the central concepts of the religion never changed.64 For example, Chinese Manichaean texts, such as the Hymnscroll, repeatedly refer to "the Buddhas" which Manichaeans associated with Messengers or Saviors of Light.65

The Manichaean Church

     One other important aspect concerning the diffusion of Manichaeism focuses on missionary activity. As a missionary religion, Manichaeism relied heavily on the commitment of its followers to travel and spread the teachings of Mani. In the Manichaean Church, followers fell into one of two categories, the Elect or the Hearers.

The members of the Elect represented the leadership of the church and dedicated their lives to preaching and spreading the Manichaean religion.66 To meet the requirements of their strict religion, the Elect lived in poverty so they did not bind themselves to worldly possessions and to a desire for material items; additionally, they carried only enough food for one day and clothes for one year. Whether they chose to travel or live in monasteries, the Elect depended on the generous donations of laymen, who expected to collect merit or credit by supplying provisions for the Manichaean monks. Manichaeans called the act of collecting merit through donations "soul-service" since the layman benefited his own soul by giving to the Manichaean Church.67

     The Elect also had another responsibility in aiding in the release of captive Light particles.68 Members of the Elect had to abide by strict rules that included celibacy and a strict dietary regimen.69 Both the Elect and the Hearers had to avoid harming Light particles in any way, so many Manichaeans had to exclude themselves from worldly activities. For example, agriculture presented a risk for harming Light particles since they existed in every plant. Generally, agricultural duties became the responsibility of the Hearers, who gained forgiveness for their sins since they did so to maintain the health of the Elect.70

     Manichaeism required that the Elect adhere to a strict vegetarian diet. Since plants contained Light particles, the Elect believed that the act of eating and belching would allow the trapped Light elements to escape and return to their heavenly home. 71 Gillian Clark mentions that some foods, such as melons and cucumbers, appeared to have had a higher concentration of Light particles. 72 Before eating any meal, the Elect said a prayer to absolve themselves from the sin of harming Light particles in the food. 73 Augustine ridiculed the Elect's dietary beliefs by saying that "[t]hey claim to purify the world through their belches."74

     Manichaean Hearers had a different, less restrictive, set of rules to follow. For instance, members of the Elect had to refrain from any sexual activity, but Hearers could have one partner; however, they had to avoid procreating since that would cause more Light particles to become trapped in matter.75 The Hearers worked and earned merit towards redemption through the process of "soul-service," which involved performing activities like giving alms and preparing the meals for the Elect.76

     A person's position as an Elect or a Hearer also determined the fate of the soul at the time of death. The soul of a Manichaean Elect gained its freedom and returned to its home in the Kingdom of Light; in contrast, the soul of a Hearer had to experience multiple reincarnations into different bodies of matter before it could return home. A soul can enter almost any body of matter, such as a plant, but it had to enter the body of an Elect before it could end the reincarnation cycle and go home to the Kingdom of Light. The number of reincarnations necessary to enter the body of an Elect depended on the level of devotion the Hearer exhibited to the Elect during his time on earth.77

     Following the Manichaean religion for nine years as a Hearer, Augustine became one of the most famous people associated with the practice of Manichaeism.78 At the young age of nineteen in 373, Augustine became a Manichaean and enjoyed the benefits of friendship and unity that characterized the religion until he turned away from it in 384. In his Confessions, Augustine writes about his days in Thagaste and relives the joys of sharing jokes, performing acts of kindness, and engaging in intellectual discussions with his friends, but he does not mention that these friends also practiced the religion of Manichaeism.79 Augustine says,

There were other things which occupied my mind in the company of my friends: to make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together well-written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity-just as a person debates with himself-and in the very rarity of disagreement to find the salt of normal harmony, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival. These and other signs come from the heart of those who love and are loved and are expressed through the mouth, through the tongue, through the eyes, and a thousand gestures of delight, acting as fuel to set our minds on fire and out of many to forge unity.80

     Despite his harsh criticisms of Manichaeism after converting to Christianity, Augustine appears in the Confessions to value the close ties of friendship, or familiaritas, he developed in Manichaean communities.81 Brown explains that Manichaeism created a sense of spiritual friendship among its followers and that Augustine had experienced this religious bonding between himself and several of his fellow Manichaeans.82 In one particular case, Brown notes that Augustine and his Roman patron Romanianus used their shared beliefs in Manichaeism to transform their patron-client relationship into one of a spiritual bond between two friends.83

     According to H. J. W. Drijvers, this same type of religious bonding also helped Manichaeans understand the meaning of their suffering. Manichaean communities had a strong sense of alliance and unity since they believed they had a higher purpose in the cosmic battle against the powers of Darkness. This alliance provided Manichaeans with the strength to withstand the persecutions in the East and West since they viewed suffering as a form of salvation.84 For Manichaeans, suffering came from the persecution of their faith by their enemies, who came from Darkness, and the death of every Manichaean represented a small victory of Light over Darkness.85 These Manichaean beliefs about suffering promoted feelings of unity and purpose that existed in all Manichaean communities in the East and West.

     Upon his conversion to Catholicism, Augustine tried to separate himself from the Manichaean religion. He always claimed that he only participated in the religion as a Hearer and took care of the material needs of the Elect, who acted as missionaries spreading the message of Manichaeism.86 After adopting Catholicism, Augustine became a critic of Manichaeism and attacked it as a heretical Christian movement because many of its teachings contradicted and undermined Christian beliefs about evil, the power of God, and the physical nature of Jesus.87

Manichaeism Travels the Silk Road

     By the time Augustine joined the Manichaean sect in 373, Manichaeism had already existed in and around the Roman Empire for nearly a century.88 Missionaries and merchants, many traveling the Silk Road, brought Manichaeism into the Roman Empire. Despite constantly warring with each other, the Roman Empire and Persia maintained trade links with each other. Silk from China moved along the trade routes that passed through Persia, who then traded the silk and other luxury goods to Rome.89

     Much of the trading activity between the two empires occurred in the hands of Syriac and Aramaic speakers like the Syrians, Palmyrenes, and Jews.90 Lieu explains that merchants like the Syrians often combined their spiritual missions with their commercial activities and usually played primary roles in the transmission of religious ideas between Rome and Persia; the fact that merchants usually spoke several different languages also helped expose foreign religions to a wider audience in the two empires.91 With merchants moving freely between the Roman Empire and Persia, Manichaean missionaries like Adda, Patīk the Teacher, Gabryab, and Pappos travelled along those same routes, sometimes journeying with the merchant caravans, to enter the Roman Empire and preach Mani's teachings.92

     As Manichaeism rapidly gained more followers, the Roman Empire became suspicious of the religion partly because it came from the Sassanid Persian empire and had the possibility of acting as a fifth column.93 Brown discusses a scholarly tradition of claiming that the efforts made by Narseh I in limiting prosecutions of Manichaeans around 295 represents the Persian king's attempts to recruit the sect as a fifth-column in the Roman Empire; in contrast to this theory, Brown asserts that this does not seem likely as the persecutions probably made the Manicheans bitter and resentful toward the Persians. As a result, the Manichaeans arrived in the Roman Empire as a group with few connections to the Sassanian Empire.94

     The rapid spread of Manichaeism must have also caused Diocletian some concern because he enacted a law in 302 that prohibited the Manichaean religion; the Roman emperor believed it undermined Roman morality with Persian customs.95 Diocletian viewed Manichaeism as a Persian faith that threatened the stability of Roman society and structure.96 An excerpt from Diocletian's edict reveals the Roman distrust of the Manichaeans and the Persians:

We have heard that these men [Manichaeans] have but recently sprung up and advanced, like strange and unexpected portents, from the Persian people, our enemy, to this part of the world, where they are perpetrating many outrages, disturbing the tranquility of the peoples and also introducing the gravest harm to the communities. And it is to be feared that peradventure, as usually happens, they may try, with the accursed customs and perverse laws of the Persians, to infect men of a more innocent nature, namely the temperate and tranquil Roman people, as well as our entire Empire with what one might call their malevolent poisons.97

     Manichaeism did not disappear from the Roman Empire when Diocletian outlawed the religion; instead, it became an underground religion and followers practiced Manichaeism secretly by taking on the appearance of normal Catholic Christians.98 Aware of the Manichaeans attempting to hide their religion, Popes Gregory I and Gregory II warned Romans against readily accepting African priests arriving in Italy without any investigation since they could have been Manichaeans acting as Christians. Manichaeans also used the guise of Christianity to escape persecution by Vahram I after his execution of Mani; to resolve this issue, the Persian king decided to include Christians in his persecutions.99 Another factor that drove Manichaeans further underground came from a law enacted by Theodosius; in 382, his law prohibited Manichaean Elects from living in a community together. Unable to establish any religious communities, Manichaeans found no other choice except to practice their religion in secrecy.100

     In addition to the persecutions from the Roman state, the Catholic Church also persecuted the religion of Manichaeism on the grounds that it represented a Christian heresy. Many Manichaean beliefs contrasted the teachings of Christianity and even undermined their authority in some cases. For instance, Mani believed that he had received divine revelations and proclaimed himself an Apostle of Christ; in the view of the Christian Church, Mani's claim presented a threat that they could not ignore since they also claimed to have apostolic teachings.101 Klimkeit suggests that the mythological imagery used to describe the two principles, the three times, and the true path to salvation appealed more to the cultures of the East where image and symbolism became commonplace; however, Western Christendom may have found such images suspicious as it differed from their established processes of conceptual and intellectual theology.102

     The movement of Manichaeism further east into Asia occurred primarily through commercial and missionary activity, as it did in the West. In particular, the Sogdians did much to help spread Manichaean teachings and literature into Central Asia and even China. The Sogdians, known for their commercial success in Asia, had established links between the East and the West that facilitated the spread of Manichaeism.103

     As merchants travelling throughout Asia, the Sogdians tended to become familiar with the foreign languages and religions that they encountered along Silk Road trade routes.104 Their knowledge of multiple languages made them adept translators and interpreters and they often translated religious texts into the various languages commonly found along the Silk Road.105 The Sogdians translated Buddhist and Christian texts, but they also translated Manichaean texts from Syriac, Middle Persian, and Parthian into other languages like their native Sogdian, Bactrian, Turkish, and even Chinese.

     In addition to translating and spreading the teachings of several religions, the Sogdians also adopted many of them as their own over several centuries. Sogdians tended to adopt Buddhism and Zoroastrianism in the second to fourth centuries ce, but many converted to Manichaeism in the seventh and eighth centuries. 106 The Sogdians seemed to have held a perspective that encouraged tolerance and acceptance, which would have agreed with the Manichaean focus on universalism. As the Muslims began to take over many of the trade routes used by Sogdian merchants, they began to convert to Islam to maintain their commercial links.107

     Like the Sogdians, the Uighurs contributed to the movement of Manichaeism across Asia. The Uighurs, a nomadic Turkish tribe on the borders of northern China, adopted Manichaeism as their official state religion from 763 to 840.108 During the eighth century, Tang China faced numerous problems from factional strife and frontier wars and often looked to border tribes for military support.109 In 755, the Tang emperor called on the Uighurs to help end the An Lushan rebellion. The Uighurs responded to the emperor's request by defeating the rebels and liberating the city of Luoyang in 762.110 While in Luoyang, the Uighur khaghan met Sogdian teachers who preached the teachings of Manichaeism.111 The Uighur ruler became intrigued by Manichaeism and took four of the Sogdian teachers to his kingdom. The khaghan made Manichaeism the official state religion in 763, making the Uighurs the only state to ever adopt Manichaeism as its official religion.112

     The reasons behind the khaghan's acceptance of Manichaeism remains a mystery, but some possible theories have emerged. Foltz suggests that the khaghan may have appreciated the strict discipline of Manichaean followers while another possibility comes from the Chinese disapproval of Manichaeism.113 The Uighur ruler may have also wanted to distance his kingdom from the influence of Chinese politics and culture; considering this, the adoption of Manichaeism could have reinforced Uighur independence by demonstrating that they did not care about China.114

     Colin Mackerras notes that the khaghan may also have tried to establish commercial connections with the Sogdians.115 The Uighurs traded their horses for Chinese silk, but could not find a suitable market for the large amounts of silk they received. To help alleviate this problem, the Uighurs used Sogdians who practiced Manichaeism as agents in the trades of their silks.116 One of the khaghan's claim to power rested on the economic strength of his clan; by working with Sogdian merchants, the khaghan could ensure his clan's financial success.117

     The Sogdian Manichaean traders managed to convert many of their Uighur partners to their religion; as a result, Manichaean temples in Tang China served as trading stations for both the Uighurs and Sogdians.118 A recovered Uighur charter describes the rules governing the daily operations of a Manichaean monastery. The clergy organized feasts and gave spiritual guidance to members of the congregation, while workers performed the agricultural duties on the fields, distributed grain and clothing to the monastery's residents, and prepared the vegetarian food for the clergy.119 This organization of the Manichaean monastery basically replicated the social structure of Manichaean monasteries in Persia and other western regions, but it also resembled the living arrangements found in many Buddhist temples.120

     Some Manichaean monasteries acquired much wealth and owned estates and employed servants, who suffered severe punishments for failing to perform their duty.121 Lieu discusses an Uighur document recovered by Chinese archaeologists from Turfan in the 1950s and its significance in helping scholars understand Manichaean monasticism in the Uighur Kingdom.122 The document had eleven stamps bearing a royal seal, indicating that Manichaeism did rely on patronage for survival in the Uighur Kingdom.123 The text describes lands owned by the monastery in the capital city of Qocho and that monastic officials had the responsibility of managing these properties, contributing to the success of the Uighur agrarian economy.124 As land-owners earning profits and producing agricultural goods, their participation in the market economy conflicted with their requirements of living a life of extreme asceticism and poverty.125 With a secure stream of finances, the expectation and need to survive on begging and charity became a relaxed ideal in the Uighur Kingdom.126

     Monasticism became characteristic of Manichaeism in Central Asia and China. In the West, persecution by the Romans and Christians prevented Manichaean priests from residing in a populous area for extended periods of time.127 Manichaeans focused primarily on establishing mobile cells or small communities of followers in populated areas. In contrast to schismatic groups like the Arians and the Donatists, Manichaeism did not represent a separation from the Catholic Church; as a result, they did not have the advantage of claiming ownership over established church properties like the schismatic Christian groups. Lieu mentions that Manichaeans sometimes tried to create temporary churches by meeting in ordinary houses where they displayed their religious items and scriptures.128

     In 840, the Uighur kingdom fell to the invading Kirghiz, one of their subject peoples.129 Between 866 and 872, some of the Uighurs retreated to Turfan and established the Uighur Kaghanate, locating its capital at Gaochang City, while another group of Uighurs based themselves in Ganzhou.130 Even after the fall of the Uighurs, Manichaeans continued to receive support from the Uighurs, although Manichaeism no longer enjoyed status as a state religion.131 In fact, Uighur khagans continued to send Manichaean monks to the Chinese court as emissaries until the 10th century.132 Despite retaining their associations with the Uighurs, the decline of the Uighur kingdom had the greatest impact on Manichaeism in China. Without the protection of an official Uighur state, Manichaeism eventually became the target of a new wave of persecutions, this time in China.

     In 732, the Tang emperor issued an edict that restricted the practice of Manichaeism to non-Chinese:

The doctrine of Mar Mani is basically a perverse belief and fraudulently assumes to be [a school of] Buddhism and will therefore mislead the masses. It deserves to be strictly prohibited. However, since it is the indigenous religion of the Western Barbarians and other [foreigners], its followers will not be punished if they practice it among themselves.133

Much of the eighth-century persecutions in China occurred at the instigation of Buddhists that became jealous of Manichaeism's success and threatened by Manichaean similarities to Buddhism.

     Manichaeism in China adopted Buddhist terminology and even referred to Mani as the "Buddha of Light."134 Klimkeit argues that Manichaeism succeeded in primarily Buddhist lands because the two religions had very similar ideas on salvation and redemption.135 For example, both religions believed in reincarnation and redemption. Both religions also believed that saviors of light would come to earth to spread their message of salvation, leading to the identification of Mani as the "Buddha of Light."136 This reference to Mani made sense for both Buddhist and Manichaean followers since Manichaean deities held the same status as Buddhist bodhisattvas.137 Some evidence of the mixing of Manichaean and Buddhist concepts appear in the "Great Hymn to Mani," which often compares Mani to Buddha and includes several references to Buddhist terms and concepts.138

     In Central Asia and China, Manichaean followers promoted the religion as a type of Buddhism, which had an extensive monastic organization to help spread its beliefs. Unlike Buddhist monasteries, Manichaean temples did not provide housing for their priests unless they became ill. Since Manichaean priests often served the Uighur khaghan and his representatives as advisers, Lieu suggests that the priests may have taken residence in Uighur diplomatic and commercial compounds.139

     With the support of the Uighurs, Manichaeans gained new privileges from the Tang government, such as the construction of new temples; however, once the Uighur kingdom fell to the Kirghiz, the Tang government ended their own sponsorship of Manichaeism in China.140 The Tang government closed many of the Manichaean temples and claimed that they would allow them to reopen if the Uighurs regained control of their kingdom.141 The closing of the temples may have had another reason behind it since many of the temples also acted as banks controlled by Uighur merchants. Xinru Liu further notes that the construction of Manichaean monasteries appears to have corresponded with the commercial interests of the Uighurs since these temples also served as storage houses for trading commodities.142

     The Tang emperor banned Manichaeism in 843 and Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity in 845, only a few years after the fall of Uighur power.143 The Tang government tried to suppress Manichaeism by issuing a law that ordered the confiscation of money and goods in Manichaean monasteries.144 According to Lieu, part of the reason behind China's attacks on Manichaeism came from a xenophobia that caused China to reject foreign religions.145 Lieu further notes that the Chinese used guards to protect the confiscated properties since Sogdian and Uighur merchants used the Manichaean monasteries as banks and storage centers for their goods.146

     The severe persecutions in China caused followers of Manichaeism to practice their religion in secrecy. In south China, secret Manichaean meeting-places had the appearance of Taoist temples so that they could remain undetected in official registrations.147 Since the Sung government prohibited Manichaeans from owning temples, local patrons and priests registered Manichaean temples as temples of a more favorable religion in China, Taoism.148 Many Manichaeans fled to southeastern China and participated in trading activity to escape persecution from the Tang government.149 Close contacts between the Manichaean priests and laity allowed the religion to spread further into Chinese society and culture; as a result, the confiscation of Manichaean temples in 843 did not signal the end of Manichaeism in China like it had for the Nestorian Christians in 845.150 Eventually, the rise of Mongol power in the 13th century caused Manichaeism to lose much of its influence with the Uighurs in Turfan; however, the religion continued to survive for centuries in north and south China.151

The Decline of Manichaeism

     The decline of Manichaeism in the East and West had several contributing factors. Peter Brown suggests four reasons for the decline of the Manichaean movement in the Roman Empire.152 First, towns in the western provinces of Rome had become centered around its Catholic bishop and hardly left any room for the intrusion of outside religious movements, like Manichaeism. Second, Manichaeism promoted an early, more radicalized, form of asceticism commonly viewed as outdated by many Christian Romans.

     Brown's also claims that Manichaeism had lost the support of the merchants. Manichaeism survived in Central Asia and northern China through the seventh and eighth centuries due to the missionary and trading efforts of the Sogdians. While commercial activity still flourished along the Silk Road in Asia, trade activity in the West had receded causing many merchants to become landowners in predominantly Catholic communities.153 Brown asserts that the commercial pursuits in Asia fostered an environment of religious diversity, which aided in the success of Manichaeism; in contrast, the declining influence of Silk Road trade in the Roman Empire opened the door for Christianity to become the dominant Roman religion and excluding most other religious traditions.

     Fourth, the sixth century saw the traditional Persian monarchy reestablished and Nestorian Christianity increasing its influence in Mesopotamia, excluding the possibility of a revival in Manichaeism.154 According to Brown, Manichaeism became an exclusive Sogdian concern, which meant that the survival of Manichaeism depended on the success of the Silk Road. Even though Manichaeism flourished in Central Asia and China, the religion eventually faded with the decline in Silk Road trade.

     While Brown suggests several possible factors that contributed to the decline of Manichaeism, he does not mention the issue of state sponsorship. In many of the areas where Manichaeism managed to earn the support of a state government, an established religion already existed that resisted the infiltration of Manichaean influence. For example, the Sassanian ruler Shāpūr I never converted to Manichaeism and always claimed Zoroastrianism as his religion. Although Shāpūr allowed Mani to travel within his empire and preach his teachings, Manichaeism never became the official religion of the Sassanian Empire. In the West, Christianity dominated as the state religion of the Roman Empire and relentlessly persecuted any religious groups that they deemed heretical, including Manichaeism. The Buddhists in China resisted the efforts of Manichaean followers and had a part in instigating the Chinese persecutions of Manichaeism.

     The Uighurs adopted Manichaeism as their state religion, but this status did not even last a century. Uighur sponsorship of Manichaeism ensured that Manichaean followers and teachers gained many privileges within the Uighur state and even in China, but the privileges and protection disappeared with the fall of the Uighur kingdom. The failure of Manichaeism to establish themselves in a state, other than the Uighur state, became a factor in the decline of the religion.

     Even though Manichaeism survived as a world religion for only a few centuries, a thorough study of the religion presents historians with a unique opportunity to examine the rise and fall of a world religion over a short period of time. The appeal of Manichaeism originated in the religion's use of elements adopted from other popular religions like Christianity and Buddhism, but the Silk Road provided the economic and political benefits that allowed Manichaeans to spread their beliefs. In a world history perspective, the short-lived success of Manichaeism demonstrates how a religion's popularity and survival depends largely on economic and political advantages.

     In many ways, Manichaeism became a product of the Silk Road. It spread along trade routes to distant regions, flourished with successful commercial activity, and even declined with Silk Road. Manichaeism began as a vision of its founder Mani, who himself held knowledge of the various religions found along the Silk Road. Mani incorporated multiple elements from different religions into his own in the hopes of creating a universal religion that could overcome cultural boundaries. Merchants carried Manichaean ideas to foreign cultures and new audiences while Manichaean missionaries journeyed along the Silk Road routes to spread their message of Light and salvation. The universal perspective of Manichaeism and its attachment to the Silk Road allowed Manichaeism to gain widespread success as a world religion.

     Like many other religions, Manichaeans experienced prosecutions and resistance as a result of their strict adherence to their beliefs and their rapid growth as an influential religion. Even though Manichaeism portrayed itself as a universal religion, it did not achieve universal acceptance. Despite their missionary efforts and attempts at mass-market appeal, Manichaeism could not retain its status as a world religion and eventually faded with the Silk Road.

Silvia Mantz is a graduate student at the University of North Georgia where she is writing her thesis on how conflicting ideals of femininity affected women's lives in the early medieval period. She can be reached at


1 Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 208.

2 Gillian Clark, Augustine: The Confessions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 15.

3 Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 2.

4 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 2.

5 Iain Gardner and Samuel N. C. Lieu, eds., Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4.

6 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 2.

7 Gardner and Lieu, Manichaean Texts, 5.

8 Albert Henrichs, "Mani and the Babylonian Baptists: A Historical Confrontation," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973): 58.

9 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 3.

10 Gardner and Lieu, Manichaean Texts, 5.

11 "Cologne Mani Codex, 103, 1–104, 10," quoted in Albert Henrichs, "Mani and the Babylonian Baptists: A Historical Confrontation," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973): 34.

12 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 3.

13 Gardner and Lieu, Manichaean Texts, 5.

14 Gardner and Lieu, Manichaean Texts, 6.

15 Hans-J. Klimkeit, "Manichaean Kingship: Gnosis at Home in the World," Numen 29, no. 1 (July 1982): 18.

16 Klimkeit, "Manichaean Kingship," 18.

17 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 3.

18 Manfred Hutter, "Manichaeism in the Early Sasanian Empire," Numen 40, no. 1 (January 1993): 6–7.

19 Klimkeit, "Manichaean Kingship," 17–18.

20 Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia and the Roman East (New York: E. J. Brill, 1994), 24.

21 Hutter, "Manichaeism," 6–7.

22 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 25.

23 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 3.

24 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 36.

25 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 58–59.

26 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 36.

27 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 3.

28 Peter Brown, "The Diffusion of Manichaeism in the Roman Empire," The Journal of Roman Studies 59, no. 1/2 (1969): 94.

29 Hutter, "Manichaeism," 9.

30 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 94.

31 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 95.

32 Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 77.

33 Clark, Augustine, 15.

34 Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 206.

35 Clark, Augustine, 15.

36 Clark, Augustine, 16.

37 Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 108.

38 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 5.

39 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 6.

40 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 6.

41 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 72.

42 Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69.

43 Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge, 2001), 112.

44 David Scott, "Manichaeism in Bactria: Political Patterns & East-West Paradigms," Journal of Asian History 41, no. 2 (2007): 439.

45 Liu, Silk Road in World History, 69.

46 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 168.

47 Liu, Silk Road in World History, 69.

48 Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 207.

49 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 98–99.

50 Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China: A Historical Survey (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 53–54.

51 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 95.

52 Boyce, Zoroastrians, 112.

53 Henrichs, "Mani and the Babylonian Baptists," 28–31.

54 Henrichs, "Mani and the Babylonian Baptists," 28–29.

55 Henrichs, "Mani and the Babylonian Baptists," 29.

56 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 169.

57 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 174.

58 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 170.

59 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 23.

60 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 23–24.

61 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 6.

62 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 6, 8.

63 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 8.

64 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 4.

65 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 5.

66 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 62.

67 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 21.

68 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 20–21.

69 Clark, Augustine, 16.

70 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 20.

71 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 20.

72 Clark, Augustine, 16.

73 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 21.

74 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 75.

75 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 21.

76 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 21.

77 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 21.

78 Clark, Augustine, 15–16.

79 Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 156.

80 Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 89–90, Nook.

81 Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 156, 159.

82 Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 159–160.

83 Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 158–159.

84 H. J. W. Drijvers, "Conflict and Alliance in Manichaeism," in Struggles of Gods: Papers of the Groningen Work Group for the Study of the History of Religion, ed. H. G. Kippenberg (Berlin: Mouto Publishers, 1984), 107.

85 Drijvers, "Conflict and Alliance," 111.

86 Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 157.

87 Clark, Augustine, 18–19.

88 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 22.

89 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 69.

90 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 70.

91 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 70–72.

92 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 71–74.

93 Clark, Augustine, 17.

94 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 96.

95 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 157.

96 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 98.

97 "Imperial edict against Manichaeism," quoted in Michael Maas, Readings in Late Antiquity, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2003), 185–186.

98 Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, "The Manichaean Challenge to Egyptian Christianity," in The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, ed. James E. Goehring and Birger A Pearson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 198), 309.

99 Stroumsa, "Manichaean Challenge," 312.

100 Stroumsa, "Manichaean Challenge," 311.

101 Lieu, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia, 162.

102 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 7.

103 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 14.

104 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 14–15.

105 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 15.

106 Xinru Liu, Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, AD 6001200 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 182.

107 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 15.

108 Xinru Liu, The Silk Roads: A Brief History with Documents. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012), 25.

109 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 192–193.

110 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, 193.

111 Hansen, The Silk Road, 108.

112 Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China (New York: Brill, 1998), 105.

113 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 78.

114 Colin Mackerras, "The Uighurs," in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 331.

115 Mackerras, "The Uighurs," 331.

116 Liu, A Brief History, 25.

117 Mackerras, "The Uighurs," 331.

118 Liu, A Brief History, 25.

119 Hansen, The Silk Road, 110.

120 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 21.

121 Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road, 21.

122 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 87.

123 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 89.

124 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 90.

125 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 92–93.

126 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 93.

127 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 103.

128 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 104.

129 Samuel N. C. Lieu, "Nestorians and Manichaeans on the South China Coast," Vigiliae Christianae 34, no. 1 (March 1980): 74–75.

130 Hansen, The Silk Road, 108.

131 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 79.

132 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 80.

133 Quoted in Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization. 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 76.

134 Hansen, The Silk Road, 183.

135 Hans-J. Klimkeit, "Christians, Buddhists and Manichaeans in Medieval Central Asia," Buddhist-Christian Studies 1 (1981): 48.

136 Klimkeit, "Christians, Buddhists and Manichaeans," 48.

137 Klimkeit, "Christians, Buddhists and Manichaeans," 48–49.

138 Klimkeit, "Christians, Buddhists and Manichaeans," 49.

139 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 105.

140 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 78–79.

141 Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 79.

142 Liu, Silk and Religion, 183.

143 Hansen, The Silk Road, 159.

144 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 86.

145 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 98.

146 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 86.

147 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 87, 108.

148 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 106.

149 Liu, A Brief History, 32.

150 Lieu, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, 106.

151 Klimkeit, "Christians, Buddhists and Manichaeans," 47.

152 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 101–103.

153 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 102.

154 Brown, "Diffusion of Manichaeism," 103.

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