Manicheanism (sometimes Manichaeism or Manichaeanism) was one of the major ancient religions of Persian (ancient Iran) origin. Though its organized form is mostly extinct today, a revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manicheanism. However, most of the writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost. Some scholars argue that its influence subtly continues in Western Christian thought via Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from Manicheanism, which he passionately denounced in his writings.
Because Manicheanism is a faith that teaches dualism, in modern English the word "manichean" has come to mean dualistic, presenting or viewing things in a "black and white" fashion.
The religion was founded in the third century AD by Mani, who reportedly was born in western Persia and lived approximately 210–276 AD. The name Mani is mainly a title and term of respect rather than a personal name. This title was assumed by the founder himself and so completely replaced his personal name that the precise form of the latter is not known. Mani's holy book was called Arzhang and was beautified with paintings. This gave him the title "The Painter".
Mani was likely influenced by the existing Mandaean gnosticism of his day. According to biographical accounts preserved by Ibn al-Nadim and al-Biruni, Mani received a revelation as a youth from a spirit, whom he would later call his Twin, his Syzygos, his Double, his Protective Angel or 'Divine Self'. This spirit allegedly taught him divine truths which developed into the Manichean religion. His 'divine' Twin or true Self brought Mani to Self-realization and as such he becomes a gnosticus, someone with divine knowledge and a liberating insight into things. He claimed to be the Paraclete of the Truth, as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets that finalized a succession of men guided by God and included figures such as Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, and Jesus.
The most striking principle of Manichee theology is its dualism, a theme gleaned from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Mani postulated two natures that existed from the beginning: light and darkness. The realm of light lived in peace, while the realm of darkness was in constant conflict with itself. The universe is the temporary result of an attack of the realm of darkness on the realm of light, and was created by the Living Spirit, an emanation of the light realm, out of the mixture of light and darkness.
The Manichees made every effort to include all known religious traditions in their faith. As a result, they preserved many apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acts of Thomas, that otherwise would have been lost. Mani was eager to describe himself as a "disciple of Jesus Christ", but the early Christian church rejected him as a heretic. Mani declared himself, and was also referred to, as the Paraclete: a Biblical title, meaning "comforter" or "helper", which the catholic church understands as referring to God the Holy Spirit. Certain Muslim writers claimed it is a prophecy of Jesus regarding Muhammad.
A key belief in Manicheanism is that there is no omnipotent good power. This claim addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the infinite perfection of God and postulating the two equal and opposite powers mentioned previously. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the good part is the soul (which is composed of light) and the bad part is the body (composed of dark earth). The soul defines the person and is incorruptible, but it is under the domination of a foreign power, which addressed the practical part of The Problem of Evil. A human is said to be able to be saved from this power (matter) if they come to know who they are and identify themselves with their soul.
- Runciman, Steven (1982). The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521289262.
- Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire by Iain Gardner and Samuel N. C. Lieu, ISBN 0521568226
- F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. London: Oxford UP, 1974.
- Francis Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, From 330 B.C. to 330 A.D. (1914), reprinted in two volumes bound as one, University Books, New York, 1964. LC Catalog 64-24125.
- Religions of the Silk Road by Richard C. Foltz, St Martin's Griffin, New York, ISBN 0312233388