The history of religions, especially as far as the Greater Mediterranean is concerned, is often divided into two major phases, imagined as happening in sequence: pre-monotheistic (polytheistic/pagan) and monotheistic or “Abrahamic”. Other terms are also used, in reference to the same two groupings, e.g., local vs. universal, or primary vs. secondary. Also, sometimes an earlier stage is added (called, e.g., “animist”), sometimes a later one (Enlightenment, secularism, atheism, what have you). This is wrong for many reasons, including the following:
- “Pre-Christian” and “pre-Islamic” religions are never prior to Christianity or Islam but concurrent with them, whether they are eventually displaced by them or not. The terms really only make sense in relation to specific contexts, if for instance we compare the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before and after its rulers converted in the late 14th century CE. But there is no pagan Lithuania at all before Christianity, that is, before the Christian era – only the distant ancestors of the Lithuanian pagans who would eventually be attested in historical documents.
- Religions that are distinct from Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not intrinsically have shared features, such that they could all be referred to as polytheistic or (in the academic sense of the word) pagan without these terms losing all meaning.
- In addition, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, while of course related and in some ways similar, do not represent a single tradition that can be reliably grouped together as “Abrahamic”. In fact, this conflation is often used rhetorically to make arguments for or against Christianity or Islam, at the expense of Judaism.
- Besides, the term “Abrahamic” implies a kind of family-tree model of religious history, with Islam and Christianity as offsprings of Judaism, when (a) Judaism is coeval with its ‘offspring’, as its history continues to this day, and (b) religions are not straightforwardly derived from one another, but also crystallize through differentiation. The doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, did not develop from Judaism but (in part) in distinction against Judaism.
These problems are illustrated especially clearly by the example of Mesopotamia / Iraq. The common model would predict the existence of a local polytheism eventually interrupted by a monotheistic religion; but in fact, Judaism had a long history as a minority religion in the area (since the Babylonian captivity in the early 6th century BCE), and local polytheism appears to have been destabilized more through the ascendancy of Zoroastrianism under the Parthian and Sāsānian empires (2nd cent. BCE – 7th cent. CE). Nevertheless, Mesopotamian paganism survived well into the Islamic period, until around the 11th century CE.
Differently put, polytheism continued for a millennium and a half after the region began to have a Jewish population, and its eventual attrition was as much due to Zoroastrianism (a religion that does not easily fit into a polytheistic/monotheistic binary) as to monotheistic religions; it is only secondarily that Zoroastrianism in Iraq was itself replaced by Islam as the hegemonic religion.
But the story involves many more traditions than only Mesopotamian polytheism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam. The Sāsānian period saw the influx and the genesis of further religions; so has the period dominated by Islam. For the sake of convenience, I will speak about these in three sections: Christian and para-Christians; Mandaeism and para-Mandaean groups; Islamic and para-Islamic communities. “Para” here serves as a shorthand for “somehow related to or commensurable with, but not necessarily part of”. For instance, I call the Manichaeans para-Christian, because they incorporated many elements of Christianity and sometimes called themselves Christians, but on the other hand represented themselves as a distinct (and superior) community. Of course, different arrangements of the material are easily conceivable, and perhaps much preferable.
2 Theodore Abū Qurrah’s conspectus of religions
Before I go through the many religions of Mesopotamia diachronically (in chronological order of their genesis, as far as it can be ascertained), let me recount a synchronic overview given by the orthodox Christian bishop of Ḥarrān (a city in northern Mesopotamia) around 800 CE: Theodore Abū Qurrah, a highly educated intellectual who was fluent in Syriac (Aramaic), Greek and Arabic.
Among those works of his that survive in Arabic, there is one called On the Existence of God and the True Religion, which is written as a sort of fictional intellectual autobiography of someone who, in the first section, rationally derives the doctrine of creation from the nature of the world, but is left in doubt about how many creators there may be. Consequently, in the second section, he descends from the isolation of the mountains into the habitations of people, and he encounters nine religions current around 800 CE (although Theodore later notes that there are still many more than these in the world). He says that they all agree that there is a god or gods, that there is right and wrong, and that there are rewards and punishments, but disagree about the nature of all of these. After this follows much further rational argumentation that leads to the conclusion that Christianity is the true religion.
What interests us are the nine religions he has chosen to represent in this work:
3 Christian and para-Christian churches and sects
Christian sects, extinct and living
(One of the oldest Christian groups… connected to certain Jewish groups…)
Epiphanius: Nasaraeans?, Ossaeans, Nazoraeans, Ebionites, Sampsaeans
Mughtasilah: Ps.Hippolytus: Êlchasai. Epiphanus: Êlxai. Eusebius/Theodoret: Elkesai.
Colone Mani Codex
The fourth century writer Epiphanius of Salamis discusses Elchasai in the context of a group of Jewish and Jewish-Christian sects, including Nazareans, Ossaeans (?Essenes) and Sampsaeans. He is by no means the world’s most reliable writer, but he implies that Elchasai joined the Ossaean sect, which lived around the Dead Sea, before writing his famous book by revelation.
More Syro-Mesopotamian groups?
(Arian, etc.: certain distinctions not made here, with Theodore, lest we lose ourselves in infinite detail)
One excellent study of these various movements is John C. Reeves, Heralds of that Good Realm: Syro-Mesopotamian Gnosis and Jewish Traditions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996). Now we also have Dylan M. Burns’s Apocalypse of the Alien God (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), which I will be discussing shortly.
Gerard P. Luttikhuizen summarizes what can reliably be said about the Elchasaites in The Revelation of Elchasai (Mohr Siebeck, 1985).
Manichaeism. Extent of sources. „Persian religion“. Relationship to Zoroastrianism. Buddhism.
4 Mandaeism and historical para-Mandaean communities
Van Bladel; Fihrist, Thedore bar Konay (~pagan). Relationship to Elchasai/Manichaeism.
5 Para-Islamic groups in Iraq
freethinkers – where did I read about them?
Islamic sects (historical and modern, like Shaykhism)?
Yazidis, Shabaks, Ahl-e Haqq, etc. Bahai (not indigenous exactly, but that doesn’t matter)