Updated October 2014
In 1947 Sabians, or Mandaeans, were reckoned to number about 7,000, and by the mid-1990s, about 30,000. But they have been highly assimilated into nominally Muslim society since the 1930s. They are confined to lower Iraq, except for minuscule communities in Khorramshahr and Ahwaz, in south-western Iran, and a community of silversmiths and their families in Baghdad. They are primarily located in the Marshes or on the two rivers, at al-Amara, Qal'at-Salih, Nasiriya, Suq al-Shuyukh and Qurna.
The religion is a form of Gnosticism, descended from ancient Mesopotamian worship, with rituals that resemble those of Zoroastrian and Nestorian worship. John the Baptist is its central prophet, and they practise immersion in flowing water, symbolic of the creative life force, as an act of ritual purity. Nevertheless, scholars believe that the Sabian Mandaean religion pre-dates Baptism. Sabian Mandaean faith bars the use of violence or the carrying of weapons. Adherents have dhimmi status as ‘people of the book', mentioned in the Qur'an, although this is disputed.
The Sabians should not be confused either with the ‘Sabians' of Harran, a pagan sect which deliberately adopted the name Sabian in order to avoid Muslim persecution, or with the Sabaeans, the inhabitants of ancient Sheba, in south Yemen.
The Sabians traditionally specialized in carpentry, boat building and silversmithing, pursuits still practised. Under the Ba'athists they faced extinction not only from the process of modernization but also from the drainage of the Marshes, which was destroying the locus of the community. The threat to the community worsened with Iraq's descent into chaos following the March 2003 American-led invasion.
Sabian Mandaeans face extinction as a people. As their small community is scattered throughout the world, Sabian Mandaeans' ancient language, culture and religion face the threat of extinction. In 2006, UNESCO listed the Sabian Mandaean language in its Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing. Since the outbreak of violence in 2003, most Sabean-Mandaeans have either fledthe country or been killed. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 remaining in Iraq.
Despite its dhimmi status, Shi'a and Sunni Islamic militants have targeted the group. This is made all the easier, as Mandaeans are prohibited by their beliefs from attempting armed self-defence. Hundreds of killings, abductions and incidents of torture have often been accompanied by rhetoric accusing Sabians of witchcraft, impurity, and systematic adultery. Sabian Mandaean women have been targeted for not covering their heads. In Baghdad, Mandaean goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewellers have been targeted for theft and murder at much higher rates than their Muslim colleagues. Faced with systematic pressure to convert, leave, or die, many Sabian Mandaeans have chosen to leave.
The community continue to be actively targeted by militant groups. In June 2013, gunmen entered the house of Bashier Hamied, a Sabean-Mandaean priest in Amarah, firing shots at him and his family members without succeeding in killing any of them. In July 2013, a newly built Mandaean house of worship was set on fire in Diwaniyah. In October 2013, a Baghdad goldsmith was the victim of an armed robbery, and suffered severe wounds after being shot in the chest by a silenced revolver. The same month, four young goldsmiths living in Baiji in the north of Iraq received threats and were blackmailed for ransoms of several thousand dollars each. In November and December 2013, two Sabean-Mandaean police officers living and working in Kirkuk were killed in separate attacks while a third police officer was seriously injured. Similar attacks occurred in 2014. In January, a Sabean-Mandaean man was killed in his home in Basra. His attackers slit his throat and then burned his body, but did not steal any of his possessions. In June, another member of the community was murdered by shotgun as he was closing up his shop in Al-Mahmoudia, south of Baghdad.
Sabean-Mandaean families have also been affected by the advance of ISIS forces in Northern Iraq in 2014. There are at least 22 Sabean-Mandaean families who have become internally displaced by the latest wave of violence, having lost everything they owned when they fled their homes. Sabean-Mandeans fear that staying in ISIS-controlled areas will mean either forced conversions or death, since ISIS does not consider them to be ‘People of the Book' and will not offer them the option of paying jizya as they have offered to Christians. As a result, many are leaving the country.