Some Mandaeans (literally, "possessors of secret Knowledge") live in Iraqi cities like Baghdad and Basra. There's a large Mandaean population that resides in smaller market towns and villages of the marshland in southern Iraq, and near the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Iran also has a Mandaean population; many of them dwell along the river Karun in Rhuzistan province. These days, many Mandaeans are relocating to western countries.
The Prophet Mohammed called them "Sabians," i.e. "Baptists or baptizers," a name which occurs in the Quran and which enabled them to continue under Islam. Islam also categorized them as "a people of the book," a religion that possesses their own ancient scriptures. Another factor that has traditionally enabled them to operate in the Islamic world is their affiliation with John the Baptist. John the Baptist is one of their greatest prophets.
Though the historic connection between John and the Mandaeans is hard to verify, it is indeed possible they are descendants of disciples of John the Baptist, who 2,000 years ago had a large number of followers which believed him to be a great Master and Prophet, if not the awaited Messiah. After John's death, the New Testament portrays Jesus as being the spiritual successor, but other leaders in John's community might have seen things differently. Like Jesus, others might also have claimed to be John's successor and thus would have become the leaders of a John-community that maintained its independence from the Jesus Movement, instead remaining what they were -- an unorthodox baptismal sect of the Trans-Jordan.
According to scholars of Mandaean studies like Werner Foerster, indeed the origins of the Mandaeans do go back to the Jewish tradition of first century AD Palestine and the region of the Jordan River. Foerster states in Gnosis II, published by Oxford University Press, that in the context of the Jewish war of independence and the consolidation of Orthodox Judaism after AD 70, "its position as a minority opposition evidently led to the persecution of the community and finally to its emigration from its native Jordan territory to the east, to begin with in Harran and the median hill country, then in the southern regions of Mesopotamia." Eventually the community settled in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where they could continue the ritual of baptizing initiates in "living waters" (rivers) symbolizing the connecting of their souls with "heavenly Jordan rivers of Light."
The role of the Heavenly Messenger is to give the mystic experience of light to souls and eventually guide them back up to the Place of Light, the Mandaean term for the highest heaven where the Great Life (God) resides.
The mystical encounters recorded in the scriptures of the Mandaeans may seem at times like ancient near-death experiences (NDE's), the visions of souls who were embraced the Light long ago.
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