Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Middle East’s vanishing faiths

Some of the world's most ancient and obscure faiths are in danger of being driven out the Middle East by Islamic extremism
Members of the Sabaean Mandaeans, a pre-Christian sect that follow the teachings of John the Baptist, take part in a bathing ritual on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad to mark the new year, which they celebrate as a five day holiday. Khalid Mohammed / AP Photo
Members of the Sabaean Mandaeans, a pre-Christian sect that follow the teachings of John the Baptist, take part in a bathing ritual on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad to mark the new year, which they celebrate as a five day holiday. Khalid Mohammed / AP Photo

Deep in the marshlands of southern Iraq live what remains of the Mandaean people.

Sometimes confused with Christianity, they are, in fact, an entirely separate faith, while believing in a Supreme Being, baptism and a heaven of light. Some of their customs carry echoes of ancient Babylon.

It was here that Gerald Russell discovered them, in the chaos of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Until 2003 there were perhaps 100,000 Mandaeans, almost all living in their ancestral homeland. In 2006, Russell met the Mandaean high priest, Sheikh Sattar. “He’s gone now,” he says. “Gone to Australia.”

A former British diplomat with a deep knowledge of the region and a fluency in Arabic unusual in Westerners, Russell has spent most of the past seven years visiting and chronicling the more obscure minority religions that for centuries have coexisted alongside Islam.

The result, the newly published Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is not so much a celebration of diversity as an obituary.

Even in 2006: “the Mandaeans were facing very serious problems because of security” says Russell, who is visiting Abu Dhabi this week.

“Obviously Muslims as well as non Muslims suffered in Iraq and pretty much numerically to equal degrees but the insecurity felt by the Mandaeans was greater.”

In part, he says, this is because the tribal system which had protected the Mandaean people in the past could no longer do so in the anarchy that prevailed.

And so the Mandaeans took the only option left to them. They departed. “Once a community takes it upon itself to move, that it wants to migrate there is shift in mentality,” he says. “The Mandaeans are now ten per cent of what they were in 2003.”

As grim is the plight of the Yazidis, another endangered faith whose worship echoes that of Muslims yet is not Islamic. Their morning prayer begins: “There is no god but God” but more emphasis is placed on the four elements, fire, water, earth and air, than the Prophets, from Abraham to Mohammed. Their secrets are passed down, orally, to a chosen few.

The history of the Yazidis is punctuated by oppression and genocide, both from the Ottomans and Saddam, who lumped them together with the Kurds in his killing sprees.

But nothing has hit the community like the depredations of the Islamic state (ISIL). Islamic fundamentalists, who regard aspects of the faith as akin to devil worship, were behind a series of bombings near Mosul that killed 500 in single day.

The world came to know of the Yazidis — probably for the first time — in August, when ISIL fighters forced the population of Singar to abandon the city for the mountains. Thousands may have died, with women and girls sold as slaves for sex.

Only an intervention by Western powers, with air support from countries including the UAE, has stemmed the ISIL advance. But the Yazidi seem destined to follow the path of the Mandaean. Their homeland is in Iraq, Syria and Kurdish territories, but the places where populations are growing include Germany, Australia and Canada.

“ISIL is a particularly thuggish group and its attack on the Yazidis was unusual,” says Russell. “It looks like the literal implementation of the most hardline of attitudes towards non Muslims. That and I think the general anarchy of Syria and Iraq — there’s been huge bloodshed.”

How much of the Yazidi traditions will survive transplantation is unclear. These include a proscription on the colour blue, a ban on eating lettuce and requirement that men should grow a moustache. Despite spending time with the Yazidis, Russell admits he still has no idea why. “No one knows — or they’re not telling. They wouldn’t say.”

The recent history of the Middle East is filled with such stories. Long-established Jewish communities have left Arab countries, with Christians, particularly in Iraq, now under threat.

Yet historically this has never been the rule. Seven centuries ago, when Islamic culture was at its height and surpassing anything found in Europe, faith was no obstacle in society.

“When Islam was at its most open-minded that it was also at is height in terms of its contribution towards world civilisation,” says Russell.

He is reluctant to lay blame on who is responsible. Western governments, especially the US, sometimes aligned themselves with religious extremists in the fight against communism, he says.

And the West — largely secular in its politics — often fails to understand the depth of faith. “Because the US is a secular country it does not entirely understand the power of religion both for good and evil.”

In these times, countries like the UAE offer a refuge from intolerance. “This is one of the few places in Middle East where religious minorities are growing rather than shrinking and where they will find a safe haven,” says Russell.

“It isn’t quite the same as being safe at home — they’re not citizens — but it is an adherence to that old traditional form of religiosity.”

As to why this is the case: “I certainly think what you have here is a Government which is able to be generous. The Emirati people are traditionally a very warm and welcoming people but also, this is a strong country.

In other Middle East countries, he sees identity defined increasingly by religion: “It feels to me that over decades Middle East has moved towards a grouping of people by religion.”

“If you were an Iraqi Christian you could still say you’re Iraqi for decades. The clearest example is Egypt where in the 50s there was a Christian prime minister and the ruler of Egypt at the time said: “We are all Egyptians.”

Not all is lost, even if the outlook seems depressing. Russell points to the Samaritans, not a parable from the Bible, but a real people who regard themselves as Hebrew but reject the Jewish Temple and King David.

Samaritan communities today can be found both in Israel and the West Bank, but at one point it seemed they faced extinction. “They went down to about 120 people in 1917,” says Russell. ”Since then they’ve recovered ten fold.”

Another people that have shown a remarkable ability to survive are the Druze, living mostly in Lebanon and Syria. Only a few scholars know the secrets of the Druze faith, which seems to incorporate the principles of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Of the family of Islam: “they are bit wary of saying they are Muslims because they don’t want to enter into a theological dispute,” says Russell.

The danger is that communities do not die, but cease to become functional in a meaningful way to the culture in which they live. “Even in Baghdad there are still 100,000 Christians according to the archbishop who I saw in August when I visited Iraq,” says Russell.

“The sad thing those are the people who can’t leave, not people who really want to stay. But I don’t give up. Now is a good moment to fight back in Iraq for people who wish to stay. You can’t force them to stay but you can make them feel welcome.”

If these minority faiths do emigrate from their homelands: “It’s good for the West in terms of gaining skilled and talented immigrants but bad for the Middle East.”

What is lost are living links with the regions most distant past. Coptic Christians still use prayers from the time of the Pharaohs while the use of the handshake as form of greeting may connect to current Yazadi rituals. The Mandaeans, who believe themselves to be the oldest religion in the world still practised, have an amulet to protect against evil that was used 13 centuries before the birth of Jesus.

“These are the ways in which human beings are linked,” says Russell. “We like to think of these massive differences, actually these dichotomies are constantly undermined by things we share.

“Not things that come from globalisation. Sometimes they come from the remote past. We just don’t recognise them.”

* Gerald Russell is guest speaker at New York University Abu Dhabi today (Friday) at 12.30

Updated: November 5, 2014 04:00 AM

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