“a Manichean Universe of absolute opposites”

This refers to the dualistic religious movement, known as Manichaeism, founded in Persia in the 3rd century CE by Mani (aka “the Apostle of Light” and “the Illuminator”), who believed he was the final successor in a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam, and including Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus. Before his death (sometime between 274 and 277 CE) Mani preached throughout the Persian empire and recorded his teachings in a series of writings which formed the nucleus of the Manichaean scriptural canon, portions of which were rediscovered in 20th-century Chinese Turkistan and Egypt.

Mani held that earlier religious revelations were limited in their reach because too localized (taught in one language to one people), and from the outset, Manichaeism included an extensive missionary program with the aim of globalizing what Mani construed as the universal message of a truly ecumenical and universal religion. Manichaeism “sought the proclamation of a truth that could be translated into diverse forms in accordance with the different cultures into which it spread. Thus, Manichaeism, depending on the context, resembles Iranian and Indian religions, Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism.” (Encyclopedia of World Religions 690)

Its core teaching is Gnostic, and Manichaeism advocates that “the elect” lead a strict ascetic life, whereby the soul dissociates as much as possible from the evil world of flesh and matter. “The saving knowledge of the true nature and destiny of humanity, God, and the universe is expressed in Manichaeism in a complex mythology which stressed that the soul is fallen, entangled with evil matter, and then liberated by the spirit or nous. The myth unfolds in three stages: a past period in which there was a separation of the two radically opposed substances — Spirit and Matter, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness; a middle period (corresponding to the present) during which the two substances are mixed; and a future period in which the original duality will be re-established. At death the soul of the righteous person returns to paradise. The soul of the person who persisted in things of the flesh — fornication, procreation, possessions, cultivation, harvesting, eating of meat, drinking of wine — is condemned to rebirth in a succession of bodies.” (Encyclopedia of World Religions 690)

From its appearance in 3rd-century Persia with Mani’s “annunciation” at age 24, Manichaeism rapidly spread from Egypt across northern Africa (where Augustine became a temporary convert) to Rome and the West, with churches established in southern Gaul and Spain during its European apogee in the 4th century. A Manichaean missionary reached the Chinese court in 694 CE, and an edict giving the religion freedom of worship in China was issued in 732. When the Urghur Turks conquered East Turkistan in the 8th century, Manichaeism was adopted as the state religion until the overthrow of the Urghur kingdom in 840 CE.

Concerted attacks by the Christian church and Roman state drove out Manichaeism from western Europe by the end of the 5th century, although its teachings resurfaced during the Middle Ages in the “neo-Manichaean” sects (the Paulicans in 7th-century Armenia, the Bogomils in 10th-century Bulgaria, and the Cathari or Albigensians in 12th-century France). Despite severe persecution, the Manichean community maintained itself in Persia until Muslim attacks in the 10th century forced the leadership to remove to Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan). In East Turkistan, Manichaeism survived until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. In China, the religion was forbidden in 843 CE, but despite ongoing persecution, Chinese followers of Manichaeism persisted at least until the 14th century.


“Manichaeism.” In Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions. Ed. by Wendy Doniger. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1999. 689–690.