Lately, I’ve been engaging the centuries of scholarship (both Muslim and non-Muslim) that defines Mandaeans as Sabians, and both as Chaldaeans. I’m fairly certain that the Mandaeans are a real people, practicing a real religion, at least as far as I am able to discern with my own eyes and ears; scholars who don’t work directly with the Mandaeans or read Mandaean texts aren’t so certain about them, at least not in the ways that really matter to them, and have spent the better part of the last 13 centuries measuring them against these other categories, and finding them lacking.
The question of the Sabians, and particularly how they relate to the Sabians of the Qur’an, is especially fraught. Suffice it to say that we have one extant group that identifies as “Sabians,” who are in turn acknowledged as “Sabians” by their neighbors, and by those scholars who have the privilege to work directly with them and have mastered their language so that they can read their texts, in order to learn more about the various ways in which they have identified themselves throughout recorded history, but there is a small group of revisionist scholars who are not so certain of the authenticity of Mandaean claims, and never miss an opportunity to remind the rest of us. For these scholars, the term “Sabian” has a kind of occult meaning, one that is not obvious to the uninitiated, but which can be discerned through careful analysis (of course, not of the texts of the Mandaeans themselves, who can safely be disregarded as self-interested, but rather of the famously disinterested accounts of Islamic and Christian theologians).
I find it instructive to compare both to the term “Chaldaean,” which has meant different things to different people at different times, but eventually acquired a kind of romantic significance in European scholarship, referring to a discrete nation (the “Chaldaeans”), living in a discrete territory (“Chaldaea”) who practiced a discrete religion (“Chaldaism”) and who spoke a discrete language (“Chaldaic”) before it was eventually retired in the first half of the 20th. This is, for example, the sense in which Adolf von Harnack uses the term. The valence of this term is not quite so compact outside of European scholarship. “Chaldaea” is to some extent coterminous with Mesopotamia, which appears in the Chinese sources as 条支 Tiáo zhī, a land to the West of Persia either reached overland via the Silk Road or overseas via the Gulf. This term Tiáo zhī is apparently derived from the Middle Persian term Tāzīg, “Arab,” which today bewilderingly survives as the demonym of the inhabitants of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, at least the ones who aren’t Uzbeks and Turkmen and members of other national groups that emerged as a consequence of Soviet policy and the scholarship that informed it. In the geographic region in which scholars have situated this term, it today means “fresh,” an attribute of fruits and vegetables rather than people.
When Arabic and Syriac sources discuss “Chaldaeans,” on the other hand, they exclusively intend either the famous star-worshipping astrologers of yore, or those Christians who follow the East Syrian Rite, two groups that are apparently connected only by the different languages they speak, or in the case of the latter, in which their liturgy is preserved. For obvious reasons, the inheritors of this scholarship tend to regard “Chaldaea” and the “Chaldaeans,” at least in the romantic national sense to which their intellectual forefathers referred, and painstakingly elaborated over course of several the centuries, to be as much of a fiction as “Narnia” and the “Narnians.” This is not unexpected, considering that socially constructed categories such as “Chaldaeans” and “Sabians” can be surprisingly evanescent, and require constant attention on the part of their communities to maintain. In the absence of this effort, the impressive edifice of scholarship on Chaldaism has completely collapsed, and ownership of the term “Chaldaean” has reverted to the one community still engaged in maintaining its identity, the Chaldean Catholic Church, descendants of those aforementioned Chaldaeans who follow the East Syrian Rite. The continued relevance of “Sabians” as a subject of discourse is ensured by their appearance in the sacred literature of Islam, and by the living example of the Mandaeans, even though the scholarly debate over their meaning in the former has brought the continued existence of the latter into question in a very real way.