The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Archive for the tag “religion”

Mandaeans and Tajiks

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.

Holy Untranslatable Texts

For questions of interpretation, scriptures stand in a category of their own, separate from modern and post-modern literature, for which even the most traditional readers admit the potential for a multiplicity of readings, and epigraphic texts, which had long ceased to be curated by any community before they were rediscovered. While nothing prevents you or me from reading any of these works as we please, and reading our own meanings into them, scholars and people of faith alike find themselves confronted with a (somewhat self-imposed) constraint: how to read the “correct” meaning into it? We do not permit ourselves to read any old meaning into scriptures or ancient texts, and with good reason.

The distinctive feature of scriptures is that they are actively and presently curated by a religious community. The potential reasons for this are multiple; this community may consider them to be

  • divinely authored or inspired; that is to say, whether they are attributed to an author or not, they are ultimately of supernatural origin;
  • in James Kugel’s terms, “omnisignificant,” that is, meaningful in each and every detail, and with a meaning that is eternally and directly relevant to each and every reader;
  • ultimately admitting only of a single “correct” meaning, which can be discovered only through careful analysis, rather than a fluid multiplicity of meanings.

These three attributes of scriptures, at least as they are understood among those traditions conventionally described as “Abrahamic,” naturally exist in a certain tension with one another. If every last detail is existentially relevant but admits of only one possible divinely-ordained reading, then it behooves the scholars of that community to struggle continuously to elaborate this reading, and then guard it zealously for the benefit of future generations, which extends to subsequent re-workings of scripture into different languages. Thus “context rather than content makes the holy untranslatable,” in the words of Christopher Shackle (2005, 20).

In the case of ancient texts, these painstakingly developed schools of interpretation, laboriously constructed over the centuries, have largely disappeared with the community that constructed them, and in their absence, other scholars have appointed themselves their custodians, and perpetuate the interpretive work of that vanished community, with one exception―to my knowledge, no latter-day scholar of the Babylonian creation myth, the Enûma Eliš, maintains that it is divinely inspired. While secular scholars differ from religious scholars in this respect, much of their approach to the text remains the same. They both maintain that the text admits of only one correct meaning, both at the time in which it was authored and subsequently for all time, and that this meaning reveals itself only through careful analysis. These texts then share much with scripture, save that they are no longer curated by communities that consider them divinely inspired or divinely authored, and therefore we might deem them “post-scriptures.”

An obvious tension emerges, then, when secular scholars apply this same approach to scriptures that are still being actively curated by a religious community, with their own painstakingly developed schools of interpretation. While Christoph Luxenberg, to give one example, may disagree with Ismail ibn Kathir on the divine authorship of the Qur’an, both Luxenburg and ibn Kathir have competing claims to uncovering the one exclusive meaning of that text. Neither consider themselves to be engaged in the business of “knowledge production,” but rather the business of “knowledge recovery,” one that does not easily allow for competition.

Since neither secular nor religious scholars admit of a fluid multiplicity of meanings, each community establishes its own conventions for producing readings, and its own criteria for assessing their merits. The conventions for secular scholars are much the same as those for religious ones. The ultimate basis for both is direct observation, either from internal factors such as the ways in which the scriptures describe the world around them, which can presumably be connected to that world in ways that might be meaningful, or from external factors, such as the age of the physical manuscripts, and what its copyists and past interpreters have to say about it. From these observations, new questions inevitably emerge, and scholars develop new readings to answer them, and hopefully test these readings in order to expand, alter, reject, or refine them.

Among communities of secular scholars, the merits of the readings so developed are assessed through the process of peer review. Ultimately, a reading’s success will depend not only upon its ability to answer the questions that emerge from observation, but also upon other forms of merit, such as its originality, or the qualifications of its reader. The former is critical, to ensure that the reader has not simply replicated past scholarship, or even presented it as an original contribution. The latter is equally critical to the reading’s success, but some communities employ double blind peer review, in an attempt to reduce the impact of psychological and socio-economic factors on its initial reception. In such instances, the identities of both the reader and the reviewers are obscured, until the other merits of the reading have been assessed.

In this model of scholarship, there is, was, and always will be a tension between the ways in which a reading‘s merits are assessed, and the ways in which they determine its ultimate impact. Some readings are accepted primarily on the strength of their reader‘s qualifications, and the level of prestige and support they enjoy from the scholarly establishment, as is generally the case with religious scholars. Others are valued for the degree to which they affirm a scholarly or religious dogma. In such instances, originality is deprecated in favor of orthodoxy. If we reject these influences as pernicious, then we must naturally conclude that the ultimate merit of a reading is whether it answers the questions that emerge from observation, and whether another reader, equipped with these same observations and furnished with these same questions, could arrive at the same reading. This, then, is the rubric against which I shall evaluate secular readings of Mandaean texts, including my own.

Fallujah, under the Seal of Solomon

Tractate 20 of the Book of John, about John’s conversation with the Sun, is one of the shortest compositions in the entire text, but what it lacks in length, it makes up in the richness of its detail concerning the lives of ancient Mandaeans.

Since much of this text concerns the Sun, the reader is confronted immediately with references to the Mesopotamian cosmology:

Šamiš etib bṣurta /  usira etib btalia

arba ziqia ḏbaita / lagṭia ganpaihun / ahdadia ulanašmia

The sun sat in seclusion / and the moon sat in an eclipse.

The four winds of the House / grasped their wings / one to another and breathed not.

The word I have translated here, ṣurta, literally means a drawing, but in Mandaic it has come to mean the ritual barrier that is created to separate the pure from the impure, and by extension those who are enclosed within it (such as menstruating women) and the period during which they are so isolated. All three are known as a sorthe even today.

Similarly, the word I translate here as “eclipse,” is actually a proper noun, ˀāṯallyā, which derives from Akkadian attalû, the dragon that swallows the sun and the moon to create an eclipse. Thus, the very first line is extremely rich in metaphors to which my English translation does no justice.

The description of the Four Winds grasping their wings one to another brings to mind Pazuzu, lord of the Four Winds, whom the ancient Mesopotamians depicted as a winged demon (as you can see in the image in that blog post). It’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that the passage hearkens back to these depictions. Then the sun speaks directly to John in Jerusalem:

etlak atlata tikia / taga ḏšauilẖ lkulẖ alma

etlak mn mašklil / spinta ḏradia haka biardna

etlak plugta rabtia / ḏhaka radia binia mia lmia

kḏ tizal lbit rbia / qudam rbia adkar elan.

You have three halos, / a crown worth the whole world.
You have from mašklil / a boat that travels here in the Jordan.
You have a great canal / that goes here from water to water.
When you go to the House of the Great / remember us before the Great.

The word mašklil is a hapax legomenon; could be related to Syriac mǝšaḵlal “perfect,”or perhaps it is related to meškā “skin.” Lidzbarski suggests some kind of wood. For my money, though, this is not the biggest mystery in these lines. What is this great canal (or division) that runs from water to water? It is called plugta in Mandaic, which just happens to be the etymon of the present name for Pumbeditha, namely Fallujah, so-called because of its strategic location at the nexus of the canal network. That is to say, Pumbeditha was informally known as plugta, “the canal,” and that is the name that stuck.

For most of the first millennium, Pumbeditha was one of the most important centers of Jewish learning in the world. This may be significant, because Mandaeans identify the Jewish god, Adonai, with the sun—particularly in the texts about John, of which this is one. Thus a reference to a major center of Jewish learning in a text that is ostensibly about the sun would not necessarily be unexpected. Is there any other evidence of Jewish themes in this text?

John attributes his three wonders to Life, like a good Mandaean. When he gets to the third, plugta, the text takes a turn for the strange:

hatma ḏmalka matna elẖ / ḏgaira bšumak / uazla lbit qiqlia

qarba mn zaua ḏnapšẖ / baiia bnia lamaška

kḏ šalmu nidrẖ unapqa / lašiha lbit hiia / ulamqaima ldaura taqna

The king’s seal was placed upon her / so that she cavorts in your name / and goes to the house of dunghills.
She fights with her own spouse / she seeks her sons but does not find them,
When her vows were completed and she left / she was not worthy of Life’s House / and was not raised to the everlasting abode.

Apparently John has anthropomorphized the plugta, which is feminine in Aramaic, and likens it to a wife who has strayed from her family. The symbol of this transformation is the hatma ḏmalka, “the king’s seal,” which is almost certainly a reference to the famous ring of Solomon, described in the Bavli (Tractate Gittin 68a) and in both Aramaic and Mandaic incantation bowl texts as proof against demons. In the latter, it is explicitly described as a seal, using this word. In later centuries, perhaps as late as Islamic times, this term became associated with the Magen David, as a symbol of Judaism. Scholem (1949, p. 246) suggests that its identification with the seal of Solomon first arose in medieval times, but its potential appearance in the incantation bowls and now here, within a Jewish context in the Book of John, suggests that it may be much earlier—potentially even pre-Islamic.

The language of this line differs greatly from the others. The participle gaira could potentially come from two roots: g-w-r, which means “to commit adultery, and g-y-r, a denominative root from the Hebrew word giyur, “conversion (to Judaism).” It is entirely possible that both meanings were intended, in precisely the sort of double entendre for which Mandaean texts are famous (I’ve tried to capture some of this double entendre in my translation). As for the “house of dunghills,” bit qiqlia, while this at first sight appears to refer to some region, and Lidzbarski interprets it to be a bordello, this word can also mean ruins, and indeed one the Jewish temple is explicitly identified as a קיקלתא in one of the Jewish Palestinian piyyutim published by Sokoloff and Yahalom (1999, 21:12). The Temple looms large in this portion of the text, where it is elsewhere described as baita nsisa “the disturbed house.”

To recap, the debate between John and the sun in Jerusalem immediately puts us into a Jewish context. The reference to “the King’s Seal” only confirms this impression, and encourage us to read further meaning into what appears, at first glance, to be a nonsensical text about a canal cheating on her husband. What emerges is a thinly veiled polemic against Pumbeditha (or, to use its modern name, Fallujah) as a major center of Jewish learning.

Progress Report 6

The eleventh chapter of the Doctrine of John, which is the first of two sections that Lidzbarski termed “The Good Shepherd,” is now up at the project website. This consists of the better part of six manuscript pages, from p. 40, ln. 6 to p. 45, ln. 10 in the 1915 edition.

I’ve been documenting my progress thus far with this chapter, so it really needs no introduction at this point. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to outline the passage briefly. “The Good Shepherd” is an extended allegory involving several elements:

  • a shepherd figure (who likely represents Hibil Ziua or Manda ḏ-Hiia);
  • his flock (which likely represents the Mandaeans);
  • various threats such as wolves and thieves (these are explicitly identified with the seven planets and the twelve signs of the Zodiac);
  • a storm of some sort (which some scholars have identified with Islam).

I dealt with the question of whether this passage addresses the Islamic conquest in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I am not convinced. The passage usually adduced as an oblique reference to Islam (p. 45, lns. 1-2) doesn’t withstand the light of critical scrutiny. Subsequently, the passage does mention “those living at the tail end of the Age of Mars (nirig),” which might be such a reference. Mars is sometimes identified with “Abdallah the Arab,” the name by which the Prophet Muhammad is known to the Mandaeans, or as having descended alongside Muhammad, as in the Scroll of Inner Harran. Then again, Nirig is, of course, the Mandaean form of the name of Nergal (compare the Arabic name for Mars, مريخ marīḫ), the chief deity of Kutha, who was at times also associated with war, disease, and the underworld, any of which could naturally fit this reference. While this could therefore be an extremely oblique reference to Muhammad, the fact that Nirig/Nergal predates Muhammad by a considerable period of time (several thousands of years) requires us to be somewhat cautious about drawing such a conclusion.

The fact that the “Good Shepherd” makes reference to the “tail end” of this period should also give us pause; assuming that this passage was indeed composed in the early Islamic period, what would make the Mandaeans of the time think that they were living in the end of that era? The right half of the Great Treasure contains a similar claim in Book 18, suggesting that these two works might be coetaneous, if indeed the “Age of Mars” can be identified with the Islamic period. I have my doubts. The Great Treasure, for example, never employs this term, but it does appear in Code Sabéen 16, which is a manuscript of the Thousand and Twelve Questions (the so-called Pariser Diwan): hṣilnin bdinba ḏ-dara ḏ-nirig “we reached the end of the Age of Mars.” It would be interesting to investigate what this reference meant to this copyist of the Thousand and Twelve Questions. I’m not sure I want to try contacting the Bibliothèque nationale de France again for a copy, as their bureaucracy could really give Rutgers a run for its money.

The question of the presence or absence of any reference to Islam is not the only contentious aspect of this chapter; immediately preceding the reference to the Age of Mars is a reference to what appears to be female priests:

ṭubaihun el tarmidiata
ḏmn qlalia ḏruha mitparqan
mitparqan mn ṭanputa
uqlala ušišilta ḏlašalma

Happy are the tarmidiata,
who are free from the snares of Ruha,
free ‎‎from the pollution, the snare,
and the never-ending chain.

At first glance, tarmidiata appears to be the plural of tarmidita, the feminine form of tarmida, which is the first grade of the Mandaean priesthood as well as a general term for priest. As the cognates in related languages attest, it originally meant a kind of student or disciple, but in Mandaean texts it consistently refers to priests. In his translation of the Doctrine of John, Lidzbarski is silent about the identity of the tarmidiata, which he translates as Jüngerinnen (female disciples), but in his translation of the Great Treasure he argues that as female priests do not (currently) exist among the Mandaeans, this term cannot refer to female priests. Q.E.D. Drower, deferring to Lidzbarski, bent over backwards to translate this term as “women of priestly family” or “caste,” even though there is no logical basis for this interpolation. While it is certainly true that there are no female priests today, Jorunn Buckley has amassed a considerable amount of textual evidence for the existence of female priests at some point in the distant past of the faith. Obviously this question is not going away any time soon.

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