Mani (216-276) was a Persian prophet and the founder of Manichaeism, the best known and most developed of the Gnostic religions. Mani's religion spread quickly but was eventually stamped out through opposition from other religions, notably Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam.
Patek, the father of Mani, was a native of Hamadan, ancient Ecbatana, and apparently belonged to the Arsacid princely family. He left Hamadan and settled in Babylonia, where Mani grew up among the Mandaeans, a Baptist sect of Gnostic tendencies. In 240-241 he felt called upon to proclaim openly his new religion and call people to the truth. His faith was a universal one. He believed that God had periodically revealed the truth through His chosen apostles, Zoroaster, Buddha, and Christ, and Mani considered himself the true prophet of his day for all humanity.
His teachings were primarily based on an old Persian dualism pushed to the extreme. He envisaged two separate and independent principles, light and darkness (or spirit and matter). The creation of the world was the outcome of an invasion on the realm of light by the forces of darkness, as a result of which elements of light were devoured by demons of darkness. Man, animals, and plants were conceived by demons in a desperate attempt to retain the particles of light they had swallowed.
The universe is a machinery set up by the deities of light to redeem the absorbed light and return it to its original abode. The light in man could be released, or his spirit saved, by a realization of his origin and of his place in the scheme of things through the teachings of an inspired leader. In practice, salvation can be achieved through abstinence, prayers, and worship. To attend to the business of the world would be to promote the scheme of the demons.
A strongly moralistic religion, with marked ascetic tendencies, Manichaeism forbids its elite (from whom the clergy is drawn) to marry, engage in trade, slaughter animals, or cut plants. The commoners (hearers), however, are reluctantly allowed to do so. Mani's cosmology reveals syncretic elements with a strong Gnostic bias. Several cycles of gods are postulated as emanating from the Father of Greatness, the supreme Lord of Light.
Mani seems to have begun his career by a journey to the easternmost provinces of Persia and Sind. He is reported to have attracted or converted Peroz and Mehrshah, two sons of Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanid dynasty. Upon Ardashir's death in 241, Mani returned to western Persia, where he found favor with Ardashir's successor, Shahpur I, to whom he dedicated one of his books, Shapurgan. During Shahpur's reign Mani engaged in intense missionary activities. Eventually, however, the opposition of the Zoroastrian priesthood enlisted the support of Bahram I, who ordered Mani arrested and fettered. He died in prison a martyr.
Mani left a number of books, treatises, and epistles, mostly in Syriac, among which were the Book of the Two Principles, The Book of Secrets, and The Living Gospel. Popular Persian beliefs regard him as an extraordinary painter and the author of Artang, a wonderfully illustrated work. Manichaean manuscripts were in fact written with calligraphic artistry and were often illustrated.
Selections of Manichaean writings are in A. V. Williams Jackson, Researches in Manichaeism (1932); Charles Allberry, A Manichaean Psalm-book, Part II (1938); and Mary Boyce, The Manichaean Hymn-cycles in Parthian (1954). The latest work on Mani in English is George Widengren, Mani and Manichaeism, translated by Charles Kessler, in the "History of Religion" Series (1965). See also F. C. Burkitt, The Religion of the Manichees (1925).