Mani: Mesopotamian Mystic and His Cry for Tolerance

Najat Rahman

The Gardens of Light

By Amin Maalouf, translated by Dorothy S. Blair

Interlink Books, 2000.

Amin Maalouf’s “The Gardens of Light” is the first American edition of the novel, recently translated from the French by Dorothy S. Blair and published by Interlink Books. Maalouf, who won the Prix Goncourt in 1993 for his novel “The Rock of Tanios,” poignantly relates in this, his fifth novel, the life story of Mani, a Mesopotamian mystic. Mani emerged in the third century to proclaim “The Gospels of Light,” a mixture of Gnostic Christian beliefs, ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and pagan elements, which formed a faith that came to be called Manichaeism. While Mani attracted a vast following for his pluralistic faith of tolerance, he also faced vehement resistance from the high priests of Zoroastrianism and was ultimately imprisoned, tortured and killed.

This narrative seeks to echo his cry for tolerance. Maalouf’s novel tells of Mani’s childhood among a severe sect of “White-Clad Brethren,” a community of deprivation in which “any generous action seemed tainted with pride.” Maalouf recounts how Mani’s father “subjected his son and all his family to a pious aberration.” After tracing Mani’s life from birth and communal “gestation” to his journeys to deliver the celestial message of tolerance that emanates from an inner voice, Maalouf then turns to Mani’s close ties with the King of the Sassanian Dynasty and to the spread of Mani’s beliefs and his growing number of followers. Maalouf finishes with the persecution of Mani’s followers and the eventual threat to his message. 

Maalouf suggests that Mani’s death was the beginning of the disfigurement and subsequent erasure of his legacy. Through the entire story, the narrator seeks to learn why Mani was so dangerous that it was necessary to drive him even out of our memories. This question is directed as much to the present religious intolerance as to the past. Maalouf finds Mani’s long-ago words just as timely and subversive: “Was it not he who taught his disciples, ‘Be a traitor to the Empire if need be, and rebel against the decrees of Heaven, but be faithful to yourself, to the Light within you, that fragment of wisdom and divinity.’”

Unlike his father, “incorrigible Patek,” who in his search for truth abided by every system of belief he encountered, “always following the worst paths for the best reasons in the world,” Mani questioned all religions: “I sometimes wonder if it is not the Prince of Darkness who inspires religions, with the sole aim of distorting the image of God!” The narrator would have liked to hold on to this questioning, but struggled with it. His own endeavor became one of ascribing a rigid morality to a critical and dynamic vision in the interest of warding off effacement: “A hierarchy of deprivation and inspiration, to the exclusion of all other merit, such was the church as conceived by Mani, and as such it should have survived.” 

One does not have to wonder too long about what compelled a writer at the end of the second millennia to turn toward the beginning of the first. Maalouf continuously looks towards the past without losing sight of his present. His attention to history and the attempt through fiction to “bring to life” that which is in danger of disappearing or being distorted are common elements in all of his works. Since Mani is most visible through his disappearance, ambiguity still shrouds his figure in Maalouf’s work. Rather than restoring Mani to life, the author hopes to capture a glimpse of him, and in doing so point to a moment of possibility for a different way of thinking about identity and of looking at faith. 

Maalouf wants to imagine differently: “To live cheek by jowl with the founder of a belief without his seeking to impose his convictions – such a thing was only credible because his god was not looking for worshipers.” Maalouf also wants to show how religions reflect existing social and political structures, and that Mani’s new concept was conscious of this, hence the leveling of power relations predicated on social divisions: “The same divine spark is in us all. It belongs to no race, no caste; it is neither male nor female. Each person must nourish it with beauty and knowledge, that is the way it can flourish.”

The narrator, however, recognized a paradoxical necessity of betrayal for a vision to survive: “It is by discreet compromises on the part of the masters, it is by the disciples’ betrayals, that doctrines survive and prosper amid the world and its princes.” One cannot but ask if Maalouf is such a disciple.

A conscious symbol in the narrative is the image of a river that travels only “one-way.” To capture a glimpse of Mani is to go upstream an “untamed Tigris.” However, we are told that the river changes and becomes “so meek” upon reaching the city; perhaps so does Maalouf’s novel as it draws to a close and becomes increasingly didactic. The writer progressively moves from Mani’s resistance to systematization, a result of Maalouf’s desire for a structured and moralizing narrative. The author’s general lack of faith in his readers, as evinced by his penchant for adding commentary and interpreting what he narrates, is perhaps understandable, given how religious texts are read and the all-too-real impact of their misreading. Still, he risks becoming controlling like Sittaïï, leader of the White-Clad Brethren. This quibble aside, the book remains nonetheless a compelling and important work.


This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 5, no. 29, Fall 1999).
Copyright (c) 1999 by Al Jadid