Manichaeism (/ˌmænɪˈkɪzəm/;[1] in New Persian آیین مانی Āyīn Mānī; Chinese: 摩尼教; pinyin: Jiào) was a major religion[2] founded in the 3rd century AD by the Parthian[3] prophet Mani (c.216–274 AD), in the Sasanian Empire.[4]

Portrait of a Persian Manichaean
Image of a Manichaean temple with stars and seven firmaments
Line drawing copy of two frescoes from cave 38B at Bezeklik Grottoes.

Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.[5] Through an ongoing process that takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light, whence it came. Its beliefs were based on local Mesopotamian religious movements and Gnosticism.[6] It revered Mani as the final prophet after Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, and Jesus.

Manichaeism was quickly successful and spread far through the Aramaic-speaking regions.[7] It thrived between the third and seventh centuries, and at its height was one of the most widespread religions in the world. Manichaean churches and scriptures existed as far east as China and as far west as the Roman Empire.[8] It was briefly the main rival to Christianity before the spread of Islam in the competition to replace classical paganism. Beginning with the pagan emperor Diocletian, Manichaeism was persecuted by the Roman state and was eventually stamped out of the Roman Empire. Manichaeism survived longer in the east than in the west, and it appears to have finally faded away after the 14th century in south China,[9] contemporary to the decline of the Church of the East in Ming China. Even still, there is a growing corpus of evidence that some form of Manichaeism may persist in some areas of China, though these reports are often contradictory and more research is needed before definitively stating that Manichaeism is extant to the modern day. While most of Manichaeism's original writings have been lost, numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived.[10]

An adherent of Manichaeism was called a Manichaean or Manichean, or Manichee, especially in older sources.[11][12]