What makes a cult?

Recently there has been some discussion on DeenPort on what constitutes a cult, and when a religion becomes a cult. Someone offered the definition that, among Muslims, when one is in a particular group it’s a tariqa, while when one gets dissatisfied with it and leaves, it’s a cult. Another suggested that we should judge it by “whether Allah takes offense to it … if there are actual violations of the Shariah, or in its absence, broken societal laws regarding physical and mental abuse going on, you have a cult”. I’m not entirely convinced by the notion that a group must necessarily be abusive or break laws to be a cult. There are certain characteristics of cults, both classically and in modern terms, and not all the groups denounced as cults actually meet either group of criteria.

Historically, a cult was a religious movement, whether inside or outside a wider religion, that was focussed on one thing or person — a shrine, relics or a saint or real or supposed prophet. The devotion to the Virgin Mary (‘alaiha as-salaam) in Catholicism is often referred to as a cult (and Catholicism’s enemies often call the entire religion the “cult of Mary”) and sometimes Christians themselves call their religion the “cult of Christ”. One well-known example of a cult in Christianity originated in England, where a young boy was found in the Jewish quarter of Lincoln and a myth originated that he had been killed for ritual purposes and that his blood had been consumed by the local Jewish population. It’s most likely that he was murdered by a sex maniac of some kind, but a cult grew up around him (eventually suppressed by the Catholic church) based on the myth, which perpetuated in Europe for centuries after.

The groups we call cults nowadays are closed religious movements, which again may or may not claim to be associated with a major religion. Their characteristics include an excessive devotion to the leadership, with members expected to entirely suspend their judgement in favour of that of the leader or leaders, regardless of whether they would previously have regarded the leader’s demands as immoral or abusive. Another common feature is the separation of the members from their families, sometimes to the point that they are forbidden from even speaking to them, or to anyone in the outside world. It’s worth pointing out that no major religion does this. Some, but by no means all, modern cults engage in sexually abusive practices, such as claiming all the women in the group for the pleasure of the leaders. Again, no major religion does this.

The reason it came up probably has to do with discussion about certain Muslim groups, particularly Sufi-oriented ones, at least one of which has been called a cult on certain blogs in recent years. Having been a member of one of them for a number of years, I firmly reject the suggestion that it’s a cult, as they do not separate themselves from the community — the vast majority live in major cities, have spouses and other family members who aren’t members, freely mingle with those not in the group, and take religious knowledge from people outside the group with the encouragement of the leadership. No cult in the modern-day sense would allow its members to do the last of these in particular. Regardless of the atmosphere which has been said to prevail at the group’s centre, people have left, and removed their children as well, without coming to physical harm.

It was suggested in the discussion at DeenPort that Islam in its early phase could be called a cult by modern standards: “Extreme devotion to the leader (sal Allahu alaihi wasallam), family strife, radical lifestyle changes, certainty of the nearness of end times… I could go on, but you get the picture”. However, even then, Muslims were not encouraged to forsake their families, with the exception of wives whose husbands refused to become Muslim (and even then, not right from the beginning). Under the treaty of Hudaibiyya, the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) even sent back men who emigrated from Makkah to Madinah without the permission of their guardian, although women were eventually exempted. The lifestyle changes for the early, Arabic-speaking believers were nothing like as radical as those required of converts from a western background today, and the earlier someone became Muslim, the less radical and more gradual the changes were. The “certainty of the nearness of end times” is shared with a number of Christian denominations, not just cults, and there was no question of sitting out in the desert or up on a mountain waiting for it. And while some men of the Ansaar in Madinah who had two or more wives gave up one of them so that men coming from Makkah could have one, there were none of the depredations associated with cults of today, or even the more controversial Muslim groups — no prevailing on men to divorce wives for the sake of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or those close to him, no dumping of large groups of young men outside the city gates, and certainly no claiming of any rights over all women in the community.

So, Islam never was a cult, not least because although there was a heavy focus on the character and person of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), he made it clear that he was an intermediary and that he called to the worship of One God and not of himself. As for other groups, inside and outside of Islam, people do have a tendency to call any group a cult if they find something distasteful going on in the leadership or they dislike some aspect of its beliefs or its behaviour. But I would not call any group a cult unless it had the distinctive characteristics I mentioned earlier in this entry, and not even every group with plainly false beliefs, a plainly corrupt leadership or both has these features.

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