THE phenomenon of cults exists in most religions and has been the focus of much academic research; however, its classification is negligible in our society. When we hear stories of religious exploitation of the vulnerable then what we are mostly likely witnessing is cult phenomenon.
While there are genuine religious guides who offer a transparent exposition of faith and are regarded accordingly in the mainstream, cult leaders comprise charismatic individuals outside the mainstream who claim to uniquely possess ‘special knowledge’ and who use deceptive methods to develop their following.
A deliberate concealment of core beliefs until one is very deep inside the group and a staunch mind-controlling environment that alters reality distinguishes cults from mainstream religion. Once someone joins a cult, then it profoundly affects his or her relationships with family and friends, for then one’s existence is meant for the group.
Cult leaders comprise charismatic individuals.
Cult leaders are adept at manipulation. Reluctant to appear on camera (other than their own), they are adorned not only in a pious garb, but also employ dramatic stage persona. They enthral audiences, and once the show is over they return to their true selves backstage. Unknown to many, their hawks keep a watchful eye on visitors.
Their ideal prey includes the wealthy and well-connected who are religiously not that well-versed. Spoiled youngsters are perfect clientele, as are middle-aged women who may be having problems at home. Youngsters from dysfunctional families and those who have suffered personal bereavement are particularly vulnerable to cult recruitment. Membership recruitment is carried out through misleading advertisements and by word of mouth, as well as the internet, to lure individuals to an indoctrination session disguised as a religious (lecture).
Endorsement from celebrities is also a common marketing ploy. High-ranking officials are prized possessions as followers, because when the time is right their influence will be put to use. The cult always has two sets of teachings — one for the public, and one for the private. Disclosures about ‘special’ knowledge are gradual.
Phobia indoctrination instils the belief that a calamity will befall one if one becomes a turncoat and acts as a strong retainer. Any record of ‘special’ beliefs is avoided and any earlier versions with lacunae are silently withdrawn from circulation. Many local cults should not be seen as registered bodies with audited accounts, but ones which operate out of private residences. In the confines of private homes, members are gradually introduced to supposedly esoteric interpretations and an elitist mindset which paints everything in black and white.
Those inside the group are the ‘saved’ while all those on the outside are the ‘damned’ is the ever-prevailing mindset in an environment where debate is stifled. Critical voices are deliberately suppressed and those expressing them are gradually shown the door. Former members are shunned and existing members are discouraged from keeping any contact with them.
However, fortunately there are numerous Quranic guidelines that prevent us from falling into the trap of cults. They caution: “...There is among them a section who distort the Book with their tongues. You would think it is a part of the Book, but it is no part of the Book; and they say, ‘That is from Allah’, but it is not from Allah. ...” (3:78) alerts us to the presence of deceivers.
Also, the phrase ‘Yasalunaka’ literally ‘They question thee’ — replete in the Quran — proves that the Prophet (PBUH) never discouraged questions. Reason is never to be suspended because “...We have certainly made clear to you the signs, if you will use reason” (3:118).
We are also warned about blind following in the Holy Book as the Day of Judgement will be: “When those who have been followed disassociate themselves from those who followed [them], and they [all] see the punishment. ...” (2:166). No mortal is beyond accountability as “Then We will surely question those to whom [a message] was sent, and We will surely question the messengers” (7:6) while coercion in all forms is ruled out because “There is no compulsion in religion. ...” (2:256).
Moreover, there are to be no secret teachings because “...Those who hide our revelations and guidance after We have made them clear for people in the Book, they are those on whom is the curse of Allah. ...” (2:159). Those with financial ambitions are immediately disqualified because one is to “Follow those who do not ask of you [any] payment, and they are [rightly] guided” (36:21).Instead of believing everything that ‘religious’ personalities tell them, Muslims owe it to themselves to study the Quran.
People should conduct thorough enquiries about religious solicitations aimed at them, being on the lookout for the distinguishing features of cults.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.
Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2016