The word cult has a pejorative connotation in the dominant, secular society. It is often used with the purpose of conveying a sense of contempt for any religious doctrine or practice that challenges or potentially poses a challenge to that dominant, secular society and its core values. As long as a religious doctrine or practice is inconsequential to the continued dominance of the secular order, it would never be described as a cult. For example, innocuous mainline Christian churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, or the established Protestant churches like the Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc., would never be considered cults. But there are those other, usually much smaller, Christian churches whose practices such as snake-handling, faith-healing, communal living, polygamy or rejection of modern technology, are often considered the textbook definition of a cult. Apart from Christianity, every major world religious tradition has examples of these kinds of cults. Consider the Lev Tahor sect of orthodox Judaism, or even the broader Haredi community of which the Lev Tahor are an offshoot. The Haredi, or “ultra-orthodox” Jews, are sometimes considered “cult-like” because of their lifestyle and rejection of or at least distance from the modern, secular world. Cults are usually characterized by excessive and irrational devotion to a spiritual guide. The common feeling in the mainstream, secular society, is that cult leaders exploit the naivety and blind-faith of their followers for their own profit and gain. Cults also discourage social interaction between those inside with those outside the group. Practices such as abstinence, dietary restrictions, dress codes and a strict system of enforcement, are viewed as ways through which a cult controls its members. Modern, secular society values individualism and freedom. A cult represents almost everything the modern secular world abhors. The state particularly seeks to prevent the proliferation of a cult by enacting laws in the name of protecting women and children from domestic “abuse”. The main religions are already considered inherently “patriarchal” in feminist discourse, but cults even more so. State prosecutors actively seek to destroy “cults” by going after their leaders and members, accusing them of domestic abuse.
Now the bottom line, from the perspective of this blog, is whether or not the religion of Islam fits the definition or at least exhibits some of the essential characteristics of a cult. If the answer to this question is an affirmative one, would it, theoretically, be right to refer to Islam as a cult, given that it is a pejorative term, generally speaking? Before we explore whether Islam is a cult, the fact that cults are viewed negatively or that the word itself carries a pejorative connotation, should not be an obstacle to refer to our religion as a cult if it technically qualifies as one. The Prophet Muhammad sall Allahu alayhi wa-Aalihi wasallam said:
بَدَأَ الإِسْلاَمُ غَرِيبًا وَسَيَعُودُ كَمَا بَدَأَ غَرِيبًا فَطُوبَى لِلْغُرَبَاءِ
“Islam began as something strange and shall return to being something strange as it began, so glad-tidings for the Strangers.” (Sahih Muslim)
Being gharib (strange) refers of course to the broader society’s perception of Islam, in other words, whether or not Islam is a cult, it will certainly be considered one by the secular world. Islam certainly does stand out in the galaxy of religions. The exceptionalism of Islam is the reason why world powers and other states with considerable Muslim populations are struggling with policies and issues relating to supression of Islam in a way that is unimaginable with any other religion. One of the definitions of a cult: “a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.” Going by this particular definition, Islam as a whole or the Muslim Umma as a whole does not qualify as a cult. However, there may be particular sects or orders within the world of Islam which may fit this definition. The Hadith regarding the Ghuraba, Muslims of the latter days who are set apart from the broader Umma because of their sticking to the Prophet’s Sunna, may indeed fit the definition of a cult, since the broader society regard them as “false, unorthodox, extremist”, though they may not necessarily have a single “charismatic leader” to direct that as is often the case in cults which come to mind when one ponders the term.