Islamic Studies

Signs you might be in a cult

By Tariq Nelson

Originally published on Tariq Nelson’s Blog

After looking at some of the comments here, I felt compelled to post a few signs of a cult that I have found in various places. Keep in mind that a cult does not have to be the type that lives in a compound. It is a state of mind. I took a few of them for you all to judge in light of some Muslim movements here in the US and their relationship to other Muslims and the society in general:

Isolation from society:

Like I said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to be living on a compound with all other sect members and waiting for the end of the world. However, one of the defining marks of a cult is to control the surroundings of the members. This makes it easier to control their minds. They are constantly warned of the dangers of being away from the other sect members at all possible times. (Note: This is different from keeping good company)

They absolutely cannot be friends with or have contact with a person outside of the sect unless they are recruiting that person into the sect and are endlessly told of the dangers of doing such a thing.

They are warned of the dangers of getting a secular education (lest they be corrupted) told to avoid critical thinking, and to embrace groupthink. Any books, lectures, etc outside of those specifically approved by the movement leadership must be avoided at all costs. This way, information can be spoon fed to the members very carefully.


The world is presented in stark black and white terms and there are no shades of gray. There is no compromise. Members are made to feel guilty for doing things that any other normal human being would do, such as mixing with people that are not in their cult. So the constant goal becomes to spend as much time around other members as possible. Even if one has to quit a job to do so.

Everyone in the sect is good. Everyone else is evil. There is no in-between. Complex issues are made into very simple ones. Because they have been trained to see only in black and white, members of cults are very hard to reason with since they have trouble understanding complex real life issues.

All people and things outside of their bubble are evil – and thus avoided – while the sect, its members and everything associated with it is good. The more one can immerse themselves into the cult the more righteous the person is in the eyes of the other cult members.

Loaded Language

The use of thought-terminating cliches, catch phrases or words that are designed to end a conversation or controversy. Some of the more popular ones where Muslims are concerned are “Khalifah”, “the ulamaa”, “the haqq”, “Islam is the answer”, “Qur’an and Sunnah” etc. Phrases that when invoked can’t be questioned. It is sad sometimes because even ayat and hadith have been misused in this manner. People in cults speak almost entirely in these kind of cliches.


Thought I’d never see this amongst Muslims, but one particular cult made it their hallmark to make their members do a form of what can be called “confession” in front of the other members in order to express their loyalty to the cult and disavowal to everything else.

I knew that members of cults other religions were known to use this tactic and make their members confess their sins before each other, but I was surprised when I saw it appear amongst a Muslim sect that I can only say now was a cult. This creates an environment of fear and leads to more control over the members. They can also be berated with the thought terminating cliches.

Exaggerated claims

Cults tend to engage in religious hairsplitting. There is no room for disagreement even on small issues where noone is necessarily wrong. Typically small issues are lifted into sacredness and can not be called into question. Also an exaggerated reverence for the leadership is demanded. This makes name droppers raise in status within the cult.


I mentioned this earlier, and there is some overlap with Isolationism, but I wanted to add that common sense is thrown out the window and seen as hostile to the cult. One’s personality must be purged and made to conform to a group template that is usually pretentious. All forms of individuality must be de-emphasized.


Former members of cults often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

Denial of Problems

Because they associate perfection with their cult, there cannot possibly be any mistakes or bad advice given, so they deny and/or bury the problems at all costs. Remember, cult members are trained to see only in black and white terms and getting them to admit to problems is like pulling teeth.

If you see these signs, you just might be in a cult.

UPDATE: Hood has done a more in depth analysis of this.


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  • I would add; staunch overtures to a “golden era” and a prestine time gone by. A very sentimental attachment to a snap-shot in time.

    I find this to be a characteristic of many groups. A sort of tight clinched attachment to times gone by and the need to shape todays reality to those “golden” times without regard to relevance, context and continuity.

    wa Allahu `Alim

  • Personally, I don’t really like the concept of “cult” because it I think it is really easy to abuse. Also, in terms of Islam, I wonder how Sufism interacts with the concept of “cult”. What I mean is, suppose Shaykh So-and-so *actually* is one of the ulema and the awliya and is really charismatic. Wouldn’t that person’s followers look like a cult?!?

  • When you know, when you’re in a cult:

    1) You can’t get out or remember how to get out.


    2) Communications can’t be trusted

    3) Someone had a hard time getting along with others and tries to force co crutch dependence

    On the positive side, if like me, you are still here, Thank God The Almighty.

    Peace and Gods Blessings to all.


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