Islam is rarely critiqued by journalists because it can be dangerous to do so. This has been less true since September 11, 2001, because people are interested in Islam and are searching for answers.
However, it is still risky to write anything that may impugn Islam and especially the founder, Muhammad. This is one reason why I call Islam a cult. Muslims often treat opponents with something less than kindness as they seek to defend the honor of “Allah.”
What Is a Cult?
My working definition of a cult is non-theological. Traditionally, Christians apply the term to Bible-based groups that have departed significantly from the mainstream and historical creeds. Such cults frequently deny the full deity and humanity of Jesus; His atoning work on the cross; His bodily resurrection; and His return at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead.
However, here I employ a secular definition of a cult: “any group that uses psychological or sociological techniques to recruit, motivate, and retain adherents.”
Cults are not necessarily religious; they may be political, commercial, educational/therapeutic, or economic in nature. They may be large or small, named or unnamed, known or unknown.
Cults may have a leader or be without a leader. The common feature is the use of control mechanisms that violate the individuality of participants in the three areas stated above: recruitment, motivation, and retention.
Is Islam Cultic?
Many would deny that Islam has the characteristics of a cult. But why is Islam not a cult when in many Muslim-dominated countries it is a capital offense to hand Muslims a Bible or explain Christianity (or any other religion) to them?
Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s most holy shrines at Mecca and Medina, is a highly restricted society where Christians are not allowed any public expression of their faith.
Why is Islam not a cult when it is virtually impossible for a Muslim to leave the religion, even if he merely wishes to become an atheist or agnostic?
Why is Islam not a cult when Muslim warriors force their religion on people? The history of Islam is full of that kind of “proselytization.”
It is true that the Roman Catholic Church has in the past forced “pagans” to adopt Catholicism. However, that church has acknowledged that it was both wrong-headed and anti-Christian to do so and has terminated the practice.
As a Baptist, I can say that in 500 years of our history we have not engaged in such tactics and neither have any of the traditionally Evangelical, Protestant denominations.
A vivid illustration of the cultic nature of Islam is the case involving the novelist Salman Rushdie. Rushdie had a death contract issued against him for writing his book, The Satanic Verses and supposedly impugning the character of Muhammad. Yet novelists, journalists, commentators, filmmakers, and television producers routinely blaspheme Jesus of Christianity and the Creator God without reprisals made against them by Christians.
Of course, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie is blamed on “fundamentalists” and “extremists,” exonerating most Muslims who live in Western countries as peace-loving citizens. But the loyalty inculcated by Islam runs deeper than allegiance to any nation. Muslims will change political affiliations if needed, but their commitment to the defense of Islam easily becomes fanatical.
How insecure and weak must Islam be when Muslims threaten those who oppose it with violence rather than use reasoned defense. Such paranoid behavior renders Islam resistant to self-evaluation and exposes its internal deficiencies.
Biblical Christianity thrives in a free, pluralistic, and democratic society. It neither needs nor benefits from the support of a nation state. By contrast, Islamic control in many countries is totalitarian, dictatorial, and oppressive.
In countries ruled by Sharia Law, minor infractions may be punished by the loss of a hand, a foot, or life itself. Muslim women have been stoned to death for inadvertently exposing an ankle or forearm in public. The much-touted “mercy” of Islam is hard to detect.
Disillusionment with the religion simmers under the surface in Islamic societies. Many Muslim immigrants to Western countries, if not pressured by the local Muslim community to tow the line, either moderate or abandon Islam altogether. Others go through the religious motions, but their hearts are not in it.
The Cost of Defection
Today there is a “rallying to the cause,” as many Muslims believe the war against terrorism is between “Christian America” and Islam. But many Muslims would prefer to be free of such influences if they could. Of course, Muslim clerics in the West realize this and do not hesitate to isolate their constituents from non-Muslim influence. Isolation is a typical cultic mechanism—defections are treated most seriously.
In lands dominated by Islam, the rule is “once a Muslim, always a Muslim.” Like the Mafia, Islam is difficult to leave, and any who defect do so at a great price. Most cults ostracize defecting people, cutting them off from family, friends, and even employment. Muslims sometimes assassinate people who leave their religion. How very cultic!
Cults are dangerous—they control and manipulate those under their sway. Islamic leaders may issue a declaration (fatwa) or call for a holy war (jihad). Muslims are expected to obey these calls despite their individual feelings. As with the fatwa against Rushdie, Muslims remained under a theoretical obligation to kill him even though restrained from doing so by the law of the land.
If Islam were not so fractured into sects and splinter movements, the non-Muslim world would face a more serious enemy than it does today. Islam sanctions the murder of infidels and, of course, I am one, and so is anyone who is not a Muslim. It is no secret that Islam’s goal is world rule. This is not some right-wing conspiracy theory; it is the stated aim of Islam.
On the other hand, while Christians seek to share the Good News of Christ worldwide, they are not intent on forcing people to accept Christianity, much less eliminating those who reject the message.
Conversion to Christ is a spiritual process, not the recitation of a formula such as, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” Biblical Christianity is about grace, which is God’s gift of faith and forgiveness.
Christianity is grounded both in the sacrifice Jesus offered for sin on the cross, and upon His resurrection that declares that those for whom He died are “justified.” No one becomes a Christian on the basis of his or her works or actions. Rather, conversion is something God brings about. This is why the New Testament uses the term “new birth” to describe it (see John 3: 1-15). Humans do not control their physical birth, and with the new (spiritual) birth it is the same. Salvation is accomplished through God’s power, not man’s. No public or private declaration will ever make a Christian out of anyone.
Islam is classed with those religious groups that have “revised” Christianity. Some of these are The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In these groups, including Islam, Jesus is acknowledged and honored as a prophet. He may even be worshipped to some degree. Yet Jesus’ teachings are declared to be incomplete and outdated. They must therefore be replaced or superseded by the teachings of ________ (insert name of group or prophet).
The Christianity Muhammad knew in the sixth and seventh centuries in the Arabian Peninsula was far different from New Testament Christianity—which had radically deteriorated. Observing the deficiencies in Judaism and a degenerate Christianity, Muhammad replaced them with his own concepts. This is understandable. The result, however, is not an improvement; it is simply another failed revisionist effort.
It is patronizing, too, for Islam to say it respects Jesus as a prophet while denying or altering what He said about himself and what the New Testament writers said concerning Him. I am thinking of such Scriptures as John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-20 among many others. Of course, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do the same. Revisionist cults must downgrade Jesus so that the “new, improved prophet” (or “truth”) can be presented as a replacement.
If Jesus is God in the flesh—Emmanuel, as the Christian Scripture proclaims; and if Jesus is the Messiah prophesied by the great Hebrew prophets; and if Jesus is the only Lord and Savior who will return to judge the living and the dead, then it is impossible to replace him.
Revelation and Misunderstanding
The Qur’an declares that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is a revelation from God. But it then proceeds to reject the clear message of the Bible! If the Bible is accurate about Jesus, there is no need for the Qur’an or Muhammad.
So, was Muhammad using flattery or attempting to patronize Christians when he seemed to honor Jesus? Or did he simply not understand? Essentially, Muhammad rejected a Christianity vastly different from the teaching of the New Testament.
Another sign of a cult is the way it keeps its adherents in the dark about other faiths. I doubt whether Muslims today know much about the message of Jesus and His Gospel. They know only what they have been told by their religious teachers. How accurate would we expect this information to be considering that the Qur’an is their authority?
To make it even worse, there is a general misunderstanding of what Christianity is. One misconception, for example, is that the West is Christian and that America is a Christian nation. Obviously, all that goes by the name of Christian is not Christian. To grasp what is the true essence of Jesus’ teachings, we must examine the primary source, the Bible.
Christians reject the belief that Muhammad is the prophet of God. Christians reject the Qur’an as a revelation from God. At least this is an honest position, innocent of any effort to mislead, flatter, confuse, or patronize.
What about the Crusades?
Muslims often ask, “What about the Crusades?” The intention of this question is often to deflect attention from the violence and oppression displayed by Muslims worldwide in the name of Allah.
Yes, there were the Crusades, and historians debate the complex tangle of religion and politics that gave rise to them. The Church of that era did not always pursue a true Christian and Biblical agenda. And this same authoritarian organization persecuted Jews and Protestants also. This same medieval church persecuted to the death those who believed the truths that I, as a Christian today, hold precious.
Is it therefore accurate for Muslims to blame all that goes by the name Christian for the Crusades? Would it not be fairer and wiser to discriminate amongst Christians? After all, most people do not blame all Muslims for the actions of some extremists.
Women in Islam
Another cultic aspect of Islam is the oppression of women in countries under Islamic rule. It is shocking, deviant, and evil.
Why is this frightful treatment tolerated? Why is there such an exaggerated fear and mistrust of women? Islamic spokesmen say the women are merely being protected. The women themselves generally resent their treatment and lowly status, but are seemingly powerless to bring about change.
The plight of young men and women in Islamic countries is sad indeed. Their isolation from one another distorts normal social relationships between the sexes. Wealthy (and usually older) men can have four wives and as many concubines as they can afford, while younger, poorer men, are deprived. This deplorable situation stems directly from the nature and traditions of Islam itself as well as the tribal culture from which it sprang.
Women are denied education in countries ruled by strict Sharia law. Why? Is it to keep women in their place? Why must women cover themselves so that not even an ankle can be seen in public? These are twisted gender mores.
Moderate Muslims claim that these practices are only enforced by extremists. The “extremists” claim they are only interpreting Islam in the purest manner possible! Who is right?
Fruit of Islam
Islamic political control has prevented social progress and economic development. For example, does anyone own a car made in an Islamic country? How about a television set, a computer, an alarm clock, an airplane, or a boat? Why are many Islamic countries among the poorest in the world even while their oil reserves are vast?
Where do wealthy Muslims send their young people to be educated? To Western countries, for the most part, since those countries freely entertain examination of all points of view for the widest number of topics using the latest discoveries and thinking.
The cultic nature of Islam prevents Muslim-dominated countries from developing middle class wealth, which would require an ever-increasing importation of Western ways, and this is feared and condemned by Muslim clerics. The shot callers in Islam fear the rise of a middle class.
Muslims have undoubtedly contributed to the world’s storehouse of achievements. But if we look at the Islamic nations today, we see they are something less than wonderful. Except for Afghan refugees trying to enter Pakistan, I haven’t read about people lining up at their borders waiting to get in. Islam is sometimes described as the “beautiful religion,” but where can this beauty be seen? What Islamic country practices Islam in such a way that someone might be motivated to move there?
It is one thing for Muslim leaders to disown the September 11 terrorists as extremists. It is another to demonstrate peaceful moderation and tolerance.
Please understand I am not saying that Muslim people are not as capable, intelligent, and worthy as any other people. Rather, it is the toxic and repressive nature of recruitment, retention, and motivation that is cultic.
Muslims are born into a religious heritage they did not choose and cannot walk away from. They are molded by their environment into dedicated Muslims; there is essentially no choice available for them—they are stuck.
The Major Difference
Islam is a religion based on performance, whereas Biblical Christianity is grounded on God’s grace. The Islamic deity rewards obedience. Muslim heaven, or paradise, must be earned, either by martyrdom or by carefully keeping rules and regulations.
And since Allah is depicted as remote and detached from the individual Muslim, there is no assurance of salvation nor any confidence that even the faithful Muslim will achieve paradise.
Works-based religion can and does inspire fear and extremism in those who take it seriously. It is not surprising that some go to extremes to curry the favor of the deity and their religious leaders, especially when a favorable eternity is at stake.
The Qur’an assures martyrs that they will attain paradise, and it is this very promise that attracts and motivates suicide bombers, including those who turned commercial airliners into missiles on September 11. Since that day, the Qur’anic command to “strike terror into the heart” of the infidel has been obeyed more and more often by young men and women recruited by watching on the Internet horrific violence against innocent civilians in dozens of filmed executions and other gruesome attacks.
Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes grace, which signifies “God’s giving”. Through Jesus Christ, God imparts forgiveness and salvation as a free gift, apart from any good work. Salvation is by grace, not by works (Ephesians 2:4-10). Even extreme devotion, sacrifice, and obedience will never secure God’s favor.
Furthermore, Christians have assurance of salvation by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, so they are not left in doubt and insecurity (Romans 8:15-17). Everlasting life with God in heaven is given to the Christian through the work of God the Son. It cannot be lost, since God the Father keeps the believer by His great power (John 10:27-30).
Cults employ mind-bending techniques to induce their followers to be obedient—this has long been understood.
What about the mind-boggling promise of seventy-two virgins available for the pleasures of every martyred Islamic warrior? This is as extreme an example as can be found even in the strangest cult sects!
Certainly, for poor, young, love-starved men, whose future is clouded at best, the promise of unlimited fleshly pleasure in the hereafter might be an inducement to die for the sake of Allah. But is this obscene and sexist doctrine true? Moderate Islamic interpreters say no; the sexually oriented promises are unfounded. Yet, this perverse promise is constantly embraced. Many a mind-bent warrior has killed and died to acquire his virgins.
Harassment of Muslims is unacceptable, and this essay is not an attempt to bring grief to Muslim people.
However, I would challenge Muslims to examine their religion—indeed, their hearts and minds, and ask themselves these questions:
Why am I a Muslim? Is my commitment to Islam based on a free decision apart from family influences?
What is my attitude towards those of other religions, particularly Jews and Christians?
Are my attitudes cultic in any way?
Do I honestly think that killing Jews and Christians serves Allah?
Do I believe it is a Muslim’s duty to defend Islam by martyrdom or suicide?
Should I support religious tolerance for people of other faiths in Muslim-dominated countries like Saudi Arabia?
Many Muslims are seekers after God, and this is good. The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah wrote: “You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Whether Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, nominal Christian, or nothing at all—the challenge is to seek God because He can be found. Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Regardless of our religious background, we are created in the image of God. We have been made by and for Him, and we will never be satisfied until we know Him personally. The Creator God sent His Son, Jesus, to break down the walls of separation between men and reconcile all kinds of people to Himself (Ephesians 2:14-18).
The challenge is to make up your own mind about Jesus Christ. Learn about Him yourself and do not merely accept the opinions of others.
Find a New Testament, read the story of His life, and see if you find anything amiss with Him. Is there any sin, or anything false, in the one who came from God? Find an Old Testament and read the prophecies of the Messiah (which is Hebrew for “Christ”), passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. Are these passages not about Jesus?
If you seek Him, He will be found.