Muslim parents, do your best to raise your children lovingly, observantly, attentively. Connect in a real way with each child and make them feel understood and accepted. Nothing is more important.
This is one of the biggest takeaways I got from my conversation with a woman who used to be in a cult.
Cults, like wolves, lie in wait for the vulnerable.
The talk with this Muslim woman was among the saddest and most chilling conversations I’ve had in a long time. She had accidentally joined several different thought-cults as a young adult all throughout her twenties, but she deliberately joined an actual cult for almost a year. She was reflecting on that bizarre experience with me, how she got in and how she got out.
It happened about four years ago in Boston. She was working in the city, having stayed there after graduating from undergrad at a liberal arts university. She didn’t particularly like her basic office job, but it paid the rent and covered bills. She was barely getting by.
Her family lived in New York but she wanted nothing to do with them. They were a practicing Muslim immigrant family from the Middle East, with two parents, and four siblings. She had always been a sensitive child who was deeply embedded in her emotions with an adventurous personality. The parenting style of her well-meaning parents proved too abrasive for her highly sensitive nature, though they had no idea. She thought of her entire childhood and adolescence as one long episode of abuse. Her parents were worried about her living by herself in a different city and different state, but she was an adult now and there was little they could do. In Boston, she’d replaced her family with a mixed group of liberal, secular, atheist, and fiercely feminist friends (plus one trans). These were “her people” now.
She had long ago learned to associate Islam with her overbearing parents, so she had thrown the baby out with the bathwater back in college. She had PTSD from memories of her parents having her memorize a juz or two of the Quran growing up, so she specifically didn’t like the Quran as an adult. She had taken her hijab off toward the end of college, shedding the last visible vestige of Islam as she had shed her family and what she perceived as their abuse.
So here she was, a young Arab woman of twenty-six, lost, wandering, searching. Alone in the world. Emotionally hurting, sexually promiscuous, spiritually bereft, and physically ill (the mind-body connection is shockingly strong). She was parent-less, childless, single. She was trying to achieve the fantasy sold to women in the secular west: you only live once so live it up, if you’ve got it flaunt it, and don’t let anybody hold you back from doing whatever you want. Especially not your family, never your parents. You’re a strong, empowered, independent woman!
So she was a confused, restless soul, ready for a cult to find her. She was standing in line one day at an ice cream store and a woman there struck up a conversation with her, seeming friendly and kind. She opened with a question about art and history, which piqued her interest. She asked her tons of questions about herself and seemed fascinated with her answers, which encouraged the girl to open up more and more. They exchanged phone numbers and promised to grab coffee sometime.
A few days later, she gets a text from the fun stranger she’d met at the ice cream place. Sherry. “Do you want to grab a latte and hang out?”
Sure, why not? She had nothing better to do, really. She hated her meaningless job and was distant from any family and was generally lonely. Meeting up sounded good.
They began meeting regularly, once or twice a week. Sherry was an excellent listener, holding eye contact and nodding her head with understanding and no judgment as the woman talked and talked, unburdening herself to a person willing to listen. She’d never really had that before. This was akin to a form of therapy.
One day while they were hanging out, Sherry mentioned that she wanted to introduce her to “a group of like-minded friends.” They met weekly to discuss philosophical topics and deep questions about life and the universe and learn from one another in safe, meaningful discussion. Would she like to join?
Again, why not? She had grown tired of the mundane nature of her dead-end 9-to-5 job and was swimming in loneliness and was growing cynical. She was, by now, tired of chasing happiness at the club or at the bottom of the wine goblet or in the arms of a strange man. It was always either temporary or didn’t even materialize, that happiness she sought. Maybe these people Sherry spoke of were the solution.
She started going to the weekly meetings and at first, she liked it. The first five weeks were free and the discussion was rich and exciting. The teacher, who led the discussion, spoke of philosophy and religion and peppered his speech with impressive quotes from long-dead figures. These quotes often spoke to her, the topics tied often to her miserable existence. These connections between abstract concepts and concrete realities helped lend her life some meaning. There were many esoteric ideas preached: Each person is really just “an essence,” from another world and here only for a short time. This world was only temporary and not meant to be our home. You have to be part of a larger group to survive. Her constant feelings of frustration, anxiety, and lack of belonging now made some sense. Finally, there was an explanation. These people understood her.
But slowly, her feelings about this “school” (what they called themselves”) began to change. It was outrageously expensive after the first free five weeks. She was forking over $250 a month to attend, and that was the decreased price for those members who couldn’t afford the actual price of $350 a month. She began to notice that the teacher only ever quoted statements from white European thinkers. The whole thing had a vaguely Judeo-Christian vibe mixed with a sprinkling of some Satanist stuff which she found offputting. It was also sexist and misogynistic to her because the teacher was a white man and he seemed to pay more attention to other men than to the women.
Then there was the extreme emphasis put on secrecy. They called it “privacy” and it was of utmost importance. It made her uneasy after a while. The teacher would always repeat, “Remember, don’t share what we talk about here with anyone else! Don’t tell others that you are part of this school; they wouldn’t understand. You are special and others just wouldn’t get it. Tell your family that this is a book club. This is for our privacy…”
When they were given assignments to put on a Christmas party, a Halloween party, and buy gifts for the teacher, she started to feel suspicious. She was paying for a lot more than what she was getting and she finally reached her threshold. She decided to leave “school.”
Later, she happened to run into a couple of guys who had also been members with her. They’d left “school” too, a few months after she had. “Why?” she asked them curiously.
“It’s a cult,” one of the men said. “It’s called the Fourth Way, and it was started by some actress in Hollywood originally. They opened some chapters in New York and Boston. They basically raise money for real estate and even physically build her different houses. Free labor.”
The other guy added, “They specifically target people who are in a transition stage of their lives. Vulnerable people with trauma or without family. People who are questioning, searching, lost, and looking for direction. They “recruit” these wandering souls and rope them into the cult. Easy prey.”
She realized that all that had been true for her too. She’d been incredibly easy prey. Just waiting for someone to come along to recruit her into a cult. By offering the things she’d dreamed of but never had before: understanding, validation, genuine connection, and guidance and meaning, and purpose in life.
Islam is the only Truth. It offers human beings actual guidance and meaning and purpose, lighting up the darknesses that many people live in. But she had assumed that Islam had nothing to offer her and went searching elsewhere. Her parents had not taught her Islam in a way that she had ever understood or internalized.
And this lack of Islamic understanding had led her down a path paving the way for various cults. There are many different types of cults in today’s world. Thought-cults like feminism, a cult that offers sisterhood and preaches misandry. Or the LGBTQ+ cult, offering “freedom” and excitement and preaching total inversion. Or the atheist or agnostic cult, preaching hedonism and satanic self-worship. These are all covert cults of which many modern people are devout members.
Then there are overt cults that deliberately target the mentally and emotionally and spiritually weak and vulnerable. They pounce on their hapless, trusting prey and extract as much money and loyalty as possible, in return offering a mixed salad of faux-spirituality and feel-good affirmations about self-love and having a higher purpose. They dangle in front of their adherents things they’ve always craved: insight on life and its meaning, love and belonging, understanding and acceptance.
Parents, try to really understand your children. Be attuned to their personalities and moods, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and observe their actions and reactions. Try to meet the unique needs of each of your children–what each particular child of yours needs from you may differ drastically from what his sibling needs.
Most of all, instill love in their young hearts from a young age. Love for Allah, for His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم , for Islam. Inculcate attachment to the deen in your child, basing the exact method on the particular needs of each child. The end result is that you want your child to be surrounded by a loving family and firmly grounded in the deen, with true understanding and genuine love for it in the heart.
A child raised in the cold, secular west who lacks this firm grounding in Islam and familial love, when crossing paths with the wolves that are the modern-days thought-cults and faux-spirituality cults, is a sitting duck.
Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said in a hadith told by Abu Ad-Dardaa,
…إنما يأكل الذئب من الغنم القاصية الشاردة…
“…Certainly, the wolf only eats of the sheep the stray one…” [Ahmad]
In another hadith narrated by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, we find:
عن عمر بن الخطاب رضي الله عنه أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: «مَنْ أَحَبَّ مِنْكُمْ أَنْ يَنَالَ بُحْبُوحَةَ الْجَنَّةِ، فَلْيَلْزَمُ الْجَمَاعَةَ، فَإِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ مَعَ الْوَاحِدِ، وَهُوَ مِنَ الِاثْنَيْنِ أَبْعَدُ.» [رواه أحمد والترمذي وقال: حسن صحيح.]
Umar رضي الله عنه said that Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Whoever among you would like to attain the best place in Paradise, let him adhere to the jama’ah (the main body of Muslims), for the Shaitan is with one and he is further away from two…” [Musnad Ahmad]