The Sunday Vanguard of 6 July 1997 had a story on the dumping of corpses on our streets and public places, and how accustomed and insensitive people have become to the phenomenon. Most of these corpses are found with certain organs removed for ritual purposes. There was another story of a boy who dug up the corpse of his grandfather to remove the head and carry it to a medicine man who demanded a skull to make a ritual for the boy's success. On the campuses, where student societies exist for every purpose, secret cult societies are not lacking. People who are trying to gain or hold onto power, whether political office holders, business tycoons or just armed robbers, try to shore up their position by secret religious rituals. Cults and the occult surround us more and more.

The word "cult" comes from the Latin word "cultus" and its verb "colere", which means "to cultivate"; in religious terms it means to cultivate the favour of a divinity. In ordinary Latin usage "cultus" is the equivalent of "worship", or "`ibâda" in Arabic; it is also used for religion itself. Distinction is drawn between true and false cults, so that the word applies to the rites of any religion whatsoever, and people are designated as followers of a particular cult. In contemporary English the word "cult" is hardly ever used for true worship, and ordinarily it refers to a religious aberration.

The word "occult", although rhyming with "cult", comes from a completely different Latin word, "occultare", which means "to hide" or "keep secret". The word is associated with darkness and is commonly used for transactions with evil spirits, usually carried out in secret and at night.

What are cults?

Can we say what secret societies are? If they are completely secret we can say nothing about them, but the fact is that their nature has been exposed by defecting members and public prosecution. What are some of their characteristics?

1) Members are bound to the society and its leaders by an oath, often involving the use of human blood and sometimes with the invocation of spiritual powers to avenge any breach of the oath.

2) Members are obliged to take part in activities to promote the interests of the society and its members, by recruiting new members and seizing control of certain sectors of the economy and society, and promoting one another. These activities commonly involve injustice to others, and are often violent.

Principles of cultists

New members usually join secret societies to get help in some immediate need, such as a financial crisis, to get a job or a promotion and the like. They are probably inclined, as in traditional Yoruba culture, to test any source of blessing and power to see what it can deliver; if it fails they jump to another source. Just as people once jumped from one Orisa to another, so now they jump from one church to another or one mosque to another, wherever a miracle may be promised.

The difference is that a cult does not let its members jump so easily. Once inside, the member becomes trapped in a bond of solidarity that provides all sorts of rules and sanctions for those who would violate them.

The operative principle of secret societies is self-interest achieved within the solidarity of the society. Belonging to the society may involve some individual sacrifices, but the member expects these to be abundantly compensated by the rewards such membership brings him.

A secret society must be on constant guard against exposure and defection. Outsiders who stumble on incriminating information must be dealt with to prevent the leak from going any further. Members who repent having joined must be kept in line. The best means to keep them in line is to get them to dip their hands and their souls ever deeper in the blood of others. The more one sinks into sin the more he is likely to despair of God's mercy and never break out of the net that entraps him.

Need for absolute principles

Some philosophers, like Hobbes, have defended self-interest as the only guiding principle for society; for him the purpose of the state is simply to keep peace and order by arbitrating between conflicting individual claims.

` How can we prove that such a principle is wrong? We use the logical procedure called reductio ad absurdum "reduction to absurdity"; that consists in showing that when self-interest is the supreme norm every sort of absurd consequence follows. With self-interest as a guideline, nothing is absolute; there are no human rights, whether to life, freedom, property or anything else. Anything can be justified, including armed robbery, torture, killing and assassination, provided it serves the interest of the individual or those of his secret society.

Since the tutelary demons of the society must have their own share, victims designated by the society must surrender particular parts of their anatomy as material for the society's rituals.

The only way out of such moral chaos is to hold onto some absolute principles, the `urwa al-wuthqâ of Q 3:256 & 31:22. That "firm rope" is God himself, the Truth (al-haqq). To know and accept God as the supreme Good means to love Him and to arrange one's life in submission to His will. God has revealed His will to us in a variety of ways.

One is through the way called natural law. In the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 1, he insists that people who have no revealed law have no excuse if they do not know God, since his existence and everlasting power are clearly evident from the created things of this world. Paul not only says they have no excuse for not knowing God, but because they "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an imitation," God abandoned them to degrading passions, homoxesuality, injustice, greed, malice, envy, murder, wrangling, treachery, spite, libel, slander, rudeness, arrogance, boasting, evil conspiracies, rebelliousness to parents, and lack of brains, honour, love or pity.

Another way of knowing God's will is through God's revelation, which he gives through the inspired words and example of holy people, which is then recorded in Scripture.

One thing admirable about Muslims is that you know where they stand on most moral questions, and they are not ashamed of what they stand for. You could say something similar about certain Christians churches, such as the Catholic Church and the Baptist Convention. (See Chicago Tribune 22 June 1997, p. 16.)

The problem with many people is that religion is just another means of serving their self-interest. They look for miracles, or go where they can meet their friends or where the music is good and they feel satisfaction. The question of truth does not arise.

Many people defend this approach, because they identify claims to have the truth with fanaticism. They say that if you are convinced that you are right, then you will be intolerant of others who differ with you, and that causes all the religious strife that we witness in Nigeria and in the world.

But religious conviction does not have to go with intolerance. It may be true that all intolerant people are convinced of their cause, but it does not logically follow that convinced believers are all or generally intolerant. And in fact the closer a believer is to God the more tolerant he will be, since God lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and unjust alike.

The fundamental witness or shahâda of Islam repeats what was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai: "I am Yahweh your God.. You shall have no other gods to rival me. You must not make yourselves any image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth; you must not bow down to these gods or serve them. For I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 5:6-9). The Qur'ân reiterates the same message: "Worship Allâh and do not associate anything with him" (4:36).

It is one thing to believe in the one God. It is another to approach him by the practice of justice and love. The Qur'ân teaches that it is a race we have to run, and the winners are brought close to God (56:10-11).