Lifton's Criteria of Thought Reform and the Qadiani Ahmadiyya

Robert J. Lifton

One of the foremost authorities on mind control, Robert J. Lifton, has laid out the criteria by which thought control is accomplished in new religious movements, commonly known as cults. His criteria are very broad and have often been used to determine the degree of 'cultishness' of a religious movement. One such person is Randall WattersRandall, W. (1990). Eight marks of a mind-control cult. retrieved Nov. 20, 2004, from FreeMinds Web site:, who described the application of these methods by the Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian offshoot.

Qadiani Ahmadiyya

The Ahmadiyya are an offshoot of mainstream Muslim thought that took their root in India in the late 1800s as an Islamic reform movement. Here we will attempt to analyze the current Qadiani Ahmadiyya leadership's practices in the light of Lifton's criteria. The itemized similarities in a list are derived from questions posed to a sample of approximately 20 members of the Qadiani Ahmadiyya, chosen for maximum variance of demographics and geography. Lengthy interviews and written correspondence were used instead of questionnaires. The author's own experience of living within the organization for the first 35 years of his life are also an input.

The importance of this exercise, in Lifton's own words:

"These criteria consist of eight psychological themes which are predominant within the social field of the thought reform milieu. Each has a totalistic quality; each depends upon an equally absolute philosophical assumption; and each mobilises certain individual emotional tendencies, mostly of a polarising nature.

Psychological theme, philosophical rationale, and polarised individual tendencies are interdependent; they require, rather than directly cause, each other. In combination they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energise or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats." Lifton, R. (1989). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. : University of North Carolina Press. Chapter 22

Lifton's Criteria


Milieu Control

Lifton: Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads or writes, experiences, and expresses), but also - in its penetration of his inner life - over what we may speak of as his communication with himself.

Randall: "Milieu" is a French word meaning "surroundings; environment." Cults are able to control the environment around their recruits in a number of ways, but almost always using a form of isolation. . . . or they can be warned under threat of punishment to stay away from the world's educational media, especially when it might provoke critical thinking. Any books, movies or testimonies of ex-members of the group, or even anyone critical of the group in any way are to be avoided.

Ahmadiyya leadership – present and past –

  • forbids its members to visit Muslim mosques or worship with Muslims
  • forbids and/or strongly discourages intermarriage with Muslims
  • forbids its members to participate in funerals and most religious and/or social events organized by Muslims
  • forbids its members from publishing articles, books or magazines about the Ahmadiyya or critical of it except with written permission, and that only with editing by the leadership
  • strongly discourages members to read and/or discuss current Muslim scholars, ideas, and other relevant current events
  • there are no attributive (good) references to current Muslim authorities in any speech or publication
  • forbids members from engaging in any discussion or conversation about their beliefs
  • has not translated or made accessible the books and teachings of its founder, and there is no educational program for the lay members to learn about them
  • does not permit any gatherings, groups or associations except with leadership approval
  • strongly discourages critical questions during official meetings and discussions, and those who ask such questions are looked down upon
  • declares the leader to be the only source of new ideas or expressions
  • encourages members who have critical questions to seek forgiveness for their sins and pray
  • encourages the classification of members who leave as insane or bribed but does not allow discussion of why they left.

Lifton: Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth (and having the need to dispel any possible inner doubts of their own), they consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this "truth."

  • Incessant and redundant activity for various age groups and genders, closed within the Ahmadiyya, with no long-term output
  • Attending such events is a factor in peers' opinion of an individual's affiliation with the religious organization

Mystical Manipulation

Lifton: By thus becoming the instruments of their own mystique, they create a mystical aura around the manipulating institutions - the Party, the Government, the Organization. They are the agents "chosen" (by history, by God, or by some other supernatural force) to carry out the "mystical imperative," the pursuit of which must supersede all considerations of decency or of immediate human welfare.

Randall: In religious cults, God is ever-present in the workings of the organization. If a person leaves for any reason, accidents or ill-will that may befall them are always attributed to God's punishment on them. For the faithful, the angels are always said to be working, and stories circulate about how God is truly doing marvelous things among them, because they are "the truth." The organization is therefore given a certain "mystique" that is quite alluring to the new recruit.

Ahmadiyya leadership – present and past –

  • declares its founder as the Imam of the Age and that denying ANY of the claims of the founder results in an incomplete Muslim
  • declares its founder to be the manifestation of the "Expected One" of all world religions
  • holds that many of the founder's opponents died as a result of prophecies/curses
  • holds the family and subsequent generations of the founder as specially blessed, and in practice, above the requirements for ordinary members
  • coins religious epithets and exaggerates the service of the sons and grandsons of the founder.
  • declares that its elected leaders are installed by God
  • encourages the view that anyone leaving the organization should expect ill-fortune
  • regards the ill fortunes (death,illness,financial distress) of its opponents as God's punishment for their opposition
  • hides or camouflages any normal sickness, disease, or other misfortune that befalls its leaders
  • has consistently mis-represented its membership numbers to create an aura of Divine support for its members
  • holds its leaders beyond accountability, especially in financial and strategic areas.
  • holds that the Indian plague of the 19th century was to punish people for not accepting the founder
  • holds that earthquakes, wherever they may happen, are sent to punish people for not accepting their founder
  • holds that AIDS is a form of new plague, with the exact same Divine goal.
  • holds that Z.A. Bhutto (former Pakistani prime minister) was hanged because of his opposition to their sect
  • holds that Zia ul Haq (former Pakistani president) died in a plane crash because of his opposition to their sect
  • holds that Afghanistan is a cursed land because of the opposition of one of its kings to their founder in the early 1900s
  • holds that Friday the 10th brings about Divine signs for them, which are usually natural disasters for others
  • holds that wars against Muslim lands and the perceived backwardness of Muslim countries are as a result of Muslim opposition to their sect
  • holds that World War I, World War II, Russian-Korean War and many others were as a result of opposition to its founder, and a interpretations of his prophecies
  • holds that homeopathic medicine works in mysterious unexplained ways and can solve the medical problems of the world
  • holds that any person who opposes them will be humiliated
  • encourages the belief that "personal attachment" to the leader is a sign of faith
  • has created a de facto perception that leadership of the family of the founder will remain
  • has consistently not prosecuted any complaints or evidence against the family of the founder in a public manner
  • does not attempt to explain why prophecies or predictions fail, just ignoring them

Lifton: When trust gives way to mistrust (or when trust has never existed) the higher purpose cannot serve as adequate emotional sustenance. The individual then responds to the manipulations through developing what I shall call the psychology of the pawn. Feeling himself unable to escape from forces more powerful than himself, he subordinates everything to adapting himself to them. He becomes sensitive to all kinds of cues, expert at anticipating environmental pressures, and skillful in riding them in such a way that his psychological energies merge with the tide rather than turn painfully against himself. This requires that he participate actively in the manipulation of others, as well as in the endless round of betrayals and self-betrayals which are required.

  • The office-bearers of the organization: are chosen for sensitive posts and are called "obedient" and "trustworthy"
  • are generally considered by the members as morally corrupt, financially unreliable, and intellectually weak.
  • are volunteers or paid below-subsistence wages
  • who are part of the clergy are usually discouraged from seeking other skills/education
  • cannot belong to certain families are marked as "non-obedient"
  • will try their best to explain away or minimize any complaint by members, usually without investigation
  • do not have a handbook of laws and by-laws, but rather work on "personal judgment"
  • are not generally known for impartialiality
  • are known by members to have a greater-than-average propensity for falsehood and false reports

The Demand For Purity

Lifton: The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity is attainable, and that anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral. In actual practice, however, no one is really expected to achieve such perfection. Nor can this paradox be dismissed as merely a means of establishing a high standard to which all can aspire. Thought reform bears witness to its more malignant consequences: for by defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition.

Randall: The world is depicted as black and white, with little room for making personal decisions based on a trained conscience. One's conduct is modeled after the ideology of the group, as taught in its literature. People and organizations are pictured as either good or evil, depending on their relationship to the cult. Universal tendencies of guilt and shame are used to control individuals, even after they leave. There is great difficulty in understanding the complexities of human morality, since everything is polarized and oversimplified. All things classified as evil are to be avoided, and purity is attainable through immersion into the cult's ideology.

  • The world becomes sharply divided into the pure and the impure, the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group) - especially Muslims who are [ghair Ahmadi] - a term that has a colloquial connotation within the Ahmadiyya as worse than non-Muslims.
  • One must continually change or conform to the Ahmidyya "norm", which is the current stage of their beliefs
  • Most members have a very stunted concept of social interaction, tolerance and the need for compromise and organization to achieve communal results. There is a lot of reliance on destiny as promised by the leaders.

Lifton: People vary greatly in their susceptibilities to guilt and shame, depending upon patterns developed early in life. But since guilt and shame are basic to human existence, this variation can be no more than a matter of degree. Each person is made vulnerable through his profound inner sensitivities to his own limitations and to his unfulfilled potential; in other words, each is made vulnerable through his existential guilt. Since ideological totalists become the ultimate judges of good and evil within their world, they are able to use these universal tendencies toward guilt and shame as emotional levers for their controlling and manipulative influences. They become the arbiters of existential guilt, authorities without limit in dealing with others' limitations. And their power is nowhere more evident than in their capacity to "forgive."

  • Ties in with the process of confession – one must confess when one is not conforming, and seek forgiveness from the leader
  • The pledge of allegiance and the letters to the Leader in which members ask for forgiveness from the Leader are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism
  • Makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility. Even established members of the community are forced to beg publicly for forgiveness when they are reprimanded
  • Often a person will confess to lesser sins while holding on to other secrets (often criticisms/questions/doubts about the group/leaders that may cause them not to advance to a leadership position)

Sacred Science

  • 'the True Islam', Ahmadiyyat (as a standalone word), the Messiah of all religions, etc., are all part of a sacred mythology that is never held up to scrutiny
  • Questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited - absolutely.
  • A reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine (Ahmadiyyat, 'Masih Mauood', 'Musleh Mauood', 'Khalifa-I-Waqt')
  • Offers considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world and answers a contemporary need to combine a sacred set of dogmatic principles with a claim to a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology (does not apply exactly to young people, but gives a simplistic theology of the revival of Islam that is very appealing).
  • Jesus Died in Kashmir
  • Bawa Nanak was a Muslim
  • God revealed a herbal medicine for curing bubonic plague
  • God revealed an aphrodisiac Zadjam-e-Ishq whose ingredients are extremely toxic
  • Homeopathy will cure all the sickness in the world.

Loading the Language

  • The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche (thought-stoppers) - where will you go from here, if you deny the Messiah, you will one day deny Muhammad(saw) and Islam
  • Repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon (Mahdi, Messiah, khalifa, aakhir-uz-zamaan - the last Age, etc.)
  • "The language of non-thought" - 'obedience' that is supposed to be blind, weakness of faith,
  • Words are given new meanings – the outside world does not use the words or phrases in the same way – it becomes a "group" word or phrase - bai't, khalifa, ilhaam, chanda, donation, zakat, jalsa, Messiah, ummat, and many others, see separate section.

Doctrine Over Person

  • Every issue in one's life can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence to the point that one can claim the experience of truth and feel it
  • The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience
  • If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question – it is always "turned around" on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly - weakness of faith, lack of obedience etc.
  • The underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one's experience to that "truth"
  • The experience of contradiction can be immediately associated with guilt
  • One is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one's own evil
  • When doubt arises, conflicts become intense

Dispensing of Existence

  • Since the group has an absolute or totalist vision of truth, those who are not in the group are bound up in evil, are not enlightened, are not saved, and do not have the right to exist (a large party, most or all Muslims must ultimately be converted in order to have the victory of Islam)
  • "Being versus nothingness" (to varying degrees, other Muslims are infidels)
  • Impediments to legitimate being must be pushed away or destroyed (to its credit, the Ahmadiyya are non-violent (except for rare reports), but viciously protective of the status quo)
  • One outside the group may always receive their right of existence by joining the group
  • Fear manipulation – if one leaves this group, one leaves God or loses their transformation, for something bad will happen to them (totally Ahmadiyya!)