About Michael Cook

Michael Cook is University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the first british Holberg Prize Laureate. Photo: Denise Applewhite

By Knut Melvær, PhD Fellow, Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen

Typically of a historian that knows from experience that there are always sources and perspectives that can askew our perceptions of the past, Michael Cook writes in A Brief History of the Human Race (2003) that he cannot offer any “Grand Unified Theory of History”.

Yet, Cook has with his works offered significant insights to Islamic history by means of diligent research, his philological capacity and by no other commitments than to scholarship itself. His contributions has paved new paths for the study of Islam and Near Eastern history, and his legacy will be imprinted in bibliographies in many decades to come.

Michael Cook’s magnum opus is Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (2000). It is a study of the commandment in Islam derived from several verses of the Qur’an (e.g. Sura 3.104), “to command right and forbid wrong.” The book can be read as a chronological survey of various Islamic groups, sects and legal schools, but also as an exploration of different moral questions that arise from this injunction: Is fullfilling this duty a collective and/or an individual task, should it be implemented on state level and in which way, and what are the consequences if a state does not act “rightly”?

You need not to go further than to the table of contents to see thats Cook’s analysis takes the great diversity of the Islamic tradition into account. Hence, this tome has more or less the complete overview of the intellectual history of Islamic law across 1,400 years. Which is a considerable feat, not only in Islamic history, but as a work of historiography in general.

The Historian

Most of Michael Cook’s research has gone into investigating the early stages and expansion of Islam and Islamic thought. His first book on the subject, co-authored with the Danish historian Patricia Crone, caused a racket within the field of Islamic Studies. The reception is perhaps best summed up by the historian of Islamic art, Oleg Grabar, who writes in a review that Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977) is “a brilliant, fascinating, original, arrogant, highly debatable book” (Speculum 53(4), 1978, 795).

What made Hagarism controversial at the time was that it questioned the reliability of the claims Muslim literature laid on the origins of Islam (the so-called “Heilsgeschichte”) accepted by the academic field, and sought to tell the story by taking non-Muslim sources into the account. Not taking religious sources and the claims about them at face value, but placing these under the same scrutiny as with any other historical documents was at the time rarely done within Islamic studies. Hence, Cook and Crone opened up the field of Islamic studies to a wider array of sources and perspectives.

As the title hints to, Cook and Crone explores the emergence of the Islamic civilisation, well aware of the heterodox implications it has for the Muslim devotee, they present Hagarism tentatively as “a pioneering expedition through some very rough country, not a guided tour” (vii) and “a book written by infidels for infidels.” (viii).

The expedition takes the reader through a journey with the descendants of Abraham’s slave wife Hagar — i.e. the Hagarenes, a Jewish messianic group — who migrated to the Fertile Crescent during the fifth century. By letting go of their Jewish identity, they laid the foundations for what is now recognized as the arabic religion of Islam. It is not a mystery why this book spawned some controversy. Readers should also be aware that Hagarism has later been critized for being too relentless with the muslim sources. Its abscence as an entry in Cook’s online bibliography means that it he no longer feels that it represents his scholarship, but its significance in the development of Islamic studies cannot be denied.

From the origins of Islam, Cook’s scholarship takes a turn to the case of Islamic ethics, theology and law. He proceeds to see religious texts with an historical — and “sceptical” some might add — eye in his second monograph Early Muslim Dogma (1981). Through sixteen technical but brief chapters he investigates a selection of epistles and treaties, some already known, and some previously unstudied. In addition to the above mentioned Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, he has also published a number of articles throughout the years expanding our understanding of law and ethics in Islam.

In the preface to A Brief History of the Human Race (2003) Cook writes that after spending fifteen years on Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (2000), that it “freed up the time for me to write about something else, and at the same time it delivered me from any immediate sense of obligation toward my field” (xxii). With this time, and in less than three years, Cook ventured into the field of Global History and took on the whole human history starting in the palaeolithic period and ending in a comparison between the ambitions of al-Qāida (after the 9/11-attacks) and that of NASA.

Cook is upfront that his brief history is not the brief history and suggests that its purpose is humble, namely “to convey the overall sense of the shape of human history…” (xxi). This blunt straightforwardness is a key feature of Cook’s scholarship. He does not take the reader for granted, regardless of how advanced the topic in question is.

In Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (forthcoming, 2014) Cook asks the question of why Islam plays a larger role in contemporary politics, compared to other religions. By comparing cases from Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, Cook explores religious political engagement to see what is distinctive with regard to the islamic case, and what can be said to be general.

The comparison of the contemporary political climate is done on the background of the vast historical knowledge Cook inhabits after several decades of intense research. Of his book, Cook says it explores the vast middle ground between the secularist view that religion is passé and the religionist view that God is back as ever before.


Cook has from early on shown a keen interest for languages. Besides English and European History, he spent two years studying Turkish and Persian at King’s College, Cambridge 1959–1963. This allowed him to proceed his academic pursuits into what became his first publication Population Pressure in Rural Anatolia, 1450–1600 (1972) while he worked as a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London (1966–1984).

You can see the signs of his linguistic diligence in his prefaces where his choice of transcription style is always accounted for, and if you glean through the various appendices, endnotes and bibliographies of his publications (which often makes for a significant number of pages), you will not only find proof of his competence in Arabic, but also in languages such as Greek, Persian, and Turkish.

Translation is not only a key feature of Cook’s work in that he makes ancient and foreign texts accessible for the English reading world, his short introductory books Muhammad (1981) and The Koran: A Very Short Introduction (2000) has been translated into several languages. Commanding Right, Forbidding Wrong (200) is available in Persian, and you can even find A Brief History of the Human Race (2003)published in Japanese.

Footnotes, appendices and prefaces

“—Bigger things do rest on smaller things.” Is not that Cook is obsessed with the little things to the exclusion of bigger things, but if you look closely at any of his books or articles, you will find that much work goes into footnotes and references. Take for example On the Origins of Wahhābism (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 2[2], 1992) a ten page article containing 104 footnotes.

Of the 719 pages of Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (2000), 55 pages is needed just for the bibliography alone! This is what earns the work what Islamic historian Fred Donner calls “one of the most meticulous studies of any aspect of Islamic thought and practice ever to have been produced.” (Journal of Near Eastern Studies 64[4], 2005). Cook reports to have spent two whole summers just for double checking all the references.

One could argue that Cook’s meticulousness comes with the cost of making his work less accessible, especially in the cases footnotes comes to take over almost a whole page within an article. This critique could have held water if it the case was that words not worth the body text had been shuffled over to the footnotes (as some scholars may be tempted to do). As for Cook’s case, his footnotes has the exact opposite effect: It is where transparency is achieved.

This attention to detail makes it possible for colleagues, students, fans, and critics to locate and check the source material for themselves. In Cook’s own words: “Not all readers will want to read all of this material: but those that do will find that, while some of it is tedious, most is reasonably accessible” (Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, 2000, xiii)

Supervisor, lecturer and disseminator

Writing books and publishing articles is but one mode of scholarship. Hence, Cook spends half his self-presentation on his Princeton bio-page on the topics teaching and supervision. While some may find teaching a bothersome task, Cook seems to draw inspiration from it, even though he states that lecturing “has never come easily to me, but I had a lot of practice, so I can give the appearance that I do it easily, but I don’t.”

Curious readers can confirm this for themselves by searching for his lecture on Islamic fundamentalism on YouTube (which have a lovely conclusion not to be spoiled here).

The British Academy Lecture: The Appeal of Islamic Fundamentalism He also reports that the ideas for A Brief History of the Human Race (2003), and his forthcoming Ancient Religions, Modern Politics (2014) both came to him when teaching undergraduates. He has supervised many talented graduates and PhD students from all over the world, some of them already renowned professors. As a student of Cook, you are expected to come prepared to the classes, adopt a clear writing style and “get the details right”.

Holberg Prize 2014

Michael Cook (born in 1940) is a British historian and scholar of Islamic history.

Michael Cook is University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.