Michael Cook is a British historian and a scholar of Islamic history. He is the author of many books, including Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, 1977, with Patricia Crone, Muhammad (Past Masters), 1983, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, 2001, which won him the Albert Hourani Book Award, and A Brief History of the Human Race, 2005.
He is the recipient of the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities at Princeton in 2006, the Farabi Award in the Humanities and Islamic Studies in 2008, and the Holberg Prize in 2014.
Professor Cook is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. In 1977, Michael Cook and Patricia Crone wrote the groundbreaking yet controversial study of the origins of Islam under the title Hagarism which was both praised and also rejected.
His latest book, entitled Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, was published in 2014.
Michael Cook was in Iran in May 2009, attending a conference in Shahr-e Ray, the guest of an institute for the study of Hadith in Qom.
Here is the text of the interview:
In 2006 you gave a talk in Florida. It was followed by a Q&A. You answered many questions regarding Islam, the Prophet, fundamentalism and Koranic interpretations. I would like to ask you some questions about issues that are still very much relevant today. You said, "The Arabs, in their Arabian homeland, came together to form a state. Then they set out from their homeland and conquered an empire that stretched all the way from Spain to Central Asia and northwestern India. That empire was the crucible in which the Islamic world as we know it began to come into existence." How do you define the Islamic world as it exists today?
I would define it as the part of the globe where Islam is the dominant religion. Historically, that means three things: the territories conquered by the Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries (with the exception of Spain and Portugal); the territories conquered by the Turks in the eleventh and subsequent centuries (with the exception of those that retained a non-Muslim majority population); and the territories where Islam spread and became a majority religion through trade across the Eurasian steppes, the Sahara, and the Indian Ocean.
You said that the Khazars turned up their noses at Christianity, and they decided to take their monotheistic medicine in the form of Judaism. What do you mean by that?
Did I really put it like that? I must have been referring to the fact that for the Khazars the obvious choices were Islam and Christianity, yet they chose Judaism. Presumably there was a geopolitical factor here: they didn't want to align too closely with either the Byzantine Empire or the Caliphate, and adopting monotheism in its Jewish form was a way of avoiding that.
How do you define the role of Mohammad as a prophet and as a politician? You said he was successful in both. Can you explain?
His role as a prophet was to bring a message that is now the religion of a quarter of the world's population; that for sure is success. His role as a politician was to establish a state in an environment that was distinctly unfriendly to states; the fact that his state nevertheless became an empire that lasted for two centuries is a considerable success, and probably a necessary condition for the survival and spread of his religion.
Why did Mohammad decide to change the direction of the prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca?
The Muslim sources, of course, present it as God's decision, not Muhammad's. But either way, it fits the pattern whereby Islam is, among other things, a monotheism customized for Arab identity. As Muhammad is said to have said, you should love the Arabs because he was an Arab, because the Koran is in Arabic, and because the language of the people of Paradise is Arabic. Praying towards Mecca—more precisely towards the Ka'ba—fits the pattern because it's praying towards an Arabian sanctuary. As you might expect, this aspect of Islam gave rise to considerable tension when the religion spread to non-Arab regions that retained a real sense of identity from pre-Islamic times. Can you seriously imagine all those Persian-speakers being willing to give up the language of Ferdowsi and Hafez when they get to Paradise?
You said that Mohammad and his followers were against pagan Gods and so they smashed the symbols. When did this happen and do we see a repeat of this by the Taliban and ISIL?
It happened, for example, when Islam first began to spread in Medina and the new converts went and smashed the idols of their clans. It happened again at the Conquest of Mecca when Muhammad destroyed hundreds of idols around the Ka'ba, and then sent out expeditions to deal with famous idols in the vicinity. Yes, we see a repeat of this today by the Taliban and ISIS, but of course the circumstances are very different: the Bamiyan Buddhas and the Assyrian sculptures are not currently worshiped by any local populations, and the main achievement of these modern iconoclasts has been twisting the ears of Western art-lovers. Notice, by the way, that the Bamiyan Buddhas survived intact for something like a thousand years in a predominantly Muslim society. The medieval Muslim geographer Yaqut was favorably impressed by them.
Why do you think Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise? And how do you define it? Why do you say from a Christian perspective it is hard to understand this?
The short answer is that I think the early heritage of Islam provides certain resources that can be adaptive in modern politics, and that for that reason you can expect to find people in the modern Muslim world invoking this heritage in their politics, and what is more gaining some traction among the wider Muslim population. These are not resources available in the early heritage of Christianity.
You said that Karen Armstrong, a well-known Islam scholar, said after 9/11 that a world religion has been hijacked but you didn't agree with her. Why?
A more extreme form of that view describes jihadis as nihilists, and I think that's completely wrong. Jihadis seem to me to be people who take their religious heritage very seriously. Of course it's not the only way to take that heritage—witness the fact that the Bamiyan Buddhas survived all those centuries among Muslims, until the Taliban emerged from the Pakistani madrasas. And even then they let them be for several years.
Recently the Atlantic Monthly published an article by Graeme Wood who argues against the notion that ISIL hijacked Islam. Do you agree with his interpretation that this group does represent Islam, or at least a version of Islam? And what is your opinion about this group's Koranic interpretation?
Yes, to me it's unquestionably a version of Islam—not the nicest version I could imagine, but a version among others. I can't give you an opinion of their Koranic interpretation because I haven't read any of it, but from what I hear it sounds like they're very much in the Wahhabi tradition—apart from their apocalyptic concerns (but don't forget that Wahhabism gave us a Mahdi in Mecca in 1979).
Are Islam and democracy compatible? Scholars differ in their opinion about this issue. What is your opinion?
Is the idea of theocracy compatible with the idea of democracy? No. Are there ways to bring them together at a more practical level? Yes—for example Mawdudi had a clever idea about how you could do that. What does look hard to pull off at a practical level, as Shadi Hamid has pointed out, is a combination of Islam in any of its currently standard forms with liberal democracy.
You said that by the 11th century, Muslims effectively created a dichotomy between religion and the state. In so doing they harkened back to a pre-Islamic Iranian Persian tradition, in which the two were intertwined but not synonymous. How does this play out in today's Iran?
It doesn't. The old saying reflecting that Persian tradition was "religion and state are twins"—two distinct things, but positioned very close to each other. Whereas for Khomeini, as for the Prophet, they were one thing.
On the question of Sunni-Shi'i divide, what did you mean when you said that the old division has been "dusted off and used for political purposes" in modern time?
Most likely I was referring to the way the Islamic Republic has used its links to Shi'ites outside Iran to increase its influence as a regional power. That's one reason why tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites has been inflamed in recent decades, but not the only one. Another is that in a context of rising Islamic fundamentalism, medieval quarrels that once seemed outmoded come to matter anew—so we get Sunnis (should we say Nasibis?) calling Shi'ites Rafiza. Contrast Northern Ireland, where relations between Catholics and Protestants are tense, but nobody argues about the issues that separate Catholicism and Protestantism on a theological level—the IRA were and still are secular nationalists who have no stake in the doctrine of transubstantiation.
What is Wahhabism? You have written a whole book about it. Can you tell us its origin?
Actually I haven't written a book about it, though Michael Crawford has—a short but well-researched book on Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab. As to its origin, I don't have a good answer. The potential was always there in the Islamic heritage, and it had been realized before, by Ibn Taymiyya and his followers. But I've really no idea why this potential should suddenly be activated in eighteenth-century Najd. Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab himself talks about something like a moment when the inspiration came to him.
How do you, almost nine years after your Florida talk, evaluate the French scholar Gilles Kepel's argument that Islamic fundamentalism is on the way out?
Ideologies do have a tendency to wear out—like Communism in our time. But if that's already happening deep down inside radical Islamism, it's not yet obvious on the surface. It took Communism seventy years to wear out, and to the extent that they can avoid taking responsibility for economic policy, Islamists may do even better.
Do you believe that the journal Charlie Hebdo should or should not have published the cartoons of the Prophet?
There are two questions you have to ask yourself before you do something that will make a big splash. One is whether you have a right to do it. Personally I like being part of a culture in which people have a right to publish cartoons of anyone if they want to. The other question is whether it's smart to do it. Personally I don't think it was. But my university pays me to know about the past, not to pontificate on current events.
Are Islamic studies suffering in the U.S. Universities ? If so, why? What about Persian studies? Do you think the current situation in the Middle East generates interest among students or the opposite?
If we take the average level of suffering in the humanities as a whole as a baseline, I think Islamic studies are doing fine. They're boosted by the salience of the Muslim world in US foreign policy in general, 9/11 and its ramifications in particular, and the growth of Muslim diasporas in the US in the last few decades—much more successful ones than those in Europe. Of course a lot of what happens these days in the Muslim world is repelling, but it's also fascinating, and students like the fascination. Persian studies are naturally geographically more limited, but it has one potential strength despite the bad relations between the US and Iran: the Californian diaspora, its relatively secular character, and its wealth.
Are there any Muslim thinkers whom you respect and connect with? Are you familiar with the works of Mojtahed Shabestari?
I like to tell my students that if Biruni came back to life we could put him in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and leave him to catch up with the literature. But we'd have to explain to him that these days you can't really hope to do both Indology and astrophysics. And I tell them that Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani was a German professor who had the misfortune to be born into a society that hadn't yet invented computers. He'd have loved them. Among the moderns, I have a soft spot for Morteza Mottahari.
Bernard Haykel has said that people want to absolve Islam and that Islam is a religion of peace is a mantra? Do you think Islam is not a religion of Peace?
If you want your Islam to be a religion of war, you have an easy time of it—just read the biography of the Prophet and the "book of jihad" in a standard legal handbook. If you want to be a Muslim pacifist you have a harder time of it—though you can maybe invoke the phase in Muhammad's career as a prophet before God gave him permission to fight. If you're a Christian the options are more balanced: blood and thunder in the Old Testament, pacifism in the New Testament. If you're a Buddhist you're stuck with non-violence. Except that, as somebody put it, it seems that a lot of people can get killed in the name of non-violence. So if you want a religion of peace as the level of principle, I recommend Buddhism. But if you're more concerned about the practice, ask the Muslims of Burma.
Finally, has Samuel Huntington's and Bernard Lewis's thesis about a clash of civilizations come to pass, in light of the latest development in the Islamic world and in the experience the West has had with Islam in recent years?
Do significant numbers of people think in terms of a confrontation between two antagonists, Islam and the West? Yes. Is there some degree of reality to this on the ground? Yes, there is. But is "civilization" the best category with which to analyze this antagonism? I don't think so.