2019 Balzan Prize for Islamic Studies
Michael Cook is one of the leading contemporary historians of Islam. He has made major contributions to the advancement of the field of Islamic Studies. His work has been highly acclaimed by specialists in Western academia as well as in the Arab World and Iran. He is a prolific, erudite scholar with eight and a half authored books, dozens of articles and several edited volumes, including the monumental six-volume The New Cambridge History of Islam, a widely acclaimed landmark that maps and updates the field of Islamic Studies. A number of his books have been translated into several Western and Middle Eastern languages. Michael Cook is also a highly respected teacher and mentor to several generations of prominent scholars in the field of Islamic Studies.
Cook’s publications deal with a wide range of subjects covering the history and geography of Islam, but with a special focus on the formation of Islamic Civilization and the role played by religious values in that process. Some of the topics he has dealt with include: pre-Islamic Arabia; Quranic studies; early Hadith studies; the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions; Islamic theology, ethics and law; the histories of the Umayyad, Abbasid and later Islamic dynasties; the history of Arabia and Wahhabism; the politics of Hindu, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalism (both medieval and modern). At the beginning of his career, he focused on the economic and social history of the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period, moving on to the origins of Islam and the development of Muslim doctrine, extending his focus to the central concepts of Muslim intellectual and legal history and Islam’s place in global history as well as a host of other topics.
Michael Cook’s scholarship is outstanding in depth, temporal and geographic breadth and methodological rigour, as well as in the use of a comparative approach. His work is based on a meticulous philological analysis of primary sources in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, South Arabian, and Sanskrit.
His seminal publication, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2000; Arabic translation published in Beirut), has been widely acclaimed as a “masterpiece” (Michael Chamberlain), “an example of traditional philological Orientalism at its best” (Fred Donner). Based on a thorough analysis of hundreds of manuscript and printed sources in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, this book provides an in-depth reading of the central ethical Islamic principle of “commanding right and forbidding wrong” in Islamic law and Islamic legal discussions, how it was understood and applied by all sects and schools of Islamic theology and law. Cook begins with the Qur’an, and then proceeds chronologically through to the late twentieth century, tracing its impact on the daily life and social organization of Muslim believers. The book also compares this principle with ethical injunctions in other religious as well as secular traditions and values in the West.
His short books, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction and Muhammad (Oxford University Press, 2000 and 1983/1996) present the results of thorough scholarship in an accessible and engaging style aimed at the general reader while at the same time critically discussing issues of interest to specialists, such as the reliability of early Islamic sources written two centuries after the events, the authenticity of Muslim “tradition”, the cultural and religious contexts in which Islam and its prophet emerged, and the conditions under which the Koran was put together.
Michael Cook’s most recent monograph Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) is a study of the role of religious tradition in modern politics. Here Cook proceeds by way of a comparison of identity, social values and politics in Hinduism, Catholicism in Latin America and Islam, from their inception up to the present. This study can be read as a contribution not merely to Islamic but to global history.
To sum up, Michael Cook’s work has had a major impact on several research areas of Islamic Studies, most notably: the study of the origin and early history of Islamic thought, the intellectual, social and political history of Islam throughout the ages and the place of Islam in global history.