Michael Cook

Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Office Phone
101A Jones Hall


  • Islamic history
  • Islamic thought

I was educated at Cambridge (the real Cambridge, not the one in Massachusetts); I spent two years there studying English and European history, and two learning Turkish and Persian. From there I went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, where I embarked on research into Ottoman population history in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I then spent a good many years teaching and researching in Islamic history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, till in 1986 I crossed the Atlantic to take up a position at Princeton.

When I began my research, it was common knowledge that the history that really counted was economic and social history pursued with rigorously quantitative methods. Since then common knowledge has shifted, and so have my research interests. Much of what I have published has been concerned with the formation of Islamic civilization, and the role played by religious values in that process. My most substantial publication, however, is a study of a particular Islamic value over the entire range of Islamic history; the value in question is al-amr bi`l-ma'ruf—roughly, the duty of each and every Muslim to tell people off for violating God's law. Some other publications are included in the list below, and the Variorum volume of 2004 collects twelve previously published articles. I also have the usual scatter of unfinished papers on various topics.

At graduate level, my teaching tends to be tailored to my own interests and those of current graduates. My preference is for courses that are centered on Arabic texts and designed to give graduates practice in finding their way around the primary sources. Recently I have also taught a graduate seminar in which students writing chapters for their dissertations read and comment on each other’s work. At an undergraduate level I teach the Department’s introductory course in the fall.

I have supervised over thirty dissertations since I came to Princeton.  The topics have ranged widely over the fields of Islamic and Near Eastern studies: the Byzantine-Arab frontier in the early ‘Abbasid period (Michael Bonner), the formation and transmission of early Islamic heresiographical literature (Keith Lewinstein), the dream-diary of a failed Sufi from late-medieval North Africa (Jon Katz), the interaction of Shi‘ism and national identity in modern Iraq (Yitzhak Nakash), the early spread of the Hanafi law-school (Nurit Tsafrir), the political culture of the ‘Abbasid court (David Marmer), Ibn Hanbal and the formation of Islamic orthodoxy (Nimrod Hurvitz), poverty and charity in medieval Cairo (Adam Sabra), traditions on the time of the day or night at which the Prophet Muhammad was born (Adrien Leites), the reactions of Arab intellectuals to Orientalism from 1798 to 1950 (Ronen Raz), the early narratives of the Satanic Verses incident (Shahab Ahmed), what Umayyad copper coins can tell us about the administration of Umayyad Syria (Harry Bone), notions of privacy in classical Sunni thought (Eli Alshech), Coptic culture and conversion in medieval Cairo (Tamer El-Leithy), the Tayyibi Isma‘ili community in medieval Yemen (Samer Traboulsi), the structure of legal reasoning in Hanafi jurisprudence (Behnam Sadeghi), comparing the impact of the Greek and Arab conquests of the Near East on native histories of culture (William McCants), the prosopography of the Hijazi elite in Umayyad and early ‘Abbasid times (Asad Ahmed), the formation of sectarian identities in eighth-century Kufa (Najam Haider), comparing ideas of contagion in medieval Islamic and Christian thought (Justin Stearns), Koranic exegesis and gender (Karen Bauer), comparing Muslim reactions to the loss of the Caliphate in 1258 and 1924 (Mona Hassan), Islamic legal responses to living under Christian rule (Alan Verskin), the Syriac milieu and the recasting of Biblical narratives found in the Quran (Joseph Witztum), Aksumite relations with Himyar in the sixth century (George Hatke), virtue, piety, and the law in Birgevi’s Tariqa Muhammadiyya (Katharina Ivanyi), secrecy and initiation among the Nusayris (Bella Tendler), the formulation and assertion of religious criteria for state employment in the early centuries of Islam (Luke Yarbrough), law, family, and society among Syriac Christians in the medieval Islamic world (Lev Weitz), Christian-Muslim polemic and the death of Muhammad (Krisztina Szilágyi), medieval Islamic ideas of hell (Mona Zaki), and the treatment of infertile women in the medieval Middle East (Sara Verskin).  Taken together, these dissertations, and others in which I have played a smaller part, account for a fair proportion of what I now know.

Selected Publications



Ancient Religions, Modern Politics by Michael Cook

Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective
Princeton University Press, 2014



The New Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 1

The New Cambridge History of Islam
Cambridge University Press, 2010


Selected Publications

(Representative List)

  • Population Pressure in Rural Anatolia, 1450-1600, London 1972.
  • "The Origins of Kalam," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 43 (1980).
  • Early Muslim Dogma: A Source-Critical Study, Cambridge 1981.
  • "Pharaonic History in Medieval Egypt," Studia Islamica, 57 (1983).
  • "Magian Cheese: An Archaic Problem in Islamic Law," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 47 (1984).
  • "The Expansion of the First Saudi State: The Case of Washm," in C.E. Bosworth and others (ed.), The Islamic World from Classical to Modern Times: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis, Princeton 1989.
  • “On the Origins of Wahhabism,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, 2 (1992).
  • "Eschatology and the Dating of Traditions," Princeton Papers, 1 (1992).
  • "Ibn Qutayba and the Monkeys," Studia Islamica, 89 (1999).
  • The Koran (in the OUP "Very Short Introductions series"), Oxford 2000.
  • Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, Cambridge 2000.
  • Forbidding Wrong in Islam: An Introduction, Cambridge 2003.
  • A Brief History of the Human Race, New York 2003.
  • Studies in the Origins of Early Islamic Culture and Tradition (Variorum Collected Studies Series), Aldershot and Burlington 2004.
  • “The Stemma of the Regional Codices of the Koran,” Graeco-Arabica, 9-10 (2004).
  • “On Islam & Comparative Intellectual History,” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 135, no. 4 (Fall 2006).
  • “Ibn Sa‘di on Truth-Blindness,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 33 (2007).
  • “The Namesake Taboo,” Muqarnas, 25 (2008).
  • “Did the Prophet Muḥammad keep court?” In A. Fuess and J.-P. Hartung, Court cultures in the Muslim world: seventh to nineteenth centuries, London and New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 23–9.
  • “Why incline to the left in prayer? Sectarianism, dialectic, and archaeology in Imami Shi‘ism,” in M. Cook and others (ed.), Law and tradition in classical Islamic thought: studies in honor of Professor Hossein Modarressi, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 99–124.
  • “Is political freedom an Islamic value?” In Q. Skinner and M. van Gelderen (ed.), Freedom and the construction of Europe, Cambridge 2013, vol. 2, pp. 283–310.
  • Ancient religions, modern politics: the Islamic case in comparative perspective, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014 (translation: Arabic, Beirut, Arab Network for Research and Publishing, 2017).
  • “The appeal of Islamic fundamentalism,” Journal of the British Academy, vol. 2 (2014), pp. 27–41.
  • “Written and oral aspects of an early Wahhābī epistle,” Bulletin of SOAS, 78 (2015), pp. 161–78.
  • “Muḥammad’s deputies in Medina,” in al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā, vol. 23 (2015), pp. 1–66.
  • “War der Prophet Mohammed ungerecht zu einem Blinden?” In W. Steul and others (ed.), Koran erklärt: Ein Beitrag zur Aufklärung, Berlin 2017, pp. 78–80.
  • “Early medieval Christian and Muslim attitudes to pagan law: a comparison,” in C. Bakhos and M. Cook (ed.), Islam and its past: Jahiliyya, late antiquity, and the Qur’an, Oxford 2017, pp. 213–46.
  •  “Comparing Carolingians and ʿAbbasids,” in D.G. Tor (ed.), The ʿAbbasid and Carolingian empires: comparative studies in civilizational formation, Leiden: Brill, 2018, pp. 191–219.