Simplicity, Creativity, Lucidity as “Method” in the Study of Islamic History: An Interview with Michael Cook

This interview was conducted by Intisar Rabb (Editor-in-Chief).

This interview is part of the Islamic Law Blog’s Roundtable on Islamic Legal History & Historiography, edited by Intisar Rabb (Editor-in-Chief) and Mariam Sheibani (Lead Blog Editor), and introduced with a list of further readings in the short post by Intisar Rabb: Methods and Meaning in Islamic Law: Introduction.”

Intisar Rabb [Rabb]: How has training in the field improved and how has it declined since you started teaching?

Michael Cook [MC]: I don’t think there’s any general answer to that question. The one thing I would say is I think people get more time than they used to. When I first came to Princeton a graduate student got four years. Now they automatically get five and the five has a strong tendency to turn into six. I think that’s basically good because you do need time to get into a field like ours. If you’re going to do serious work on the history of the Muslim world, and you’re not going to do it in the Public Records Office, you’re going to do it with sources in Arabic; then you’ve got a lot to learn. It’s language, yes, but it’s also the culture that goes with the language. And it’s historical method.

Rabb: What are the most exciting areas or possibilities that you see now for research in the field?

MC: If you have what it takes to learn not just one but two difficult languages that are culturally unrelated, there is exciting stuff I think you can do these days. For example, if you can handle Arabic and Sanskrit, and do cross-cultural history in South Asia, I think it’s a pretty exciting field. And I think the same is true for Persian and Chinese.

Rabb: As you know, there is a trend of “going digital.” What, if anything, have we gained or lost by that trend?

MC: I think the obvious point there and the point any of us would make is that there is something to lose by no longer going to real, hard copy books. You go to the Firestone Library, you pick a book off the shelves, and you go to what you want there; but you notice something else, turn over the pages, and you think it might be useful to look at the introduction. I think all of that doesn’t work so well, with Shamela [the online site for searchable select Sunnī texts].[1]

Rabb: Are there research methods or languages you wish you’d learned earlier and why, if so?

MC: I wish I had learned all languages when I was two years old, at the age when you just naturally absorb languages, instead of learning them the very hard way much later on. In terms of methods, it’s not that there’s any particular statistical method or, say, method of literary analysis or anything like that that I regret not having had long ago. But what I would say is: there’s an awful lot of stuff I’ve read in my life and made notes on, and if I had those notes available, accessible in one electronic database, I’d know twice as much as in effect I do now. I’ve made those notes and misfiled them or I’ve put them in a file which made sense but I didn’t think of it when I was looking for it. And I spend a lot of time trying to chase up those gems that I came across long ago. To have it all from the get-go in an electronic database would be just superb.

Rabb: What do you take to be the task of the historian? What does he or she need to know to start or to go about doing that task meaningfully?

MC: Historians are trying to make the past intelligible to people of the present day, right? So they’ve got to know the past but they’ve also got to know the present day. And I’m just thinking of a little anecdote about the Fijār Wars in a source that I’ve been looking at, where the narrator at one point says, “In those days women only wore one garment.” Now, obviously, he knows the past in that women only wore one garment, but he also knows the present—that these days women wear, I don’t know, two, multiple garments, or so. To make the anecdote intelligible he has to explain that. Now that seems to me very characteristic of the job of the historian. That’s the kind of thing we’re doing all the time.

Rabb: You’ve reflected on your method in recent lectures—especially the ones you’ve tended to give every two years of late: for the Holberg Prize in 2014, at Yale Law School in 2016, the Martin Buber lecture in 2018,  MEM Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. Picking up from your reflections in the Holberg lecture in particular, you characterized your “cast of mind” or method as comprising 3 elements: simplicity, out of the box thinking, and lucidity. Are these themes you are happy to have carried on? What would you advise as worth adopting by students or historians of Islamic history or Islamic law?

MC: I certainly still think that those are good things. If a student gives me a chapter and it’s unnecessarily complicated, I will dump on them in the margins. But I’m not sure whether there’s a sort of general message here, apart from saying those are three good things. What I would say is, yeah, I mean there’s a bit of a cult these days of being nuanced and multilayered, right? Nuances do sometimes matter, the world is complicated, and so there sometimes are layers. But holding this up as an ideal, I think, is a real bad idea, because if everything you say is nuanced and multilayered you end up not having said anything.

Rabb: Do we have enough sources to do Islamic history, and specifically, Islamic legal history well? Is there anything about the sources that we do have that makes this field distinctive from others from the perspective of sources?

MC: I’m not sure I accept the idea that whether you can do history well depends on the sources. People can do very good work using such few sources as there are. And they can do good work using a very rich body of sources. For example, I’ve got a recent Ph.D. advisee of mine who worked on the intellectual history of Sassanian Iran. Now the evidence for that is terrible. But, nevertheless, he did good work squeezing the little that we have to get sense out of it. So you can do it well with scarce sources or with plentiful sources. In the case of Islamic law, obviously this is a question I would ask you, but since we’re in this interview situation, okay I’ll answer it. You can do tremendously well in terms of studying the thinking of the jurists of just about any period and many different parts of the Muslim world. And, you know, you have very rich sources there.  Yes, I know that you’re into reconstructing real life court procedure, and that’s great, but it’s much harder to do, isn’t it?

I suppose I’ve used many different kinds of sources. Some of them are a real drag going through, and in some of them every now and again you find a gem that’s not what you’re looking for but your eyes light up. For example, early biographical sources have that quality. If you go to, for example, Ibn Saʿd, and read a page at random, you’ll find something that’s interesting, curious, and maybe you could do something with it.

Rabb: You’ve done these sort of broad-based, century-by-century studies of a single topic or country-by-country or region-by-region studies of history writ large in the field. Have your sources, or your approach to the sources, changed with the period, region, or questions you ask?

MC: Right. I think with something like my Commanding Right book, basically I made a decision that I was going to chase that theme through thick and thin all over the place, all up and down the centuries. And there was a certain rigidity there. So, I mean, basically that was driven by my question, so to speak. But then my question only arose from a certain interaction with the sources in the first place. And, you know, in the course of looking for x, as I just mentioned, you often come across y, and you think, “Hey, that’s interesting.” What I’m saying is, there’s a kind of dialogue that has to go on between what you would like to know and what the sources will tell you. And you need to be able to adapt.

Rabb: There are debates, as you know, on the use of ḥadīth as sources of Islamic law or history, whether intellectual or social: there are popular theories that view ḥadīth as falling on a spectrum that ranges from total fabrication to reliable fact or kernel of historicity and other values in between. I think there’s been a move away from debates about historicity to looking at how might ḥadīth provide information about representations of law or cultural attitudes about law. What do you take these debates on ḥadīth as historical or legal sources to mean?

MC: I would question whether there really has been a change. The first Western scholar who did serious work with ḥadīth would be Goldziher back in the late nineteenth century. As far as I understand, he took it for granted that ḥadīth was inauthentic in the sense that it actually didn’t come from the mouth of the Prophet. And he took it for granted just as much that you could use it to trace attitudes that people had at a later date. That’s what he’s doing in his volume on Hadith in his Muslim studies. And that’s been there certainly in the West ever since there was a serious discussion of Hadith. Now, obviously, the authenticity debate seems to me a perfectly real and valid debate, quite apart from anyone’s religious feelings about it. Because if all that material did come from the mouth of the Prophet, then what it’s telling you about is the early seventh century. But if, say, it came from the ʿAbbāsid period, then it’s telling you about the ʿAbbāsid period. And you need to know which. Of course it’s very hard to know which very often, but that’s something else.

I would say that there are some ḥadīth that are obviously later. I mean, something I’ve studied a bit, if you have an eschatological ḥadīth that starts by predicting a set of events that have already occurred and then presents one that has never occurred, then you date the ḥadīth to after the events that did occur and before the event that didn’t occur, right? Say, when you have a ḥadīth that says, “The end is coming in the year 200,” then I would never take that to be an authentic statement of the Prophet. I would take that to be something that somebody started saying not too long before 200 for it to be exciting. On the other hand, there perfectly well could be things that the Prophet said. It’s just that if we’re not going by the isnāds we don’t have a way of checking because we don’t have recordings of what he said. There’s a vast amount of ḥadīth that I don’t know if anyone’s ever going to be able to date persuasively. But this grand project that Behnam Sadeghi and people are doing, maybe that’s going to deliver a lot of new light there.

Rabb: My next question is about philology versus history, and draws on your colleague Marina Rustow’s comment she made in her recent book The Lost Archive. She presented an old conflict between historians and philologists, where she really juxtaposes the two (2020, p. 8-9):

Historians who work with difficult or very old documents tend to fear the judgment of philologists because we suspect (often with justification) that they are linguistically better equipped to understand them, yet our history writing depends on understanding them deeply. Philologists experience a reciprocal measure of fear and trembling in facing—or avoiding—the epistemological dilemmas, interpretive constraints, and narrative decisions that historians regularly handle in the course of their work. Historians may worry that philologists will say they have read their evidence sloppily; but they are also likely to dismiss the technicalities of reading because they believe history comes alive at the writing table, in the course of argumentation. Once a historical narrative is complete, the technical skills that undergird it are passed over in silence—like money, religion, and politics in polite company. Philologists risk a reciprocal judgment: in handling historical evidence, they have been known to adhere to a kind of naïve positivism, believing that once they have identified, transcribed, translated, and contextualized a text, their work if finished. The historian’s work has just begun.

She goes on to discuss how there may also be value in both. I am reminded of an old answer from the character Michael Scott, who when asked, would you rather be feared or loved, said: “both; I want people to fear how much they love me!” The questions arising from all of that: Would you rather be known (and train others) as a philologist or historian? Or rather, where do you place yourself on the historian – philologist spectrum?

MC: I think my preference would be to be known as a moderately competent historian and a moderately competent philologist. I would settle for that. I think that’s an accurate description of what I do and what you do, in the sense that both of us do philology, both of us do history, and they work in tandem. And, I mean, if we were philological idiots it wouldn’t be that good, and if we were historical idiots it wouldn’t be that good either. You really do need both. Maybe if you work on the history of Kentucky in the early twentieth century, you don’t need much philology, yeah, that I’ll concede. But for any kind of thing that we do, you definitely need to be a philologist. I mean, I think Marina’s absolutely right that there do exist people who are historians with no philological skills, and there do exist people who are philologists with no historical skills. You know, they’re both blind to something. But I think those are kind of ideal types, and as you’ve indicated, most people fall somewhere in between.

Rabb: On your methods class (NES 502): Your colleagues say this course transforms those enrolled from curious graduate students into dexterous scholars. What is it that the course enables student-scholars to learn or do?

MC: So we’re talking about medieval Arabic sources, or medieval and early modern, but basically sources from another culture in a difficult language. What this course is about is actually getting in there and doing research for yourself: Stop being dependent on what previous scholars have said in the secondary literature. If you want to learn to swim, then swim theory is not really going to do much for you. You’ve actually got to get in the water. And this is about getting in the water. So I throw students in at the deep end, and some of them don’t survive—that’s a pity—but most of them do. And, I mean, they learn not to be terrified out of your mind when you go into the Firestone Library and see a shelf of books in Arabic and haven’t the faintest idea where you should look for anything. So, I mean, it’s practice in doing your own research. Of course, I also amuse myself by, for example, looking for philological traps that are going to trip them up and that kind of thing. I mean, basically, I learned a lot of stuff the hard way and this course is intended to make it a bit easier—not too easy—but a bit easier than the way I learned it.

For me, it was one particular book that I started working on – the book by al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī about writing down ḥadīth – and I got interested in checking out the isnāds of that, and I found that the people who were most against writing down ḥadīth for a long time were Baṣrans. That got me excited. But that meant using the biographical dictionaries and literature together with these isnāds, bringing them together. Now that was a skill I was not born with; I had to learn it. And I think people can learn it quicker if they do a course like that. Now I have to say that particular result about the Baṣrans is one of the few things I’ve been scooped on in my career. Somebody else discovered it independently and published it first because I left it lying around too long. But, I mean, it’s a perfectly good example of the kind of knowledge about how to go about using sources that I’m trying to impart.

Rabb: How did you construct the course? When and why did you construct it?

MC: : So, I guess it was when I was still at SOAS in London and I designed it as an MA course. I must have taught it maybe two or three times before I came to Princeton. And then when I came to Princeton I sort of reincarnated it in a more elaborate form. I think it was the first, after I came here on the regular faculty, the first graduate seminar I taught was a version of that course. How has it evolved? Well, the actual source materials keep changing. Every year I keep, say, three-quarters of what I had last year, and maybe I change a quarter to avoid getting bored or because I’ve discovered some sort of cute anecdote that I want to use. Just a few days ago, I came across a nice little piece of Persian, for any students that know Persian, that is going to trip them up completely until I throw them a lifeline the next week in a way that looks completely unrelated. And then those that put the two together will have a eureka moment, and that’s encouraging. Generally, the fundamental idea has not changed. But, I think, because of the years I’ve kind of increased the range of what I do. Probably the range has increased.

Rabb: On teaching, generally, how does teaching inform your scholarship in terms of the questions you ask and the approach you take?

MC: It certainly does. One of the things about undergraduate teaching is that it forces you to look for things that are both simple and true. And it also forces you, it certainly forces me, to try and think: good questions to ask and get across to the students are also questions that can easily feed into research. Of course, and what’s fed most into my research probably has been the course we were talking about, in that, for example, a few years ago, for some reason quite unrelated, I was reading through Ibn Hishām, and I noticed that every time he talks about a campaign where the Prophet goes out leading it, he tells you who was his deputy in Medina. Ibn Isḥāq doesn’t, but Ibn Hishām regularly does. And so I thought, supposing we collected all of those statements about deputies and put them together, is there anything it would tell us? So I started doing that in my graduate seminar, and that then turned into an article about the deputies, the Prophet’s deputies in Medina, which I published in al-Usur al-Wusṭā, the online journal.

Rabb: How do you find or make judgments about narrative from disparate accounts and sources? Why do they differ?

MC: That’s easy. There’s a slide I show my undergraduates near the beginning of my course. I read in the New York Times about a study about the spread of true information and false information on the web—this is now very topical—and science proved that false information spreads much further and faster than true information. Now I don’t think that’s just the web, I think that’s human nature. And so this is a kind of warning I give to my undergraduate students. I’m going to tell you a lot of things that happened, but could I actually swear blind that all those things happened and happened the way I’m telling you? Maybe not. So, I mean, for every truth, there’s any number of half-truths and falsehoods, right? So no wonder we get lots of different versions. We’re dealing with humans, you know?

On reading disparate accounts, I suppose there’s two things you do. And one is, the real honest thing for which you should go to heaven, is you try and figure out which is most reliable. And the not quite so honest thing is you pick out the ones that are cute, interesting, have a twist to them, a bit of amusement value for the undergraduates or whatever. And I think what you do in practice is, I mean, to be moderately honest, you tell the story one way but you have some aside saying there’s also a version that says that or the other.

Rabb: Do you look for motives of why folks might have authored a particular text?

MC: Oh, sure, yes. This goes back to what we were talking about with ḥadīth. That is, if you have a ḥadīth that is late, then you can look for traces of bias in it, it’s anti-Umayyad, it’s pro-Umayyad, whatever.

Rabb: Last question – Hagarism, why then and there? Or why not now and what next?

MC: The short answer is, you know, I think we got an awful lot of it wrong. But, nevertheless, the thinking that I did back then has been kind of useful to me quite often down the years, the sort of bits and pieces I came across. I’ve certainly kind of mined it over the years, in contexts where nobody notices that I mined it.

Why not now? Because I think we got a lot wrong. That’s easy. If you go to that article I mentioned on the deputies of the Prophet, I mean, somebody asked me the question, How can you talk like this when you talked like that back then? And I think I said something like, I like to think over the years you get a bit wiser. So that’s why not now.

But what next? Well, I’m writing this book about the history of the Muslim world. It goes down to 1800, then it’s got a chapter that kind of links up 1800 with the present day. But basically it’s pre-1800. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing it because it means finding out a whole lot of stuff that I didn’t know about before. You know, because this is going from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Now by the time I’ve finished that, well then if I’m still around you can ask me again, right?

P.S. A final non-question: You and another pseudo-Michael Cook, founder and CEO of SouthernSun Asset Management firm, have received multiple awards for excellence and lifetime achievement, and produced rousing acceptance speeches that have made their way to Youtube. What about ‘Michael Cook’ makes one prone to lifetime achievement? For more, see, e.g., Spurious Correlations.

MC: OK, this is me giving advice to a younger scholar: there are a whole lot of institutions out there that are desperate to find people to be distinguished. You just have to be at the right place at the right moment. They look over each other’s shoulders. For one of them to decide that you’re distinguished, that’s scary, but once one of them has, it gets to be easier for others.


[1] Shamela is a popular online site for searchable Sunnī texts. The Open Islamicate Text Initiative [OpenITI] incorporates it alongside the texts from Waqfeya and Ahl al Bayt libraries.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Simplicity, Creativity, Lucidity as “Method” in the Study of Islamic History: An Interview with Michael Cook, Islamic Law Blog (Jan. 26, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Islamic Law Blog, ed., “Simplicity, Creativity, Lucidity as “Method” in the Study of Islamic History: An Interview with Michael Cook,” Islamic Law Blog, January 26, 2021,

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