At the Limits of Orientalism: The Politics and Problems of Labelling in the Career of Michael A. Cook

Few scholars in the discipline of Islamic Studies could claim to be as qualified as Michael Cook to advise students on the matter of early career publications. For many years, Professor Cook has exerted a prominent and powerful presence in the fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, where he has distinguished himself as both an accomplished specialist and an engaged comparativist. Yet while there can be little doubt as to the scope or sophistication of Professor Cook’s eminent contributions to his field, the author himself continues to be remembered primarily in relation to his early collaboration with Patricia Crone, Hagarism. Almost forty years after the work’s publication, the project which Cook in this interview describes as a ‘youthful idea’ continues to provoke controversy and division. Having so vigorously rocked the academic boat early in his career, Cook later changed tack gracefully when he realised that he had set a course in the wrong direction. Even so, it is not uncommon today to encounter Cook’s name clustered alongside Crone’s under the title of ‘neo-Orientalists’, a categorisation that in Cook’s case is generally justified with reference to Hagarism alone. And, indeed, the methodological premise of Hagarism – that is, that the rise of Islam can be most accurately documented on the basis of non-Muslim sources contemporary with the rise of Islam read at the exclusion of, rather than in conversation with, later Muslim sources – falls easily within Said’s characterisation of Orientalism as the arrogation to Western scholars of the right to speak ‘for’ the Orient. Indeed, the Orientalist project of Hagarism is of a double sort, in that it arrogates representational power of the Muslim to the non-Muslim at both the level of primary and secondary sources, a move that appears to assume the incapacity of Muslims for engaged scholarly enquiry about their own history.

Yet if Hagarism – a work published just one year before Said’s Orientalism – remains an example of Orientalist scholarship par excellence, the caricature of its author as a ‘neo-Orientalist’ some thirty-five years later is less convincing. Far from encouraging a rigorous engagement with Cook’s subsequent scholarship, such a classification seems to justify its relegation to the status of imperialistic irrelevance. Such an easy dismissal might be seen as an ‘Orientalizing’ of the ‘Orientalist’, in both the sense of speaking ‘for’ him and in the sense of rendering him ahistorical, a figure whose contemporary contributions are perceived as merely continuous with a trajectory set deep in the intellectual past. Yet not only has Cook repeatedly distanced himself from his early thesis in Hagarism, his later works are a far cry from the contemporary ‘neo-Orientalism’ of individuals such as the ultra-conservative Zionist, Daniel Pipes, alongside whom his name occasionally appears. Ironically, Pipes is among the few Western intellectuals who continues to reference Hagarism in support of his (generally polemical) political arguments.

If the flippant dismissal of Cook’s impressive scholarship under the heading of ‘Orientalism’ is neither warranted nor desirable, there remains the question of just how Hagarism was, to borrow Cook’s words, ‘formative’ for his later scholarly approach. Here, it is worth elaborating a little further on the ‘radical skepticism’ that Cook references as the backdrop for the writing of Hagarism at SOAS in the late 1970s. The crucial and unmentioned figure here is John Wansbrough, the Harvard-educated advisor to both Cook and Crone whose radically revisionist interpretation of early Islam as a Jewish-influenced sectarian movement in his 1977 Qur’anic Studies provided the touchstone for Hagarism’s thesis. Perhaps no less critical to Cook’s early intellectual development is Bernard Lewis, who served as Cook’s dissertation advisor and who must be credited, in part, with steering his approach and explanatory framework in the direction of intellectual history. Lewis, who is notable not only for his role as a foreign policy consultant to the Bush administration after 9/11 but also for being one of the only Western scholars to still identify as an ‘Orientalist’, remains a central yet highly conservative figure in Islamic Studies, a status confirmed in no small part by his persistent and at times highly venomous opposition to the works of Edward Said.

Hagarism was the product of a highly particular scholarly environment permeated both by an emerging radicalism and a deep traditionalism within the field of Islamic Studies. Novel in its willingness to engage contemporary non-Muslim sources in the study of early Islamic history, the work nevertheless retained many of the characteristics of highly traditional Orientalist scholarship of the genre still espoused by Professor Lewis: an emphasis on textual sources in the study of religion; a focus on the early development of the religion as critical to understanding Islam’s distinctive ‘essence’; a privileging of ‘civilisation’ as the fundamental unit of analysis; and a lack of attention to questions of power and politics as they pertained to the emergence of normative understandings of critical concepts, both within and outside the traditions under analysis. Undergirding this approach is the persistent influence of the Rankean strand of scientific historicism, an intellectual debt underscored by Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, who critiques Cook for his promulgation of the Rankean catchcry, “facts speak for themselves”.1

While I am hesitant, for reasons suggested above, to join with Rosen in labelling Cook an ‘Orientalist’, there are aspects of the latter’s recent work that indeed evoke traces of the more traditional approach described above. As one example, we might take Cook’s Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong (2001), an impressive volume that is the result of more than 15 years of meticulous research and whose footnotes put even Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire philosophique to shame. While the rigour and value of Cook’s recent volume are extraordinary, two aspects of the work’s structure and methodology stand out as conspicuously traditional in their assumptions. First, there is the question of chronology. Cook characteristically begins his analysis from the earliest sources, and continues his textual sifting up to the end of ‘classical’ Islam in the twelfth century CE. From here, the text leaps abruptly into the eighteenth century. This structural choice leaves the reader with the distinct (and, to my mind, misleading) impression that modern Islam can be best understood with reference to its earliest origins and development in what have survived as ‘mainstream’ texts (a term never explicitly defined or justified by Cook), while bracketing out the messier questions about Islam’s interrelations with other intellectual systems (including ‘heretical’ ones), as well as the impact of culture, politics, and economics upon its development. Second, having masterfully delineated the tensions and diversity within the genealogy of this concept in Islamic history, Cook then attempts to force these threads back together in a chapter tellingly entitled: ‘What is Distinctive about the Islamic Case’. Cook’s concern to discover the sine qua non of the Islamic concept of commanding right and forbidding wrong – a precept which Cook believes to be “found embedded (though not necessarily articulated) in just about all human cultures”2 – appears to lead him to fuse together two distinct positions mapped out in the first section of his work, a fusion that does justice neither to the complexity of Cook’s analysis, nor to the adherents of these two positions themselves, who might well have resisted being categorised together under the rubric of the ‘distinctively’ Islamic.3 Similarly surprising, given the complexity of the evidence examined, is Cook’s concluding remark that “Islam, within certain limits, tells people what to believe and how to live; liberalism, within certain limits, is about leaving them to work this out for themselves”.4 In light of Cook’s attentive treatment of Islamic conceptions of privacy within his discussion, this statement appears as a blatant oversimplification – perhaps more consistent with what modern Islamists and modern liberals say about themselves than with the experiential and historical realities of either system.

While it is not difficult to perceive, in Professor Cook’s more recent work, traces of a more traditional approach to Islamic Studies, the rigour and meticulousness that characterise his scholarship provide an exemplary model for young scholars and caution against the intellectual torpor that results, more often than not, from overhasty characterisations and inadequate critical engagement. Throughout a long and at times tempestuous career, Professor Cook has retained his unwavering commitment to the practice of thorough scholarship based on an extensive and close mastery of primary materials, including their languages. And while his emphasis that ‘bigger things do rest on smaller things’ may stand at odds with an increasingly instrumentalised and production-focused culture in the humanities, the discipline and patience at evidence in Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong provides a timely reminder of the valuable aspects of traditional academic approaches.


  1.  Lawrence Rosen, ‘Orientalism Revisited: Edward Said’s Unfinished Critique,’, 1 January 2007. 
  2.  Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 562 
  3. Ibid., 583. 
  4.  Ibid., 514.