The Islamic Scholarly Tradition. Studies in History, Law, and Thought in Honor of Professor Michael Allan Cook

  • Book Title:
 The Islamic Scholarly Tradition
  • Book Author:
Asad Q. AhmedBehnam SadeghiMichael Bonner
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Michael Cook is one of the most important, productive and influential scholars active today in Islamic history, Qurʾānic studies, Islamic law and theology, and several related fields and subfields. His work delves deeply into many topics and disciplines, but at the same time it does not lend itself easily to characterization under neat headings.

Not that some critics haven’t tried: especially after the appearance of Hagarism in 1977, Professor Cook and his coauthor, Patricia Crone, were often described as the founding members of a “revisionist” or “skeptical” school of early Islamic historical studies. On balance, however, these critics misstated the case. Professor Cook’s published work is comprehensive, subtle, learned and refined, covering a wide range of topics and using a variety of approaches.

The reader of this work is constantly struck by Professor Cook’s consistently high standard of scholarly accuracy, his lucidly clear argumentation, expression and style, his wide and profound learning, his utterly British irony, and above all, his love for the subject-matter, which amounts to no less than the history, law, thought and civilization of Islam, especially (though not exclusively) in the premodern age.

These same qualities have been typical of Professor Cook’s activity as the teacher of many students, undergraduate and graduate, in Britain and America. He has always empowered these students (as well as his readers) by showing them how to construe a problem, where to find evidence for it, how to marshal this evidence and how to find even more of it, how to construct and to challenge an argument, and so on.

His modesty, wit, hard effort, and intellectual good taste have combined to inspire students and readers for several decades and to help them find their own voices and paths.

The present volume, presented to Professor Cook on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, brings together essays by a representative sample of writers who studied with him either during his tenure at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) or at Princeton since his arrival there as the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Stud- ies in 1986.

These range from a scholar who took his seminars at SOAS (Maribel Fierro) to the first student who took a PhD from Princeton under his guidance (Michael Bonner) to some of the most recent (Asad Q. Ahmed, Karen Bauer). In these fourteen contributions it is easy to identify a wide array of interests and approaches. Here they have been arranged in four sections which correspond rather neatly to the main areas of Professor Cook’s scholarly output and teaching, as described above in the Preface (“Retrospective”) by R. Stephen Humphreys. The first of these areas is early Islamic history.

 As the Preface has already mentioned, early Islam was actually Professor Cook’s second main area of research, after early modern and Ottoman history. And while much of Professor Cook’s subsequent activity has been in what we often call Islamic or religious studies—the study of the Qurʾān, the- ology, mysticism and law—he began as a historian and has maintained a historian’s approach throughout his career.

Here it may be useful to set out a few brief points about Professor Cook’s contributions in this area, especially since these points will apply broadly to the other three areas as well.

First of all, though Professor Cook has been accused of maintaining an overly skeptical, even nihilistic view of the Muslim Arabic written sources for early Islam, this accusation does not hold, as the Preface has already shown.

 Even Hagarism did not simply declare these written sources invalid or useless. Instead it began with the critique of them which had already been achieved by scholars such as Schacht, Wansbrough and Noth, and then proceeded to an experiment with the non-Muslim sources, to see if these could form the basis for another view.1 In fact, Professor Cook’s views on the Muslim sources for early Islam are subtle and profound, if sometimes less than reassuring.2 For many scholars active in this area, the governing question has been: “Can we reconstruct early Islamic history with any degree of confi- dence?” While Michael Cook has not shied away from this question, he has also gone in other directions which have proved, in the end, more fruitful and interesting.

Michael Cook  has  acquired,  and  has  generously enabled  others to acquire, an intimate and extensive familiarity with the primary sources, beginning with texts in classical Arabic. He pursues issues in these texts—such as attribution of authorship, the titles and con- tents of works, the meanings of words and phrases, the development of doctrines and practices, parallels with other religious, cultural and linguistic traditions—with a love of detail and a remarkable, actually unique ability to bring together the known sources regarding a given problem and to unearth new ones.

At the same time, while he often takes considerable pains to establish a point, once he has arrived there he does not usually go on exemplifying this point repeatedly in different contexts. In other words, while Michael Cook’s work is often technical and detailed, it avoids the scholastic rehashing of historiographical and other issues that we sometimes see in academic writing in many fields, including this one.

Especially relevant to Michael Cook’s activity as a teacher is the fact that he has always connected his historical work to the other fields just mentioned, including Qurʾānic studies and Islamic theology and law.

So for instance, his students in Islamic history quickly understand that they must master a variety of genres, beyond the (already vast) Arabic chronicle tradition with its focus on political and military events. After all, if the early Islamic world left us little or nothing by way of formal, official archives, it did produce great riches in the areas of theological and juridical reflection, scriptural exegesis and so on. Not only are these areas fair game for historians, they are necessary objects of study for them.

To resume, then, the first part of this volume is devoted to “Studies in Early Islamic History.” In “‘Time Has Come Full Circle’: Markets, Fairs, and the Calendar in Arabia before Islam,” I set out som iliar questions and then seek answers to them in sources which…

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