Michael Cook on How and Why
Muhammad Made a Difference
Presentation and forum
Monday, May 22, 2006
Some of the nation's leading journalists gathered in Key West, Florida,
in May 2006 for the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle conference on
religion, politics and public life. Conference speaker Michael Cook,
widely considered among the most outstanding scholars on the history of
Islam, is the author of several classic works on Muhammad and early
Islamic theology, including A Brief History of the Human Race (2005)
and Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (2001) In
this presentation, Cook vividly described the merging of politics and
religion in the life of Muhammad and how this legacy shapes the Muslim
Michael Cook, Cleveland Dodge professor of Near Eastern Studies,
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center;
Senior Adviser, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
In Mr. Cook's presentation,
he refers to a packet of visual aids he provided to the audience, which
are relevant to his remarks. We recommend the reader download the pdf
file before reading the transcript.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Welcome to Key West. We’re delighted you could be
here. We have a group of your colleagues who meet twice a year for
lunch to talk about what the next conference should be about, and what
topics we should cover. When we met last time, it was at the height of
the cartoon controversy, and we wanted an expert on Islam and Muhammad
to speak. Everybody in the room agreed that if we could get Professor
Michael Cook, it would be great because Dr. Cook is one of the leading
authorities, not only in this country but in the world, on the subject.
Professor Cook holds the Cleveland Dodge chair of Near Eastern Studies
at Princeton, a chair formerly held by his teacher, Bernard Lewis. He’s
the author of many books. One of his most recent books is called A
Brief History of the Human Race. One of our first questions to him will
be: How does one write a brief history of the human race? I hope he’ll
MICHAEL COOK: I ought to start by apologizing for the fact that I am
bringing you stale news. I’m a card-carrying medievalist. I’m here to
talk about how and why Muhammad made a difference. Just about
everything I’m talking about will be events that happened in the
seventh century -- (laughter) -- but don’t get the idea that those
events are therefore irrelevant to the present day. I suspect that some
of them are deeply relevant, though sometimes in ways that I’m not good
at articulating. I’ll try and come back to that at the end.
I’m not going to drop you straight into the seventh century. That would
be unkind. I want to back up a few centuries and give you some
background about the rise of monotheism. Maybe you know all about that
already. In that case, I’m just reminding you.
The rise of monotheism happened late in the day. For something like a
thousand years, you had monotheism, and it didn’t make a significant
dent on world history. For many centuries, it was the religion of the
ancient Israelites, a small Near Eastern people, and of their
descendants, the Jews. Even when it started to spread to non-Jews in
significant numbers in the form of Christianity, Christianity remained
for the best part of three centuries the religion of a persecuted
minority. But that changed dramatically in the fourth century, and the
guy who changed it was the Roman Emperor Constantine.
Constantine adopted Christianity as his religion and, by extension, as
the religion of the Roman Empire. At that point, monotheism, in its
Christian form, for the first time became a bandwagon. Down until the
time of Constantine, you had to be pretty strongly interested in your
eternal salvation for it to make sense to convert to Christianity.
After Constantine, people like you and me are jumping on the bandwagon.
Well, I shouldn’t speak for you, but people like me are jumping on the
bandwagon. It makes excellent sense in this world to convert to
What’s relevant from my point of view, from our point of view, is that
this bandwagon effect is not confined to the Roman Empire. It’s very
strong there, but it’s also pulling and tugging on peoples outside the
empire. From the fourth century onward, a whole series of peoples
around the Roman world decide to give up their ancestral paganism and
convert to Christianity. It’s the Franks; it’s the English; it’s the
Irish; it’s the Goths; it’s the Armenians, the Georgians, the
Ethiopians -- you name them. This is a big historical trend. But
whenever you have a big historical trend, there’s going to be somebody
out there bucking the trend.
For example, you have pagan holdouts -- people like the Lithuanians who
are so incredibly obstinate that 1,000 years after Constantine, they
still insist on worshiping their pagan gods. Or you have people who
like to play the field, like the Khazars. The Khazars turn up their
noses at Christianity, and they decide to take their monotheistic
medicine in the form of Judaism.
Both those peoples are of some consequence if you study the history of
the regions they lived in. But they didn’t, either of them, make a
significant dent on world history; the Arabs did. How did the Arabs do
it? First and perhaps most important of all, the Arabs did not convert
to Christianity like everybody else. Neither did they cling obstinately
to their ancestral paganism. Nor did they turn up their noses at
Christianity and adopt Judaism. What they did was to come up with a
monotheist religion of their own. That initiated an extraordinary
series of events.
The Arabs, in their Arabian homeland, came together to form a state.
Then they set out from their homeland and conquered an empire that
stretched all the way from Spain to Central Asia and northwestern
India. That empire was the crucible in which the Islamic world as we
know it began to come into existence.
It’s an extraordinary sequence of events, and lots of people are
involved in it. But the most crucial person is Muhammad, because he was
the one who gave the Arabs their new monotheism and established their
How and why did he manage to make that difference, a difference that
has made an enormous dent on the history of the world and continues to
dent the world as we know it today? The prosaic answer is that he was
1) a successful prophet and 2) a successful politician.
First, Muhammad as a prophet. Muhammad was born about 570. Forty years
later, around 610, he began to receive revelations from on high. He
continued to receive those revelations for something like 20 years, and
collectively, those revelations constitute the Koran. The Koran was put
together in the exact form in which we have it today something like 20
years after his death in 632. Some time around 650 —--give or take a
few years -- the Koran is put together the way it is now.
What I have to do now is give you the message of the Koran. How do I do
that? In a talk of this length, I have reduced the Koran to a sound
bite. I feel bad about that. What authority do I have to reduce God’s
message to a sound bite? Fortunately, the early Muslims come to my aid.
They didn’t have the concept of a sound bite, but they did develop by
the end of the seventh century a concept to which I can give the name
of a “coin bite.”
Let me show you a typical coin, a completely non-Islamic coin, an
American quarter (Page 3). Does that look vaguely familiar? This is a
classic recipe for a coin. One side is political; the other side you
could call religious. On the political side, you have a guy’s head, and
he’s your king, or if not, then some equivalent figure. This side, you
have an eagle, because either you guys worship an eagle god, or else
maybe the eagle is a national symbol.
Here is a seventh century coin, and it’s exactly the same recipe (Page
4). This is typical of the design of coins minted by the Persian
Empire, which is the empire the Arabs knocked down when they set out to
conquer the world. This style is a little different, but it’s the same
recipe. You’ve got the guy’s head there -- that’s the Persian emperor.
Unlike George Washington, he has a crown on his head. Over here, we
have a Zoroastrian fire altar and a couple of attendants on either
side. There’s the political side and the religious side -- same basic
But the odd thing about this coin is, as some of you may have noticed,
we have a bit of Arabic script. What’s that doing here? This coin was
minted long after the Persian Empire disappeared, some time in the
690s, and it was minted not under Persian rule but under the rule of
the Arabs -- the Muslims. What on earth were the Arabs doing making
propaganda for an empire they had destroyed and for a religion theirs
had superseded? It’s a good question, and eventually they started to
ask themselves that question. They decided it was time for something
different (Page 5). It’s recognizable as a coin: It’s round, has two
sides, but everything else is changed. There is nothing but words here.
Nobody’s head, nobody’s symbol, just words. In fact, 45 words in Arabic
script, and those 45 words are the coin bite.
I guess you guys don’t readily decipher Arabic script on seventh
century coins, so let me make it a bit easier. If you can’t read it,
never mind; I can.
First, there are eight words used for a purely business purpose. This
dirham -- that’s the kind of coin this is -- was minted in 733 or 734.
That’s all we get. No name of any ruler is mentioned. Everything else
on this coin is made over to God, and the words are derived from the
Koran. Here we have the Koran reduced to a coin bite, and let’s see
what the Muslims in the late seventh century decided to put there.
“There is no God but God alone without companion.” That’s good:
no-compromise, no-nonsense monotheism -- very clear. We flip to the
other side, and here in the center we have a rather longer passage: “He
is God, One. God, the everlasting refuge, who has not begotten and has
not been begotten and equal to him is not anyone” (Koran, chapter 112.)
That’s the same uncompromising monotheism, but note also a side swipe
at the Christians. The Christians are notorious for believing that God
has a son; hence, the denial here that God has begotten anyone.
Finally, down here around the margin, we have: “Muhammad is the
messenger of God” -- that’s a parting of the ways with the Jews and
Christians, who don’t believe that Muhammad is a prophet -- “whom He
has sent with the guidance and the religion of truth” -- so Muhammad’s
religion is the religion of truth, Islam is the religion of truth, and
this Jewish and Christian stuff is not -- “that He may uplift it above
every religion, though the unbelievers be averse” -- that’s what, in
religion departments, is called triumphalism.
There might be things I personally would have liked to see included on
their coin, but let’s just leave it at that; that’s what they chose to
put there. That’s as much as I wanted to say about Muhammad as a
prophet, so you’ve got his message.
Now, Muhammad as a politician. In the timeline I’ve given you (Page 1)
there are three events from the career of the prophet as a politician:
the migration from Mecca to Medina, the raid on the Banu ’l-Mustaliq
and the submission of Mecca. Two of those events are very important --
the migration to Medina and the submission of Mecca -- but they’re not
the ones I’m going to talk about at any length.
The migration from Mecca to Medina is the central political event of
the prophet’s career. The prophet has a problem in Mecca, and he finds
the solution in Medina.
The problem in Mecca is he and his followers are unpopular with the
pagan population. Why? Because of their monotheist incivility: They go
around trashing pagan gods, and that’s not appreciated. Muhammad has to
get his followers out of Mecca and find somewhere where they’ll be more
secure. The answer, after a long search, is Medina.
Medina is an oasis about 200 miles north of Mecca that is in an awful
political mess. Some of the Medinans had a hunch if they brought in
Muhammad, he could clear up the mess, get things together and life
could be more tolerable for them. They invite Muhammad to come, and
they let him bring his followers along, too.
Muhammad establishes himself in Medina, and once he’s established in
Medina, he starts to build a state -- a rudimentary, rather tribal
state. This is the depths of Arabia, but it’s a real state. Between 622
and 632, he is expanding the power of his state. One of the milestones
in the expansion of that power over Arabia is the submission of his own
hometown of Mecca in 630.
What about this raid on the Banu ’l-Mustaliq? By the standards of the
other events just mentioned, this is a trivial event. That’s exactly
why I’m going to tell you about it: Because I can use it to give you a
sense of the texture of Muhammad’s political career. The map on Page 2
shows you Arabia -- in context -- Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Roman Empire
up there, Persian Empire up there, and here is Medina where the prophet
in 622 is beginning to establish his state.
Who are these Banu ’l-Mustaliq? They are a small tribal group that
lives in the desert between Mecca and the sea. Why does Muhammad decide
to attack them? He gets intelligence that they’re about to attack him,
so it’s a preemptive strike. Of course, we don’t have their account of
it. That’s how the story is told in our sources: that this is a
Muhammad comes down from Medina with his troops, his followers, and he
catches the Banu ’l-Mustaliq -- the tribe -- by surprise at a watering
place, and there’s a battle. I think 10 members of the tribe get
killed. Two hundred of them are taken captive; that means they are
slaves. Some of those 200 are men, but many of them are women and
Muhammad has scored a victory. What has it cost him? Very little. Only
one Muslim has been killed on the battlefield. Only one of his
followers has been killed, and I’ll come back to that.
At this point, the military operation is over, and Muhammad turns
around and takes his followers back to Mecca. At least that’s the
military side of it. What about the politics?
First of all, there’s the Muslim that got killed in the battle. What I
didn’t tell you is he didn’t die heroically fighting the enemy. It was
a case of friendly fire. Another of Muhammad’s followers mistook him
for the enemy and killed him, and this creates problems. The family of
the slain man, under Muslim rules, has a claim to blood money. The
slain man has a brother who lives in Mecca. Mecca at this time is pagan
-- the brother is pagan -- but he comes to Muhammad’s camp, and he
pretends that he’s converted to Islam. Muhammad thinks that the guy is
playing by Muslim rules, and he makes arrangements for the guy to get
the blood money. But when nobody is paying attention, the guy, who’s
actually playing by pagan rules, kills the killer of his brother and
absconds. He goes back to Mecca, extemporizing poetry about how now
he’s through with being a Muslim and is going back to being a good
Muhammad has been had, and there’s nothing he can do about it. But not
quite nothing. A few years later in 630, when Mecca submits to him,
Muhammad behaves magnanimously, but he does have a hit list of certain
people that he’s not going to forgive. This guy who had pretended to be
a Muslim and killed the killer of his brother is one of them.
Now let me tell you about an incident that was much more threatening
and dangerous. First, two bits of background. One, we’re still by the
watering place, and a watering place in western Arabia is a pretty
small affair. This is a very arid part of the world. If people are
crowding around the watering place, there’s going to be pushing and
shoving. Two, you may tend to think of Muhammad’s followers as being a
band of brothers who will fight for each other to the death, who are
totally loyal to each other, etc., and, at a certain level, you may be
right. But it could be more accurate to think of Muhammad’s followers
as a shaky coalition. One of several fault lines that runs through this
coalition is the distinction between the prophet’s Meccan followers and
his Medinan followers. The Medinans don’t like the Meccans that much.
They feel resentful. Their view is: “We were so decent to these Meccan
guys. We let them come here as refugees, and look at them! Now they’re
taking over our oasis. Why are we putting up with this?”
So what happens at the water hole? Two men get into a shoving match.
These two men are not people of any particular consequence, but they do
have some connections, and one of them is connected to the prophet’s
Meccan followers; the other is connected to the prophet’s Medinan
followers. The shoving match escalates into a fight, and the two men
then call out for help from their people.
I should mention here a character called Ibn Ubayy. He is a Medinan,
and he’s a lukewarm Muslim. He goes along, but he’s not happy. The
reason he’s not happy is before the prophet came to Medina, Ibn Ubayy
was a powerful man with ambitions to make himself king of the oasis.
When Muhammad comes, his ambitions disintegrate, and he’s sulky about
it. He will never miss an opportunity to go to the prophet’s Medinan
followers and say, “Why are you putting up with these Meccans?” That’s
exactly what he’s doing on this occasion of the shoving match at the
water hole. He’s going around, out of earshot of the prophet, saying to
the prophet’s Medinan followers: “The first thing we should do when we
get back to Medina is throw those Meccans out.” It’s not a good
situation, and the prophet hears about it.
What is Muhammad to do? Like any sensible politician, the first thing
he does is ask for advice. He gets advice from one of his Meccan
followers who says: “You’ve got to take Ibn Ubayy and kill him right
now.” But Muhammad is not happy with that idea because he’s afraid of
the backlash. He gets advice from one of his Medinan followers, and the
guy says: “You should be nice to this guy, because the bottom line is
you are in a stronger political position than him.”
What does Muhammad actually do? As politicians often do, he does
nothing. No, that’s not quite right. He does do something. He orders
his followers to march back to Medina on the double. The result is
they’re so exhausted they don’t have any energy left for bickering.
Luckily, they don’t encounter a hostile armed force; that could have
been a disaster. The plan works -- Muhammad gets them back to Medina.
After that, Ibn Ubayy fades out; he loses credit with his own people
and dies soon after. Muhammad can’t resist congratulating himself for
making the right decision.
I’ve given you lots of detail. Let’s stand back from the trees and see
if we can find a wood here.
The first one is the extraordinary success of Muhammad in initiating a
chain of events that establishes the Islamic world. We’ve seen he has a
message from on high. He has skill as a military leader and a
politician. But how does he make the leap from a being a guy with a
message and political skill to having this enormous impact on world
Let’s go back and think for a minute about Arabia. I’ve mentioned
before that Arabia is an arid part of the world. Before the days of
oil, Arabia is also poor. Very poor compared to the densely settled
agricultural lands outside Arabia, and immensely poor compared to, say,
northwestern Europe or southern China or the eastern United States.
Poor environments are an unfriendly place for states. If you want to
establish a halfway decent state, you need a nice, fat tax base, and
you’re not going to find that in Arabia. Instead of states in Arabia,
what you find are tribes. Because of the impoverished environment,
these tribes tend to be rather flat -- they don’t have steep social
hierarchies. That means in Arabia basically every adult male has to be
a warrior and a politician in his own right. It’s a society with a high
level of military and political skill and activity, but it’s also a
society without any central coordination. The result is, through the
centuries, the Arabs fritter away their military and political energy
in small-scale conflict among themselves. That’s why, before the
seventh century, the tribes are never a big danger to their neighbors
outside Arabia. Sure, they come and raid and steal the chickens and
kidnap a few people, but it’s nothing big.
What Muhammad somehow did -- using not only his political skills but
also his monotheist message that came from outside the tribal system --
was to get the Arabs on the same page. If you could do that, even
temporarily, you could send the Arabs out to conquer the world. Not in
Muhammad’s lifetime, but a couple of years after his death, starting in
634 -- that’s when his followers conquer this empire stretching from
Spain to Central Asia. They had never done it before, and they never
did it again. Muhammad, in his dual role as prophet and politician, is
the absolutely crucial factor that made it possible.
That’s one angle. For the other angle let me go back to what I was
saying about Christianity becoming a bandwagon in the fourth century.
Any world religion must have become a bandwagon at some stage in its
history, or it wouldn’t be a world religion. But world religions vary
with regard to the timing of the bandwagon effect. In the Christian
case, you have to wait until the fourth century for the Christian
bandwagon to start rolling. Before the fourth century, you have to be
pretty concerned about your eternal salvation for it to make sense to
become a Christian.
In the Muslim case, the timing is quite different. Once the prophet
gets to Medina, once he establishes this state, there is already the
beginning of a bandwagon. In other words, the bandwagon effect in Islam
comes extremely early. What does this mean? It means three things. One
is that the historical experiences of early Christianity and early
Islam are completely different. In the Christian case, you have a
religion that remains the religion of a persecuted minority for the
best part of three centuries. All the basic shapes of the religion are
already set before the bandwagon starts. By contrast, in the Islamic
case, you have less than 12 years in which the Muslims are a persecuted
minority in Mecca. From that point on, once they get to Medina, and the
prophet starts building his state, the bandwagon is rolling.
If, as you listen to my stories of the prophet, you have the Gospels in
mind, you must have a sense that these stories are very, very
different. They not only relate different historical circumstances, but
they are told to a different audience. The audience of the Gospels is
people who are seriously concerned about their salvation. The audience
of the stories I’ve told you -- well, the salvation-minded might be
listening, too -- but these stories cater to the military and political
elite of the Arab-Islamic Empire. They address people who are
interested in military operations, who like to know about preemptive
strikes and incidents of friendly fire. These stories are told for
people extremely interested in politics, who are fascinated by the
judgment calls required to keep a shaky coalition together.
I hope you see this difference, this interest in military and political
affairs, which makes the life of Muhammad, as it is written, so
different in texture from the life of Jesus, as it’s written in the
Gospels. Think what it means that you have, at the present day, these
two utterly different heritages, these two utterly different ways of
approaching and describing the life of the founder of the religion. I
think that helps explain both why Islamic fundamentalism has been such
a relative success in recent decades, and why people coming from a
Christian background find it incredibly hard to understand it.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you very much. Now we’ll take questions.
KATHLEEN PARKER, TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES: Could you talk about how the
phenomenon of Osama bin Laden evolved out of this phenomenon of
Muhammad. Every time you talked about Muhammad, I’m seeing Osama bin
Laden in my head.
MR. COOK: I know you are. I’m not going to make any judgment about
whether Osama bin Laden is making a correct use of his (Islamic)
heritage. But certain features of that heritage are relevant to him.
Like the prophet, Bin Laden is a political character, and he is
involved in intense military activity. So those aspects of the
prophet’s heritage do a lot for bin Laden.
JOHN COCHRAN, CQ WEEKLY: You said you didn’t want to talk about whether
Osama bin Laden had perverted his history. Why not? In the American
political context, it is a sound bite that bin Laden has severely
perverted a great religion, so your view on that would be interesting.
MR. COOK: That’s a fair question. Shortly after 9/11, there was a book
published called How Did This Happen? that included an essay by Karen
Armstrong in which she said a world religion has been hijacked by this
band of fanatics. I don’t buy that for a minute. I think there are
genuinely things present in this heritage that Osama bin Laden can
It gets tricky where you start asking exact questions about what he
does. What is justified in terms of the heritage and what is not?
That’s controversial in the Western academe. It’s also very
controversial in the general Islamic fundamentalist milieu, too. For
example, I understand that after 9/11 there was a great deal of
discussion among Salafis -- that is, among Muslim fundamentalists of
that streak -- about what in 9/11 was and wasn’t justified. You had a
whole series of positions, including one that sticks in my mind, which
said that the people in the building had it coming to them, but the
people in the plane that was hijacked, they should not have been
killed. I asked my source if that meant Osama bin Laden would go to
hell because those people in the airplane had been killed. The answer
was no, that was just an error of judgment.
E.J. DIONNE JR., THE WASHINGTON POST: Could you talk about the roots of
the Koran in two ways. One, how closely does it parallel the Arab
paganism in which Muhammad was raised, and how much did it break with
it? Secondly, how aware was Muhammad of Christian and Jewish sources,
and how do those play into it?
MR. COOK: The thing the Koran most obviously shares with the pagan
tradition -- particularly in the early parts of the Koran, or what are
taken to be the early parts of the Koran -- is a rhyming prose. Pagan
soothsayers, according to the tradition, used to deliver their -- what
do soothsayers deliver? -- sooths. Anyway, they used to deliver them in
a certain style of rhymed prose, and there are parts of the Koran that
are in a similar style of rhymed prose. The whole of the Koran tends to
have an element of rhyme running through the verses. That’s something
that looks like a pagan heritage. There’s not much else, apart from
occasional references to particular pagan gods, but that’s what you’d
Turning to Jewish and Christian sources. If you don’t think that the
Koran was revealed by God, then it’s obvious Muhammad had Jewish and
Christian sources. What people since the 19th century and long before
have noticed is the accounts you find in the Koran of, say, the career
of Noah tend to diverge from accepted narratives in Jewish and
Christian sources. The question is why. One possible explanation would
be Muhammad got it wrong. He misquoted his sources. The other
possibility is he wasn’t getting it direct from Jewish and Christian
sources. He was getting it downstream, by some chain of transmission.
Nobody has a way of proving it’s one or the other, but the Jewish and
Christian influence is unmistakable.
MR. DIONNE: Are there explicit references in the Koran to Christianity
MR. COOK: The Koran is full of references to Christianity and Judaism.
The question is whether the information came from a Jew or a Christian,
but got garbled, or whether it’s a downstream source that has already
been through several transmissions.
MR. DIONNE: Could you elaborate on that? Muhammad was aware of
Christianity and Judaism. He had various options; this is assuming the
Koran is not purely divine revelation. He might have adopted
Christianity or Judaism wholesale or in larger part than he did. Do we
know why he chose his course instead of sticking with the two forms of
monotheism he had available to him?
MR. COOK: The tradition tells he initially saw himself simply as the
latest monotheist prophet and expected Jews and Christians to follow
him. Christians weren’t relevant because there weren’t any in Mecca or
Medina. Or if there were, they were in very small numbers. The Jews
were relevant because there was a substantial Jewish population in
Medina, and they rejected him. You can follow the tradition and see his
decision to come up with a new form of monotheism as a reaction to
being rejected by the Jews in Medina.
To give you one example: There’s a series of confusing Koranic passages
about the direction in which Muslims should pray. As the tradition
explains it, the prophet originally told his followers in Mecca to pray
towards Jerusalem. That’s a good Jewish thing to do. But then, when he
starts having bad relations with the Jews, he receives a revelation
that says turn around and pray towards Mecca.
This event is a nationalization of monotheism. It links to the belief
that Mecca -- that is, the sanctuary known as the Kaaba -- was not
originally a pagan sanctuary but a monotheist sanctuary established by
Abraham and Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs. So the Kaaba becomes a
national monotheist sanctuary.
TERRY EASTLAND, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Somewhere, Bernard Lewis wrote
about the famous story in the Gospels regarding the tribute money and
Jesus (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what
is God’s.”) You made the observation that Christianity had within its
original material that distinction, which later matured in the West. I
think Lewis said this distinction was not present in the original
materials of Islam.
If Muhammad and his followers were acquainted with that story, what was
their reaction to it?
Since then has there been any movement in Muslim thought towards
discovering that distinction?
MR. COOK: I don’t know of any early Muslim reaction to that particular
passage in the Gospels. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, but I
haven’t seen it. But it wouldn’t surprise me if there were no recorded
reaction because the early Muslims had their Koran; they regarded that
as the definitive revelation. As far as they were concerned, the New
Testament and the Old Testament were suspect -- originally revealed
texts but corrupted by subsequent followers of Moses and Jesus. You
couldn’t rely on them, and they tended to ignore them.
That said, a lot seeped through from Christian and Jewish circles into
Islamic circles. They had knowledge of things that went on in the
Gospels. In the later Middle Ages, some Islamic scholars became
extremely knowledgeable about the Gospels and the Old Testament. But
neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament is part of the
mainstream Islamic tradition as texts. The main thing the early Muslims
dwell on is passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament they
interpret as predictions of Muhammad’s coming. Anything else doesn’t
get too much attention.
Your second question: Did they develop something like that distinction
later on, without having it in such a neat form as established by the
founder of the religion? The answer is definitely yes. The Islamic
state starts off being ruled by Muhammad, who is both a prophet and a
politician. He then has successors who rule it after him. They are not
prophets; they are Caliphs. But the Caliphs are nevertheless occupying
an intrinsically religious office as well as an obviously political
one. They have a religious authority as well as political power, so we
still have the Islamic state here.
But at some point that nobody has exactly agreed upon, the Caliphate
falls apart. It falls apart in material historical terms: The Islamic
world breaks up into numerous distinct states. But it also falls apart
morally in the sense that people ceased to recognize those who claimed
to be Caliphs as having anything like the prestige, the rectitude, the
authority of the early Caliphs who came immediately after Muhammad.
By the 11th century, Muslims are talking in terms of what you could
call a dichotomy between religion and the state. In doing that, they
are partly echoing a pre-Islamic Iranian Persian tradition, in which
that dichotomy was a familiar dictum.
By the way, the pre-Islamic Persians are damnable unbelievers. They go
to hell, they burn. But they were very good at certain things, and one
of the things they were good at was statecraft. If you hear something
they said about statecraft, you ought to pay attention. One of the
things they said was that religion and the state are twins. They’re not
the same thing, but they’re very closely connected. That became a
paradigm. It didn’t have the authority of the prophet or the Koran. But
nevertheless, it became accepted as a paradigm in the Islamic world,
particularly the Eastern Islamic world, on the ruins of the Persian
By the 13th century, people are saying things like: “The people in
power are sultans, not Caliphs.” The Caliph has to be a descendant of
the tribe of the prophet. “The guys who are ruling now, they’re a bunch
of Turks who have come from Central Asia. All they’re good at is
warfare, and thanks to that, they’ve taken over. They don’t have any
intrinsic religious status. The best we can hope is they at least
defend Islam against its enemies and behave in a reasonably just
fashion, as much as you can expect Turks to do that.”
When I talked about the contrast between the Gospels and the life of
the prophet, as it was written up in the eighth century, one of the
things I stressed about the prophet was the smartness of his judgment
calls. That Gospel passage about the tribute money is perhaps the one
place in the Gospels where one might say about Jesus, “That was a smart
thing to say.” I mean it was a politically savvy thing to say.
JAMES HUNTER, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: I wanted you to elaborate on the
difference between Persia and Arabia. Iran -- Persia -- is part of the
pan-Islamic world, but it’s not part of the pan-Arab world. There are
deep cultural differences that trace back into medieval times. Could
you talk about those differences, but also talk about the contemporary
relevance of those differences in global politics today?
MR. COOK: One fundamental difference is language. The Arabs of Arabia
and all the other peoples we classify as Arabs today -- from Morocco to
Iraq -- speak Arabic, whereas the people of Iran speak Persian. That
may sound trivial, but it is actually quite significant. When the
Muslims conquered Iraq, Syria, Egypt and later North Africa, the
populations at the time of the conquest were speaking all sorts of
different languages, but they all came within a few centuries to speak
Arabic. You have an enormous historical process of Arabization in those
areas. But after the Muslims conquered Iran, that did not happen. You
might imagine over the centuries the people of Iran would have come to
speak Arabic, but they didn’t. They held onto their ancestral language.
That’s one thing, and it’s fairly obviously linked to something else.
Medieval Egyptians, just to give you one example, don’t have much
memory of what Egypt was like before the Islamic conquest. They know
there were the pharaohs and then the Greeks came and the Romans, that
Egypt was converted to Christianity. In fact, they have a lot of
information and misinformation about it. But they have no
identification with the pre-Islamic past of Egypt. By contrast, there
always survives in Iran an identification, albeit a qualified
identification, with the pre-Islamic past: “Yes, those guys were
damnable pagans, but they had a great tradition, and we want to hang on
to some of that tradition, even though we are now Muslims.”
In the 10th century, you have scruffy military leaders who come from
the mountains of northern Iran with their mercenaries and take over,
trying to present themselves as heirs of the pre-Islamic Persian
emperors. Presumably they’re trying to make themselves look good by
identifying with the pre-Islamic Persian emperors. That tradition
continues, though on a smaller scale, in Iran right down to the present
day. It’s even taken out and dusted off in the middle of the 20th
century by Iranian nationalists.
I think those two things -- hanging onto Persian and retaining a strong
identification with the land’s pre-Islamic past -- make Iran different
MR. HUNTER: What about some of the extraordinary cultural
accomplishments of the Persian Empire? Is that part of the historical
consciousness it’s retained? Does that have any bearing in terms of
openness to other cultures?
MR. COOK: It’s not the cultural achievements of the Persian Empire that
get valued. It’s the military and political achievements. That’s what
they’re seen to be good at. Yes, learned people do know something about
the cultural side, but I think it’s much less prominent in the general
CLARE DUFFY, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS: You talked about the fact that Islam did
not share with Christianity a sense of being a persecuted minority, at
least in its developmental stage. That sense can be a unifying force
for any religious group. When did a sense of persecution develop? I
feel like it did at some point; Shi’ism relies on a sense of being a
persecuted. At some point, this did develop in Islam, did it not?
MR. COOK: Absolutely. Here we have a big distinction between the Sunnis
and the Shi’ites, the Sunnis being -- over most of the Islamic world,
most of the time -- a people who were ruled by a state of their own
kind. They had very little reason to develop a sense of being
persecuted. By contrast, the Shi’ites lost out early on.
Down the centuries, Shi’ites have been ruled by non-Shi’ites, typically
by Sunnis. The Shi’ites develop a strong sense of being a persecuted
minority, and that sense is entirely pre-modern and traditional. All
that happened in modern times is, it is dusted off and used for
By contrast, a sense of being done in by the world is something Sunnis
have only developed in the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
MS. DUFFY: Back to the coins you showed us. Why did they make these
coins? Who was reading them? Was that the way the religion was spread?
How literate were people? Would they look at their money and go, “Hey,
no God but God?”
MR. COOK: We don’t have a clue what literacy rates were like in this
period. Some people could read and some couldn’t. My guess would be a
substantial proportion of the political and military elite could read,
and they could read these coins if they wanted to.
The crucial question, to my mind, is non-Muslims. This is obviously a
message beamed at non-Muslims. It’s telling them to listen up and pay
attention. Could they read these Arabic inscriptions on the coins?
Initially, when most of them didn’t know Arabic, they couldn’t. But it
does seem that early on in the Islamic period and maybe by about 700 --
actually, I shouldn’t say anything definite about the chronology
because I don’t have the facts in my mind. But I think on the Christian
side by about 700, certainly by the early eighth century, you’ve got
evidence of Christians who knew and read Arabic.
One definitive piece of evidence is Christian ecclesiastic canons
saying that Christians are not to have their sons taught the Koran by
Muslim teachers. The point is not that these teachers are converting
the kids. The point is that primary education in the Islamic community
consisted of learning to read the Koran, and if you wanted to learn
proper Arabic and be able to move in elite circles, as many of these
Christians wanted to do, you had to learn your Koran. The church was
getting worried about this and saying it has to stop. But the fact
they’re saying you can’t do this obviously means that people were doing
it. So those people -- Christians -- could definitely have read what
was on the coins.
NINA EASTON, FORTUNE: Professor, I wonder if you could address a
question this conference has wrestled with in the past -- that very
delicate question of whether violence, or evangelism by violence, is an
inherent piece of Islam, which seems to boil down to the question of:
What is the definition of jihad?
MR. COOK: Is it inherent? You could certainly minimize it. What I mean
is this: There are two kinds of jihad. One is defensive, and the other
is offensive. Defensive jihad is straightforward. If the unbelievers
are attacking you, then you have to fight back. Offensive jihad is
going off and invading the territory of unbelievers who haven’t done
anything to you.
What does the law say about offensive jihad? It says that some Muslims
somewhere ought to do it, but provided some Muslims somewhere are doing
it, no other Muslims have to do it. In other words, yes, a certain
element of offensive jihad is inherent in the religion. But you can
minimize it easily if you want to. You can also maximize it. If lots of
Muslims go off and do it, then by the criteria of Islamic law, that’s a
MR. CROMARTIE: Is it in the Koran that it [jihad] can be preemptive or
MR. COOK: In the Koran, it’s hard to figure out whether the text refers
to defensive or offensive warfare. There are certain passages the
medieval scholars always cite, saying they show jihad should be
offensive. But if you look at the passages carefully, it’s not that
obvious. On the basis of the Koran alone you could mount a decent
argument for saying offensive jihad is never a duty.
In Islamic law, it’s different. From things the prophet said or is said
to have said, Islamic law develops the doctrine that it is a duty but,
as I say, a duty you can minimize.
The other question here is that of coercion. Jihad means you go out and
conquer people. But does it mean you’re actually going to force them to
convert to Islam? The basic answer is no. This is straightforward in
the case of Jews and Christians, because everybody recognizes that Jews
and Christians, provided they submit to the Islamic state, can have a
protected status in which they carry on being Jews and Christians. They
still have to follow certain stipulations, and you could argue about
the small print, but the basic conception is very clear.
There is also a strong stream of Islamic law that says that you can
give the same protected status to any unbeliever with the single
exception of Arab pagans. Arab pagans are not a big deal because they
don’t exist after, say, the middle of the seventh century. So when you
go and conquer India, you can give the Hindus protected status. There
are other schools of Islamic law that say, no; you shouldn’t give the
Hindus protected status because their idolatry is so way out you can’t
tolerate it. But the Muslims who actually conquered large parts of
India adhered to the school that said no problem tolerating Hindus.
Actually forcing people to convert is a different question. I can
remember one medieval scholar who says forced conversions are the best
thing ever: The person converted at the point of a sword -- all right,
he doesn’t like it at the time, but after a while he gets used to it
and becomes as good a Muslim as anybody else. That view does exist. But
the general view is no, you don’t coerce people to enter Islam.
ROD DREHER, DALLAS MORNING NEWS: Given how intimately and radically
connected church and state are in Islam, is it just wishful thinking on
the part of the West that we can impose, or at least lead, the Arab
Muslim world into accepting our post-Enlightenment ideas of political
structure -- i.e., separation of church and state? Would it not be the
case that the Islamists are right: The more to which Muslim populations
come to accept Western ideas of liberal democracy, the less truly
Islamic they are?
MR. COOK: Partly you’re asking me for a policy recommendation about
whether a certain policy is likely to work. I tend to be skeptical of
that, but I’m not the person best qualified to set out an argument
But coming closer to my own turf, I would say it’s absolutely right
that there is, in principle, a doctrinal incompatibility between Islam
and democracy, and it’s a very straightforward incompatibility: if you
believe the single most important thing in the world is God’s will, and
if you believe that you know what God’s will is, then what on earth are
you doing with elections? This is an argument that in principle would
extend to Jews and Christians. But Jews and Christians don’t seem to
have a whole lot of problems with democracy. I’m not sure the Islamic
case is in principle all that different.
Let me give you an analogy. If you go back something like 100 years and
take Catholicism and Catholic anti-modernism -- who was that pope in
the first two decades of the 20th century who launched an
anti-modernist crusade that said the church can have no truck with the
corrupt values of the modern world? And there’s the document that says
it must shore up its medieval tradition in the face of all these
temptations and abominations? Isn’t it actually --
MR. CROMARTIE: The Syllabus of Errors.
MR. COOK: The Syllabus of Errors, exactly. Isn’t that where it says it
is an error to believe the pope can accommodate himself to modern
values such as blah, blah, blah, and democracy?
MR. CROMARTIE: Liberalism as well.
MR. DIONNE: That was the last error on the list and the culmination of
MR. COOK: In that late 19th century, early 20th century period, it made
good sense -- and a lot of people were saying it, both on the Catholic
side and the anti-Catholic side -- to say Catholicism and democracy are
incompatible; there’s no way they could be reconciled. When I tell this
to my undergraduates in the early 21st century, and quite a few of them
are Catholics, this sounds really bizarre. It corresponds to nothing in
Occasionally, the word comes out from Rome that contraception is
banned, and the Catholic laity more or less ignores what they’re told
by their hierarchy. There are some questions about whether the Catholic
hierarchy should be telling Catholics not to vote for certain people.
Yes, there’s friction. But a sense of a fundamental incompatibility
between Catholicism and democracy -- I just don’t see it in our time.
For all I know, in another 100 years, the idea of an incompatibility
between Islam and democracy will be equally bizarre.
MR. CROMARTIE: Do we have to wait 100 years? That’s the question also.
MR. DREHER: To follow up: Just how will they do it? Because you can
point to the foundational Christian documents, the scriptures, and you
don’t find explicit support for the church and the state being one. But
in your account, that was there from the beginning with Islam, and it
is inherent to the nature of the religion. If one is a Muslim reformer
and wants to see more Western-style liberal democracy that the West in
the Muslim world, they’re going to have to make their case on the basis
of the Islamic scriptures, right?
MR. DIONNE: Here’s a related question. The Second Vatican Council was
instrumental in overturning The Syllabus of Errors. What mechanisms
could there be [in the Islamic tradition] for a reformation? I use that
term in this context with a small “r.”
MR. COOK: I can’t resist throwing in a comment about the idea of an
Islamic reformation being a good thing. If you look at the European and
the Christian Reformation, it ushered in a period of extraordinary
bloodshed and fanaticism. It was not nice in the ways we like a
political system to be nice. I’m not sure I would wish that on the
Islamic world, and I’m not sure we even have to wish it on them.
They’ve got it already. I think Wahhabism is the Islamic reformation,
and we don’t like it. But yes, we’re talking about some kind of a
It is true Islam is unlike Christianity in not having this fundamental
church-state dichotomy written into the original scriptures. Instead,
if you look back to the beginnings, you have this unity of religion and
But for most of Islamic history, that unity did not exist. I described
the situation where the real holders of power are like Turkish sultans,
and they’re clearly distinct from the religious establishment. Let us
make a distinction between two ideas being logically or doctrinally
compatible, and two ideas being able to live together in the minds of
messy, incoherent humans. For most of Islamic history, some degree of
recognition of a distinction between church and state was present and,
therefore, could be again.
The problem seems that, in the present epoch, Islamic fundamentalism is
on a high horse. That necessarily gives the moral high ground to the
view that religion and politics are inseparable. That’s how it was in
the beginning when everything was right; that’s how it should be again.
I would see a major change coming about not through people thinking up
clever arguments. You can always think up clever arguments from a
heritage that will get anywhere you want. But the fundamental thing
that would have to change is Islamic fundamentalism would have to
either be discredited or at least become much less appealing than it is
at the present day.
MR. CROMARTIE: We did have the French scholar Gilles Kepel speak here a
couple of years ago on this very question. He thought Islamic
fundamentalism was on the wane, and that 9/11 was actually a last,
desperate attempt get attention before it faded away. The question was:
Will that be in 10 years or a hundred years?
Do you think Kepel is right that radical Islamic fundamentalism is
actually going down rather than up?
MR. COOK: The shortest answer is I don’t know. I have read Kepel’s book
[The Trail of Politicial Islam] (2004), and I am impressed by it. He
has made a case, and he may be right, but I would prefer to wait
another 10 or 15 years -- (laughter) -- before saying something on the
MR. CROMARTIE: So the short answer is --
MR. COOK: Kepel knows a great deal and is not a frivolous commentator.
If he says that it is on the wane, then that is a serious possibility
we have to consider.
MR. CROMARTIE: The question is, how long is it going to take?
MR. COOK: I bet in 500 years Islamic fundamentalism will have gone way
LISA ANDERSON, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: When you talk to Muslims in the Arab
world, you quickly realize there is an awareness -- from the lowliest
peasant up to the political scientist -- that there was once greatness.
This seems to inform the anger and resentment and humiliation felt in
the Arab world: That they were once great, they are no more, and
clearly someone is to blame, and it is probably us.
You said Muhammad found a way to unify the Arabs, to pull them together
and lead them to this greatness. Can you talk about how Muhammad did
that, or how you believe this was achieved, since this is clearly an
aim with Osama bin Laden, the restoration of the caliphate and Sharia
law and an Islamic world?
MR. COOK: I don’t have a confident answer to this, but my sense would
be you have to look at the way somebody armed with a doctrine, and a
transcendental authority, and the necessary political skills, can do an
end-run around tribal fragmentation.
A while back I was reading a book about liberation theology in
Venezuela and Colombia, and there was a chapter describing some
particular village in Venezuela. This priest -- was he a Jesuit? -- a
Catholic ecclesiastical figure -- comes in from the outside, bearing
this liberation theology doctrine. He starts to do social work in an
environment where none of the locals trust each other but if they could
get together, they could do great things.
By virtue of being somebody with a transcendental authority, this
Jesuit -- or whatever he was -- was able to use his authority to create
trust in the community. It may not have mattered much what liberation
theology actually said. He got them together to organize social
projects that actually worked and did things for them.
That’s an analogy to what we’re looking at here. You have an authority
that comes from outside a fragmented social system, and if you can get
people’s attention and trust, you can start creating trust among them.
Muhammad had a hard time getting his Meccans and Medinans to trust each
other, but eventually they did. It is political engineering based on a
transcendental mandate you can sell to people.
MS. ANDERSON: Do you think another figure could arise out of this
crucible of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism around the world;
another figure that might unify Muslims again, not in the same sense as
Muhammad but in a similar way?
MR. COOK: Definitely not in the same sense because Muslims wouldn’t be
operating in a pre-modern tribal context. I can imagine somebody
acquiring immense moral authority, but to convert that into political
authority is something else because you bump up against the geopolitics
of the situation.
The only example I can think of in modern items is a bad example:
Khomeini. He built up tremendous moral authority for himself in Iran,
and he would have liked to project that authority onto the rest of the
Islamic world. But the moment Khomeini tried to exert his moral and
political authority in neighboring countries, the people in power in
those countries got worried because Iran is a big country in that
neighborhood. They can’t just think of Khomeini as somebody with the
authority of a saint. They have to think of him as the boss of a rival
outfit. They have to think geopolitically. What messes up that example
is the Sunni/Shi’ite division that reinforced Khomeini’s failure.
I’ll give you an analogy of the international communist movement. At
one stage, people had the sense it was one big movement. They were all
together on the same page. Then the Russians and Chinese fell out, then
the Chinese and Vietnamese; in other words, geopolitics took over. My
guess would be that geopolitics would take over in this case, too.
MICHAEL PAULSON, BOSTON GLOBE: I wanted to ask about the state of
Islamic studies in American universities.
First, what’s happening with folks who are teaching it; and second, who
exactly is studying it? I had this sense, post-9/11, there might be
some tension between Muslim scholars of Islamic studies in the U.S. and
non-Muslim scholars. I would periodically get emails when I would quote
non-Muslims saying, “Why are you quoting an orientalist; what’s wrong
with Muslim scholars?
I also sensed there was a rush into classrooms to study Arabic and
maybe contemporary Middle-Eastern issues, but I don’t know whether it
has continued. At the time, I thought many universities were not
prepared to deal with this and that the level of scholarship was not
MR. COOK: Let me try to answer without taking swipes at the people I
dislike locally in my own university. (Laughter.) There’s no question
that 9/11 has meant a rapid increase in the level of demand. My sense
is that level of demand has fallen off a bit but not drastically, so
this was the window of opportunity for a small, rather despised field
to get in there and be mainstream. At Princeton -- and my impression is
probably other places too -- one side of this has gone well, and that’s
the language teaching.
At Princeton we now have about three or four times as many
undergraduate students who are interested in taking Arabic. Persian,
Turkish; forget it. I’m devastated to see the nuclear crisis with Iran
has not done anything for enrollments in Persian. Somehow it doesn’t
seem to have the same effect, and I’m not sure why. But Arabic, yes, --
it’s a mixture of kids who are troubled and interested, and kids who
see a career opportunity. I had one student who announced as a freshman
she planned to take Arabic so she could become a spy. Actually, she
didn’t take Arabic; she went and did geosciences and is now at Oxford
on a Rhodes Scholarship. Many people change their minds. Maybe she
didn’t. (Laughter.) That could be her cover.
Then there is the analytical side of the field. I’m a medievalist, and,
as Islamic studies go, I’m in a quiet part of the field. The beginnings
of Islam, yes, that can get hot, but all those centuries in between,
nobody gets that excited about them. It’s the study of the modern
Islamic world and modern Middle East where the problems are. There you
find a real tendency towards polarization in the field.
On the philo-Islamic side, you have two categories of people. One may
be Muslim scholars -- that is, scholars of Muslim background -- though
they shouldn’t be stereotyped. But you do get academics who feel in
this very American way they have to represent an ethnical religious
There’s also an element of philo-Islamic or philo-Arab academics who
have no particular roots in either Islam or the Arab world or the
Middle East, but who, by ideological conviction or whatever, have come
to be strongly inclined that way. For example, I can refer to NYU. Our
counterpart Near Eastern Studies Department at NYU is famous or
notorious, depending on where you’re coming from, for its attitude.
Such people are leftist, anti-Zionist, which doesn’t mean quite a few
of them aren’t Jewish.
At the other extreme you have a few neo-cons and people inclining
towards that end of the spectrum. But neo-cons are a sparse phenomenon
in the academic world in general. In terms of who persecutes who, my
own experience is it tends to be the leftists who persecute the
neo-cons in the academic environment. It may be different out there in
the real world, but that’s what happens within academia.
There are two fundamental problems of the field as I see it now. One,
this boom of interest is different from the boom in East Asian or
Japanese studies 15 or 20 years ago. That boom happened because, yes,
the Japanese had an interesting culture and history, but they also had
one of the world’s top economies. That is a healthy combination. In the
case of Near Eastern studies, it’s not based on that. There is an
attractive culture, although the features of it most often highlighted
these days are not particularly attractive ones, but there isn’t a
great world economy there. Instead there is oil and a lot of poverty.
This is not a solid basis for a buildup of interest. Japanese studies
have gone down quite a bit, but it’s still a real presence. And of
course China is a rising star.
The other problem, as I see it -- and I spend enormous amounts of time
sitting on search committees -- is that good people are scarce in the
field, particularly under current market conditions. Why that is I
don’t really know, but somehow the imaginations of good people are much
more easily fired by East Asia, say, than by the Islamic world, and
that just seems to be a fact.
MR. PAULSON: Can you tell me three scholars who study Islam in America
whose work you respect? For completely pragmatic reasons, I’m looking
for people to call. I’m always looking for good experts. I find a
tremendous amount of both politicization and scholarly un-readiness.
MR. COOK: If I had a question about Salafis -- the Saudi strain of
Islamic fundamentalists and also Salafis in other parts part of the
world -- the first person I would go to would be Bernard Haykel who is
currently at NYU. He combines knowledge of the pre-modern tradition and
history with hands-on research on Salafis of the present day. He’s a
native Arabic speaker as well as a native English and French speaker.
He’s been spending a lot of time in Saudi Arabia. He’s very good at
hanging out with people. He’s also hung out with Salafis in India.
That’s somebody who’s well informed, and who is not marketing some
CARL CANNON, NATIONAL JOURNAL: When you were showing the coins, you
were focusing on one aspect of it -- the coin bite, how they spread
religion. But the other thing I was struck by was: There’s no picture
on that coin. It replaces the picture with words. Did the cartoon riots
have their origins that far back in Islam?
MR. COOK: They have two origins that go pretty far back. One is a
prohibition of images. When you start developing small print about that
prohibition, there’s lots of room for disagreement about which kind of
images are prohibited. Are they all prohibited or just some? The
consensus is if any image is forbidden, it is images that depict
humans. Depicting a human is already extremely questionable, and
depicting the prophet is a whole lot worse than depicting any other
human. Let me back up here.
The prohibition of images has a Koranic foundation, and it’s well
developed by the eighth century. There’s plenty of evidence for that.
The additional sensitivity about depicting the prophet, I don’t know
how far that goes back, but there’s an interesting genre of miniature
painting in the late Middle Ages, where you have representations of
Mohammad, but always shown with a blank face, whereas other people in
the picture have proper faces. There’s a clear sense there that when it
comes to depicting people, the prophet is in a different category from
MS.EASTON: Why are images prohibited? Is it an anti-pagan thing? What’s
the root of that?
MR. COOK: In one sense, the root is simply that God and his prophet
have said so, and if they said so, that’s it. But the underlying
anxiety is idolatry; that once you have images, people are going to
To come back to the previous question: Defaming or slandering the
prophet is a very serious offense; in Islamic law it incurs the death
penalty. What’s more, you can’t get out of the death penalty even by
repenting. The cartoons, in addition to depicting the prophet, were
clearly insulting. The cartoonists did a pretty good job of covering
all bases there. (Laughter.)
BILL ADAIR, ST. PETERSBURG TIMES: Could you talk about Mohammad
personally -- what he was like before his revelation, which I guess
didn’t come till he was about 40. What did he do? What his life like?
Were there signs he would be a leader? Was he a charismatic person? In
spite of the prohibition on images, do we have any sense of what he
looked like? Was he handsome?
MR. COOK: To take the last point first: Yes, of course, the tradition
tells us he was handsome. In addition, we get detailed descriptions of
his features and body build. Whether those descriptions should carry
any authority, I don’t know. Whether they go back to eye witnesses or
whether they’ve just been embroidered later, I have no way of telling.
To pick out another thing you’re asking about, are there signs that
point to his future greatness? Lots of them. There are stories about
his birth that explain how at the moment when he was born supernatural
events took place. His mother saw the castles of Syria by magic
illumination. The evil spirits who used to listen in on conversations
in heaven suddenly found they were no longer wired up; they couldn’t
hear what was going on up there.
You have a lot of supernatural dimension to the birth of the prophet,
and later on, various things happen. When he’s in early adolescence,
his uncle takes him to Syria, and on the way they encounter a Christian
monk, and the Christian monk says, ah ha, this guy’s going to be a
prophet. Did any of that really happen? Your guess is as good as mine.
The other part of your question: Do we get a credible sense of his
character as opposed to just the fact that he had all virtues? I’m not
sure we do. I’d be hard put to it to give you a vivid thumbnail sketch
of what the man was like. It’s partly that the sources tend not to be
explicit, but partly also that they’re so concerned to talk about his
virtues you don’t get much sense of a real personality.
MR. CROMARTIE: One of the journalists that couldn’t be here said: “Oh,
you’re having Professor Cook, that’s interesting. I think I read his
biography of Muhammad. He suggests” -- and tell me if he got this right
-- “that Muhammad may not have existed.”
MR. COOK: No, no. I have never had any doubts about his existence. I
have held some heretical views in the past about what he did --
MR. CROMARTIE: He confused you with someone else, then, about that
MR. COOK: It’s more likely he got my views wrong. (Laughter.) I never
suggested that the prophet didn’t exist. There’s as good evidence as
you’re going to get that he did. He’s mentioned in non-Muslim sources
within two or three years of his death, and that’s good enough for me.
MR. CROMARTIE: Everybody’s eager to hear some of your heretical
MR. COOK: There are some early non-Islamic sources that suggest that,
in its origins, Islam was closer to Judaism for longer than the
traditional account indicates. That essentially was the nature of my
MR. CROMARTIE: You agree with that account?
MR. COOK: I no longer subscribe to it because I think the non-Islamic
evidence wasn’t sufficiently coherent.
WILLIAM GALSTON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Let me preface my question by
saying that among Jews, although Moses is the highest and most nearly
perfect prophet, there are still extensive discussions of his
imperfections and his errors, at least one of which was serious enough
to deprive him of his ultimate objective. It is a matter of some
cultural significance that Moses is depicted as an imperfect human
being, although the highest prophet. That raises some interesting
questions: Are there, in the Hadith, for example, any stories pointing
towards his imperfections or serious errors of judgment?
But my larger question has to do with the monotheistic triad. You
pointed out that the Constantinian tradition was a latecomer in
Christianity. So there’s always an oppositional stream of Christianity
where faith can be a counterweight to public authority and not
necessarily fused with it.
Rabbinic Judaism, and in particular Jewish law, developed in
circumstances of political marginality and powerlessness. Therefore,
Jewish law is not really public law. When the issue arose, in the
founding of Israel, as to whether Jewish law should be the law of the
state, there were people who took that position, but the realists won
out; namely, that it is impossible to turn this into a body of public
law. That decision has created the basic structure of legal
argumentation in Israel ever since.
What strikes me as so important about Islam, and so distinctive, is
that it is law that developed in circumstances of political majority
and political power and not political marginality. That re-raises the
question of whether Islamic law, authentically understood, can be
private law, or does it inherently tend to be public law backed by the
coercive power of the state? Let me raise two examples here for you to
comment on. The first is the idea of religious liberty, out of which
liberal democracy developed; namely, that you may change your religion,
and the state may not intervene to prevent you. As I understand it,
Islam has a different view of the matter.
The other question -- and I’m astonished I’m the first person to
mention it this morning -- has to do with the public law of gender
relations, which I happen to believe is the principal flashpoint
between Islam and the West right now. It is not clear to me that
Islamic law can accommodate the core of what the West believes to be
non-negotiable on that question.
MR. COOK: When I was responding on the character of the prophet, I
should have addressed that issue you raised about perfection and
prophethood. The prophet in the earlier sources -- the Koran and early
biographical accounts, and also in the Hadith -- is not depicted as a
perfect human being. There are clear passages in the Koran where God is
telling off his prophet: You did this wrong and undo it.
In that sense, our starting point is similar to the biblical account of
Moses: Yes, a great prophet, the greatest ever, but he has his flaws;
he can stumble.
Over the course of the centuries, a theological doctrine developed that
prophets possess immunity to sin or error. Different people asserted it
in different ways. For example, you could take a line that prophets are
totally immune to sin or error, or you could take a line that they’re
immune but only in matters directly concerning their prophetic role. As
one medieval theologian interpreted it, they’re immune from error, not
in the sense that they can’t commit error or sin, but only in the sense
that they’re guaranteed to see their error and repent. There’s a
spectrum of interpretations on this doctrine of immunity.
But there’s no question the drift over the course of Islamic history is
towards a stronger and stronger assertion of prophetic immunity. It
creates enormous problems when it collides with the evidence in the
earlier sources -- a confrontation that generates reams and reams of
Let me mention the single-biggest episode -- maybe you know it already.
There is an account in the life of the prophet that ties up with a
verse in the Koran. The verse says that while the prophet was still in
Mecca, he was unhappy about the fact he was on such bad terms with his
pagan fellow tribesmen. Being a nice guy, he wanted to be nice; he
wanted everyone to be friends. On one occasion when he was receiving a
revelation, he allowed Satan to get him to insert a verse that said to
the pagan Meccans, my god is okay, and your gods are okay, and they’re
a team together.
According to these accounts, the next thing that happens is Gabriel --
Gabriel is the intermediary between God and the prophet -- Gabriel
comes down and says: “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re a
prophet, and you’ve gone and stuck this verse of Satan’s into God’s
revelation.” Mohammad gets upset, and Gabriel feels sorry for him and
says: “Don’t worry too much; God will sort it out.” And God indeed
knocks the offending verse out of the revelation and puts the right one
So you have this story that the prophet compromised with idolatry on
one occasion. It’s told in a human kind of way. You feel tremendously
sympathetic towards the guy. Wouldn’t you have done the same in the
circumstances? But when that clashes with the doctrine of prophetic
immunity, you’ve got a real problem.
Just to take the story through to the present: The medieval theologian
Ibn Taymiyya -- I mentioned his opinion on immunity before -- is one of
the gurus, to misapply a term, of the modern fundamentalists. They
think he’s the greatest thing since the prophet. But Ibn Taymiyyah said
a whole load of things the modern fundamentalists simply can’t take.
One of them was: “Why shouldn’t this episode have taken place; it’s
perfectly plausible, and we’ve got plenty of accounts of it. The only
immunity that the prophet has is that he’s going to repent of it, and
it’s going to be put right. No big deal.”
This view is something the modern fundamentalists cannot stomach, and
they represent the other end of the development where prophetic
immunity has become absolute. There’s a rich theological mess there. In
a couple of years there should be a fine book out on this topic by a
young professor at Harvard.
Back to your other questions. I think your fundamental point is well
taken on a crucial difference between Sunni Islam and Rabbinic Judaism;
that one develops in a situation of deprivation of political power, and
the other develops in close association with political power. All I
would do is qualify what you said.
On the Jewish side, you do have those tractates in the Talmud --
Nezikin and things like that -- that talk about matters of public law.
Equally, if you go to Maimonides and the Mishneh Torah-- it’s a digest
of Jewish law, and it sets out marriage and divorce and that kind of
stuff, but you also get a blueprint for how we would run a Jewish state.
It’s plausible to me Maimonides put it there because he was so familiar
with the Islamic case that he was influenced by it. Even if only a
counterfactual basis, he felt, we’ve got to have it on our side of the
fence. But it is there. If somebody were to come out of Meah She’arim
(an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem) and dominate the state of
Israel, there is a program to bandy about for having a Jewish public
law. But I agree with you that for practical purposes Rabbinic Judaism
is well adapted to not having a state.
On the Muslim side, the qualification I would make is -- well, it’s
true that we do have evidence the early caliphs made law. They respect
what God and the prophet had said, but they make decisions and say,
“This is the way it’s going to be.” This gets played down in later
tradition but it’s there in the sources. The classical authorities of
Islamic law, however, are not rulers legislating; they are scholars who
say, “In my opinion, this is the way it ought to be.” In other words,
they’re figures much like rabbis.
You also have the phenomenon of legal pluralism, with four distinct
schools of Islamic law. Judaism and the Pharisees had Hillel and
Shammai (two sages and, later, two schools). The four Muslim schools of
thought were all founded by scholars, jurists who are private persons.
Despite the presence of a Muslim state, there is something happening
analogous to what the rabbis are doing. So I would moderate your
contrast, but I would accept the fundamental contrast.
On the question of changing religion: Yes, absolutely; in Islamic law,
that’s out. It’s not just that you can’t get away with apostatizing
from Islam: that if you’re a Jew you can’t convert to Christianity. If
you want to exit Judaism, the only way you can do it is by converting
to Islam. But let’s compare that to the Christian and Jewish
traditions. On the Jewish side, I’m thinking of Maimonides in the
Mishneh Torah where he talks about Rabbanites and Karaites. There’s a
fierce bit where he says Karaites are apostates from Judaism and should
be killed. Then he says, “I’m not talking about the descendents of
those Karaites -- it’s not their fault, we get along fine with them --
but the people who actually apostatized from Judaism, they should be
killed.” Certainly there is an illiberal attitude towards change of
On the Christian side I’m sure if one went looking in canon law and
whatnot, one would find plenty of cases of illiberal attitudes.
The final thing you asked about: gender relations. I agree with you
that this is one of the points of maximum friction. In Islamic terms
you have a religious law that is very different from the attitudes that
pass today in the United States or any part of the Western world.
There’s a real incompatibility. It’s not surprising: Gender relations
touch on extremely intimate aspects of life; the issue is bound to stir
up deep emotions.
When Muslim women buy into Western feminist attitudes, even if they’re
repackaging them in Islamic dress, this is acting up. Muslim men then
are squeezed between Muslim women acting up on the one side and the
West on the other. That’s not a good place to be.
How is this likely to play out? My answer would be similar to what I
said when asked about Islam and democracy: As long as you have
fundamentalism riding high, and you take all this stuff in the
religious law seriously, you’ve got an insoluble problem. But let me
give you two comparative examples. One is Hindu India: Hindu law must
be about as un-modern in its attitudes to women as Muslim law. I
couldn’t give you a detailed comparison, but if you could do the
comparison, I wouldn’t want to bet that Hindu law would come out ahead
in liberal terms.
But in India at present, nobody pays much attention to those aspects of
Hindu law. There may be a few traditional, isolated Brahman families
that still keep this stuff going, but to a large extent, in modern
circles in India, this is dead letter, and people aren’t being bothered
by pietists coming and saying, “Hey, but in this text it says….”
In the same way, you go to Israel and spend 10 minutes on the beach at
Eilat -- nothing Maimonides said about how women should behave is being
observed there. (Laughter.) My sense is, yes, while fundamentalism
lasts, this is going to be a major problem, but the problem could
dissipate in due course.
AMY SULLIVAN, WASHINGTON MONTHLY: I’d like to return to the issue of
Jewish and Christian traditions influencing the development of Islam.
What would exposure to Jewish and Christian text and stories have been
in the Arab world? Would the man on the street have known much about
these traditions, or is this something that was limited to the elite?
What would the cultural understanding have been of those traditions?
MR. COOK: We’re talking about Arabia because the Arabs were in Arabia
then. I didn’t mention this before, but around the edges of Arabia you
had a fair amount of conversion to Christianity. Not in the area where
Islam begins, but in the north and east. The Arabs were always
traveling, and I would reckon there must have been some knowledge of
Christianity even among people who didn’t live in those edge regions.
Christianity couldn’t have been completely off their radar.
In the case of Judaism, you have a substantial Jewish community in
Medina. According to the traditional account, they were there before
the Arabs, and then some Arab tribes moved in on top of them. The
traditional account tells us there were two reasons why the Medinans
invited Muhammad to Medina. One was they thought he could sort out
their problems, but the other was that having lived side-by-side with
Jews, they knew what a prophet was. They could recognize one when they
So people are not clueless. Do they actually read texts? That’s a
different question. One of the prophet’s companions headed the
committee that produced the final edition of the Koran, and he was put
in charge because he was incredibly learned. The sources say he knew
Syriac, Hebrew and you name it, he knew it. But he’s regarded as an
exceptional figure. We don’t characteristically get Arabs shown to us
reading Jewish or Christian texts.
AUDREY TAYLOR, ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT: I work in television, the world
of sound bites, and the one we always hear is that Islam as a religion
has been hijacked by a few who are crazy, and it’s only a few. But
you’ve been saying, in terms of jihad, that necessarily isn’t the case.
We try to simplify it, saying there are only a few crazy people out
there, and this is not indicative of the Islamic world as a whole. How
do you address that because it doesn’t seem to be accurate?
MR. COOK: One of the things about being an academic is that I don’t
have to be a diplomat -- that would really bother me. As I see it, my
role is simply to tell the way it is.
MS. TAYLOR: In terms of culture, is the Islamic world really outraged
by what they’re seeing?
MR. COOK: Let me quote Gilles Kepel on that. The analysis I heard him
give recently is that public opinion -- he was speaking specifically
about the Arab world but it would apply elsewhere, too -- is
immobilized by the present situation because on the one hand they don’t
like the stuff bin Laden does. They think it’s nasty. They don’t think
it is representative of their religion and -- no, perhaps I shouldn’t
say that. They feel it’s way out, too nasty. But on the other hand,
they don’t like the Americans, and bin Laden is socking it to the
Americans. The result is they’re immobilized; they don’t know what to
If you say there is nothing in the original text of the religion that
gives any comfort to jihadis, you’re lying. It’s not true. There is
stuff there. What I would say, though, is that doesn’t for a moment
mean you can predict the behavior of Muslims from what’s in their
To give you an analogy I use with my students, there are three verses
in the Gospels where Jesus says, you want to be my disciples, you’ve
got to hate your parents. Now, it’s not just that moderate, wishy-washy
liberal Christians in this country don’t believe they ought to hate
their parents; even the Christian fundamentalists don’t think they
should hate their parents, and yet Jesus said it. I’m sure they have
ways of getting off the hook in the same way Muslims can find all sorts
of ways of getting off their hooks. The fact it’s there in scripture
doesn’t have much predictive value -- maybe none at all. So much comes
down to the context in which people are doing things with scripture.
TERRY MATTINGLY, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: The New Republic ran a
piece a couple of weeks ago on what’s happening in Iran. Could you tell
us some of the differences within the Sunni and the Shi’ite as
illustrated by thousands of Shi’ites walking through the streets
holding images of the Hidden Imam and the martyrs? Is this a part of
the conflict in Iraq that the U.S. press is not describing at all?
MR. COOK: The first question I can answer. You go to Shi’ite religious
law, and the attitude towards images is pretty much the same as in
Sunni law. In terms of what you’re supposed to be doing, I don’t think
there’s a real difference. But there is an enormous cultural
difference, and it’s exactly what you described, that for a long time
Shi’ites have had images.
There are things going on there (Shi’ites marching with images) that
would make Salafis in Saudi Arabia extremely unhappy. It’s part of a
whole milieu, particularly of popular Shi’ism, that Khomeini made
effective use of and so couldn’t wholly disown; nor do his successors
want to disown it. Popular piety among the Shi’ites is very different
from what it is among the Sunnis.
What’s happening in Iraq -- I’m sure if you talk to Salafis, they would
make a big deal of that and other differences. Whether that is actually
fueling the conflict, I very much doubt it.
MR. MATTINGLY: What I meant was, it’s clear that the Sunnis consider
the Shi’ites heretics: they’re almost worshipping the descendents of
Muhammad and breaching the concept of absolute monotheism, and now
they’re walking around in the streets carrying these huge pictures.
I haven’t read a single mainstream media report that explains these
differences between Sunni and Shi’ite, and it seems to me to be an
important story in Iraq.
MR. COOK: It is a very important story in Iraq.
One thing I find striking about the Islamic world is the extent to
which you have an unreconstructed sectarianism of a kind you don’t
have, say, between Protestants and Catholics outside particular ethnic
contexts like Northern Ireland. Sunnis and Shi’ites do not get along in
Pakistan, they don’t get along in Iraq, et cetera, et cetera. There is
a long tradition of differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites. It starts
off with a political disagreement about who should have been the
immediate successor to the prophet, and it blossoms into all sorts of
other things, some of which are cultural, some of which are
theological, some of which are legal. It’s a whole array of differences.
To a lot of Sunni Muslims who aren’t zealots, those differences don’t
matter a lot, but they do matter to Salafis, and to the extent that
Salafis are driving the current conflict, or a significant element in
the current conflict in Iraq, that does matter.
If you take Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, to the best
of my knowledge, nobody cares about transubstantiation — the difference
between Protestants and Catholics on that issue. It’s not what they’re
fighting about. They’re fighting about something else, which is a
matter of two communities that are going hammer and tongs against each
other in this world, for worldly reasons.
In the case of the Islamic world, I suspect much of the dynamic is
similar, but the transubstantiation issues still get bandied about on a
considerable scale. That’s not much of an answer, and it would take too
long to give a proper answer.
MICHAEL LUO, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I have a basic question about
terminology. We keep referring to “Islamic fundamentalism,” and in the
short time I’ve been on the beat, it comes up a lot with sources that
when we equate Islamic fundamentalism with extremism, it’s not really
fair. It’s taking a term applied to American Christians and applying it
to this situation. I wonder if there is a distinction, and how you
address that question.
MR. COOK: A lot of people snipe at the term “fundamentalism.” I
personally don’t have a problem with it, and I don’t have a problem
with the fact it’s originally a Christian concept, because when it
comes to words, we always transfer them from one context to another.
I also don’t have a problem with the concept of fundamentalism insofar
as I understand it: It’s not just being pious or zealous, or for that
matter fanatical; it’s specifically that you want to go back to the
roots of your tradition. There are plenty of people who don’t want to
go back to the roots of their tradition; they want the tradition as it
came down to them. Hindus are typically like that. Fundamentalism is
when you want to go back.
The term applies easily in the Islamic case in that you want to go back
to the Koran and the sayings of the prophet. There is a corpus of texts
you can point to as a fundamentalist and say, here’s where the real
authority is in my religion, and what happened later is bunk. It seems
to me the term applies quite well.
The term goes astray when the only context in which the public hears
about Muslim fundamentalists is when they’re doing nasty, violent
things, and therefore the public thinks that fundamentalism is a nasty,
violent thing. I would caution against that and give the example of
Christian fundamentalists. I don’t think the violent people in American
politics are Christian fundamentalists, in the same way there are a lot
of Muslims I would describe as fundamentalists who are not violent.
There are people who are betwixt and between. For example, in India, I
understand, you get the phenomenon of Salafis -- that is, people of the
Wahhabi persuasion -- who say, “Yes, bin Laden, great guy, doing good
stuff; get the Americans.” Then you say, “So do you want to engage in a
bombing campaign here in India?” They say, “Oh no, no, no; we don’t
want anything like that here. We Muslims are a vote bank. Democracy is
good for us here.”
They’re schizophrenic about the question of violence. And lots of
people there don’t have the violent side at all.
MR. LUO: There are people we would probably call moderate who are
actually fundamentalists in your definition of wanting to go back to --
MR. COOK: Right. There are two different dimensions here, and one is
whether people are violent or non-violent, and the other is whether or
not they’re keen to go back to their foundations and be very pious
about it. You might have a guy who is, from a Western liberal point of
view, totally repressive of his daughter, but who doesn’t have the
slightest interest in violence. They’re two different things there, and
they tend to get conflated.
MR. HUNTER: It’s important to make a distinction between historic
orthodoxy and fundamentalism. It seems to me that fundamentalism is
orthodoxy in confrontation with modernity.
Fundamentalists all share a common narrative, which is that history has
gone awry, and what went awry was modernity; in this case, Western
modernity. Wahhabism has roots that go back a long way in this light.
The goal of the fundamentalists, across the board, is to make history
MR. COOK: Yes. The context here is Muslim societies trying to adapt to
the rise of the West. One of their options is to adopt Western culture,
but that obviously has a down side. In identity terms it’s pretty bad.
Another option is to stay the same, but that doesn’t work either.
Another option is to go fundamentalist, and fundamentalism isn’t stupid
in the sense that the moment you become a fundamentalist, you have
access to a way you used to do things but no longer do them. You have
something that is de facto new. Who knows, maybe it will work.
MR. HUNTER: It’s possible to be orthodox and attached to the traditions
of historic orthodoxy within a faith tradition and yet not be a
fundamentalist in the way that we think about them today.
MR. COOK: There’s a nice principle in Jewish law, if I remember it
right, that says the law is according to the later scholars. In other
words, you can’t go behind the later scholars and say, hey, but the
early ones said something different. You have to take it as it comes
through the later scholars. I think that is the anti-fundamentalist
attitude you are talking about.
JOHN SINIFF, USA TODAY: I was curious whether you’ve seen in academia a
fear of candid discussion of some facets of Islam for fear of
MR. COOK: My sense is that people who don’t want to talk about the
difficult stuff have actually internalized the attitude, and they think
one shouldn’t talk about it, or they want to repackage it in such a way
it appears not to be there. I’m betting people are doing a lot of
MR. SINIFF: Is there a chilling effect in academia? What have you seen
in academic discussions among colleagues?
MR. COOK: My sense is it’s not a chilling effect. It’s not that people
are afraid to say things. You have the people that say them, and the
people that think you shouldn’t say them and don’t say them. If you are
an untenured professor at an academic institution, you have to be
careful. You have to be careful about a whole load of things you don’t
have to be careful about once you get tenure. But I don’t think in the
kind of discussion we’re talking about any tenured member of an
American university faculty has a good reason for being chilled.
MR. SINIFF: What was your view of the largely universal decision of the
American press not to publish the Mohammad cartoons?
MR. COOK: I thought that was very sensible.
MR. DIONNE: Two quick questions. What I’d like to ask for is a Mort
Saul routine: a two-minute university on the origins of the Sunni-Shi’a
split. But the question I really want you to answer, if you want to
pick one, is a Time Magazine-style question. Your account of Mohammad
was fascinating, and I wanted to know: Was he the right man at the
right moment, or was he the man who shaped the moment? Your account
suggests a lot of people at the time were looking for something like
what he had to offer.
MR. COOK: It’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer. In some
alternative universe I would run the beginnings of Islam in my lab
dozens of times with different values for the variables.
The quick answer would be I see a window of opportunity; if Mohammad
had been born in the second century B.C. he’d have gotten nowhere. The
rise of Islam presupposes the rise of monotheism outside Arabia. There
was a sense seeping into Arabia: “Our paganism -- it’s what we’re used
to but it’s not state of the art.” (Laughter.) I would see Constantine
as a necessary condition for Mohammad.
As to closing the window, I would bet if Mohammad, or somebody like
him, had not come along, then the Arabs would have converted to
Christianity sooner or later, and the window would have closed that way.
TERRY EASTLAND,THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I’ll take you back to your century,
the seventh century, for this last question.
MR. COOK: I appreciate that.
MR. CROMARTIE: But tie it into today if you could.
MR. EASTLAND: When the Arabs went out to conquer after the death of the
Prophet, was there a doctrine of providence -- maybe that’s the wrong
word -- a doctrine of eschatology that gave them confidence they could
conquer the world, and this would be their destiny? How extensive was
the definition of the world back then? Bringing us up to the present
moment: Do we see such a confidence-building doctrine today, and what
does it mean today to conquer the world?
MR. COOK: That’s a good question. I don’t think there is more than
simply this doctrine of jihad that says offensive jihad is a good
thing. In principle, the more you conquer, the better, and beyond that,
I don’t detect in the sources anything like a doctrine of manifest
MR. EASTLAND: Today, what does it mean to conquer the world? Just the
same answer, I guess: with jihad, the more the merrier.
MR. COOK: Yes. If you take seriously the foundations in Islamic law --
not necessarily in the Koran but in Islamic law -- of the doctrine of
offensive jihad, then not only should Muslims defend themselves, but
they should also be expanding the frontiers of Islam through jihad.
If you go to contemporary Muslim thinkers of a fundamentalist and
extremist disposition, you will find that, from time to time, they do
refer to offensive jihad and say it’s a good thing. In doing that,
they’re essentially acting up against the rules of the international
system as conceived in the West. Just about every jihad we actually
witness in the Islamic world, perhaps every one, is conceived as
defensive. The attack on the Twin Towers may have looked to us
uncommonly aggressive, but in the minds of the people who justified it,
it was self-defense; it was just a particularly daring example of
There are reasons for this, for the fact that the emphasis is on
defensive jihad. One is a human point, that if you want to motivate
people, then telling them “these guys are out to get us” is a much more
effective way to mobilize them than to say, “No, those guys aren’t out
to get us but nevertheless we ought to go and conquer their country.”
But second, there is a significant difference between the obligations
involved in aggressive and defensive jihad. In offensive jihad,
provided somebody is doing it, nobody else has to bother. By contrast,
with defensive jihad, anybody in the area that’s being attacked by the
unbelievers -- any adult male has a duty, prima facie, of participating
in that jihad. There is a much higher degree of obligation that you can
appeal to if you declare a defensive jihad than if you declare an
MR. CROMARTIE: Professor Cook, a sign of a good session is one we don’t
want to end, and there are certainly more questions. We should thank
one of our colleagues who could not be here today. Jay Tolson is the
one who emphatically said, if you’re going to do that session, you’ve
got to get Professor Michael Cook. We should thank Jay when we see him
next because he was right, and let’s thank Dr. Cook. (Applause.)
--Speakers at Pew Forum events are given an opportunity to review and
approve their remarks. This transcript also has been edited for
clarity, spelling and grammar.