How and Why Muhammad Made a Difference
Key West, Florida
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 world today.
Michael Cook, Cleveland Dodge professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University
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 and print a copy of this packet 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 tell us.
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 Christianity.
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 state.
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 design.
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 preemptive strike.
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 children.
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 old-fashioned pagan.
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 history?
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 legitimately use.
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 expect.
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 and Judaism?
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 Empire.
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 from Arabia.
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 public image.
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 political purposes.
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 good thing.
MR. CROMARTIE: Is it in the Koran that it [jihad] can be preemptive or offensive?
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 there.
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 the list.
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 their experience.
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 change.
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 politics.
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 record.
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 down.
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 mature enough.
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 constituency.
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 political line.
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 other people.
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 worship them.
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 point?
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 positions.
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 heresy.
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 small print.
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 in.
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 religion.
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 saw one.
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 think.
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 scriptures.
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 right again.
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 retribution.
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 kidding themselves.
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 destiny.
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 self-defense.
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 offensive one.
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.)
This transcript has been edited for clarity, style and grammar by Andrea Useem.