Michael Cook's speech at the Holberg Prize Award Ceremony 2014
Bergen, 4 June 2014. Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon, Minister, representatives of the Holberg Board, members of the Holberg Committee, dear colleagues, family and friends
I don’t know how the Holberg Board reached its decision to award me this extraordinary honour, and in any case I ought not to know. But let me invoke a distinction that I am not the first winner of the prize to make: it stands to reason that, implicitly or explicitly, the Board must have decided two things. First, they must have decided that whatever it is that I do, I do it passably well. On that decision the only comment I can offer is the one I made to Professor Ivar Bleiklie when he called to tell me I had been awarded the prize: “I don’t know what I have done to deserve this.” The other decision the Board must have taken is that the kind of thing I do — or try to do — is worth doing, and on this I do have something I can say. It is that the kind of thing I do, though very much part of the humanities, is by no means in the mainstream of the humanities, and that I deeply appreciate the fact that the Holberg Board has looked beyond the mainstream. But here I have to ask myself a question I have a hard time answering: just what is it that I do, or try to do? Of course a large part of this question is easily answered: I work on the history of the Islamic world, or you could say Islam in history. But how do I go about it? In attempting to answer this question, I feel distinctly out of my element. Partly I can blame this on culture: the reticence of properly brought-up English people when it comes to talking about themselves. But a lot of it is more personal: a profound laziness, sustained over many decades, in thinking about myself. I have put a lot of energy into thinking about the things I have worked on, but almost none into standing back and watching myself working on them. On the rare occasions when I have been called upon to do that in the past, I have managed to fob people off by stringing together a few reminiscences, and deflecting any deeper questions with attempted witticisms. This time I will indeed start with some reminiscences, but I’ll skip the witticisms. Let me begin with an experience that probably isn’t as significant as I like to think, but I’m attached to it. My earliest attempt to be what I would now call a historian — by that I mean to reconstitute the past from the fragmentary evidence that survives from it — was actually a venture in archaeology. During my childhood — I must have been seven or so — my father was involved in running an excavation on the site of Old Smyrna a few miles north of the modern Turkish city of Izmir. At one point two problems arose: the first was a room in a house dating from the seventh century BC that was so small that a Turkish workman had no room to swing his pick; the second was me — I was running around being a nuisance. Somebody, probably my father, quite possibly my mother, had the brilliant idea of solving both problems at once. So they equipped me with a child-size pick and set me to dig out the room. Out of it emerged the fragments of an ancient clay bath, subsequently reassembled by Stelios, our Greek pot-mender, till it was almost as good as new; they put me in it and took my picture. In terms of reconstituting the past that was, I think, the high-point of my career; from there on it has been down-hill all the way. But that experience left me with a very concrete notion of what it is to reconstitute the past; there was nothing about that big thick clay bath that invited deconstruction. A few years on I was twelve years old and being educated at the Edinburgh Academy. What sticks most vividly in my mind six decades later is the unusual introduction we were given to science — science in the Anglo-Saxon sense. We got it from our chemistry teacher Mr Booth. The subject was combustion, and he began by asking us what we thought happened when things burned; of course we had no idea. So he set out the old eighteenth-century phlogiston theory for us, and we wrote it down and believed it. But, as he soon told us, in science just writing something down and believing it is not enough; we had to do experiments to test the theory. Well, the theory passed the test of the first experiment with flying colours, but it fell flat on its face when we did the second experiment. Mr Booth then told us about the oxygen theory; what he told us effortlessly survived the next two experiments, and I’ve believed it ever since. The immediate result of this imaginative teaching was that I was certain that I wanted to be a scientist, and it was several years before I was disabused of this notion — a process in which a crucial role was played by my maths teacher at Clifton College in Bristol, Mr Unwin: he took a hard look at me and told me that as a mathematician I was all right, but nothing special. That’s when I became a historian. But I don’t think that my years as a wouldbe scientist were just an irrelevant detour: for better or worse, they left me with a certain cast of mind that I find it hard to sum up. It included a disposition to take things like verification and causality rather seriously, and also perhaps an inkling of the mathematician’s sense of elegance. How can I best sum up the practical implications of the mindset with which I emerged from these and other experiences? I’m told that I once shocked a roomful of American graduate students by telling them “I don’t have a methodology, I’m British”. But let me try to pick out three things just by way of example — though they are rather trite examples of something that in the end, I think, has more to do with the workings of intuition. First comes a strong sense that one of the highest forms of intellectual achievement is simplification. The insight I always yearn to have is one that reduces chaos to order — I remember how as a teenager I was thrilled to discover the periodic table because of the sense it made of chemical properties that otherwise showed no sign of rhyme or reason, and I suppose I have been looking for periodic tables in everything I’ve researched ever since — often with notable lack of success. This means that I have no sympathy for my graduate students when they congratulate themselves on having made things more complicated. Sometimes making things more complicated is the only thing you can honestly do, in which case you have to do it. But intellectually this means that you have failed, not succeeded. I think my yearning here is dimly inspired by the mathematician’s sense of elegance. Second comes an aspiration to think outside the box — the suspicion that if what’s inside the box makes no sense, then there must be something outside it that I’m missing. I suppose the simplest form of this is when you’re confronted with a boxful of chaos and you ask yourself what is conspicuously not present in the box — what is not happening. Sometimes it works for me. Third comes a desperate need to achieve lucidity. My default mental state is frankly one of fog, and I find fog very dispiriting. There are people who think with effortless lucidity, but I do not have the good fortune to be one of them. And there are people who have not the slightest interest in being lucid, and fortunately — in my own view at least — I am not one of them either. Achieving lucidity, or at least some measure of lucidity, is for me a kind of breakthrough each time it happens — it’s one of the things that reliably gives me a high. But what, you might ask, has any of this to do the study of Islam in history? Of course, one obvious point here is that my non-Western choice of field again puts me at some distance from the mainstream of the humanities, though much less so today than when I began my career. When I read History as an undergraduate in Cambridge, history meant English and European history, to the virtual exclusion of either the Celtic fringe or the non-Western fringe. You had to pursue the career of Alexander the Great, or the epic of the Crusades, if you wanted to learn anything of the history of even western Asia. Today I’m not certain how far the Celtic fringe is better served than it was, but for sure the non-Western world is no longer a fringe — it has a significant presence in its own right in any respectable history department. But what did the cast of mind I have tried to sketch have to do with the study of a history to which the religion of Islam is central? When forced to think about this, I realize that there is something distinctly odd here. The cast of mind I brought to the field was obviously appropriate for my first serious research project: I was using the Ottoman archives in an attempt to provide a quantitative answer to a question about changing population pressure in rural Anatolia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Much later the same cast of mind fitted perfectly with my positive response to the historical implications of DNA research — I found this new field fascinating, whereas a good many of my colleagues in the humanities seemed rather to want it to go away. Yet more recently I’ve spent some time thinking about what I call the long-term geopolitics of the pre-modern Middle East — an attempt to make some sense of the way resources and state-formation have played out in the region over the last two thousand years or so. What all three of these enterprises have in common is that they are totally religion-blind: it doesn’t matter whether the people in question are Muslims, Christians, or pagans. But these projects are not the core of the work I’ve done over the decades, which is very much about the role of Islam in history. This interest was something I developed only in my early thirties thanks to Albert Hourani. One year he was on leave from Oxford, and asked me to stand in for him and give a series of undergraduate lectures on the early centuries of Islamic history — a field that at that point I knew very little about. This shift of interest was nothing special in itself: people’s interests change all the time. But my new interest in religion was, I think, in phase with a wider shift in the humanities, a shift towards the subjective, the perceived, the constructed. In that context the natural way to proceed would have been to adopt the new trends of thought that were then beginning to appear — the kind of trends that we tend to lump together, loosely but conveniently, under the umbrella of postmodernism. But I didn’t go that way — the truth was that those trends left me cold. Instead, I approached Islam and its role in history with the mindset I had already developed, a mindset much more obviously at home in a different kind of history. Not that I did this inflexibly — but it’s what I did. I think that for better or worse that disparity — you might want to call it a mismatch — underlies the work I have done on Islam. It very likely accounts in some way both for the things that people like about my work and the things people — not necessarily the same people — dislike about it. In short, if I have a talent — “that one talent which is death to hide”, as Milton put it — it is somehow linked to this disparity. Of course this simple variation on C. P. Snow’s famous two cultures was far from being in itself a foundation for a career. I have also enjoyed a very large measure of good fortune. I was fortunate in my teachers at the Edinburgh Academy and Clifton College, and again at Cambridge, where I probably learnt most from the ancient historian Moses Finley — an unusual figure in a Classics department of the time. I was fortunate in the friends and contemporaries of my student days from whom I learnt enormously, people such as John Dunn, who after reading History became a political philosopher, and Frank Stewart, who left history to become an anthropologist with a strong interest in linguistics — the austere discipline recognized in this year’s Nils Klim award. I was fortunate in those who gave me the only two jobs I have ever had — Bernard Lewis, who gave me my lectureship at the School or Oriental and African Studies, and Avrom Udovitch and Roy Mottahedeh, who brought me to Princeton — an institution without which my career would have been far less rewarding than it has been. I was fortunate in the benevolent interest of Albert Hourani in my early career, which as you know led me into my fascination with the formation of the Islamic world. I was fortunate in a student whom I taught in my first year as a lecturer and with whom I later collaborated, and from whom I have never stopped learning, Patricia Crone. I was singularly fortunate in my wife Kim, whom I met at Princeton, and whose moral support and uncompromisingly practical management style I have come to depend on over the years in more ways than I care to name. In a way I have also been fortunate that the salience of Islam in the formation of a new civilization in the seventh century has been matched in my lifetime by its renewed salience in shaping the contours of the world we live in. But underlying all this is the fact that the mental habits with which I emerged from my formative years were, I think, significantly different from those of the mainstream of my colleagues in the humanities. Without all this good fortune those habits would have led nowhere; with it, they made possible a career in which I was able to make the best use I could of my one talent, and thereby achieve what I can happily and gratefully describe as a certain academic fulfillment. So let me end by thanking the Holberg Board for seeing my field as part of the mainstream, and my own rather idiosyncratic way of doing things as a legitimate presence within the big tent of the humanities.
Holberg Prize 2014
Michael Cook (born in 1940) is a British historian and scholar of Islamic history.
Michael Cook is University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.