MESA Book Awards

Michael Cook

Princeton University

2001 Albert Hourani Book Award Winner

The title of this exceptional intellectual history is obviously taken from al-amr bi'l-ma'ruf wa'l-nahy 'an al-munkar, the Quranic injunction that many Muslims view as a marker of their religion and a doctrine that scholars of Islam often encounter in prosaic contexts. Michael Cook sets out to reveal how this doctrine has been understood as a duty of individual believers, and to explain how Islam came to acquire the doctrine. If he is seminally successful in the first objective and limited to erudite conjecture in the second, this by no means reduces the value of his contribution. The murky and adulterated record of the jahaliyya leave scattered clues at best, while the parallels with the other great monotheistic faiths only allow us to get closer to the distinctiveness of the doctrine. Cook asserts that the individual duty of Muslims to forbid wrong "is founded in the axiom that each and every legally competent Muslim possesses an executive power of the law of God." While this may be so, the fact is that righteous Muslims have understood their duty to act in quite disparate ways. Hence, one of the great values of this tour de force is its extensive treatment of classical Arabic sources, organized for the most part within schools and sects.

Individual parts are monographs in their own right, as in the exhaustive, not to say exhausting four chapters on the Hanbali, or the three chapters on the Mu'talizis and the Shi'is. Indeed, this is not a book for single sitting, but an authoritative reference that scholars and students will draw upon for many years to come. Since the book is not strictly chronological, even before we meet Ghazzali in his own chapter, his towering shadow moves across page after page as a reminder of his centrality to classical Islamic thought, not least on al-amr bi'l ma'ruf. In the final section Cook brings his exposition into the contemporary era, and the reader is appropriately struck, especially in Sunni sources, by the diversity of perspectives on action versus acquiescence, and the familiar debate about the virtue and locus of order, even at the cost of righteous responsibility by individual Muslims.

Cook appropriately distinguishes Imami thought that is demonstrably enriched by Sunni materials while opening vibrant debates that speak clearly to modern concerns about the scope for intrusive invasions of privacy in the name of doctrine, not to mention more wide ranging explorations of Islamic authority in modern society. If Cook is not optimistic about the future of individualism in Muslim societies, given the fundamental claim on individual behavior that al-amr bi'l mar'ruf represents, his massive book amply demonstrates that the meaning of what may be taken to be Islamic duty is hardly settled, either in historical time or the present.
 

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