He studied History and Oriental Studies at King's College, Cambridge 1959-1963 and did postgraduate studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London 1963-1966 under the supervision of Professor Bernard Lewis. He was lecturer in Economic History with reference to the Middle East at SOAS 1966-1984 and Reader in the History of the Near and Middle East 1984-1986. In 1986 he was appointed Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Since 2007 he has been Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in Spring 1990.
In Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977), Cook and his associate Patricia Crone provided a new analysis of early Islamic history by studying the only surviving contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam. They fundamentally questioned the historicity of the Islamic traditions about the beginnings of Islam. Thus they tried to produce the picture of Islam's beginnings only from non-Arabic sources. By studying the only surviving contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam, which were written in Armenian, Greek, Aramaic and Syriac by witnesses, they reconstructed a significantly different story of Islam's beginnings, compared with the story known from the Islamic traditions. Cook and Crone claimed to be able to explain exactly how Islam came into being by the fusion of various near eastern civilizations under Arabic leadership. Later, Michael Cook refrained from this attempt of a detailed reconstruction of Islam's beginnings, and concentrated on Islamic ethics and law.
In his work Commanding right and forbidding wrong in Islamic thought.Cambridge (2000), Michael Cook in the chapter on the doctrine of al-Amr bi'l-Maʿrūf wa'l-Nahy ʿan il-Munkar among the Ibāḍīs, the author makes a comparison between western and eastern Ibāḍism and with the doctrines of the other Islamic sects and schools. The eastern and western Ibāḍīs represent two distinct historical communities with largely separate literary heritages, at least until, roughly, the beginning of the twentieth century. There are occasional links between them: one shared literary borrowing (Māwardī, Ghazālī), the unusual doctrine that the verbal obligation does not lapse when the offender will not listen, the equally unusual interest in women as performers of the duty. Differences are likely to reflect the very different political histories of the two wings of the sect. In Oman, the resilience of the Imamate down the centuries finds obvious and direct expression in the frequency with which the Omani sources link forbidding wrong with this institution. In the West, where the vacuum left by the disappearance of the Imamate was filled in part by clerical organisation and authority, the scholars seem to have become less cautious about the role of the individual performer. Comparing the Ibāḍī doctrine of forbidding wrong with the doctrines of other Islamic sects and schools, the significant point is that, left aside the close association of forbidding wrong with righteous rebellion and state-formation which the Ibāḍīs share with the Zaydīs, Ibāḍī views do not in any systematic way diverge from those of the Islamic mainstream.
Cook's main work is Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (2000), in which he analyses the historical development of Islamic ethics from the beginnings through the centuries till today.
The Farabi International Award is given annually by the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to humanities. Farabi Award winners become a member of Iran's National Elites Foundation.