His family moved to the United States in 1947. He studied at Georgetown University. In 1952, he went to Egypt and stayed there for a year. During his stay, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, initiated by the Free Officers, occurred. He also met Ihsan Abbas, the famous scholar of Islamic history.
On leaving Egypt he went back to Germany and completed his Ph.D in 1957, working with Berthold Spuler. In 1958 he was sent to Iraq by the German government to work at its embassy there. Shortly after his arrival in Baghdad, Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim overthrew the regime in the bloody military coup known as the 14 July Revolution. Madelung stayed in Iraq two more years. Subsequently, he taught at the University of Chicago.
Madelung was Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford from 1978 to 1998. He has written extensively on the early history of Islam, as well as on Islamic sects such as the Shi'a and the Ismailis. He has served on the editorial boards of several academic journals including the Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for Ismaili Studies in London
- Madelung, W. (editor) - Arabic Texts Concerning The History of The Zaydi Imams of Tabaristan, Daylaman And Gilan, Franz Steiner, 1987
- Madelung, W. - Religious Trends in Early Islamic Iran, 1988
- Madelung, W. - Religious and Ethnic Movements in Medieval Islam, 1992
- Madelung, W. - The Succession to Muhammad, Cambridge University Press, 1997
- Madelung, W. and Walker, P. - An Ismaili Heresiography, Leiden, 1998
- Madelung, W. and Walker, P. - The Advent of the Fatimids: A Contemporary Shi'i Witness, I.B. Tauris, 2000
- Madelung, W. - Der Imam al-Qasim ibn Ibrahim und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen, Walter De Gruyter Incorporated, 2002
- Madelung, W. - Religious school and sects in medieval Islam
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