The key objective of this work is the design of an unconditionally stable, robust, efficient, modular, and easily expandable finite element-based simulation tool for cardiac electrophysiology. In contrast to existing formulations, we propose a global–local split of the system of equations in which the global variable is the fast action potential that is introduced as a nodal degree of freedom, whereas the local variable is the slow recovery variable introduced as an internal variable on the integration point level. Cell-specific excitation characteristics are thus strictly local and only affect the constitutive level. We illustrate the modular character of the model in terms of the FitzHugh–Nagumo model for oscillatory pacemaker cells and the Aliev–Panfilov model for non-oscillatory ventricular muscle cells. We apply an implicit Euler backward finite difference scheme for the temporal discretization and a finite element scheme for the spatial discretization. The resulting non-linear system of equations is solved with an incremental iterative Newton–Raphson solution procedure. Since this framework only introduces one single scalar-valued variable on the node level, it is extremely efficient, remarkably stable, and highly robust. The features of the general framework will be demonstrated by selected benchmark problems for cardiac physiology and a two-dimensional patient-specific cardiac excitation problem. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.