For the past several weeks I've had the opportunity to take a class offered by the imam at my masjid about the differences between the four major schools of fiqh. It was a very interesting class, just wrapped up, and this weekend I finally received a copy of The Four Imams. But aside from the basic material of the class, the sheikh gave us a new perspective on scholarly thought and ijtihad in the modern Muslim world.
He explained that after a time of intense scholarly pursuits, during which Muslims pursued knowledge with fierce dedication, the students of knowledge began to simply follow their teachers. Rather than basing a fatwa on daleel (proof) and ijtihad, they would provide a fatwa of a previous scholar, with that scholar being the authority rather than the verses from the Qur'an, hadith from the Prophet (s) or Companions or other sources which were used. Ultimately that led to a breakdown of the intellectual struggle and stifled advances in Islamic thought. Scholars would train exclusively in one school of jurisprudence, and some people (laypeople I presume) even considered that to change one's madhhab was equivalent to changing one's deen--even converting to another religion like Christianity after being Muslim.
I think it's important to understand that kind of development, intellectual regression if you will, because the dearth of capable scholars leaves many Muslims today prone to be misguided.
Let's take for example the medical field--we have seen in this century amazing new advances is in medicine. Advances in medicine are possible because there is an abundance of doctors and research facilities. People collectively view advancement as important and so resources are devoted to the task. As more people study and practice medicine, the brightest minds are given a forum in which to excel, and funds are directed towards that pursuit.
Why shouldn't the study of Islam be the same way? That we devote our resources towards it--that the brightest minds among the Muslims follow a path that not just reviews and copies what has been done before, but continues to flourish with fresh new perspectives analyzing the past and synthesizing a means for the future. The medical field has developed a culture in today's world, but the study of Islam should do the same. A culture that respects the scholars and puts Allah first, which understands global currents but advances the cause of Muslims worldwide, for the sake of Allah.
That has to begin with thought--introspection. Looking inside our past and revitalizing it. I think this is happening today--Muslims are increasingly active in da'wah to Muslims and non-Muslims. They seek to convey the message to those who haven't heard it, teach it to those who accept it, and implement it among those who embrace it. It is a slow process but that's what we see--slowly but surely the scattered ashes of a united ummah are fusing together, congealing to construct a new house for the Muslims. But without the solid bricks of knowledge, the house can only be shaky, and weak, at best.
Many Muslims today are also seeking knowledge--even in the West, students from overseas are founding new schools and institutes to make knowledge more accessible to Muslims who would otherwise be isolated from the powerhouses in the Muslim world. It is a trend I think we should encourage--yes, it is important to have doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc., but we cannot progress as a single nation unless we understand what binds us together, and that is Islam. The scholars of the past have left us towers, which over centuries have begun to decay and fall. We need to make it a priority, to teach ourselves about Islam, to teach our children, and the rest of the world.
I have immense respect for those who have elected to carry the banner, those who devote hours, days, months, years to the pursuit of Islamic knowledge--may Allah reward them.