It's called Rijjal al-Fikr wa ad-Da'wah fi al-Islam [Men of Thought and Dawah in Islam]. The book came about when the great Indian Muslim scholar Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Nadawai , may Allah (swt) have mercy on him, was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Damascus. After much thought he picked the topic of revivors throughout Islamic history. The lectures were a huge success and were eventually turned into a very popular book. I've been trying to get my hands on it for a couple of years now and finally managed to borrow a copy, alhamdulilAllah. (Funny thing with books of knowledge, Allah (swt) sends them at the perfect time.)
The book covers seven giants of Islamic history, may Allah (swt) have mercy upon them and be pleased with them: Omar bin Abd-el-Aziz (62-101 A.H.), al-Hasan al-Basri (21-110 A.H.), Ahmad ibn Hanbal (164-241 A.H.), Abul-Hasan al- Asha'ri (270-324 A.H.), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (450-505 A.H.), Abdul Qadir al-Jilani(470-561 A.H.), Jalal ad-Deen ar-Roumi (604-672 A.H.).
The power of the book lies in the fact that it is not simply a collection of biographies. Rather than focus on the lives of the great scholars, the author chooses to present their lives and achievements in the context of the larger historical events and the particular challenges facing the dawah movement and the Muslim ummah at the time, be them theological, societal, or political (usually a combination of the three).
Although each reformer had his own personal characteristics and faced unique challenges, there is definitely a consistent theme throughout the book: particular traits that are common in all of the above named scholars.
There are the obvious ones: Their solid knowledge of the deen which they acquired though spending years with great teachers of their time. However, their insatiable quest for knowledge did not distract them from their ibadah (worship) nor their work and worldly duties (ruling, teaching, working,...). This balance was essential.
There was also their unparalleled motivation and sincerity to use their knowledge and abilities to benefit their ummah the best way they can. They all worked tirelessly for the sake of this deen until their very last breath, may Allah (swt) reward them for their efforts.
There was also their zuhd, their complete disregard for the pleasures of this world. Not only did they refuse to sell their knowledge for worldly gains, or be satisfied with high-ranking positions in governmental institutions and universities, they stood against the tyrants of their time and were not afraid to speak out against the injustices committed by Muslim rulers, sometimes in the name of Islam.
However, what really distinguished these inspirational figures was their ability to not only grasp the sacred knowledge and be famous scholars and leaders within academic circles, but to also understand the unique challenges of their times and societies well and be able to bring about a revolution of thought in applying the sacred knowledge to revive the people's faith and fight falsehood, which ever form it may have taken.
Out of the many powerful points made in the introduction of the book, there was one key point which stood out. The Muslim ummah has gone through many turbulent times and been exposed to numerous external and internal threats, yet Islam remains strong and virtually unchanged 1400 years later. Why? First, it the vitality of this religion which Allah (swt) has made to be appropriate for all places and all times. The second is that Allah (swt) has promised to provide this ummah with strong, pious, knowledgable, fearless revivors to ensure the the continuity and regeneration of this deen till the end of time, a blessing which he has not provided to any other religion or group.
The author goes on to point out that history books may only highlight a handful of individuals, thus it may seem that the lineage of revivors is scattered and discontinuous. However, for those who dive deep into the books of history and knowledge, it becomes obvious that the movement of Islamic revival is a continuous one, for there has never been a time which was devoid of righteous groups and individuals striving to call out to the truth, speak out against injustice, challenge tyranny and corruption, and open new windows of thought and reform.
God willing, I hope to be able to post glimpses of the scholars lives from the book in the coming weeks...short stories which I found particularly touching and inspiring (if I get lazy please start nagging).
May Allah (swt) make us of those whom He uses in His Way, ameen.