Translation from Mohammad Baqir Malekian with my comments at the end.
Books written about the history of Shīʿī Fiqh (which generally face various problems with respect to their structure, content and historical outlook) usually regard the 100-year period after Shaykh Ṭūsī until the time of Ibn Idrīs Ḥillī, as the period of regress of Shīʿī jurpiprudence or the era of muqallidīn (imitators) of Shaykh Ṭūsī. Books that usually recount the biography of Ibn Idrīs also emphasize this point.
However, it seems that using derogatory terms like imitation and regress for this period emanates from an incorrect outlook on the history of Fiqh, as well as not paying credit where its due to scholars and fuqahā that lived during this period.
Muhammad b Ḥasan al Ṭūsī, more famously known as Shaykh Ṭūsī and Shaykh Al Ṭāʾifah (Shaykh of the Shīʿī Tribe), is the founder of signifigant changes in the domain of Shīʿi literature. Prior to him, hypothetical (farḍī) and applied (tafrīʿī) fiqh was not commonplace amongst the Shīʿa and its asbence was a point of criticism from Sunnī counterparts who saw Shīʿī jurisprudence as unable to provide solutions to detailed scenarios and assess the scope of legal rulings with respect to its branches (furūʿ). Shaykh sought to fill this vacancy and silence the criticisms by authoring Al Mabsūṭ fī Fiqh al Imāmiyah, showcasing the practical robustness of Shīʿī jurisprudence in solving hypothetical scenarios.
In a similar vein, Shīʿī seminaries did not possess an independent textbook that covered their Uṣūl al Fiqh in a comprehensive and detailed manner. Once again at the hands of the Shaykh of the Tribe, al ʿuddah fi Uṣūl al Fiqh is produced, leaving Shīʿī seminaries forever in his debt.
He also compiled in the fields of Hadith and Hadith sciences Tahdhīb al Aḥkām and Al Iṣtibṣār fī mā Ikhtalaf min al Akhbār; gathering reports that survive until today and were it not for their compilation, we perhaps would have had no access to them.
I do not wish to elaborate about the extent of Shaykh’s scholarly profile or defend his views and methodologies, rather, I hope to illustrate to the reader the vast amount of scholarly material produced in this period, many of which were unprecedented. Naturally, the survival of these new yet outreaching requires further work and propagation — a type of work that might not bring fame and popularity for its advocates. However, were it not for these scholarly efforts post-Shaykh, which we unfairly label as imitation, there would be no trace of Shaykh’s ideas in the seminaries — in the same way that the works of the father of Shaykh al Ṣadūq and Ibn Walīd and many others have been lost to history.
The century-long struggles and work of scholars in this era — be it in the form of teaching Shaykh Ṭūsī’s books, or writing glosses and explanatory commentaries on them, or rewriting copies of them, or issuing ijāzāt for his works — is the prime cause for the survival and continuity of Shaykh’s school of thinking. However, practically speaking, this sincere and noble task would leave its adherents with little or no fame; individuals whose share in the books of history is nothing but a name, usually enlisted under an ijāzā or a nuskhah.
This category of scholarly work which aims to keep alive and strengthen an intellectual school has many examples in the domains of Shīʿī sciences and seminaries. Take for example the work of the scholars of Ḥilla in the preservation and promotion of the Ḥillī Jurisprudence School (spearheaded by Muḥaqqiq al Ḥillī and ʿallāmah al Ḥillī). Or that of Akhbāri scholars in advocating Amīn Istarābādī’s ideas, who eventually turned his way of thinking into a widespread school of thought. Or on the opposite side of the spectrum, consider the works of the students of Waḥīd Bihbahānī (like Mīrzā Qummī, Shaykh Jaʿfar Kāshif al Ghīṭā, Sayyid Mahdī Baḥr al Ulūm, Sayyid ʿAlī Ṭabāṭabāʾī, the author of Riyāḍ) that was undertaken for the sake of opposition to Akhbārī School, and as a result, established the rigid Ūṣūlī school that has reached us today.
In summary, in the formation and preservation of intellectual schools, in addition to its founders and pioneers, the work of future scholarly classes is required and should be given credit. We should not reduce their selfless efforts to labels such as taqlīd and regress. And all thanks is due to Allah.
I think Sh Malekian raises an important point in this writing, one that is often overlooked in our historical studies. But there is another aspect as to why generations after the founder and pioneer take on the task of explaining his ideas and establishing his school of thought. And that is the intellectual greatness and genius of these figures. Take the recent example of Shaykh al Aʿẓam al Anṣārī. The depth, detail and genius of his jurisprudential framework does not make it easy for another school of thought to arise immediately. Any sincere student of knowledge will be overwhelmed by the sheer intellectual weight of his ideas and works. Does this mean the scholarly charisma of such geniuses and greats create fear of opposing their ideas or thinking differently to them? Maybe. Does it require some time to pass for new generations to ask bold questions and challenge that school of thought? Perhaps. The psychological pressures of a dominant way of thinking will undoubtedly have its widescale effect. But this should not take away from the greatness of the ideas. Sometimes newer generations really require time to catch up with the ideas of their masters before they are able to challenge it. If the genius is 25, 50 or 100 years ahead of his time, it will take time before criticisms surface.
I think a variety of factors need to be taken into consideration as to why a period of apparent “imitation” may arise. One important factor is without a doubt what Sh Malekian mentions. But psychological factors of challenging the great and time required to catch up to the great, are also considerations to be made.
With all this in mind, some have also dubbed our post-Shaykh era as one of imitation. If I am not mistaken, Shahid al Sadr, in his introduction to his preliminary book of Uṣūl al Fiqh, draws similarities between our period and that after Shaykh Ṭūsī’s. I don’t know how fair this judgement is when the likes of Akhūnd Al Khurasānī (who disagreed with Shaykh on many accounts), the three muhaqqiqīn (Nāʾīnī, Isfahānī, ʿArāqī) and individuals like Shahīd al Ṣadr himself were raised in this period. On the other hand, the school of Qom has presented a methodology different to that of Najaf with greats like Sayyid al Burujerdi, Mohaqiq Dāmād and Imam Khomeini directing its current. Do all of these individuals still work in the perimeter of Shaykh’s ideas? Yes and no. Yes because they stand on the shoulders of Shaykh. No, because sometimes the deviation from Shaykh’s path is too unique and independent. I think it will require some time, a half century or more, before we are able to provide a better historical analysis on what is happening in our era. Are we just imitators of Shaykh or have we already entered a new era without even knowing. Sometimes, zooming out is required to answer questions like this. But zooming out of time requires time to pass first.