If anyone in the Safavid period truly deserves the epithet of polymath, it is Muḥsin Fayż Kāshānī [b. 14 ṣafar 1007/16 September 1598 Kāshān and d. 2 Rabīʿ II 1091/2 May 1680 Iṣfahān], exegete, Akhbārī (?), theologian, mystic, courtier, occultist, and philosopher student and son-in-law of the eminent Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī [d. 1045/1635]. His father Shāh Murtażā Kāshānī [d. 1009/1601] was a well known scholar, student of the exegete Mullā Fatḥullāh Kāshānī [d. 988/1580] author of Manhaj al-ṣādiqayn fī ilzām al-mukhālifīn which arguably was the first major Persian Shiʿi exegesis of the Safavid period (completed in 972/1565 - the modern edition was published in 1957 edited by the famous Qurʾan translator and philosopher-sage Sayyid Abū-l-Ḥasan Shaʿrānī), and married a daughter of Żiyāʾ al-ʿurafāʾ Rāzī - and hence Fayż's mother and Mullā Ṣadrā's wife were sisters. His uncle Nūr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Żiyāʾ al-Dīn Rāzī Kāshānī - and hence Mullā Ṣadrā's brother-in-law - is described as Shaykh al-Islām which may signal his post in the city of Kāshān and as 'ḥakīm' suggesting his training in ḥikma. His other aunt (khāla) was married to Mullā Muḥammad Sharīf Kāshānī whose sons Shah Fażlullāh [d. 1112/1701] and Mullā ʿAllāmī obtained ijāzas from Fayż. The more we understand the networks and apparatus that constitutes the context for thinkers in Islamic intellectual history, the better we can make sense of their work. Kinship is clearly a central aspect of this.
Born into a scholarly family, his primary training was in ḥadīth with Sayyid Mājid al-Baḥrānī [d. 1618] in Shiraz, then after his death with Shaykh Bahāʾī [d. 1621] in Isfahan, and later in Madina with Shaykh Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-ʿĀmilī, grandson of Shahīd II. He was then associated with Mullā Ṣadrā, moving to Shiraz with him. At his death, he returned to Kāshān - and given that he returned to Kāshān in 1045/1635, it is further evidence - alongside the testimony of his son and hence Mullā Ṣadrā's grandson Muḥammad ʿAlam al-Hudā - that Mullā Ṣadrā died in that year and not in 1050/1641 as conventionally held. He was later patronised by ʿAbbās II and significant in Isfahan, although he turned down the post of Shaykh al-Islām of the city. He had three sons - Muḥammad ʿAlam al-Hudā was probably the most significant scholar and compiler of Maʿādin al-ḥikma, a collection of the correspondence of the Imams, Muḥammad Nūr al-Hudā who was more inclined to poetry, and Aḥmad Muʿīn al-Dīn who was inclined to mysticism. His daughters were described as having scholarly leanings, poetic and belle-lettrist tastes - Umm al-Barr Sukayna Bānū, Umm Salama Sukayna, and Umm al-Khayr ʿAlīya [according to Āqā Buzurg].
Three issues remain worthy of consideration further. First, what was his relationship to Sufism and especially both the Ibn ʿArabī school to which he seemed rather attached and influenced and Ghazālī on whose Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn he wrote a Shiʿi 'correction' (tahdhīb) commissioned by the court - it was Shah Ṣafī who first requested it of Mullā Ṣadrā and he clearly passed the commission to his son-in-law. Did his association with Sufis attract the ire of the anti-Sufi groups headed by clerics such as Mullā Ṭāhir Qummī [d. 1688]? Second, to what extent and in what sense was he an Akhbārī? Did he necessarily espouse mainstream views from that school - and in particular where did he stand on the issue of the textual corruption of the Qurʾan (taḥrīf)? Third, to what extent was he the main conduit of the Mullā Ṣadrā tradition with its blend of philosophy, mysticism and a deep contemplative approach to scripture? Did it survive the attacks upon him, which Mullā Ṣadrā never suffered in his own life? How do we make sense of the fact that both Majlisī [d. 1699] and Sayyid Niʿmatullāh al-Jazāʾirī [d. 1701] narrated from him - and neither were known for their sympathy to either Sufism or philosophy? The wider question of his legacy becomes more acute for a number of reasons: his espousal of a conception of the imamate that focused on walāya takwīnīya as expressed in his Kalimāt-e maknūna among other texts, as well as his influence on later traditions that led Shaykh Yūsuf al-Baḥrānī [d. 1772] and later Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī [d. 1826] to condemn him as a heretic garbed in the cloak of a tradent. Most of the existing scholarship on him - by Jaʿfarīyān, Newman, Lewisohn - has focused upon his arguments for Friday prayer, his position on music and dance, and his relationship to power at court. Lawson, Kamada and most recently Zargar have made useful contributions to our understanding of Fayż's thought. In an earlier generation Sayyid Muḥsin al-Amīn wrote a thoughtful introduction to him to the edition of al-Maḥajja al-bayḍāʾ. Zargar is apparently writing a monograph on Fayż for the Makers of the Muslim World series at Oneworld.
Fayż was remarkably prolific and many of his works have been published. He himself wrote a list of his works. A modern attempt has been made to produce his collected works (edited by Ayatollah Muḥammad Imāmī Kāshānī in around 30 volumes) by the former Sipahsālār Madrasa now known as the Madrasa-ye ʿĀlī-ye Muṭahharī in Tehran in addition to the standard publications of his two exegeses - al-Ṣāfī, the more extensive one and al-Aṣfā, the more concise one, and his major contribution to ḥadīth al-Wāfī which became one of the 'four books' of the Safavid period to mirror and further the canonisation of the classical 'four books'. This process of the formation of the Shiʿi canon still requires further research.
Furthermore, unlike other thinkers he left us a number of autobiographical works that help us to make sense of his life and context. They also demonstrate his shifting approach to life and scholarship - and belie the common assumption of coherence in the career and corpus of a scholar. His early Sharḥ-e ṣadr written in 1064/1654 is a critical source for his relationship to mysticism and especially to Mullā Ṣadrā. His later more circumspect and scriptural al-Inṣāf primarily in Arabic composed in 1083/1672 is more critical of mystical ideas and practice. His Muḥākama on the question of Sufism composed in 1070/1660 still in the lifetime of ʿAbbās II the king inclined to Sufism, is somewhat more circumspect. The short mirror written for the same King Āʾīna-ye Shāhī a few years earlier has useful material - as does al-Maḥajja al-bayḍāʾ the correction of Ghazālī written for the same King.
Another aspect of his output was the constant reworking, redacting and composing for different audiences of roughly the same work. Examples include the cycle of texts around Kalimāt-e maknūna dated 1057/1647, some with more Persian than Arabic - with versions al-Laʾālī dated 1059/1649, Qurrat al-ʿuyūn in Arabic dated 1088/1677 with extensive ḥadīth material, and al-Kalimāt al-makhzūna dated 1089/1678 all of which have been published - and Uṣūl al-maʿārif, his summary of al-Shawāhid al-rubūbīya of Mullā Ṣadrā (as noticed by its editor the late Sayyid Jalāl al-Dīn Āshtiyānī) with its version ʿAyn al-yaqīn and Anwār al-ḥikma. Kalimāt-e maknūna demonstrates elements of his interests drawing upon the work of Mullā Ṣadrā, the school of Ibn ʿArabī usually through the works of Jāmī [d. 1498] such as his Naqd al-nuṣūṣ, Lavāyiḥ and Ashiʿat al-lamaʿāt, and rare ḥadīth from ʿAwālī al-laʾālī of Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī [d. after 1502] and Mashāriq anwār al-yaqīn fī asrār Amīr al-muʾminīn of Rajab Bursī [d. 1414]. There are plans underway to produce a translation of the text with an edition.
He is clearly a good candidate for a serious monograph in a European language. Interest in Persian has increased recently with two collections of essays: Fayżnāma, eds. Muḥsin Nājī Naṣrābādī and Sayyid Abū-l-Qāsim Naqībī, Tehran, 1387 Sh/2008-9, and Fayżpazhūhī, ed. Shahnāz Shāyānfar, Tehran, 1392 Sh/2013. I will discuss the latter in a future post.