Obituary: Aisha Abdul-Rahman

AISHA ABDUL-RAHMAN was Egypt's leading female Islamic writer and scholar. She was unusual in being a women's rights advocate who adhered to Islamic philosophy - which is often interpreted as anti-women. She leaves some 40 books on Islamic scripture; a body of literary criticism; a dozen novels and short-story anthologies; as well as hundreds of research papers, magazine articles and newspaper columns.

She enjoyed a 60-year career as a columnist, starting in 1937 when, as a 24-year-old undergraduate, she joined Al-Ahram, then as now the Middle East's oldest and best-known Arabic daily. Abdul-Rahman adopted a subtle style: she didn't join women's groups or take part in feminist marches, yet her writing and lectures in support of sexual equality enlightened many young Egyptian women in their struggle.

She was in harmony with the early Egyptian feminist movement that reached a political peak during the 1919 revolution against the British military presence and Ottoman influence. In her last published interview earlier this year she called for the re-evaluation of Egypt's feminist movement, accusing it of "wasting its energy on a war against the other sex".

She often covered her head with a scarf, yet didn't encourage other women to do so. Instead she advocated choice for the individual, unusually among Islamic writers who so often follow the totalitarian concept that Islam is not just a faith but a way of life. She rejected the idea propagated by the (male) Muslim clergy that women are inferior. She often tackled daring subjects which her fellow writers - all men - steered clear of. Her excellent study of the women in the life of the prophet Mohamed is a case in point.

As with her contemporary Soheir El-Qalamawy, who presented Scheherazade, the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, as a role-model for modern women because she won her struggle by re-educating men rather than fighting them, Abdul-Rahman's feminist examples came from the classical works of literature of the early Islamic empire. One example was her celebrated 1950 study of the 10th- century Rissalat-el Guphran ("The Mission of Remission") by the poet- philosopher Abulala el-Mearri, which is believed to be the basis of Dante's Divina Commedia.

Abdul-Rahman would strip classical works to the bone before adding contemporary flesh to present a subtle feminist message of equality and role models. Her works included a modern reading of the Koran, which Muslims believe is the word of God. This was a daring challenge to the patriarchal Islamic establishment who usually condemn even men who touch on the subject as blasphemous. But Abdul- Rahman's clever style of philosophy disarmed her would-be critics.

She was born in 1913, in the Nile Delta town of Dammietta, to a conservative father who taught at a theology institute attached to the ancient Al-Azhar Islamic University (part of the official Muslim Church; its ruling reaching beyond Egypt's borders). Her great-grandfather was the Grand Imam of Al- Azhar, the equivalent of Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England.

While left-wing and secular feminists in Alexandria and Cairo became active suffrage campaigners in the years after the First World War, Abdul- Rahman, isolated in her home town and by strict religious family pressure, stayed at home for her primary and secondary education. Her father, in her own words, belonged to a generation who "did not like women, and was against the idea of girls leaving the sanctuary of the home to attend school".

She also acquired a couple of diplomas by correspondence, including in 1929 the first teacher's qualification awarded to a woman by the conservative Al-Azhar University, which only allowed women on the campus some 35 years later. Finally, at the age of 21, she began to attend King Faud University (which in 1954 changed its name to Cairo University), where she read Islamic history and Arabic literature.

Abdul-Rahman's early years of struggle for her right to education forced her to acquire scholarly discipline. Her writing was always objective, respecting the right of others to differ.

Her first published article, in a local paper in 1935, dealt with the social disadvantages of Egyptian peasants, and outraged her family. But her grandfather encouraged her to publish two other pieces in the Al-Nahda al-Nesaeiyah ("Female Renaissance" magazine) under the pen-name Bint el Shate, "child of the shore" - her birthplace was the shore of Dammietta where the eastern branch of the Nile opens to the Mediterranean. She used the name Bint el Shate for the rest of her life. She went on to edit Al- Nahda al- Nesaeiyah while still at university.

Two years after beginning to write for the prestigious Al-Ahram, in 1939, Abdul-Rahman graduated. The editor, Antoine el-Gamile, placed her desk in his own office, since she was the only woman - apart from his secretary - on the entire staff. Within a few years she had become a household name.

Her literary criticism was remarkably objective for a scholar of Islamic teaching. Publishers and authors feared her sharp pen, which showed no mercy as it attacked nepotism, and sexist and reactionary writers. As a parliamentary sketchwriter she managed to upset a number of cabinet ministers during the multi-party liberal democratic system which ended with Nasser's military coup in 1952. But she remained attached to academe, gaining her masters degree in 1941 and her PhD in 1951, both in early Islamic literature.

When Nasser's military government, which nationalised the national press, banned the holding of two jobs, she chose the post she had occupied since 1962 as a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Ain Shams University in Cairo. However, Nasser's friend Mohamed Haikal, the editor of Al-Ahram, managed to retain her as a columnist and consultant for its highly regarded weekly literary review.

She was one of a handful who escaped the institutionalised censorship of Nasser's dictatorship. She was also awarded a number of state literary and academic awards under three different regimes.

At her funeral in Cairo, Egypt's great novelist and Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz recalled how he was impressed by her first novel, The Sinned Woman (1953). Later he turned it into a screenplay for the film-maker Salah Abu Sief, the Egyptian cinema's father of realism. Like her other works, the story touched upon social injustices and the suffering of women, especially in the semi-feudal countryside.

Aisha Abdul-Rahman was married to another great scholar, the contemporary Islamic philosopher Sheik Amin el-Khouli, who supervised her masters studies. She called him "my soul mate" and "the other part of my spiritual being". He died in 1973.

Adel Darwish

Aisha Abdul-Rahman, Islamic scholar and writer: born Dammietta, Egypt 18 November 1913; Head of Arabic and Islamic studies, Ain Shams University 1972; married 1947 Amin el-Khouli (died 1973; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cairo 1 December 1998.

Suggested Topics
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate