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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future