For over 30 years he was at the heart of the Yemeni political scene, not only when North Yemen had become the Yemen Arab Republic but also earlier, when it was known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, and he was intimately involved in the events which paved the way for the eventual emergence of the Yemen as a modern state.
He was born in the mountain village of Iryan, the home town of his ancestors (hence the name al-Iryani), in the district of al-Qafr, some 90 miles south of Sanaa, into a family well-known for producing judges and scholars and whose members inherited the privileged title of qadi (judge). Although Iryan was in the Shafi'i (Sunni) part of the Yemen the Iryanis were Zaydi Shia who had served the Zaydi imams faithfully for generations. Abd al- Rahman's father, Qadi Yahya bin Muhammad, knew the Koran by heart, was a poet and for several years head of the High Court of Appeal during the imamate of the Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din (who reigned from 1904 to 1948).
The young Abd al-Rahman received a traditional education in Sanaa which meant studying Arabic grammar and syntax, Islamic jurisprudence, the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and was taught by his father and other scholars.
Iryani excelled in jurisprudence and was subsequently appointed judge at al-Nadira, in the province of Ibb. In 1944 he became one of the leading activists in a clandestine political organisation, the Jam'iyat al-Islah (the Reform Group) which opposed the Imam Yahya and the rule of the Hamid al-Din family. In the autumn of 1944 Iryani was arrested along with other members of the organisation and imprisoned at Hajja in north-west Yemen. The following year, however, Sayf al-Islam Ahmad, the Crown Prince, was prevailed upon to release Iryani who was then summoned by him to work in the southern city of Ta'izz which was the Crown Prince's permanent residence.
Iryani supported the coup in February 1948 that saw the assassination of Imam Yahya and the proclamation of Sayyid Abdullah bin Ahmad al-Wazir as Imam. He was appointed first secretary of the Consultative Council but a month later Imam Yahya's son Ahmad (now Imam) had regained control of Sanaa. Iryani refused to flee the country, was arrested on 14 March and despatched to Hajja, where he was imprisoned once again, this time for six years.
Iryani's release from prison and his regaining favour with Imam Ahmad were the result of the friendship he struck up with the Imam's son Sayf al- Islam Muhammad al-Badr. Al-Badr was known for his liberal and progressive ideas and it was in him that the hopes of many who wanted political reform now rested. Iryani was instrumental in promoting propaganda on behalf of al-Badr that he was the ideal choice for designation as Crown Prince. This was then enthusiastically embraced by Imam Ahmad, who ordered Iryani to draw up a document by which allegiance would be legally obtained for his son, and got him to procure allegiance from the ulema and notables at Zabid in Ta'izz. Iryani was subsequently appointed a member of the judicial High Shari'wa Court.
Imam Ahmad's increasingly despotic and arbitrary rule, however, caused Qadi Iryani to support Sayf al-Islam Abdullah (Ahmad's brother) and Col Ahmad al-Thulaya in their revolt against the Imam in April 1955. Having been led on to the square at Ta'izz where the Imam himself was directing the executions, Iryani was reprieved at the very last moment. The Imam looked at him and declared, "afawnaak" - "We forgive you!"
A few months later he was appointed a member of the 10-man Consultative Council headed by Crown Prince al-Badr. From 1958 to 1962 he was Minister of State, accompanying the Imam when he went to Rome in 1959 for medical treatment, and was a minister in the week-long government of Imam al-Badr in mid-September 1962.
After the revolution of 26 September 1962, which was organised by a group of army officers and then maintained for the next five years by a considerable Egyptian military presence, Iryani was appointed Minister of Justice and from then until 1967, when he became President, he was, at various times, a member of the ruling Command Council, deputy premier and prime minister. In November 1965 he led the Republican delegation to the Peace Conference at Harad on the coastal plain which was an attempt to bring an end to the civil war between the Republicans and the Royalists, as the partisans of the deposed Imam were called, who were backed mainly by the Saudis.
In early November 1967, when the Egyptians had just evacuated the Yemen, Abdullah Sallal, who had been President since the revolution, was deposed in a peaceful military coup. Iryani formed the Republican Council consisting of himself as President and two other members. He was ousted in the coup of 1974 led by Ibrahim al-Hamdi and had to leave the Yemen. He set up residence in Damascus but in 1980 President Ali Abdullah Salih invited him back. Although he visited the Yemen regularly after that date he preferred to live most of the time in the Syrian capital.
Qadi Iryani possessed considerable political insight and sensitivity. He knew how to handle the most conservative of the Zaydi ulema, traditionalist tribal leaders, as well as Baathist and leftist intellectuals, and communicated brilliantly with them all. It is due very much to his efforts that the "national reconciliation" of 1970, when many prominent former royalists returned to Sanaa to take an active part in the government, turned out largely to be a success.
He was also a scholar and a poet. While in al-Qahira prison at Hajja he edited a collection of the poems of the renowned 18th/19th-century Yemeni poet Abd al-Rahman al-Anisi. During his retirement he edited an edition of an important work by the 17th-century Zaydi theologian Salih al-Maqbali.
Iryani was a great patriot who resented foreign interference in Yemeni affairs whether it came from the Saudis, the Egyptians or from Socialist or Baathist Arab States. He strove unceasingly to unite North and South Yemen and so the eventual unification which took place when he was an old man of 80 must have brought him considerable happiness.
The Iryani family is still prominent in Yemen society, both politically and culturally. A nephew of the Qadi, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, is the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, his nephew and son-in-law Mutahhar is a well known scholar and poet, and his son Yahya is the Yemeni ambassador in Warsaw.
Abd al-Rahman bin Yahya al-Iryani, politician, jurist and literary scholar: born Iryan, Yemen 1910; President of the Yemen Arab Republic 1967-74; married (five sons, two daughters); died Damascus, Syria 14 March 1998.