Obituary: Aisha Abdul-Rahman

Adel Darwish
Tuesday 15 December 1998 00:02

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.

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