Raised in the Delta port city of Dumyat (Damietta), she was taught the Qur’an and classical Arabic literature by her father, an al-Azhar educated teacher at a mosque-based religious institute. Although he educated her in the traditional style at home, mosque, and Qur’anic school (kuttab), he objected to her attendance at public schools. With the assistance of her mother and maternal great-grandfather, she managed to get a secular education (at El Mansurah) despite her father’s objections.
‘Abd al-Rahman began her literary career by writing poems and essays for Al-nahdah, a women’s magazine, and became a literary critic for the semi-official newspaper Al-ahram in 1936, the same year she entered the Faculty of Letters at Fu’ad I University. At this time, she assumed the pen-name Bint al-Shati’ (“Daughter of the Shore”) in order to conceal her identity from her father. Her first articles for Al-ahram focused on conditions in the Egyptian countryside, but she is best known for her later works on religious and literary topics. She received her doctorate in 1950 for a thesis on the poet Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri (d. 1058).
In 1951, ‘Abd al-Rahman became professor of Arabic language and literature at ‘Ayn Shams University in Cairo. Throughout the 1960s, she participated in international literary conferences, served on several government sponsored committees on literature and education, and was a visiting professor at the Islamic University in Ummdurman (Sudan), the University of Khartoum, and the University of Algiers. After retiring from her position at ‘Ayn Shams University, she became professor of higher Qur’anic studies at al-Qarawiyin University in Fez, Morocco. Her regular articles for Al-ahram, her biographies of the women of the Prophet’s household, and especially her exegesis of the Qur’an brought her recognition and distinction in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.
‘Abd al-Rahman’s pursuit of public education offered her little challenge after her early education at the hands of her father, until she met Professor Amin al-Khuli when she was a student at Fu’ad I University (later Cairo University). He introduced her to the literary analysis of the Qur’an that became her trademark. In 'Ala al-jisr, ‘Abd al-Rahman decribes her entire life as a path to this encounter with Amin al-Khuli, whom she married in 1945. Her work is seen as the best exemplification of his method, and she has been much more prolific than her teacher, who died in 1966.
‘Abd al-Rahman’s rhetorical exegesis of the Qur’an makes a plea for removing the Qur’an from the exclusive domain of traditional exegesis (commentary) and placing it within literary studies. Whereas some earlier exegetes allowed for a multiplicity of interpretations of any single Qur’anic verse, seeing in this multiplicity a demonstration of the richness of the Qur’an, ‘Abd al-Rahman argues that every word of the Qur’an allows for only a single interpretation, which should be elicited from the context of the Qur’an as a whole. She rejects extraneous sources, particularly information derived from the Bible or Jewish sources (Isra'iliyat), the inclusion of which in traditional Qur’anic exegesis she sees as part of a continuing Jewish conspiracy to subvert Islam and dominate the world. She also argues that no word is a true synonym for any other in the Qur’an, so no word can be replaced by another. Whereas many scholars believe certain phrases in the Qur’an were inserted to provide the text with its characteristic rhythm and assonance, ‘Abd al-Rahman insisted that every word of the Qur’an is there solely for the meaning it gives.
‘Abd al-Rahman was both deeply religious and very conservative, despite her active public life. On the subject of women’s liberation, she affirmed the principle of male guardianship over women but firmly rejected male responsibility for the behavior of women. She insisted that a proper understanding of women’s liberation does not abandon traditional Islamic values. She was consistently supported and honored by successive Egyptian regimes.
'A'ishah 'Abd al-Rahman died of a heart attack following a stroke in Cairo on December 1, 1998.
'A'ishah 'Abd al-Rahman was born in Damietta in the governate of Domyat. Her father taught at the Domyat Religious Institute. When she was ten, her mother, though illiterate, enrolled 'A'ishah in school while her father was traveling. Though her father objected, her mother later sent 'A'ishah to El Mansurah for further education. Later, 'A'ishah studied Arabic at Cairo University earning her undergraduate degree in 1939, and an M.A. degree in 1941.
In 1942, 'A'ishah began work as an Inspector for teaching of Arabic literature for the Egyptian Ministry of Education. She earned her Ph.D. with distinction in 1950 and was appointed Professor of Arabic Literature at the University College for Women of the Ains Shams University.
'Abd al-Rahman wrote fiction and biographies of early Muslim women, including the mother, wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as literary criticism. She was the second modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis, and though she did not consider herself to be a feminist, her works reflect feminist themes. She began producing her popular books in 1959, the same year that Naguib Mahfouz published his allegorical and feminist version of the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
'Abd al-Rahman was married to Sheik Amin el-Khouli, her teacher at Cairo University during her undergraduate years. She died of a heart attack on December 1, 1998, following a stroke in Cairo. She donated all her library to research purposes, and in 1985 a statue was built in her honor in Cairo.
A selective bibliography of her works reads as follows:
- The Egyptian Countryside (1936)
- The Problem of the Peasant (1938)
- Secret of the Beach and Master of the Estate: The Story of a Sinful Woman (1942)
- New Values in Arabic Literature (1961)
- Contemporary Arab Women Poets (1963)
Alternative names include:
'Abd al-Rahman, 'A'isha
'Abd al-Rahman, 'A'ishah
'A'isha 'Abd al-Rahman
'A'ishah 'Abd al-Rahman
Daughter of the Riverbank
Daughter of the Shore