Islamic Studies 'Aysha Abd Al-Rahman
Ruth Roded
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0154


ʿAysha Abd al-Rahman (b. 1913–d. 1998), an Egyptian writer and Islamic scholar who published her literary works under the pen name Bint al-Shati, was a pioneer in many ways. She was one of the first Egyptians to write about the agrarian problems of the country and the plight of the peasants, of the pioneering generation of female Arab literati, the first Muslim woman to undertake Qurʾanic exegesis, and one of the first women to write about the life of the prophet Muhammad. Nevertheless, her views are rather conservative on some issues, and scholars differ in characterizing her as feminist or an Islamic feminist, a more recent term for Muslim religious feminists. ʿAysha Abd al-Rahman was born in 1913 and grew up in the coastal town of Damietta, and attended secondary school in Mansura in the Delta. In 1932, she moved on to Cairo University, where she received her first degree in Arabic Language and Literature (1939), completed her MA (1941) with a thesis on the medieval poet Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri, and wrote her PhD (1950) on the same subject. From 1951, she held various positions at ʿAyn Shams University, and from 1968, she was affiliated with al-Azhar, the outstanding Islamic university. She served as a visiting professor at various universities in the Arab world—in Morocco, Lebanon, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. She was associated with the Al-Ahram newspaper from 1935 and throughout her life. At Cairo University, ʿAysha Abd al-Rahman met, fell in love with, and married her professor Amin al-Khuli, who was old enough to be her father, had another wife, and actually had children her age. This relationship, which lasted until Khuli’s death in 1966, had an immense impact on her emotional, personal, and professional life. Bint al-Shati published numerous writings in many genres during her long life—more than sixty publications in book form and hundreds of articles—including newspaper articles, books, short stories, novels, autobiography, the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Qurʾanic exegesis. Dr. Abd al-Rahman participated in many crucial events in 20th-century Egyptian history and traveled to numerous Arab and European countries for conferences and lectures. She apparently achieved political prominence in pre-1952 Egypt, maintained it during the Nasirist period and seems to have sustained her political role until her death in 1998.

General Overviews

ʿAysha Abd al-Rahman first came to the attention of experts in Islamic studies for her Qurʾanic exegesis. To this day, a comprehensive study of her life and work has not been produced, nor is there a definitive list of the numerous works she published in her long life. Each of the overview articles in this section focuses on a different aspect of Bint al-Shati’s work and provides different information about her life. McLarney 2011 is a sophisticated analysis of Abd al-Rahman’s works on women and Islam. Kooij 1982 is still an extremely valuable introduction to her life, her work, and in particular her personality. For the Arabic reader, Kambil 1996 is a very useful place to begin. Of the works focusing on her Qurʾanic exegesis, Syamsuddin 1998 is solid and critical, while Boullata 1974, which analyzes only her first volume, is still valuable for its insights. Rizk 2004 draws on material from the beginning of her journalistic career at Al-Ahram, Egypt’s premier daily. Hatem 2011 and Roded 2006 are very good overviews of her life and work and should probably be read in tandem since they have different emphases.

  • Boullata, Issa J. “Modern Qurʾan Exegesis: A Study of Bint al-Shati’s Method.” The Muslim World 64 (1974): 103–113.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-1913.1974.tb03145.x

    An excellent analysis of her Qurʾanic exegesis, based on the first volume published. Contains a long list of her publications in their many editions up to 1973. Presents and critiques her exegetical method and important findings. Boullata considered some of her views controversial, but her method as courageous and refreshing.

  • Hatem, Mervat. “ʿAʾisha Abdel Rahman: An Unlikely Heroine a Post-Colonial Reading of Her Life and Some of Her Biographies of Women in the Prophetic Household.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 7.2 (Spring 2011): 1–26.

    DOI: 10.2979/jmiddeastwomstud.7.2.1

    Sheds light on personal and intellectual histories of the biographer, arguing that her independent views regarding the role of religion and modernity in colonial and postcolonial Egypt made her “an unlikely heroine” of the Nasirist period. Contains extremely valuable information and poses interesting questions for postcolonial Islamic feminism.

  • Kambil, Al-Ab Rubert B. ed. Aʿlām al-Adab al-ʿArabi al-Muʿāsir: Siyar wa Siyar Dhatiyya. Vol. 1. Beirut, Lebanon: Markaz al-Dirasat lil-ʿAlim al-ʿArabi al-Muʿasir, Jamiʿat al-Quds, 1996.

    The entry on Bint al-Shati in this multivolume work in Arabic provides details on her career—positions she held as well as places she lived and visited, an excerpt from a 1985 interview, and a list of forty of her works published up to 1991.

  • Kooij, C. “‘Bint Al-Shati’: A Suitable Case for Biography?” In The Challenge of the Middle East: Middle East Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Edited by Ibrahim A. El-Sheikh, C. Aart van de Koppel, and Rudolf Peters, 67–72. Amsterdam: Institute for Modern Near Eastern Studies, University of Amsterdam, 1982.

    Still unique in that it is based on interviews with her, her stepson, and critics (1978, 1980). Kooij suggested themes in her life that seem to be myths of her own making, documented her anti-Semitic views, and noted her tendency to be on the right side of authority.

  • McLarney, Ellen. “The Islamic Public Sphere and the Discipline of Adab.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43 (2011): 429–449.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020743811000602

    A sophisticated analysis of Abd al-Rahman’s writing on women and Islam, from the women in the Prophet’s family, to women’s emancipation in Islam and women’s rights, women in Islamic law, and women writers. These works are placed in the intellectual, social, and political life in Egypt of the time.

  • Rizk, Yunan Labib. “Rural Start.” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 8–14 July 2004.

    Rizk worked near her in the offices of the Cairo daily Al-Ahram in her later years and analyzed the reaction of the readers of the newspaper to her early articles, as well as her stories on rural Egypt.

  • Roded, Ruth. “Bint al-Shati’s Wives of the Prophet: Feminist or Feminine?” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 33.1 (2006): 51–66.

    DOI: 10.1080/13530190600603915

    This study analyzes Bint al-Shati’s vignettes of the women in the life of the prophet Muhammad in the context of her life and times, along with her earlier writing. Although she presents negative stereotypes of women, content analysis reveals that the work also reflects feminist themes.

  • Syamsuddin, Sahiron. “An Examination of Bint al-Shati’s Method of Interpreting the Qurʾan.” MA thesis, McGill University, 1998.

    This solid thesis, carried out under the supervision of Professor Issa J. Boullata, critically analyzes Bint al-Shati’s method and its application, her critique of classical and modern Qurʾanic exegesis, and her theory of asbab al-nuzul circumstances of revelation, concluding that she has inconsistencies. Available online as a pdf.

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