He was also known by the surnames al-Dakhil ("the Entrant"), Saqr Quraish ("the Falcon of the Quraysh") and the "Falcon of Andalus". Variations of the spelling of his name include Abd ar-Rahman I, Abdul Rahman I, Abdar Rahman I, and Abderraman I.
Born near Damascus in Syria, Abd al-Rahman was the son of the Umayyad prince Mu'awiya ibn Hisham and his concubine Ra'ha, a Berber woman from the Nafza tribe, and thus the grandson of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, caliph from 724 to 743. He was twenty when his family, the ruling Umayyads, were overthrown by the Abbasid Revolution in 748–750. Abd al-Rahman and a small part of his family fled Damascus, where the center of Umayyad power had been; people moving with him include his brother Yahya, his four-year-old son Sulayman, and some of his sisters, as well as his Greek freedman, Bedr. The family fled from Damascus to the River Euphrates. All along the way the path was filled with danger, as the Abbasids had dispatched horsemen across the region to try to find the Umayyad prince and kill him. The Abbasids were merciless with all Umayyads that they found. Abbasid agents closed in on Abd al-Rahman and his family while they were hiding in a small village. He left his young son with his sisters and fled with Yahya. Accounts vary, but Bedr likely escaped with Abd ar-Rahman. Some histories indicate that Bedr met up with Abd al-Rahman at a later date.
Abd al-Rahman, Yahya, and Bedr quit the village, narrowly escaping the Abbasid assassins. On the way south, Abbasid horsemen again caught up with the trio. Abd al-Rahman and his companions then threw themselves into the River Euphrates. The horsemen urged them to return, promising that no harm would come to them; and Yahya, perhaps from fear of drowning, turned back. The 17th-century historian Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari poignantly described Abd al-Rahman's reaction as he implored Yahya to keep going: "O brother! Come to me, come to me!" Yahya returned to the near shore, and was quickly dispatched by the horsemen. They cut off his head and left his body to rot. Al-Maqqari quotes earlier historians reporting that Abd al-Rahman was so overcome with fear that from the far shore he ran until exhaustion overcame him. Only he and Bedr were left to face the unknown.
After barely escaping with their lives, Abd al-Rahman and Bedr continued south through Palestine, the Sinai, and then into Egypt. Abd al-Rahman had to keep a low profile as he traveled. It may be assumed that he intended to go at least as far as northwestern Africa (Maghreb), the land of his mother, which had been partly conquered by his Umayyad predecessors. The journey across Egypt would prove perilous. At the time, Abd al-Rahman ibn Habib al-Fihri was the semi-autonomous governor of Ifriqiya (roughly, modern Tunisia) and a former Umayyad client. The ambitious Ibn Habib, a member of the illustrious Fihrid family, had long sought to carve out Ifriqiya as a private dominion for himself. At first, he sought an understanding with the Abbasids, but when they refused his terms and demanded his submission, Ibn Habib broke openly with the Abbasids and invited the remnants of the Umayyad dynasty to take refuge in his dominions. Abd al-Rahman was only one of several surviving Umayyad family members to make their way to Ifriqiya at this time.
But Ibn Habib soon changed his mind. He feared the presence of prominent Umayyad exiles in Ifriqiya, a family more illustrious than his own, might become a focal point for intrigue among local nobles against his own usurped powers. Around 755, believing he had discovered plots involving some of the more prominent Umayyad exiles in Kairouan, Ibn Habib turned against them. At the time, Abd al-Rahman and Bedr were keeping a low profile, staying in Kabylie, at the camp of a Nafza Berber chieftain friendly to their plight. Ibn Habib dispatched spies to look for the Umayyad prince. When Ibn Habib's soldiers entered the camp, the Berber chieftain's wife Tekfah hid Abd al-Rahman under her personal belongings to help him go unnoticed. Once they were gone, Abd a-Rahman and Bedr immediately set off westwards.