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The surprising decriminalization of homosexuality in the Ottoman Emire



On August 9, 1858, the Ottoman Empire implemented a new penal code as part of an overall period of reform that lasted nearly 40 years. This new criminal code omitted the crime of homosexuality, thus decriminalizing homosexuality in the Empire and its successor, the Republic of Turkey. That’s 124 years before you couldn’t be arrested for being gay in the UK, and 145 years before the United States!

Surprised? I was too. We constantly hear tragic stories of LGBT discrimination, persecution, and hatred in the Muslim world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that being gay can get you killed in some Muslim countries. So how can it be that the Ottoman Empire, the very epitome of Islamic power for hundreds of years, would not outlaw something that some modern Islamic governments think should be punishable by death? 

It turns out that this homophobia that we see is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the Islamic Golden Age (from about the 8th century to the 13th century), Muslim societies were remarkably accepting of homosexuality. 

Books that feature homosexuals, like Gulistan by Sadi and Nau rang-i ishq by Ghanimat, were required reading for Persian school children. One of the most famous classical Arabic poets, Abu Nuwas, wrote openly about homosexual themes. His works were celebrated throughout history right up until modern day. In 2001, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture gave into pressure from conservatives and burned over thousands of Nuwas's books. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who created an empire encompassing what is today eastern Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Sultan was reportedly in love with one of his slaves, a man named Malik Ayaz. 

At times during Islamic history when homosexuality was actually prosecuted, the standard for conviction was often exceptionally high. A homosexual act would have to have been witnessed by at least 4 individuals. During the Islamic Golden Age, punishment for homosexuality was incredibly rare. Right up until the 19th century, many gay Europeans would flee to Morocco to escape prosecution.

So what changed? Muslim disdain for homosexuality could actually be a result of the region's colonial history. When Britain would colonize an area, they would instill firm Christian traditions. For example, two years after homosexuality was decriminalized in the Ottoman Empire, the Indian Penal Code was implemented by the British Raj. Section 377 strongly outlawed homosexuality and has survived right up to today.

In Africa as well, many historians argue that intolerance for LGBT individuals is a product of colonialism. Like the Islamic world, Africa has a history of tolerance toward LGBT individuals before the colonial era. Almost 70% of all countries that used to be British colonies continue to outlaw homosexuality.

Of course, many of the statements in this blog are controversial and many people would likely disagree. And that’s okay. These issues are much more complicated than can be explored in a 5 minute video, but they are fascinating nonetheless. Conservatives and liberals alike, we all need to not view these issues from a 21st century perspective but rather to look at history with an open mind. Until we can admit that our preconceived notions may be wrong, we can’t fully understand the world. 


"Africa: homophobia is a legacy of colonialism" by Val Kalende. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/30/africa-homophobia-legacy-colonialism

"British colonialism and the criminalization of homosexuality" by Enze Han & Joseph O'Mahoney. Cambridge Review of International Affairshttp://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09557571.2013.867298

"Criminal Codes, Crime, and the Transformation of Punishment in the Late Ottoman Empire" by Kent F. Schull. Law Explorerhttps://lawexplores.com/criminal-codes-crime-and-the-transformation-of-punishment-in-the-late-ottoman-empire/

"Everything you need to know about being gay in Muslim countries" by Brian Whitaker. The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/21/gay-lgbt-muslim-countries-middle-east

"Mahmud of Ghazni" on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmud_of_Ghazni

"Muslims have a long history of accepting homosexuality in society" by Shoaib Danial. Muslims 4 Liberty. http://www.muslims4liberty.org/muslims-have-a-long-history-of-accepting-homosexuality-in-society/

"The books have been burning" by Daniel Schwartz. CBC Newshttp://www.cbc.ca/news/world/the-books-have-been-burning-1.887172

"The Tanzimat: Secular Reforms in the Ottoman Empire" by Ishtiaq Hussein. Faith Mattershttp://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-publications/the-tanzimat-final-web.pdf

"Where is it illegal to be gay?" BBChttp://www.bbc.com/news/world-25927595


Image Credits

"İstanbul Onur Yürüyüşü Gay Pride" by Lubunya (CC 3.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:21._İstanbul_Onur_Yürüyüşü_Gay_Pride_(37).jpg

"Abu Nuwas" By Jalil Gibran (Public Domain) https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4487160 

"Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni" by Maulvi Abdurab Ahadi (Public Domain) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sultan-Mahmud-Ghaznawi.jpg


Music Credits"Swinging with the Sultan" by Doug Maxwell; accessed through YouTube Audio Library


Recommended Comments

19 minutes ago, ALB/Biden said:

The Ottomans were decadent after all.

Well, if by decadent you mean more secular than usual, than sure. The Tanzimat (the period of reform during which this takes place) did make the Ottoman Empire more secular.

However, if by decadent you mean to make a judgment on the morality of the Ottomans, I would respectfully disagree and fear you may have missed the point of the article. Severe persecution (folks can read that as prosecution if the word is too harsh) of homosexuality seems to be a wholly Judeo-Christian Eurocentric phenomenon. Throughout history, cultures around the world, including Islamic culture, were remarkably accepting of homosexuality up until colonization. 

I mean no disrespect to your opinion, of course, and I always welcome debate on these issues.

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I originally meant to comment on the fact that this happened as the Ottoman empire was well into its final decline (or should I say degeneration?). I also, I wouldn't say its "secularization" accounted to much as it did not prevented them from killing the Armenians...

Considering the other issue, I will agree that Judeo-Christianity has always opposed all sexual disorders. The vice of Impurity has been described as "against human dignity" and "society as a whole". Concerning homosexual sodomy in specific, it is understood as "inherently disordered."

- I wish the note to be made that while I called the kind of attraction disordered, I in no way called any person that way. A central Christian tenement is that all human beings are created in the image of God and are by their nature good.

This said, I welcome the opportunity to debate this in a calm manner. A pity this can't happen in in USG.

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To your last point, that's my hope with this site. We don't always need agree. In fact, I think we learn most from respectful, calm, and logical disagreements. That's why I'm so pleased you are here @ALB/Biden.

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