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 Affairs. http://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 Explorer. https://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 Guardian. https://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 News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/the-books-have-been-burning-1.887172
"The Tanzimat: Secular Reforms in the Ottoman Empire" by Ishtiaq Hussein. Faith Matters. http://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-publications/the-tanzimat-final-web.pdf
"Where is it illegal to be gay?" BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-25927595
"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