The idea of human rights as perceived in the Ottoman Empire

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Aral B.

HUMAN RIGHTS QUARTERLY, vol.26, no.2, pp.454-482, 2004 (Peer-Reviewed Journal) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 26 Issue: 2
  • Publication Date: 2004
  • Doi Number: 10.1353/hrq.2004.0015
  • Journal Indexes: Social Sciences Citation Index, Scopus
  • Page Numbers: pp.454-482


Although human rights doctrine has primarily been a product of Western history, non-Western conceptions and interpretations of issues which we may today link with "human rights" can undoubtedly enrich the debates on this topic. The Ottoman system prioritized the benefits of collectivities rather than those of individuals, and emphasized justice rather than freedom. This paper argues that both the Ottoman sultan as well as the courts took great care to observe the Shariah law, understood of course from a Sunni perspective, which accorded extensive rights to the individual, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. These rights included the right to life, property, fair trial, and social protection, as well as specific rights for women. Contrary to some claims, the state in the Ottoman case did not seek to take control of the "public sphere" unless politics set in. It is only after the Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century, influenced primarily by European laws and institutions, that the state came to predominate the public sphere, thus narrowing the scope for civic action.