"This groundbreaking study raises a number of important questions and is a major step toward opening the path for further research in this area by legal, social, and gender historians."—International Journal of Middle East Studies,
"Off the Straight Path will be of interest to a wide variety of scholars interested in Ottoman history, social norms and deviance, and those concerned with Muslim histories of sexuality and gender."—Journal of Palestine Studies,
"A highly original work on adultery, immorality and offences against public order in the Ottoman Empire, with empirical evidence from Aleppo, one of the Empire's major provincial capitals."—Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies,
"This work could easily become standard reading for any number of courses on gender, law, Middle East studies, and Ottoman history."—The Historian,
The legal treatment of sexual behavior is a subject that receives little scholarly attention in the field of Middle East women’s studies. Important questions about the relationship between sexuality and the law and about the societies enforcing that relationship are rarely addressed in the current literature. Elyse Semerdjian’s “Off the Straight Path” takes a bold step toward filling that gap by offering a fascinating look at the historical progression of the treatment of illicit sex under Islamic law.
Semerdjian provides a comprehensive review of the concept of zina, i.e., sexual indiscretion, by exploring the diverse interpretation of zina crime as presented in a variety of sources from the Qur’an and hadith to legal literature. She then delves into the history of legal responses to zina within the specific community of Aleppo, Syria. Drawing on a wealth of shari‘a court records, Semerdjian provides a realistic view of Syrian society during the Ottoman period. With vivid detail, she describes specific women’s lives and experiences as their cases are presented before the court. Semerdjian argues that the actual treatment of zina crimes in the courts differs substantially from sentences prescribed by codified Islamic jurisprudence. In contrast to the violent corporal punishments dictated in the Islamic legal code, the courts often punished crimes of sexual indiscretion with nonviolent sentences, such as removal from the community. Employing exceptional insight, “Off the Straight Path” presents a powerful challenge to the traditional view of Islamic law, enabling a richer understanding of Islamic society.
Elyse Semerdjian is assistant professor of history at Whitman College. A Fulbright Scholar, her articles have appeared in Hawwa. She is a contributor to Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies, also published by Syracuse University Press.
6 x 9, 288 pages, 10 black and white illustrations, 4 maps