The annual discussions over religious and civic matters were held in the presence of Ottoman sultans for over a century until the practice was scrapped with the end of the Caliphate in 1924.
One of the key reasons behind the Ottoman Empire surviving for over 600 years was its strong focus on keeping Islam as an integral part of its rule. While the Turkish-led empire expanded rapidly after inheriting the Muslim Caliphate from the Abbassid dynasty in 1517, it maintained a strong emphasis on scholarly consensus on both social and religious issues.
Therefore, by 1759, the concept of the "Huzur-i Humayun Lectures" had taken an official form. Conducted in the presence of the Ottoman sultan during the month of Ramadan, the lectures were participatory by design, as Muslim scholars made interpretations of various Quranic verses and took questions from students and other members of the audience.
The annual Huzur lectures were generally held inside the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the highest seat of the Ottoman Empire. This tradition continued for 165 years until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 cast it into the pages of history.
The idea to encourage debates on sensitive religious matters goes back to when the Ottoman state was in its infancy. The sultans held meetings with scholars and religious heads to revive scientific and religious life and to ensure the state and the Ottoman dynasty adhered to Islamic values.
For this same reason, the Ottoman sultans gave importance to inviting well-known religious scholars of their time to their palace along with students. They even adopted some of them as private teachers.
Fatih Sultan Mehmed (Mehmed II), who ruled over the empire with decisive military victories between 1451 and 1481, took this tradition of consensus building to a new level. He ensured his presence in such debates and gave utmost importance to encouraging both religious and scientific thinking in Ottoman society.
So how did the Huzur lectures proceed?
At least six scholars participated in the first lesson between the noon and afternoon prayers.
These lessons acquired the name "Huzur-i Humayun Lectures" because they were held before the sultan, who would listen to what was being said.
There are very few religious and cultural programs throughout history that have continued regularly and for such a long time.
Scholars who read the course in Huzur lectures were called "mukarrir" (a person who explains a subject), and scholars who raised questions and debated the merits of the lectures were called "muhatap” (interlocutors). For every one mukarrir, there were five muhatap. The number of lecturers, however, increased or decreased from time to time, as did the number of lectures, days, hours, and duration.
The entire event was administered by the Sheyhulislamlik (the office of the Sheikh al Islam), who had the highest authority to issue fatwas. The surahs and verses to be interpreted at the annual event were announced by the Sheyhulislamlik fifteen days before Ramadan. They would then prepare their queries.
The lectures were held in complete scholarly freedom. A verse was read and interpreted by the mukarrir, who would then answer questions posed by the muhataps. The sultan listened to everything from lectures to discussions. Most of the scholars framed their presentations based on the works of Qadi Beydawi, a 13th-century Persian jurist, theologian, and Quran commentator.
What made this exercise so critical was that the scholars interpreted Quranic verses in light of hadith (Prophet Muhammad's sayings), fiqh (full comprehension), and historic and geographic relevance. It was an honest and intellectually rigorous activity that enhanced both rational and spiritual thinking in the Ottoman dynasty.
It was common for the Huzur lecture scholars to be rewarded with gifts from the sultan.
The meeting place of the assemblies was determined by the sultan. Here, the mukarrir sat to the sultan's right, and the muhataps sat next to the mukarrir in a semicircle.
The names of men and women who would stay to listen to lectures in the sultan's presence were approved by the sultan.
During the reign of Abdulhamid II, the lectures were held in Yildiz Palace for two days a week during the month of Ramadan. Some deputies and politicians were invited, too.
During the reign of Sultan Vahdeddin and Caliph Abdulmecid Efendi, lessons continued in Dolmabahce Palace. The last was held in May 1923.
In the Library of Istanbul University, there are more than twenty perfectly handwritten, illuminated "Huzur Lecture Notebooks," probably from the Yildiz Palace Library.
Today, in the presence of the Moroccan Sultan, lessons similar to the Ottoman Huzur lectures, in terms of method and content, are held during Ramadan. These are published in Arabic and English languages under the name of Aldurus Alhasania. Religious scholars from all Islamic countries, including Türkiye, are invited to this event.