The Divan-ı Hümayun (the Imperial Council) was the principal Istanbul-centered institution of the Ottoman State. In former Islamic states the divan-ı hümayun was the most developed form of high council; in the Ottoman State it functioned as the highest political and administrative institution of the Ottoman Empire. It played a significant role in the structuring of customary law and, as well as it was the highest judicial body of the state. The members of the divan-ı hümayun were as follows:
1. Vezir-i Azam (grand vizier): The head of the divan responsible for the majority of the general administration of state.
2. Kubbealtı viziers: Government viziers selected from among the statesmen; initially these viziers were appointed from the ulama (religious scholars) and later they were selected from experienced individuals in administrative and military posts. The name kubbealtı was derived from the fact that, council meetings were held in the Kubbealtı (literally under the dome) in Topkapı Palace since the sixteenth century. There was no administrative unit that was directly under their responsibility or assigned to them. Their number varied from three to seven in differenth periods.
3. Kazasker (military judge): This was the highest position in the Ottoman judicial council. From the mid-sixteenth century, administrative functions in the judicial council decreased in favor of the role of the sheikh al-Islam. By the end of the fifteenth century, the post of kazasker was divided into the Rumelian and Anatolian kazaskers. The kazasker of Rumelia appointed the qadis to Rumelia, North Africa and the Crimea, whereas the kazasker of Anatolia appointed qadis to Anatolia.
4. Nişancı: This was the chancellor who put the sultan’s signature on edicts, charters and other documents. Therefore, in addition to his formal duty; he also held an important place and authority in customary law. The nişancı played a determinative rolein enacting and changing customary law. The place of nişancıs in customary law is similar to that of the muftis in Islamic Shari’a law, and it was for this reason that they were often referred to as müfti-i kanun. In other words, in customary law, the nişancı held the same position as the sheikh al-Islam held in the shari’a. Mustafa Çelebi who played an important role the legal arrangements during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent was one of these nişancıs and he was known as Koca Nişancı. Besides, the clerks registering land and timars (fiefs) in the Ottoman Empire work under the nişancı; any changes in these registers were carried out by the nişancı.
5. Defterdar ( treasurer): The highest ranking official in financial affairs. Although at the beginning of the Ottoman State, there was only one defterdar, as financial affairs became more complicated, the number was first doubled (one Rumelian and one Anatolian defterdar) and then a third defterdarı (şıkk-ı sani) was later added. The başdefterdar (chief defterdar – Rumelian defterdar) had to hear and resolve formal complaints related to financial matters.
6. Rumelian Beylerbeyi: the administrative and military executive of the Rumelian province; this was the highest administrative unit in the Ottoman Empire. The center of the state was in Rumelia, which was also regarded as the center of jihad; therefore, this beylerbeylik was more important than other provinces. Consequently, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, the beylerbeyi of Rumelia was accepted as a member of the divan and attended council meetings when he was in Istanbul.
7. Kaptanıderya (Grand Admiral): The kaptan-ı derya only served as a member of the council when he became a vizier. When the kaptan-ı derya left for campaign, his role in the council was limited, as he was not present in Istanbul.
8. Yeniçeri Ağası (the Agha of the janissaries): the Agha of the janissaries was appointed as a member of the divan only when he held the title of vizier.
Together with political and administrative duties, the divan also had an important legal status and authority. The nişancı held an important position and influence in the area of customary law and was a member of the divan. It is most likely that during the legislation process of customary law these regulations were discussed and decided in the council; likewise, changes on them were also determined by the divan. Besides, the divan was a higher judicial body both in customary and shari’a law; the customary and administrative lawsuits were heard and resolved by the grand vizier, whereas the shari’a lawsuits were heard and resolved by the Rumelian kazasker. When there were many complaints concerning the customary law, upon the request of the grand vizier, the second vizier also presided over hearing and when there was a larger number of shari’a cases than usual, the Anatolian kazaskeralso could hear the cases.
At first, the divan-ı hümayun met every day, but from the mid-16th century they only gathered four times a week. From the end of 17th century, the council met twice a week and from the beginning of the 18th century it lost importance and the workload decreased considerably. After the divan meetings, council members would be received into the presence of the sultan and they would report on what decisions had been taken and receive approval. This was called arza çıkmak (presentation).
There was no systematic means of appeal in Ottoman law, nevertheless like the supreme court, the Sultan’s divan occasionally examined the qadi’s decisions. Moreover, like the court of the first and last instance, the divan judged the lawsuits that the ordinary court rejected and referred it to the divan. In principle the kazasker of Rumelia ruled the case; at the request of the grand vizier, on busy days, the kazasker of Anatolia could hear the case.
The divan had an important function in terms of fair adjudication, particularly in customary criminal lawsuits in which public officials were involved. From this aspect, the divan-ı hümayun undertook the duties that were carried out by the mezalim courts in other Islamic states. The importance of the role of the divan in the rule of law in the Ottoman State is undeniable.
People could appeal to the imperial council either in writing, in person or via a representative. Furthermore, it was possible to apply to the sultan in person. In the divan, for cases that had been held with or without a hearing in which the qadi’s decisions were not in keeping with the law, the case would be sent to the same court, or sometimes to a different court. During the retrial, the divan would occasionally make its opinion known. If the divan arrived at a conclusion, the decision would be put into effect immediately. In addition, the divan-ı hümayun would send a mehayif müfettişi (special qadi) to districts in where serious judicial complaints involved.