Under the Ottoman Empire, freedom of opinion was guaranteed by Islamic law. Scholars were free to interpret the rules of the Islamic religion from the Quran and Sunna. Their views might have differed, but no-one regarded the other's as wrong. For instance, when Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid hung a literary work that included the juridical views of Imam Malikthe called the "Muwatta" on the Kaaba and ordered everyone to act in accordance with it, Imam Malik himself dismissed the idea, finding it contrary to the ideals of freedom of science and opinion. The Muslim caliphs did not interfere with the scientific activities of the scholars.
Everyone could freely declare their convictions regarding the actions of the authorities without using illegitimate means such as libel or rebellion. The Prophet Muhammad considered telling the truth to rulers an act worthy of praise and the Quran orders consultation with those who possess knowledge when carrying out a task.
When Abu Bakr was elected caliph, he said "Obey me as I obey Allah. [If I do not obey Allah, then] you do not have such a duty." When Caliph Ali was informed of a group of people in the Great Mosque of Kufa who criticized his rule, he said, "We will not do anything to them unless they assault us." When someone severely criticized the Caliph Muawiya, he remained silent. When asked whether he would tolerate this, he said to the people, "We do not engage with the words of those who attack our sultanate."
A deed of the afterworld
In the classical period, the ulema never interfered in politics, but warned the administrators of their wrongdoings. It is known that when the shaykhs freely declared their opinions to even the toughest of sultans such as Yavuz Sultan Selim, the sultan accepted their criticism instead of opposing it. Another example occurred during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent when a preacher in the Hagia Sophia criticized the government in his Friday sermon on the grounds that the government had neglected to pursue certain pirates while Maltese knights harassed the ships carrying pilgrims.
While Shaykh al-Islam Zenbilli Ali Efendi was seeing Yavuz Sultan Selim off to Edirne on one occasion, he saw a group of people who were bound at the hands and learned that they were merchants who were being punished for not complying with the silk trade ban to Persia. Immediately he appeared before the sultan and objected. "They have not failed to comply with your order because the fact that you have assigned a silk taxation collector indicates that the silk trade is authorized," he said. When the sultan said, "It is not your duty to express your opinion about political affairs!" he left the sultan's presence, saying, "This is not a political business. It is the deed of the afterworld. So, in the afterworld, you will be responsible for it. To interfere with this is my duty as a clergyman." The Sultan then ordered the issue to be investigated and the merchants to be released.
In times when the notion of political opposition and the press did not exist in Ottoman society, poets and artists fulfilled this task and expressed the disruptions in political and social life in humorous language. The government welcomed this with tolerance and saw it as beneficial to test public opinion and decrease social tension.
French author Castellan said in 1812, "The Ottoman people can criticize the government by using sarcasm, and even imitate them in funny clothes. Police officers do not interfere with criticism from the public during entertainment."
Likewise, a British man named Charles MacFarlane visited the Ottoman state in 1823 and stated that, "Meddahs (storytellers) substitute for our newspapers." Meddahs entertained people in public places often using funny and thought-provoking language. In the traditional folk theater, Ortaoyunu (a eulogistic show in Ottoman Culture), political and social disruptions were criticized with sarcastic language.
The French writer Ubicini, who published his travel notes in 1855, said, "Public opinion is too strong to be foreseen in Turkey. No-one can escape Karagöz. Pashas, ulema, dervishes, bankers, merchants, high class, and people from all professions are carefully monitored on the shadow play's screen, and each character is revealed. Since even as the high state officials are not deprived of Karagöz censorship, the viziers, who sometimes go and watch such representations in disguise, remain obliged to listen to many bitter truths." Karagöz is a puppet show and shadow play that is played on screen and dates back to ancient times.
Gerard de Nerval, a French scholar who came to Istanbul during the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid, said, "In the plays, Karagöz is on the opposition front lines. He is either a sarcastic bourgeoisie, or a common person who criticizes statesmen with intelligence. He is always a straight shooter. During that time, it was forbidden by law to go out without a lantern after dark. In those days, Karagöz came out with a lantern without a candle. Thus, he criticized the fact that there was no provision for a candle in the lantern. When the cops caught him and he was later released for being right, this time he came out with a lantern with a non-lit candle. Because the law had not stated that the candle was supposed to be burning."
Poets criticized statesmen in poetry in the form of satire and pointed out disruptions in society, thus creating a form of satirical literature. Modern poets such as Namık Kemal and Ziya Pasha in the last period, as well as the poet Nefi who lived in the seventeenth century became representatives of an elegant but cruel opposition with their pointed pens as well as the interpreters of public sentiment. These were met with tolerance even if the statesmen did not like it. In the Eastern world, it is considered rude to show a reaction against righteous criticism.
According to the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, the press is free by law. Even in the time of Sultan Hamid, who was renowned for censorship, political writings were not intervened in unless they were contrary to religion and morality and provoked rebellion. In this period, books on religious subjects in particular were investigated by the Maarif Encümeni (Education Council), which the famous scholars of the time participated in, and those who did not contradict scientific principles were given a license to publish. On July 24, 1908, administrative control over newspapers and books was abolished. After this date, which was celebrated as Press Day, a low-brow idleness dominated cultural life.