The 1920s saw the appearance of a recognized head of the Muslim community in Palestine, a position which had never existed under Ottoman rule. Its holder—Haj Amin al-Husseini—soon became the most powerful political figure in Arab Palestine and the foremost leader of the Palestinian nationalist movement. His path to power began with his appointment as Mufti of Jerusalem.
The Husseini family had always been highly esteemed and part of the social elite. At the time the British took over from the Ottomans, two members of the family had already been Muftis of Jerusalem, and Amin’s older brother, Kamil al-Husseini, was holding the post. Kamil went out of his way to aid the British authorities, and his attitude toward the Jews was far from hostile. As the British were indebted to his maintenance of law and order in Jerusalem, they enhanced his authority and afforded him the title of “Grand Mufti.” Whereas in Ottoman times the Mufti of Jerusalem had been no more important than that of Acre or Nablus, the holder of this post now became the preeminent Muslim religious leader in Palestine.
It was during his brother’s rule as Mufti that Amin al-Husseini appeared on the political stage. First he worked as president of the al-Nadi al-Arabi (the Arab Club), a center of intensive nationalist activity founded in 1918. He combined educational work with political activity and worked for a movement which aspired to unite Palestine with Syria. The day Faisal was proclaimed King of Syria, 8 March 1920, he helped to organize demonstrations in favor of Syria’s independence and unification with Palestine. In April, during the al-Nabi Musa festivities (the annual pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the tomb of Moses the Prophet near Jericho), Amin and his colleagues stirred up the crowds, leading to violent clashes between Arabs and Jews. The day’s events resulted in a death toll of five Jews and four Arabs, and Amin, anticipating British reaction, escaped to Syria. A few months later, when the French invaded Syria and expelled the new king and his government, Amin gave up hope of unification and concentrated on promoting Palestinian self-determination.
At approximately the same time, the British military administration was replaced by a civil administration and, on 1 July 1920, Sir Herbert Samuel became the first High Commissioner. One of his initial actions, as a gesture of appeasement to the Arab Palestinians, was to announce a general pardon of political prisoners. In August Amin, too, was pardoned and, when he heard that his brother Kamil was gravely ill, he decided to return to Palestine. Since the office was not hereditary, and since it had become an increasingly powerful position, Kamil’s impending replacement was a crucial issue. It seems that Amin was ready to replace his brother even before Kamil’s death on 21 March 1921, and began an extensive campaign the day after he died.
According to the law, which had not changed since Ottoman times, three candidates were to be elected. From these the government would then nominate the Mufti. The Muslim committee, which gathered on 12 April 1921, did not elect Amin among the top three. This was because the Husseinis’ popularity was not as great in the Jerusalem district, where the rival Nashashibi family held more influence. Raghib al-Nashashibi, the mayor of Jerusalem, promoted the election of Husam al-Din Jaralla, who was one of his supporters. Unlike Amin, Jaralla and the other two candidates had a thorough religious education, as well as experience in Islamic administration.
However, Amin did not give up after his loss in the elections. On the contrary, he strengthened his campaign. His ability to organize Palestinians on popular political issues and his involvement in the violent demonstrations of the year before had made him a hero in the eyes of the public. Other factors which helped promote him were the Husseinis’ good reputation, their record of religious leadership, and the widespread belief that they were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. All these gained him immense support from many Muslims all over Palestine who demanded that the government nominate him.
As hundreds of petitions poured into government offices, the High Commissioner had to decide what to do. Samuel was aware of the Arabs’ hostility and frustration at the British administration and Zionist progress. He was aware, too, that Amin enjoyed wide support. Samuel must have expected Amin to win the elections, for even before they took place he sounded him out on his candidacy. Amin expressed his desire to cooperate with the Government and promised that he would maintain law and order in Jerusalem. Although the High Commissioner knew of Amin’s activism in the past, he may have hoped that becoming part of the administration would make the young nationalist more moderate. Samuel was looking for a leader who had enough power to control the Arab crowds and ensure a peaceful Jerusalem.
On 1 May 1921, violent riots broke out in Jaffa, leaving 48 Arabs and 47 Jews dead. The violence reinforced Samuel’s view that the Arabs must have some sort of representation, and he believed that the popular Amin would be the right man for the job. Samuel asked Ronald Storrs, who was district governor of Jerusalem and an enthusiastic supporter of Amin, to persuade Raghib al-Nashashibi to drop his support for Jaralla. The mayor, reluctantly and against the advice of his family, talked Jaralla into withdrawing, which enabled Amin to qualify as one of the three candidates. On 8 May 1921, Haj Amin al-Husseini was appointed Mufti of Jerusalem.
The government appointed Amin in the hope that he would keep law and order in Palestine. And indeed, until the 1929 disturbances, the Mufti kept a moderate stance in his dealings with the British authorities, while members of his family prevented an escalation of tension and disturbances. Using these peaceful conditions wisely, he secured his position both as the top religious authority in Palestine and also as a political leader. When the Supreme Muslim Council was established in January 1922, Haj Amin al-Husseini, elected for life-long presidency, became the first recognized head of the Muslim community in Palestine.
Elpeleg, Zvi, The Grand Mufti- Haj Amin al-Hussaini, Founder of the Palestinian National Movement, Harvey, David (trans.), Himelstein, Shmuel (ed.), London- Frank Cass, 1993, chap. 1.
Mattar, Philip, The Mufti of Jerusalem, New York- Columbia University Press, 1988, chap. 1–2.
Porath, Y., The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918–1929, London- Frank Cass, 1974, chap. 4.
Wasserstein, Bernard, The British in Palestine, Oxford- Blackwell, 1991, Second Edition, pp. 132–134.