Hajj Amin al-Husayni in the company of German SS and Bosnian members of the Waffen-SS during an official visit to Bosnia, ca. 1943.
See more photographs
HAJJ AMIN AL-HUSAYNI: THE MUFTI OF JERUSALEM
In the turbulent history of the modern Middle East, few leaders have been more notable and more controversial than Muhammad Amin al-Husayni (1895-1974), the Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1937. He was the leading figure in the Palestinian national movement during the years of the British Mandate, particularly from his exiles in Lebanon, Iraq, and Nazi Germany from 1937 to 1945.
As an ardent opponent of Zionism and the British Mandate in Palestine, he championed pan-Arab nationalism and independence. The most controversial part of al-Husayni’s life was his relationship with Hitler’s government, from his exile in Baghdad between 1939 and 1941, and in Germany itself from 1941 to the end of World War II. This relationship, within the context of post-Holocaust analysis and the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1948, has led some to label him a Nazi collaborator and war criminal, complicit in the Nazi attempt to murder the Jews in Europe and beyond.
Amin al-Husayni, who took on the honorific title al-Hajj after his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1913, was from an influential and wealthy land-owning family from Jerusalem. By the nineteenth century, members of the al-Husayni family had become prominent religious leaders, jurists, and educators active in Ottoman and local Palestinian government. After learning to speak Turkish fluently at a government school in Palestine, he went off to Cairo in 1912 to study Islamic history and theology, Arabic, and literature at al-Azhar University. He began to speak out against Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine before World War I. During his student days in Cairo, he helped to establish a Palestinian society that declared its total opposition to Zionist goals in Palestine.
After his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1913, Amin al-Husayni returned to Jerusalem rather than to his studies in Cairo, and began writing that Zionism threatened to transform Palestine into a Jewish state. After a brief stint at the Military Academy in Istanbul, he joined the Ottoman army when World War I broke out. But his dedication to Ottoman Islamic unity was gradually eroded by harsh Ottoman Turkification of the Arab provinces and the suppression of Arab nationalist organizations. First, he joined an Arab secret society calling for the decentralization of the Empire along national lines. After Sharif Hussein of Mecca proclaimed the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916, al-Husayni concluded that pan-Arab nationalism and independence, rather than the Ottoman Empire, would be the only effective way to save Palestine from Zionist control.
A devout Muslim who did not separate religion from politics, Amin al-Husayni initially favored an Arab state that would join Palestine and Syria upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. But postwar Anglo-French control of the Levant and the implementation of the 1917 Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish National Home in Palestine frustrated his hopes. Mindful of British power, he chose initially to focus his political activity on opposing Zionist efforts in Palestine rather than on resistance to British rule.
Britain’s victory in the war and the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine were a huge boost to Zionist efforts, and al-Husayni believed that cooperation with the powerful British was the best way to defeat the Zionists. He helped organize demonstrations in early 1920 throughout Palestine against implementation of the Balfour Declaration. When these demonstrations turned violent, the British sought to arrest al-Husayni, prompting him to flee to Damascus and then to Transjordan. But Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner in Palestine and a determined advocate of Zionist-Arab accommodation, soon pardoned al-Husayni, and allowed him to return to Palestine and eventually to succeed to the position of Mufti of Jerusalem in April 1921.
The al-Husayni family claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad and had held the office of Mufti of Jerusalem with few interruptions since the seventeenth century. The Mufti’s jurisdiction had been the city of Jerusalem alone, subordinate to the Shaykh al-Islam in Istanbul during the centuries of Ottoman rule. But the British occupation of Palestine in 1917 and 1918 and the subsequent establishment of the Mandate abruptly severed Palestine’s ties to Istanbul; the Mufti, Amin al-Husayni’s brother Kamil, then achieved a position of more prominence throughout all of Palestine. When Amin al-Husayni succeeded his brother as Mufti in 1921, he pledged cooperation with British authorities in his position as Mufti as the best way to resist Zionism.
This strategy ultimately failed, as hopes of reconciling Britain’s conflicting wartime promises to Arabs and Jews in Palestine proved impossible to realize. Violence engulfed Palestine in 1928-1929 over control of religious sites in Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall and the Haram al-Sharif, and during the Arab revolt that broke out in 1936. Conflicting interpretations of al-Husayni’s role have portrayed him as an instigator of violence against the Jews and the British, or as an opponent of violence as a means of achieving Arab aims. Between his elevation to the office of Mufti in 1921 and the outbreak of the Arab revolt in April 1936, he discouraged violence and sought cooperation with British authorities in hopes of derailing efforts to build the Jewish National Home. He also attempted to use his religious authority to promote the Palestinian national cause and his own political position in the Arab world.
Amin al-Husayni was not directly involved in the outbreak of the Arab general strike and revolt in April 1936, and initially tried to act as a moderating voice when he did involve himself. But he soon came to support violence against Britain and the Jews in the wake of Britain’s suppression of the revolt. He denounced the Royal (Peel) Commission’s July 1937 plan to partition Palestine into nominally independent Arab and Jewish states. Continuing violence forced British authorities to begin arresting Palestinian leaders, prompting al-Husayni to flee to Lebanon from which he failed to effectively lead the revolt. By the end of 1938, the revolt had been crushed.
From exile, the Mufti also rejected Britain’s May 1939 White Paper that would have halted Jewish immigration after an additional 75,000 Jewish immigrants over five years, and thereby guarantee a permanent two-thirds Arab majority. The outbreak of war in Europe forced him to leave Lebanon for nominally independent Iraq. Rapid German victories in Europe in 1939 and 1940 led al-Husayni to conclude that an Axis victory over Britain and France might be the key to ending British domination of the Arab world and the Jewish National Home in Palestine. From Baghdad he sought Axis diplomatic and material support in 1940 and 1941 for a regional Arab revolt against Britain, and encouraged the Germans to send armed forces to Iraq after Rashid Ali al-Kilani seized power in a Baghdad coup in April 1941. Consumed by preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union, however, the Germans were able to send only token support.
Germany had rebuffed Arab overtures for active diplomatic and material support throughout the 1930s. Generally wishing to avoid conflict with Britain, and encouraging Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine, the Nazis also considered the Arabs racially inferior. Although the approach and outbreak of war against England in 1939 eroded Nazi reluctance to provide some support for Arab nationalists in Palestine and elsewhere, it still did not lead to significant Axis military support. Two days after the coup in Baghdad, on April 3, 1941, Hitler declared Germany’s support for Arab independence. But meaningful military help was never forthcoming, and Britain quickly moved troops into Iraq to topple the Rashid Ali government in late May. Amin al-Husayni fled once again, briefly to Iran, from which he traveled to Italy in October 1941 via Turkey and Bulgaria, and then to Berlin in November.
At his first meeting with Hitler on November 28, the Mufti tried unsuccessfully to secure a public Axis declaration favoring Arab independence. In April 1942, Hitler was willing to make only a secret commitment to Arab independence and an end to the Jewish National Home in Palestine. For the duration of the war, al-Husayni promoted pro-Axis, anti-Jewish propaganda from Berlin throughout the Arab world, called for an Arab revolt against Britain and the destruction of the Jewish National Home, and lobbied to create Muslim units in the German army. He helped to recruit the ineffective but highly controversial 13th Waffen SS Division “Handschar,” a unit made up of about 20,000 mostly Bosnian Muslims. “Handschar” were deployed mainly against Tito’s anti-Axis partisan units in Yugoslavia. There is general agreement that the “Handschar” division committed atrocities against civilians in the context of German occupation and internal civil war.
Some have argued that “Handschar” Division personnel participated directly in the murder of Croatian Jews. The systematic deportations of Croatian Jews to Auschwitz, as well as roundups of Jews for incarceration and, often, murder in the Jasenovac system and other concentration camps in Croatia came to an end with the last deportations from Zagreb in May 1943 and the roundup of Jews in the Italian zone of Croatia in September and early October 1943. However, while the first field units of “Handschar” were not deployed in Yugoslavia until the beginning of 1944, it is possible that “Handschar” personnel were involved in the capture and murder of Jews found in hiding or captured as partisans.
Hitler never exhibited a level of interest in the Middle East that would have been adequate to challenge the Allied position in the region and to generate the kind of diplomatic and material support the Mufti and other Arab nationalists desired.
At war’s end, with evidence that was inconclusive, calls for a war crimes trial of Amin al-Husayni were unsuccessful. Arguments that he had been a proponent of the “Final Solution” in Europe and its extension to the Middle East have not been universally accepted. He ended up in Cairo, still determined to resist Zionist demands for a Jewish state in Palestine. He rejected the 1947 U.N. partition plan, and in 1948 watched the defeat of Arab armies and the establishment of Israel in 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine. Thereafter, he gradually lost his political clout, settled in Beirut, and restricted his activities to those of a religious leader.
Hajj Amin al-Husayni understood the political and economic dynamics of Zionism, its relationship with British imperial power in the region, and their implications for Palestinian Arab self-determination. But he was never willing to adjust his goals to those realities, and thereby achieve some measure of success for the Palestinian people. The controversy surrounding al-Husayni derives from the nexus of his bitter hatred of both Zionism and British imperialism, his illusions that the Axis powers would guarantee the right of Arab national self-determination, and allegations that these realities transformed him into a genocidal antisemite in the service of Nazi Germany.
Francis R. Nicosia
Elpeleg, Zvi. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem: Haj Amin al-Husayni, Founder of the Palestinian National Movement. London: Frank Cass, 1993.
Hirszowicz, Lukasz. The Third Reich and the Arab East. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
Mattar, Philip. The Mufti of Jerusalem: Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni and the Palestinian National Movement. Rev. Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Nicosia, Francis R. The Third Reich and the Palestine Question. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2000.
Porath, Yehoshua. The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918-1929. Vol. 1. London: Frank Cass, 1974.
______________. The Palestinian Arab National Movement, 1929-1939: From Riots to Rebellion. Vol. 2. London: Frank Cass, 1977.
Schechtman, Joseph. B. The Mufti and the Fuehrer: The Rise and Fall of Haj Amin el-Husseini. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965.
Segev, Tom. One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
Wasserstein, Bernard. Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.