Al-Husseini was born in Jerusalem in 1897, the son of the Mufti of that city and prominent early opponent of Zionism, Tahir al-Husayni. The al-Husseini clan consisted of wealthy landowners in southern Palestine, centered around the district of Jerusalem. Thirteen members of the clan had been Mayors of Jerusalem between 1864 and 1920.
He attended a Qur’an school, an Ottoman government secondary school where he learned Turkish, and a Catholic secondary school run by French missionaries, the Catholic Frères, where he learned French. He also studied at the Alliance Israélite Universelle with its non-Zionist Jewish director Albert Antébi. In 1912, he studied Islamic law briefly at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and at the Dar al-Da’wa wa-l-Irshad, under Rashid Rida, a Salafi intellectual, who was to remain Amin’s mentor until his death in 1935.
Prior to World War I, he studied at the School of Administration in Constantinople, the most secular of Ottoman institutions. Though groomed to hold religious office from youth, his education was typical of the Ottoman effendi at the time, and he only donned a religious turban in 1921 after being appointed Mufti.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, al-Husseini received a commission in the Ottoman Army as an artillery officer and was assigned to the Forty-Seventh Brigade stationed in and around the city of Izmir. In November 1916, he obtained a three-month disability leave from the army and returned to Jerusalem. He was recovering from an illness there when the city was captured by the British a year later.
In 1919, al-Husseini attended the Pan-Syrian Congress held in Damascus where he supported Emir Faisal for King of Syria. That year al-Husseini founded the pro-British Jerusalem branch of the Syrian-based ‘Arab Club’ (Al-Nadi al-arabi), which then vied with the Nashashibi-sponsored ‘Literary Club’ (al-Muntada al-Adabi) for influence over public opinion, and he soon became its president.During the annual Nabi Musa procession in Jerusalem in April 1920, violent rioting broke out in protest at the implementation of the Balfour Declaration. The British withdrew their troops and the Jewish police from Jerusalem, allowing the Arab mob to attack Jews and loot their shops.
Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, former head of British military intelligence in Cairo, and later Chief Political Officer for Palestine and Syria, wrote in his diary that British officials “incline towards the exclusion of Zionism in Palestine.” According to Meinertzhagen, Col. Waters Taylor (financial adviser to the Military Administration in Palestine 1919-23) met with Haj Amin a few days before Easter, in 1920, and told him “he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world...that Zionism was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols [Chief Administrator in Palestine, 1919-20] and General Allenby [Commander of Egyptian Force, 1917-19, then High Commissioner of Egypt] would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home. Waters-Taylor explained that freedom could only be attained through violence.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, organizer of Jewish paramilitary defenses, received a 15-year sentence. Al-Husseini, then a teacher at the Rashidiya school, had fled to Transjordan and was charged with inciting the Arab crowds with an inflammatory speech and sentenced in absentia to 10-years imprisonment by a military court.
Herbert Samuel, a British Jew, was the first high commissioner of Palestine. He pardoned al-Husseini and was pressured by British Arabists such as Ernest Richmond, assistant secretary of the civil secretary’s office, to appoint him as Mufti. Samuel met with Haj Amin on April 11, 1921, and was assured “that the influences of his family and himself would be devoted to tranquility.” It was with this understanding, and some trepidation that the high commissioner granted him the position of Mufti.
Three weeks later, riots in Jaffa and elsewhere left 43 Jews dead.
The following year, al-Husseini, who now called himself “Grand Mufti,” was appointed to lead the Supreme Muslim Council. He consolidated his power and took control of all Muslim religious funds in Palestine. He used his authority to gain control over the mosques, the schools and the courts. No Arab could reach an influential position without being loyal to the Mufti. His power was so absolute “no Muslim in Palestine could be born or die without being beholden to Haj Amin.” The Mufti’s henchmen also ensured he would have no opposition by systematically killing Palestinians from rival clans who were discussing cooperation with the Jews.
As the spokesman for Palestinian Arabs, Haj Amin did not ask that Britain grant them independence. On the contrary, in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1921, he demanded that Palestine be reunited with Syria and Transjordan. Al-Husseini focused his efforts on Pan-Arabism and the ideology of a Greater Syria in particular, with Palestine understood as a southern province of an Arab state, whose capital was to be established in Damascus. Greater Syria was to include territory of the entire Levant, now occupied by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
The struggle for Greater Syria collapsed after France defeated the Arab forces in July 1920. The frustration of pan-Arab aspirations lent an Islamic color to the struggle for independence and increasing resort to the idea of restoring the land to Dar al-Islam and blocking Jewish immigration to Palestine.
One of the Mufti’s most successful projects was the restoration of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque. With funds collected from India and various Arab states, the Dome was plated in gold. The impressive looks of the Dome greatly enhanced the status of Jerusalem in the eyes of Muslims throughout the world. Similarly, al-Husseini’s own status as Mufti of Jerusalem increased his standing as an influential Arab leader.
The Mufti was dismissed from his position following the riots of 1936. After supporting the pro-Axis revolt in Iraq, he fled to Berlin in 1941 where he was paid to make anti-British radio brodacasts to the Middle East to mobilize support for Germany among Muslims and urge Arabs to attack Allied forces and kill Jews. According to historian Benny Morris, “He also toured Yugoslavia to recruit Muslims for Germany’s SS and Wehrmacht and wrote letters to various European leaders, urging them to bar Jews from leaving their countries (thus perhaps indirectly contributing to their demise in the Holocaust).”
In November 1941, the Mufti met with Hitler. In the fall of 1943, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler heaped praise on the Mufti, stating that the Nazi leadership
has been closely following the battle of freedom-seeking Arabs – and especially in Palestine – against the Jewish invaders. Himmler ends the letter by bidding the Mufti
warm wishes for the continuation of your battle until the big victory.
On July 23, 1947, prior to the UN decision to partition Palestine, al-Husseini wrote to Pope Pius XII “to reinforce the friendly bonds” between the Holy See and the “Arab and Islamic worlds” to “avoid together the dangers of the so serious destroying principles that threaten all the religions, all the beliefs, and all the morals.” Husseini added that “the support of the Venerable Pontifical See to the Arab cause of Palestine” would evoke “vivid gratitude” from the Arab and Islamic worlds.
In the Pope’s reply to Husseini, he spoke noncommittally of “the interest that the Holy See has never stopped to have for this holy land of Palestine” and wished “a just and real peace through comprehension, mutual agreement, respect of the rights of everyone.” He concluded that he would “promote from His high authority and within His spiritual mission the establishment of the harmonic order on which everybody’s happiness depends.”
Although he continued to be involved in politics, al-Husseini's influence gradually declined after the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948.
Sources: The Jewish Agency for Israel;
The World Zionist Organization;
Letter written to Grand Mufti from Himmler uncovered, YNet News, (March 30, 2017);
Joel Fishman, “The Historical Problem of Haj Amin al-Husseini, “Grand Mufti” of Jerusalem,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Volume 26, Numbers 3–4, (August 22, 2016);
Richard Meinertzhagen, Middle East Diary 1917-1956, (London: The Cresset Press, 1959), pp. 49, 82, 97;
Samuel Katz, Battleground-Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, (NY: Bantam Books, 1977), pp. 63-65; Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 97;
Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 438;
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 52;
Jon Kimche, There Could Have Been Peace: The Untold Story of Why We Failed With Palestine and Again With Israel, (England: Dial Press, 1973), p. 211;
Benny Morris, “The War on History,” Jewish Review of Books, (Spring 2020);
Ofer Aderet, “The Grand Mufti Asked Pope Pius to Oppose Jewish State, Vatican Documents Show,” Haaretz, (October 29, 2020).