One of the most controversial persons in the history of Palestine and the Arab–Israeli conflict, both at the time he lived and in subsequent historiography, was the mufti of Jerusalem, al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni. Al-Husayni was the preeminent Palestinian politician of the first half of the twentieth century and a man much reviled by his political opponents among Palestine’s Arabs, by Zionists, as well as by certain historians. Al-Husayni’s seat of power during the period of civil British rule in Palestine was his presidency of the Supreme Muslim Council (SMC) a body created by British colonial authorities in 1921 in order to place the task of running Islamic religious courts, administering Islamic waqf (trust) properties, and other such Islamic religious tasks in the hands of Palestine’s Muslim community following the end of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule. After he fled into exile sixteen years later in 1937, al-Husayni spent time in Lebanon and Iraq before a stint living in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, where he met Hitler and helped produce anti-British propaganda. Most of the historical writing about al-Husayni and the SMC since then has had to grapple with the dark stain of his post-1937 association with the Nazis and his efforts to thwart the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Historian Nicholas E. Roberts (University of the South, ‘Sewanee’, USA) eschews this pattern. His focus is not merely on al-Husayni and the SMC per se but the ways they fit into wider British colonial imaginings about how Europeans could govern subject populations containing large numbers of Muslims. As such, Roberts’ purpose is to dispute the oft-stated notion that British Mandatory authorities in Palestine were negligent in their governing duties by creating the SMC, placing al-Husayni at its head, and thereby unwittingly allowing the growth of a major source of anti-British and anti-Zionist activity in Palestine. The author instead argues that creation of the SMC stemmed from a longer pattern of British colonial experience dealing with subject Muslims populations in Africa and India, notably events like the 1857 Sepoy Revolt in the Indian subcontinent. Britain hoped to reduce potential friction and political problems by allowing Muslims themselves to run their institutional communal affairs within the overall rubric of British rule. Roberts’ study argues that British policy vis-à-vis Islam in Palestine rested on three bases. The first was its communalist approach to colonized populations, what he calls a ‘neo-millet approach’. The British predilection to separating such populations into discrete religious communities was not merely a question of ‘divide and rule’ but also stemmed from its justification that its policy in Palestine was merely following Ottoman precedent. The Ottomans had granted minority ethno-religious communities, what they called millets, considerable authority over their own respective affairs. Britain modified this policy to create a heretofore nonexistent Muslim millet. The second pillar of the Mandate was to reduce expenditure; allowing Muslims to run their own religious affairs would obviate the need for a large outlay of funds to create such a state-run institution. Finally, Roberts posits that Britain sought to replicate a policy it adopted elsewhere: use local notables as intermediators between colonial officials and the subject population. Throughout, Roberts wishes to move away from Zionism and the Arab–Israeli conflict as the main explanatory device in the history of Palestine and instead situate British policy in the country within a wider colonial context. This approach adds to the work of other scholars such as Martin Bunton, who approached British Mandatory land policy in Palestine on the basis of it being a continuation of broader British colonial and commonwealth practice. The book’s first chapters analyse how British colonialism handled the issue of ruling over Muslims throughout its large empire. British officials were keenly aware of the difficulties inherent in a foreign, Christian nation taking the place of Islamic rulers like the Mughals in India and the Ottomans in Palestine. In these settings, the state itself had acted as the supreme authority over Islamic religious institutions. Yet with those states now gone, who or what would exercise the functions previously held by an Islamic state and ruler? Moreover, in the absence of an official Arab body in Palestine comparable to the Zionist Executive (and later, the Jewish Agency), how could the British grant Palestine’s Muslims some semblance of self-governance? This question animates the second portion of Roberts’ book. Based on British and Zionist archival materials, the author dissects how British authorities decided to create the SMC and place al-Husayni at its head. He then devotes considerable attention to the history of al-Husayni’s tenure at the SMC, including an entire chapter to the 1929 Western Wall Disturbances and the role played in that violence by religion generally, and al-Husayni particularly. He concludes with a study of the Arab Revolt that began in 1936 and the disbanding of the SMC and al-Husayni’s flight into exile the following year. His discussion throughout cleaves to the historical record and steers clear of political polemics. Some scholars no doubt will fasten on to Roberts’ even-handed treatment of the controversial nature of al-Husayni’s tenure as president of the SMC and the large shadow he cast over Palestinian politics during the Mandate. Roberts is neither out to demonize al-Husayni nor to whitewash him. Rather, he focuses on the ways that the religious position thrust upon him—he was not a trained Islamic scholar when the British chose him to head up the SMC—helped determine the tenor of his actions as he set about actualizing his considerable political ambitions. In this regard Roberts notes that al-Husayni played the role of ‘good Muslim’ who worked within the confines placed upon him by British authorities as opposed to the image often proffered of him as using an office granted him by naïve colonial officials to undermine the Mandate. He also takes pains to point out al-Husayni’s insistence on employing the Ottoman pattern of elite politics rather than encouraging a mass political following that may have given him, and the Palestinian national movement by extension, a greater voice when dealing with his British overlords. Roberts’ work stems from his doctoral dissertation at New York University and sometimes suffers slightly from his editors’ failures to ‘de-dissertationize’ the text. For example, the many references to secondary sources written by other scholars can sometimes be distracting. Also, in referring to the increasingly communal nature of Palestinian nationalism by the 1930s that sometimes left Christians feeling isolated, Roberts would do well to remind readers that some of al-Husayni’s closest allies were Christians from various sects, including Alfred Rock (Roman Catholic) and Emil Ghuri (Orthodox). This suggestion is not to detract from Roberts’ overall point about sectarianism in Palestine but rather to point out that the situation was quite complicated. Overall, Islam under the Palestine Mandate offers a well-argued, well-researched, and nuanced understanding of both Britain and its colonial officers and of Islam and politics in Mandatory Palestine. Given the recent resurgence of neo-Orientalist ponderings about a ‘clash of civilizations’ and the nature of Islam and politics both among Palestinians and other Islamic peoples, Roberts' book offers a cool-headed antidote to the kind of uncritical discourse one often encounters masquerading as analysis. It also offers a solid follow-up on earlier scholars’ efforts to situate the period of the British Mandate in Palestine within a wider colonial context rather than view it simply through the lens of the Arab–Israeli conflict. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 4, 2018
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