The Sanusi Order

Libya Table of Contents

Outside the towns, the ulama might often be replaced as the spiritual guides of the people by wandering holy men known as marabouts, mystics and seers whose tradition antedated Islam. Called "men of the soil," the marabouts of popular Islam were incorporated into intensely local cults of saints. They had traditionally acted as arbiters in tribal disputes and, whenever the authority of government waned in a particular locale, the people turned to the marabouts for political leadership as well as for spiritual guidance. Islam had thus taken shape as a coexisting blend of the scrupulous intellectualism of the ulama and the sometimes frenzied emotionalism of the masses.

The founder of the Sanusi religious order, Muhammad bin Ali as Sanusi (1787-1859), possessed both the popular appeal of a marabout and the prestige of a religious scholar. Early in his spiritual formation, he had come under the influence of the Sufi, a school of mystics who had inspired an Islamic revival in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and incorporated their asceticism into his own religious practices. Born near Oran in Algeria, he had traveled widely, studying and teaching at some of the outstanding Islamic centers of learning of his day, and his reputation as a scholar and holy man had spread throughout North Africa. In 1830 he was honored as the Grand Sanusi (as Sanusi al Kabir) by the tribes and towns of Tripolitania and Fezzan while passing through on his way to Mecca.

Disturbed by division and dissension within Islam, he believed that only a return to the purity of early Islam and its insistence on austerity in faith and morals could restore the religion to its rightful glory. On the basis of his perception of the state and needs of Islam, the Grand Sanusi organized a religious order, founding its first lodge ( zawiya; pl., zawaayaa) near Mecca in 1837. Disagreement with the Turkish authorities, however, forced his return to North Africa. He had originally intended to return to Algeria, but the expansion of the French occupation there determined that he settle in Cyrenaica, where the loose hold exercised by Turkish authorities permitted an atmosphere more congenial to his teaching. The tribesmen of the interior were particularly receptive to his ideas, and in 1843 he founded the first Cyrenaican lodge at Al Bayda.

The Grand Sanusi did not tolerate fanaticism. He forbade the use of stimulants as well as the practice of voluntary poverty. Lodge members were to eat and dress within the limits of religious law and, instead of depending on alms, were required to earn their living through work. No aids to contemplation, such as the processions, gyrations, and mutilations employed by Sufi dervishes, were permitted. The Grand Sanusi accepted neither the wholly intuitive ways described by the Sufis mystics nor the rationality of the orthodox ulama; rather, he attempted to adapt from both. The beduins had shown no interest in the ecstatic practices of the Sufi that were gaining adherents in the towns, but they were attracted in great numbers to the Sanusis. The relative austerity of the Sanusi message was especially suited to the character of the Cyrenaican beduins, whose way of life had not changed markedly in the centuries since the Arabs had first accepted the Prophet's teachings.

The leaders of the Sanusi movement encouraged the beduins to render to the Grand Sanusi a reverence that verged on veneration of him as a saint, an act forbidden in orthodox Islam. In fact, the tribesmen regarded him as a marabout and, indeed, this was the indispensable basis of their attachment to him. In no other way could an outsider like Muhammad bin Ali have won their allegiance. The Sanusi order ultimately permitted its leaders to transform their baraka as holy men into a potent political force capable of holding together a national movement.

To the single lodge founded at Al Bayda in 1843 was eventually added a network of lodges throughout Cyrenaica that bound together the tribal system of the region. The lodge filled an important place in the lives of the tribesmen. Besides its obvious function as a religious center and conduit of baraka to the tribe, it was also a school, caravansary, social and commercial center, court of law, and haven for the poor. It provided a place of high culture and safety in the desert wilderness.

Before his death in 1859, the Grand Sanusi established the order's center at Al Jaghbub, which lay at the intersection of the pilgrimage route to Mecca and the main trade route between the Sudan and the coast. There he founded a respected Islamic school, as well as a training center for lodge shaykhs. He hoped by this move to facilitate expanded Sanusi missionary activities in the Sahel and in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Grand Sanusi's son, Muhammad, succeeded him as the order's leader. Because of his forceful personality and his outstanding organizational talents, Muhammad brought the order to the peak of its influence and was recognized as the Mahdi. In 1895 the Mahdi moved the order's headquarters 650 kilometers south from Al Jaghbub to the oasis of Al Kufrah. There he could better supervise missionary activities that were threatened by the advance of French colonialism in the Sudan, which he viewed in religious terms as Christian intervention into Muslim territory. Although the order had never used force in its missionary activities, the Mahdi proclaimed a holy war (jihad) to resist French inroads and brought the Sanusis into confrontation for the first time with a European power. When the Mahdi died in 1902, he left 146 lodges in Africa and Arabia and had brought virtually all the beduins of Cyrenaica under the order's influence. Under the aegis of the order, the tribes of Cyrenaica owed loyalty to a single leader, despite their otherwise extremely divisive rivalries and feuds. Thus a loose umbrella organization forged these otherwise disparate elements into a common unit bound by sentiment and loyalty.

Upon the Mahdi's death he was succeeded by Ahmad ash Sharif, who governed the order as regent for his young cousin, Muhammad Idris as Sanusi (later King Idris of Libya). Ahmad's campaign against French forces was a failure and brought on the destruction of many Sanusi missions in West Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress