LIBYA – A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION TO THE ISLAMIC SENUSSI ORDER
There are a number of prominent Islamists in the old Libyan province of Cyrenaica, now East Libya. They caused the Gaddafi regime considerable trouble and they have been influential in post-Gaddafi Libya. I argue, though they may profoundly disagree, that they are the heirs to the Islamic Senussi order which exercised a profound influence over the nine Sa’adi tribes of Cyrenaica and supplied the first King of Libya, Sayyid Idris al Senussi, when Libya achieved independence. Without some small knowledge of the Senussi’s and their influence on East Libya much of what is now happening there is not readily understood. There follows a very short introduction to the Senussi Order. There are but few books on the subject. The reader may find Rosita Forbes’ eyewitness account in her book ‘The Secret of the Sahara: Kufra’ interesting reading. What follows is taken from a draft for my book ‘Libya – The History of Gaddafi’s Pariah State’ and is out of context but I hope it proves a useful introduction.
During the Ottoman period, the Sufi Senussi Order was established in Libya. In 1842 the Algerian born Islamic scholar and missionary, Sayyid Muhammad ibn ‘Ali Senussi, found himself by chance, taking up residence in Cyrenaica [East Libya], near the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene. There he found, living amongst the native Bedouin, a number of holy men known as the Marabtin b’il Baraka. Like them, Sayyid Muhammad was an Arabic speaking Sunni Muslim, familiar with Bedouin life. There was also a flourishing cult of saints, the Marabtin, in Cyrenaica and tribes adjusted their annual migration to spend regular periods near the tomb of their patron saint. These tombs are often small square white structures topped by a dome. In my day, one such could be seen from the road from Benghazi to Benina airport with the tents of a visiting section of the al Awaqir tribe pitched nearby. Therefore the Bedouin found nothing unusual when, in 1843, Sayyid Muhammad, known as the Grand Senussi, and his disciples founded a Senussi lodge or ‘Zawia’ at Baida on the central Cyrenaican plateau.
The new lodge was situated at a point where the territories of three important tribes met. Probably the best way to describe a Senussi lodge is an Islamic seminary and community centre. It was made up of a mosque, classrooms, store rooms and living quarters for the head and for the brothers of the order. Senussi lodges were self-sufficient and needed land and water to support the residents and their visitors. In order to attract a lodge into their territory, local tribes had to give up some of their productive wells and arable land to support it. It was, thus, an important step because good land and reliable wells were precious resources in Cyrenaica and not often surplus to requirements.
This is how it worked in practice. When a few tribes applied for a lodge, they received a visit from a member of the Senussi family. Important visitors were always entertained to a feast and displays of wealth. By observing the interplay of personalities and their relative wealth, the Senussi visitor was able to spot the paramount sheik and areas of surplus wealth. They then set up their lodge under his protection and it was he who negotiated their title to arable land and grazing rights. The lodge was constructed where there is sufficient surplus acreage and water and was protected by the most powerful sheik amongst the tribes.
Under pressure from the Ottomans the Grand Senussi moved from Baida to Azziyat. In 1856 Said Ibn Ali founded a Zawia at Jaghbub which was to become a ‘university’ for the Senussi brotherhood. Jaghbub is situated around 280 kilometres south east of Tobruk. It is close to the Libya’s border with Egypt and with Siwa, the oasis town in the Egyptian Western Desert. As an oasis Jaghbub is not well endowed with palm trees and the water is brackish. At first sight it does not seem a promising place for the Grand Senussi to establish his headquarters. However, it was strategically placed amongst feuding tribes which he wished to pacify and convert and its proximity to Siwa was important.
Said Ibn Ali lived for six years in Jaghbub from whence he contiuued his missionary work. He died in 1859 and was buried in a tomb over which rose the kubba of Jaghbub. (According to reports Colonel Gaddafi ordered the destruction of the tomb and had The Grand Senussi’s mortal remains scattered.)
From Jaghbub Said Ibn Ali allied himself with the Zuwaya tribe, whose home is the oasis of Kufra still further to the south. The tribe offered The Grand Senussi one third of its holdings in the Kurfa Oasis if he would establish a lodge there. He commissioned a famous follower called Sidi Omar Bu Hawa to go to Kufra and establish a Zawiah at Jof and to begin missionary work. The Zuwaya traded across the dessert as far south as Chad, Wadai, Darfur and Kano and as far north as Ajadabia. The Grand Senussi’s followers travelled with the Zuwaya trading caravans to establish their missionary lodges.
In the late nineteenth century, the time was ripe for a new burst of missionary energy and the Grand Senussi was so successful that, within his lifetime, a vast theocratic empire was established. It was a missionary empire which stretched westwards into Tripolitania, eastwards into Saudi Arabia and the Western Desert of Egypt and southwards into the oasis towns of the Sahara.
Islamic orders are a way of life. One of the better known is the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia, but there are many others. Their aim is to achieve a complete identification with God by means of contemplation, charity, living apart from the everyday world and performing religious exercises. For the Senussi order, this was achieved by the contemplation of the Prophet Muhammad. Followers were urged to imitate the Prophet’s life until he became their sole guide and counsellor. Islam is a Bedouin faith at heart.
To quote the great traveller, Hassnein Bey, who was a rare and now too often forgotten observer of the Senussi order; ‘For his followers (The Grand Senussi) forbade all kinds of luxurious living including the possession of gold and jewellery ‘excepting for the adornment of women’ and the use of tobacco and coffee. He imposed no ritual but demanded a return to the simplest form of Islam to be found in the teaching of the prophet. He was intolerant of any contact with Christians, Jews and those Moslems who, in his view, had strayed from the original meaning of Islam.’
It is easy to see that what the Prophet Muhammad taught the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia in the seventh century was well suited to the Bedouin of Cyrenaica, who still led much the same lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its clear and simple principles, to do good, avoid evil and pray regularly, were appealing to a tough nomadic and semi-nomadic people who lived in tents and followed their flocks in a quest for water and grazing.
The Senussi order was a success in Cyrenaica because, as the great anthropologist E. E Evans-Pritchard once wrote: “(the Bedouin) need was for some authority lying outside their segmental tribal system which could compose intertribal or intersectional disputes and bind the tribes and tribal sections within an organisation and under a common symbol.” It was also helpful that the Turkish occupiers of Libya were largely confined to the coastal towns and lacked the arms and will to destroy it.
Many years later, during the Italian occupation of Cyrenaica, the Senussi order was given a new lease of life and became almost politicised. The Italians found it impossible to deal with the many powerful and independent tribal sheiks. They found it easier, as did the British after WWII, to deal with the head of the order, Sayyid Idris, who was to become the King of an independent Libya.
The Ikwan lived in lodges built within the tribal homelands and held prayer meetings there. The Ikhwan were missionaries in the true sense of the word and they lived cheerfully and dressed well. They were self-supporting, growing their own food and herding their own animals. Thus, they avoided living on charity. The ordinary unschooled Bedouin, Muntasabin, had little knowledge of the inner rituals and special prayers of the order, but they gave their personal loyalty to the sheikhs or leaders of the lodges in their territory. The Cyranaican Bedouin lived austere lives and thus many casual observers thought of the Senussi order as being fanatical.
The Grand Senussi aimed to establish the conditions which would allow the Bedouin to live by their own laws and govern themselves, an aspiration which has recently plunged Libya into civil war. The Grand Senussi remained in Libya for only a few years before he moved on to establish lodges in Egypt and Arabia. One of his sons, Sayyid Mohamed al Mahdi, who succeeded him, moved his headquarters to Kufra in 1895 and thence further south to Qiru in Chad in 1899. When Sayyid al Mahdi came to power there were thirty eight Zawiyas in Cyrenaica and eighteen in Tripolitania.Others were scattered over other parts of North Africa and there were nearly twenty in Egypt. Some none too reliable estimates suggest that at its height there were between one and a half million and three million people who owed allegiance to the order.
The French, who were advancing there sphere of influence to Chad, were less than hospitable to the Senussi Order, so the Grand Senussi’s third successor, Sayyid Ahmad al Sheriff, moved his headquarters back to Kufra, in order to retain control of the Wadai to Benghazi slave trade route. He was a charismatic and inspiring Muslim and leader, who was both a scholar and a soldier who led the tribes in the First Senussi War and was defeated by the Italians and left Libya by submarine in 1918.
The Italian occupation of Libya, which commenced in 1911, entered an aggressive phase during Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Then Italians colonists launched a campaign of ‘re-conquest’. They began to pacify the defiant tribes with no little brutality.
Organised resistance by the tribes was impossible so they pursued a classical guerrilla war where Italian sentries were shot, supply columns ambushed, and communications interrupted. There was a succession of small actions and acts of sabotage in different parts of the country.
At first the Italians responded by courting the favour of those tribes, or parts of tribes, near the towns. By offering employment, subsidies and arms, they hoped to turn them against the rebels. In their minds there were two types of tribe, the sottomessi, that is the submitted, and the rebelli.
They thought they had gained the loyalty of the sottomessi to support them against the rebelli. They were to be constantly disappointed. The sottomessi supplied arms, ammunition, food, intelligence, shelter and funds to the rebelli. Sometimes the tribal sheiks would arrange amongst themselves who would submit and who would take the field.
To their consternation, the Italians had overlooked or misinterpreted, as many do, the powerful Bedouin law. The nine Sa’adi tribes of East Libya and their clients were all Bedouin, jealous of each other and hostile to tribes other than their own. The males of each tribe were duty-bound to avenge a slain kinsman. The group of males within the tribe who shoulder this collective responsibility is called the amara dam. The other side of this coin is the duty to protect and aid a living kinsman. This is at the root of Bedouin values. The common ancestry and the kinship of the Sa’adi tribes overrode the lesser demands. The tribes were united by blood, Islam and a common way of life against the Italians.
As the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote of the Second Senussi War. “The entire population thus took part directly or indirectly in the rebellion.” However the guerrilla war was led by some notable families who have received less attention than they deserve. They were the Abbar and the Kizzih of the Awaquir, the Saif al Nasr of the Aulad Suliman, the Bu Baker bu Hadduth of the Bara’asa, the Lataiwish of the Magharba, the Abdalla of the Abaidat, the Asbali of the Arafa, the Suwaikir and the Ilwani of the Abid and the Bu Khatara bu Halaiqua of the Hasa. The homelands of the tribes which these families led stretched from the desert south of the present city of Sirte to the Marmarica in the east around the city of Tobruk. All of this territory was ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The tribal leaders were formidable but they needed the coordinating hand of a leader. They found it in the person of Omar Mukhtar who brought not only his considerable energy and talents into the field but also the network of Senussi lodges and intelligent personnel stretched throughout the tribal homelands. The Islamic Senussi order had for a long time planted seminaries amongst the Bedouin tribes of Eastern Libya. They were staffed by a leader or sheik and a band of the Ikwan (brothers) who educated the young and gave religious and practical leadership.
In the Senussi sheik, Omar Mukhtar, they had a leader who, though he was more than sixty, was an experienced soldier, a talented tactician with an almost unique ability to keep the peace between the fractious tribal detachments which he commanded, perhaps because of his Bedouin birth. His parents were members of a Minifa (Marabtin al-sadqan) tribe from the Marmarica. Between 1912 and 1931 he planned all the gruella operations, gathered and evaluated the intelligence, organised the logistics and finance and led a band of his own.
The Italians response grew more heavy handed as the war progressed. They found that the sottomessi were supplying the rebellei, so they commenced by disarming the non-combatant tribesmen. They went on to harsher methods to stop the flow of rebel volunteers, ammunition and weapons, money and food from the sottomessi. They used the well tried methods of arrests, restricting civilian movements, deportations, aerial bombardment and strafing of recalcitrant tribes. They blocked and poisoned desert wells, confiscated precious livestock and barbed wire was liberally strewn around to restrict the seasonal migrations. The rate of executions was alarming but it was in concentration camps that the sottomessi who were much depleted in health, morale and numbers.
They went after the Senussi lodges, destroying them and deporting their leaders. They captured Omar Mukhtar in September 1931 when he was ambushed near Baida. He was wounded in an arm. His horse was shot and pinned him to the ground. He was taken prisoner and tried in a hurry. The Italians made a spectacle of his final moments. He was hanged at a place called Suluq before an audience of 20,000 Libyans assembled there by their colonial masters. The rebellion was ended. A number of tribal leaders attempted to escape to Egypt.
The logistical problems posed by the huge distance and lack of fodder and water from the Italian bases on the Mediterranean coast meant that the Senussi theocracy based in Kufra was for many years beyond their reach. What is more the Italians became embroiled in World War I and had little time or resources with which to mount an attack on Kufra, protected as it was by distance and an arc of impassable sand seas.
The Grand Senussi’s fourth and last successor was Sayyid Muhammad al Idris who was destined to become King of Libya when it became fully independent.
In 1920 the Italians, still unable to move against him, adopted the pragmatic policy of appointing the future King of Libya, Mohamed Idris es Senussi, Emir of Cyrenaica with his capital at Ajdabiya and his impregnable stronghold in the Kufra oasis. In so doing the Italians began the process of politicising the Senussi hierarchy. It will be seen later this was furthered by the British during WWII.
In 1931 the Italians had built up their sufficient strength to project their power across the desert and they attacked Kufra and brutally killed the Senussi supporters there. Sayyid Idris went into exile in Egypt.
From this brief sketch of the foundation and spread of the Senussi Order, it will be clear that it penetrated rapidly from its first foundation lodge near Baida, mainly via the slave trading routes from Kufra to the Sudan, Chad, Mali and Northern Nigeria. It was pushed out of the Sahel states by the French. However, its firm hold on the nine Sa’adi tribes in Cyrenaica was to give it a key role in modern Libya.
Books by John Oakes: For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 31st December 2012
The Libyan government commemorates of Battle of Kufra http://www.libyaherald.com/2013/01/19/1931-battle-of-kufra-commemorated/