The term Sanusi, or Senussi (both: s?nu'si), is ambiguous. The Senussi were political-religious organization in Libya and Sudan founded in Mecca in 1837 by Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi (1791-1859), known as the Grand Sanusi. The Senussi are also the tribe in Cyranaica, eastern Libya, from which Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi sprang. While the Senussi as a religious movement was largely exhausted by the mid-20th Century, the Senussi tribe remained active in Libya politics. King Idris, the monarch of independent Libya until 1969, was the grandson of the founder of the Sanusi movement, and his status as a Sanusi gave him the unique ability to command respect from the disparate parts of his kingdom.
The Senussi were followers of a certain "mad mullah" called Sidi Muhammad ibn Ali es-Senussi, who flourished in the first half of the 19th century. With the substitution of Ottoman for Arab empire, resulting in the virtual independence of both Egypt and Tripoli, the district lying between them relapsed to anarchy. This state of things continued even after Mahmud II had resumed direct control over Tripoli (1835), and in the middle of the 19th century Cyrenaica was still so free of the Turks that Sheik Ali bin-Senussi chose it as the headquarters of his nascent dervish order.
The Senussi brotherhood was a tribe of Mohammedans forming a kind of religious fraternity and inhabiting the great stony plateau known as the Libyan Desert in North Africa, between Egypt and the Italian territory of Cyrenaica. The founder of the sect was Sidi Mohammed ben Ali es-Senussi, a lawyer, born near Mostaganem, in Algeria. Though in humble circumstances and practice, he was a learned and gifted man! In the closing years of the Turkish rule, he made himself so obnoxious to the authorities, owing to his seditious views, and the freedom with which he expressed these, that he was banished-some say, he went as a voluntary exile-to Marocco, where he resided for seven years, chiefly at Fez. Here he studied the Shadli doctrine, and joined the powerful MuleT Taieb Order, of which the Sherif of Wazan is chief.
Returning to Algeria, about the time of the French conquest, he traversed the mountain district, in the character of a professor of law and theology, and spread his precious doctrine. Moving eastwards, he entered Egypt, and made himself so objectionable to the authorities as well as to the Mohammedan conservative teachers at El Azhar, that he was forced to 'move on ': it was even said that Sheikh Hanich, who pronounced an anathema against him, tried also to poison him.
Extending his sphere of operations, he preached, though with little success to his propaganda, in Yemen. His contact with the Wahabis, or Wahabites-who, together with himself, represented the most subversive elements in Islam-grafted on his teaching a still greater revolutionary spirit. 'The way of Mohammed ' (tarika Mohammedia) soon became ' the way of Senussi'(tarika es-Senussia), as is the way of people who talk to convince themselves. And then he returned to Africa, establishing himself near Benghazi, which ever since has been one of the most important Senussi centers.
When, in or about 1851, Sidi Mohammed ben Ali es-Senussi died at Jarabub, he was buried in a magnificent mausoleum which now lies in the great mosque there, and is the object of pious pilgrimage, superseding the haj to Mecca, among all his followers and even for other Mussulman devotees. On his death-bed he appointed his son - then a lad of about thirteen or fourteen years of age - to be his successor; and, it is said, he plainly declared him to be the coming Mahdi. 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.
By the late 19th Century the Tripolitan Sheikh, Sidi Mohammed-Ben-Ali-es-Senousi, was the head of the confraternity, which ruled absolutely in Tripoli, was favored by the Sultan of Morocco, had numerous adherents throughout Yemen and the Somali country, was all-powerful in Wadai, and has zaouiya, or convents, scattered through the Libyan oases, the Theban Desert, the Tripolitan Sahara Fezzan, and many points in Algerian territory. Its sectaries, estimated at the very lowest at a million and a half, numbered perhaps three millions, and were bound to shrink from no atrocity at the bidding of their superiors. The Sultan himself, whose title to the caliphate was disputed by a large section of his subjects, was obliged to temporize with this and other reforming movements, which constitute a serious danger in the East.
The Senussi claim that they are neither reformers nor innovators: they wish to expunge all idea of revolution from their doctrine. They profess to preach the 'primitive contract,' or original teaching, of the Koran, free from all heresies and innovations, but developed by the various mystic Orders of the Orthodox rites. They, therefore, revert to the Koran as first expounded, and recognise the authority of the Sunna, affirming the necessity of the Tmamat (pan-Islamic theocracy) and the excellence of a contemplative and devout life. But in practice, as in theory, their doctrine inclines to accommodate itself to circumstances.
The 'way of the Senussi' embodies a triple protest: (1) against concessions made to Western civilization; (2) against innovations, the result of what we call progress, in Eastern countries; and (3) against all fresh attempts made to extend Western or European influence -not exempting Turkish-in countries still preserved by ' the divine grace.' The Senussi regard it as a meritorious act to kill a dog of a Christian, wherever he may be found; whilst all good Moslems are enjoined to expatriate themselves from countries under Christian domination.
This doctrine of emigration - or, to be more precise in this case, migration to the oases of the Sahara under Senussi rule - is an old one. It has been preached in the mosques for centuries past. It was advocated by an Imam rejoicing in the name of Mahi ed-Din AbuZakaria Yahiaben Sharef eeh Shafai, who died in 1278. This personage, whose name is long enough to identify him, announced that 'Emigration is obligatory on all Mohammedans when their territory falls into the hands of Infidels.'
Zawia, or convents, of the Senussi were found throughout the length and breadth of North Africa, in Somaliland, Arabia, and in Mesopotamia. By 1900 the most active center is in the peninsula of Barka, nominally under Ottoman rule, where the Senussi administer their own code of justice, cheek by jowl with the Turkish officials. The ruins of Cyrenaica belong to the Brotherhood, and would-be explorers were warned off. At Tobruk - a port which Schweinfurth visited in 1883, and described as possessing the finest harbor in North Africa, except Bizerta, being nearly as large and as deep as, and more secure than, that of Alexandria - they imported, unhindered, arms and munitions of war, which were landed by ships specially engaged in this contraband traffic. At Benghazi, too, they have a free hand. In short, the Senussi possessed in this, the most fertile and valuable, district of Tripoli a pied-a-terre of vital importance, from which the feeble administration of the Porte dare not oust them. Any European Power taking possession of Tripoli would therefore come into conflict with the Senussi.
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).
Cyrenaica, together with Tripoli, had become Italian by the war with Turkey in 1911-12. After the close of that war, the Turks had not withdrawn the whole of their forces from that territory as agreed upon by the Treaty of Lausanne. Those troops which remained - either forgotten or neglected - continued a spasmodic and desultory campaign against the Italians with the aid of Arab tribes from the interior. Those tribes inhabiting the Libyan Desert acknowledged in a loose way the authority of the Senussi of Solium, an authority more religious than political.
By the time of the Great War the Grand Sheikh of the Senussi, Sayed Ahmed, was the head, if not the actual leader, of an elusive force. The Senussi regular army was never much more than three thousand strong, and the other levies were an undisciplined and ill-armed rabble. Hitherto the Grand Sheikh of the Senussi, Sidi Ahmed Sherif, had lived on terms of friendship with Anglo-Egyptian authority; he and his people were not opposed to British rule in Egypt, and his official representatives lived in Cairo in cordial relations with the government. By the end of 1914 the whole interior of Cyrenaica was held by the Senussi, and when Italy entered the war in May 1915 the Italian army of occupation fell back to the coast, leaving the inland tribesmen to their own devices.
Signs of unrest soon began to appear, due to the intrigues of Nuri Bey, a half-brother of Enver Pasha, who came to Tripoli to negotiate with the Senussi and the Tripolitan Berbers. It was not till November, 1915, that Sayed Ahmed was prevailed upon by enemy intriguers to throw in his lot with the German-led Turks. In November 1915 the Senussi made a swift raid over the frontier; they were joined by the Bedouins of the Walid Ali tribe, and quickly overran nearly 200 miles of Egyptain territory. Thereafter, British operations against the Senussi were uniformly successful. The Senussi campaign was soon over. The tribes surrendered in such numbers that it became a serious problem for the British to supply food and provide a special branch of administration for their protection and control.
Once the Italians and the Senussi had ratified the provisional treaty of 1916, the newly-made Emir, Es Sayed Mohammed Idris bin es Sayed el Mahdi es Senussi, was a man whose power was felt even beyond the boundaries of Libya and Cyrenaica. Hassanein Bey, having been secretary to the Italo-British Mission which arranged the treaty of 1916 with the Senussi, was promptly suspected of the darkest Pan-Islamic designs. Sayed el Mahdi es Senussi was the supreme judge, defender and guide. It is difficult for a European to realize the power held by the Senussi family, for there has been nothing approaching it in Europe. It is a reflection of the temporal and spiritual Papacy at its height. For instance, Sidi Idris might order one of the oldest and noblest ekhwan to start the following day for a two-thousand-mile journey to Lake Chad, and he would obey unquestioningly, without preparation or even surprise. "We are the servants of the Sayed," he would say as he wrapped his burnus round him and prepared to face the waterless sands.
The second Italo-Sanusi war commenced early in 1923 with the Italian occupation of Sanusi territory in the Benghazi area. Resistance in Cyrenaica was fierce from the outset, but northern Tripolitania was subdued in 1923, and its southern region and Fezzan were gradually pacified over the next several years. During the whole period, however, the principal Italian theater of operations was Cyrenaica. In Idris' absence a hardy but aging shaykh, Umar al Mukhtar, had overall command of Sanusi fighting forces in Cyrenaica, never numbering more than a few thousand organized in tribal units. Al Kufrah, the last Sanusi stronghold, fell in 1931, and in September of that year Mukhtar was captured. After a summary courtmartial , he was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 Arabs assembled to witness the event. With the death of Mukhtar, Sanusi resistance collapsed, and the Italian pacification of Libya was completed.
As the nationalism fostered by unified resistance to the Italians gained adherents, the religious fervor of devotion to the movement began to wane, particularly after the Italians destroyed Sanusi religious and educational centers during the 1930s. Despite its momentary political prominence, the Sanusi movement never regained its strength as a religious force after its zawaya were destroyed by the Italians.
King Idris, the monarch of independent Libya, was the grandson of the founder of the Sanusi movement, and his status as a Sanusi gave him the unique ability to command respect from the disparate parts of his kingdom. A promised restoration never fully took place, and the Idris regime used the Sanusi heritage as a means of legitimizing political authority rather than of providing religious leadership.
After unseating Idris in 1969, the revolutionary government placed restrictions on the operation of the remaining zawaya, appointed a supervisor for Sanusi properties, and merged the Sanusi-sponsored Islamic University with the University of Libya. The movement was virtually banned, but in the 1980s occasional evidence of Sanusi activity was nonetheless reported.
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