The Sanusi Order
Outside the towns, the ulama might often be replaced as the spiritual
guides of the people by wandering holy men known as marabouts
(see Glossary), 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--see
Glossary) 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 (see
Glossary) 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--see Glossary) 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.
Data as of 1987