Nearly all Libyans
adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, which provides both a spiritual
guide for individuals and a keystone for government policy. Its
tenets stress a unity of religion and state rather than a separation
or distinction between the two, and even those Muslims who have
ceased to believe fully in Islam retain Islamic habits and attitudes.
Since the 1969 coup, the Qadhafi regime has explicitly endeavored
to reaffirm Islamic values, enhance appreciation of Islamic culture,
elevate the status of Quranic law and, to a considerable degree,
emphasize Quranic practice in everyday Libyan life.
In A.D. 610, Muhammad (the Prophet), a prosperous merchant of
the town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations
said to have been granted him by God (Allah) through the agency
of the archangel Gabriel. The divine messages, received during
solitary visits into the desert, continued during the remainder
of his life.
Muhammad denounced the polytheistic paganism of his fellow Meccans,
his vigorous and continuing censure ultimately earning him their
bitter enmity. In 622 he and a group of his followers were forced
to flee to Yathrib, which became known as Medina (the city) through
its association with him. The hijra (flight: known in the West
as the hegira) marked the beginning of the Islamic era and of
Islam as a powerful historical force; the Muslim calendar begins
with the year 622. In Medina Muhammad continued his preaching,
ultimately defeated his detractors in battle, and had consolidated
the temporal as well as spiritual leadership of most Arabs in
his person before his death in 632.
After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled his words that
were regarded as coming directly from God in a document known
as the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam. Other sayings and teachings
of the Prophet, as well as the precedents of his personal behavior
as recalled by those who had known him, became the hadith ("sayings").
From these sources, the faithful have constructed the Prophet's
customary practice, or sunna, which they endeavor to
emulate. Together, these documents form a comprehensive guide
to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the faithful in
most Muslim countries.
In a short time, Islam was transformed from a small religious
community into a dynamic political and military authority. During
the seventh century, Muslim conquerors reached Libya, and by the
eighth century most of the resistance mounted by the indigenous
Berbers had ended. The urban centers soon became substantially
Islamic, but widespread conversion of the nomads of the desert
did not come until after large-scale invasions in the eleventh
century by beduin tribes from Arabia and Egypt.
A residue of pre-Islamic beliefs blended with the pure Islam
of the Arabs. Hence, popular Islam became an overlay of Quranic
ritual and principles upon the vestiges of earlier beliefs--prevalent
throughout North Africa--in jinns (spirits), the evil eye, rites
to ensure good fortune, and cult veneration of local saints. The
educated of the cities and towns served as the primary bearers
and guardians of the more austere brand of orthodox Islam.
Data as of 1987