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The Senussi or Sanussi refers to a Muslim political-religious order in Libyamarker and Sudanmarker founded in Meccamarker in 1837 by the Grand Senussi, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi. Senussi was concerned with both the decline of Islamic thought and spirituality and the weakening of Muslim political integrity. He was influenced by the Salafi movement, to which he added teachings from various Sufi orders. From 1902 to 1913 the Senussi fought French expansion in the Sahara, and the Italian colonisation of Libya beginning in 1911. The Grand Senussi's grandson became King Idris I of Libya in 1951. In 1969, King Idris I was overthrown by a military coup led by Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. A third of the population in Libya continue to be affiliated with the Senussi movement.

Beginnings 1787 – 1860

The Senussi order has been historically closed to Europeans and outsiders, leading reports of their beliefs and practices to vary immensely. Though it is possible to gain some insight from the lives of the Senussi sheikhs further details are difficult to attain.

Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi (1787 - 1860), the founder of the order, was born near Mostaganem, Algeria, and was named al-Senussi after a venerated Muslim teacher. He was a member of the Walad Sidi Abdalla tribe, and was a sharif tracing his descent from Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed. He studied at a madrassa in Fezmarker, then traveled in the Sahara preaching a purifying reform of the faith in Tunisia and Tripoli, gaining many adherents, and thence moved to Cairo to study at Al-Azhar Universitymarker. The pious scholar was forceful in his criticism of the Egyptian ulema for what he perceived as their timid compliance with the Ottoman authorities and their spiritual conservatism. He also argued that learned Muslims should not blindly follow the four classical schools of Islamic law but instead engage in ijtihad themselves. Not surprisingly, he was opposed by the ulema as unorthodox and they issued a fatwa against him. Senussi went to Mecca, where he joined Ahmad Ibn Idris al-Fasi, the head of the Khadirites, a religious fraternity of Moroccan origin. On the death of Al-Fasi, Senussi became head of one of the two branches into which the Khadirites divided, and in 1835 he founded his first monastery or zawia, at Abu Kobeis near Mecca. While in Arabia, Senussi's connections with the Salafi movement caused him to be looked upon with suspicion by the ulema of Mecca and the Ottoman authorities. Finding the opposition in Mecca too powerful Senussi settled in Cyrenaica, Libya in 1843, where in the mountains near Sidi Rafaa' (Al Baydamarker) he built the Zawia Baida ("White Monastery"). There he was supported by the local tribes and the Sultan of Wadai and his connections extended across the Maghreb.

The Grand Senussi did not tolerate fanaticism and forbade the use of stimulants as well as voluntary poverty. Lodge members were to eat and dress within the limits of Islamic law and, instead of depending on charity, 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. He accepted neither the wholly intuitive ways described by Sufi mystics nor the rationality of the orthodox ulema; rather, he attempted to achieve a middle path. The Bedouin tribes had shown no interest in the ecstatic practices of the Sufis that were gaining adherents in the towns, but they were attracted in great numbers to the Senussis. The relative austerity of the Senussi message was particularly suited to the character of the Cyrenaican Bedouins, whose way of life had not changed much in the centuries since the Arabs had first accepted the Prophet Mohammad's teachings.

In 1855 Senussi moved farther from direct Ottoman surveillance to Al-Jaghbubmarker, a small oasis some 30 miles northwest of Siwa. He died in 1860, leaving two sons, Mahommed Sherif (1844 - 1895) and Mohammed al-Mahdi, to whom was passed the succession.

Developments since 1860

Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi bin Sayyid Muhammad as-Senussi (1845 - May 30, 1902) was fourteen when his father died, after which he was placed under the care of his father's friends.

The successors to the Sultan of Wadai, Sultan Ali (1858-1874) and the Sultan Yusef (1874 - 1898) continued to support the Senussi. Under al-Mahdi the zawias of the order extended to Fez, Damascus, Constantinople and India. In the Hejaz members of the order were numerous. In most of these countries the Senussites wielded no more political power than other Muslim fraternities, but in the eastern Sahara and central Sudan things were different. Mohammed al-Mahdi had the authority of a sovereign in a vast but almost empty desert. The string of oases leading from Siwa to Kuframarker, and Borku were cultivated by the Senussites and trade with Tripoli and Benghazi was encouraged.

Although named Al Mahdi by his father, Mohammed never claimed to be the Mahdi (the Promised One), although he was regarded as such by some of his followers. When Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself al-Mahdi al-Muntazar or 'the Expected Saviour' in 1881 Mohammed al-Mahdi decided to have nothing to do with him. Although Muhammad Ahmed wrote twice asking him to become one of his four great khalifs, he received no reply. In 1890 Mahdists advancing from Darfur were stopped on the frontier of Wadai, the sultan Yusef proving firm in his adherence to the Senussi teachings.

Mohammed al-Mahdi's growing fame made the Ottoman regime uneasy and drew unwelcome attention. In most of Tripoli and Benghazi his authority was greater than that of the Ottoman governors. In 1889 the sheik was visited at Al-Jaghbubmarker by the pasha of Benghazimarker accompanied by Ottoman troops. This event showed the sheik the possibility of danger and led him to move his headquarters to Jof in the oases of Kufra in 1894, a place sufficiently remote to secure him from a sudden attack.

By this time a new danger to Senussi territories had arisen from the colonial French, who were advancing from the Congo towards the western and southern borders of Wadai. The Senussi kept them from advancing north of Chad.

In 1902 Mohammed al-Mahdi died and was succeeded by his nephew Ahmed Sharif es Senussi, but his adherents in the deserts bordering Egypt maintained for years that he was not dead. The new head of the Senussites maintained the friendly relations of his predecessors with Wadai, governing the order as regent for his young cousin, Mohammed Idris (King Idris I of Libya), who was named Emir of Cyrenaica by the British in 1917. The Senussi, encouraged by the Turks, played a minor part in the First World War, fighting a guerilla war against the British and Italians in Libya and Egypt. In 1916, the British sent an expeditionary force against them, led by Major General William Peyton. William Eliot Peyton at the web site of the CENTRE FOR FIRST WORLD WAR STUDIES online at (accessed 19 January 2008)

In 1922, Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini launched his infamous "Riconquista" of Libya - the Roman Empire having done the original conquering 2000 years before. Sanusi led the resistance and Italians closed Sanusi lodges, arrested sheikhs, confiscated mosque land. Libyans fought the Italians until 1943 with between 250,000 and 300,000 of them dying in the process.

Sources and references

  • L. Rinn, Marabouts et Khouan, a good historical account up to the year 1884
  • 0. Depont and X. Coppolani, Les Confrèries religieuses musulmanes (Algiers, 1897)
  • Si Mohammed el Hechaish, Chez les Senoussia et les Touareg, in "L'Expansion cot. française" for 1900 and the "Revue de Paris" for 1901. These are translations from the Arabic of an educated Mahommedan who visited the chief Senussite centres. An obituary notice of Senussi el Mahdi by the same writer appeared in the Arab journal El Iladira of Tunis, Sept. 2, 1902; a condensation of this article appears in the "Bull. du Corn. de l'Afriue française" for 5902; Les Senoussia, an anonymous contribution to the April supplement of the same volume, is a judicious summary of events, a short bibliography being added; Capt. Julien, in "Le Dar Ouadai" published in the same Bulletin (vol. for 1904), traces the connection between Wadai and the Senussi
  • L. G. Binger, in Le Peril de l'Islam in the 1906 volume of the Bulletin, discusses the position and prospects of the Senussite and other Islamic sects in North Africa. Von Grunau, in "Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde" for 1899, gives an account of his visit to Siwa
  • Sir F. R. Wingate, in Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan (London, 1891), narrates the efforts made by the Mahdi Mahommed Ahmed to obtain the support of the Senussi
  • Sir W. Wallace, in his report to the Colonial Office on Northern Nigeria for 1906-1907, deals with Senussiism in that country.
  • H. Duveyrier, La Confrèrie musulmane de Sidi Mohammed ben Au es Senoussi (Paris, 1884), a book containing much exaggeration, and A. Silva White, From Sphinx to Oracle (London, 1898), which, while repeating the extreme views of Duveyrier, contains useful information.

Chiefs of the Senussi Order

See also


  1. John L. Wright, Libya, a Modern History, Johns Hopkins University Press, p.42
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911
  • E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949, repr. 1963)
  • N. A. Ziadeh, Sanusiyah (1958, repr. 1983).
  • Bianci, Steven, Libya: Current Issues and Historical Background New York: Nova Science Publishers, INc, 2003

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