Ever since the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, North-Eastern Africa and the Middle East have attracted a great deal of attention,. As a consequence of this event the unavoidable process of rivalry has emerged; mainly between France, Great Britain, Italy and then Germany, after this country had been unified in 1871. The purchasing by the British government 44% shares of the Suez Canal from Egyptian khedive Isma'Il in November 1875 brought another significant factor which accelerated the challenge for these regions of the world. However, having established its domination over Egypt in 1882, Great Britain intensified the creation of its famous 'Imperial route', which facilitated better connections of the Mother country with her vast and remote colonies in India, Australia and the Far East. Having achieved a political domination over the Suez Canal region, the British initiated another significant process, a new stage of rivalry over the African territories. Thus, the so called "scramble for Africa" had begun.
What also needs to be mentioned are the social processes that began to take place among the Arab tribes at the turn of the 19th century. Mainly, the ruling sheiks and tribal elders, embarked on breaking off the ties with Constantinople with a view to creating an Arab state, or some states when the decaying Ottoman Empire was expected to collapse. The above factors and the approaching turmoil of war, which involved the whole region in 1914-1918, was to determine the objectively existing background of the al-Sanusiyah question, which is going to be discussed. The prime aim of this paper is to find an answer to this issue. The scope of the deliberations here is narrowed down the religious, political and military aspects concerning the warlike and influential religious Order.
The main ideologist and creator of the fraternity, Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi (full name Sidi Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi Al-Mujahiri Al-Hasani Al-Idrisi) was born in 1787 in Tursh, a small village close to the Mediterranean port town Mostaganem (Mustaghanam) in northern Algeria. Having not accepted Ottoman officials' nepotism and corruption in his Fatherland, he made up his mind to leave for Fez in Morocco where he enrolled in a Koranic school. The observation of the Muslim's style of life, particularly in comparison to the modern, European French society, (Morocco was a nominal French colony at that time) gave rise to a deep spiritual and intellectual transformation in his mind. Since then he began to propagate a philosophical ideology according to which social and economic progress of the Arabs was possible, but the only way to achieve it was by following very strictly all the ideas that had been put in the Quran.
In 1828 Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi arrived in Mecca for the first time. Then he left for Algeria, Tripolitania and Egypt where he joined some Islamic fraternities living in the desert oases to explore the secrets of their functioning, style of life and ruling. In 1883 he arrived in the Hejaz; this time to study the Koranic knowledge at the most eminent ulemas of Mecca. The head of Moroccan fraternity al-Khadiriya, Sayyid Ahmad bin Idris al-Fasi was the man who influenced him most. After his teacher and spiritual leader's death, Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi established in 1837 his own fraternity in Abu Cobes (Mt. Abu Qubais), the place situated not far away from Mecca (1).
Acting in the sphere of Sunnism, the Sufis fraternity al-Sanusiyah preached the necessity of returning to the human "pure" principles of conduct which should conform to Wahhabi's ideology created in 18th century. Soon, ideas of this militant mystical movement began to catch up among the Bedouin tribes dwelling in the Hajaz. Therefore, the Ottoman authorities, supported by jealous Muslim spiritual leaders of Mecca, expelled the Sanusis from there. Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi and his ardent followers moved to Cairo and then to Siwah oasis. In 1842 the fraternity came to Tripoli for a short time and then they arrived in Cyrenaica where not far from Benghazi, in a ruined ancient place named Cirene, the Sanusi family developed their spiritual, ideological, doctrinal principles. The requirement of studying the Quran and devoting to meditation in secluded hermitages called (Zawiyah pl. Zawaya) (2) were put into practice by Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi there.
In 1856 the Sanusis returned to Egypt for a short time, but afterwards, they moved to Cyrenaica again and then to al-Jaghbub, the oasis situated on the pilgrimage and merchant crossroads that existed there since ancient times. In al-Jaghbub they established their headquarters. It was the best place to choose. Situated on the Egyptian territory, not far from the western border, the place was almost out of Egyptian and Ottoman control. Additionally, the contemporary French colonial pressure in this territory was also very slight.
There was an additional but exceptionally significant factor that had to be considered. The vast deserted territory was inhabited by plain, poor nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes. Those scarcely forgotten by the world people were particularly impressionable on the Sanusi's ideology and propaganda. These circumstances were to bring some of the most far-reaching consequences in the process of the future state creation.
In the meantime, al-Jaghbub spread out and was slowly becoming the Sanusi's ideological and political centre. On the basis of the Koranic school, which had been founded earlier, Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi established the second, after al-Azhar in Cairo, University in Africa. Many ardent disciples and 'apostles' being educated there went separate ways as far as the Fezzan province and the Equatorial Africa to preach the Sanusi's puritan, orthodox ideology and propaganda throughout all tribes dwelling in the vast desert territories.
Muhammad Ibn Ali As-Sanusi, also called the Grand Sanusi (as-Sanusi al-Kabir) died on September 7, 1859. He was succeeded by the elder of his two living sons Sayyid Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (Sidi Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi). Following his father's way of reasoning, the new leader maintained the discipline in the fraternity's structures and developed the ideological and doctrinal principles of the professed faith.
He was both an able organizer and a very inspired leader so after over a ten-year period of his ruling, the Order's significance arose in the Arab world a great deal, therefore kindling the flames of Islamic revolution in the Sudan. Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdullah, commonly known as "Mahdi", offered Sayyid Muhammad the title of khalifa for that part of Africa which had been influenced by the fraternity structures. However, if the honour had been accepted, the Sudanese prophet's superiority would have been acknowledged, and then, the fraternity would have had to enter the war with Egypt and finally with Great Britain too. So, the Mahdi's proposal was rejected. (3)
Meanwhile, the Ottoman authorities were getting seriously anxious about the al-Sanusi's economic, religious and political rising in the region. Their suspicions were getting stronger ever since Sayyid Muhammad had not fulfilled the sultan Abdulhamid II's request for military help during the ardent and bloody actions against the Russian army in the first Balkan war, 1877-1878 (4). The moment was crucial for the Ottoman Empire because this country had been extremely threatened by the "infidels" and was at the edge of its decline. Several years later the Sanusis acted in the same way during Urabi Pasha's revolt against the British in Egypt. When in August 1882, the Colonel asked them for help, his requests were turned down. They also refused any military help for the Mahdi of the Sudan in 1883 (5). It was also the time, when the Head of the Order was asked by Germany and Italy to cooperate. Notwithstanding, likewise the previous ones, those political offers were also rejected. However, the attitude, particularly towards the Germans, was to change in the years to come.
The Sanusi's attitudes towards their Islamic brothers were conceivable while considering the main context of their two first leaders', far-reaching political plans. As early as the al-Sanusiyah Order was brought into being, its founder and spiritual leader the Grand Sanussi made up his mind to create a theocratic state on the Egyptian and Libyan borderland (6). Therefore, he and his son and successor Sayyid Muhammad adopted a policy of neutrality towards their nearest neighbours as well as the European powers. They would rather not have got involved in political, as well as regional military conflicts. Instead, they would prefer to have their power for the events to come.
Meanwhile, in the last decade of the 19th century, France made a good use of Britain's participation in the Boer War, and intensified its penetration of Equatorial Africa. Soon after, the French came out on the situated south of the Libyan frontier territories Tibesti and Chad. The Ottoman, Egyptian and British authorities became very concerned about the French actions. Nevertheless, al-Sanusiyah was the first to whom the French political and military action was directed to. Having foresight the increasing threat from the north of his theocratic empire, Sayyid Muhammad decided in 1895 to move the Order's seat as far as the Al-Kufrah oasis in Fezzan province, close to the Sudanese and Egyptian borders. There were some other significant circumstances that Sayyid Muhammad had considered before e. g. a) the urgent need of personal supervising over the rapidly developing Order's structures (Zawaya/lodges) in this area, b) arising opportunity of taking over considerable parts of long-distance caravan trade routes, particularly in the circumstances, when the exchanging of goods via the Nile route had been blockaded during the Mahdi's uprising, c) the Ottoman and Egyptian authorities' encouragement. Both governments expected the warlike fraternity would hamper the French colonialism.
As it was easy to foresee, soon after, almost all Egyptian and Libyan borderland, from the Mediterranean coast as far as to the Sudanese frontier, was, to considerable extent, controlled by al-Sanusiyah. The Al-Kufrah oasis became their chief spiritual and political centre. Since then, the orthodox ideas, missionary efforts and propaganda were being successively spread out among the Arabs, Berbers, Tuaregs and Negroes dwelling in the territories of Kawar, Tibesti, Borku, Ennedi, Darfur, Wadai, Kanem, Chad, the Azger, the Airu, Baghrimi as far as to Senegal. (7)
As it was inevitable, the Order began its military action against the French soon. The skirmishes were so tiresome, ardent and bloody that the French colonial army tried to avoid them in the initial phase of war. They often wanted the Sanussis to be left alone. However, being so successful, Sayyid Muhammad decided to move the seat of the Order more south, as far as Quiru (Quru). (8) It was the period of time when al-Sanusiyah, ruled by able, skilled and open-minded Sayyid Muhammad, succeeded in political, military and economic fields of its broaden activity.
Sayyid Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Sanusi's death on January 1, 1902 brought some significant changes for the entire fraternity's structure, but chiefly for his closest family. He left two minor sons. Both of them, the elder Sayyid Muhammad Idris and his younger brother Sayyid Muhammad al-Rida, were still in al-Jaghbub studying at university. None of them was able to carry the burden of the power and responsibility over the Order, particularly in the turbulent years that were expected to come. Notwithstanding, before his death, Sayyid Muhammad handed down the leadership over the fraternity to his nephew Sayyid Ahmed al-Sharif. (9)
Soon after, the new leader had to take up a heavy burden of responsibility for the Order in hard times that were to come. The last two decades closing the 19th century and two first decades of the 20th century were to bring many important events on the international political arena. At the end of the 1880s and at the 1890s the leaders of the Order were getting more and more apprehensive about European colonialism that had had reached Africa. Having defeated the Mahdists at Omdurman, the British regained their influence over the Sudan, which they had lost before. They also took up Socoto in Nigeria. The French captured Timbuctu, and from 1881 they occupied Tunis. The Italians took control over Somaliland (1889) and Eritrea (1890). They also attempted to penetrate Abyssinia from there. In the light of the arising threat of European conquest in Africa, Sayyid Ahmed asked the Ottoman authority to reinforce the Turkish troops, which were stationed in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. He wanted them to be strengthened so that they would be able to stop French and British pressure upon the Saharan territories. Nevertheless, the government in Constantinople refused, arguing in favour of maintaining good relations with France and Great Britain. Having felt cornered, the leader of al-Sanusiyah turned towards the Italians.
At the outset of 1902 two al-Sanusiyah's representatives arrived in Cairo to have talks with the Italian consul there. They put out the question openly:
"... what his country's intentions were with regard to the Ottoman province. (10)
His ambiguous answer was: '... Italy wanted only to prevent the encroachment of other European powers.' (11)
Lapping Italy's consul answer up, al--Sanusiyah's leader Sayyid Ahmed asked the Italians then to sell him arms. As expected, his request met with their approval because the government in Rome wanted to be on good terms with the fraternity in that time (12).
The other challenge, that Sayyid Ahmed "inherited" after his uncle's death, was the tiresome war with France. Some arduous military actions particularly on the soil of what later became known as the French Sudan, were being waged (with short intervals) as long as until 1914. The French took over the following provinces and oases: Kawar and Bilma (1906), 'Ain Kalak (1907), Abaish (1909), Tibesti, Borku, Wajanga i Eneidi (1913-1914). Wherever they arrived they made their utmost to destroy and completely eliminate all the Sanusiyah's structures (13).
At the eve of World War I, al-Sanusiyah Order, but chiefly its leader, had to face more serious challenges. In the years …