The Activity of the Islamic Order Al-Sanusiyah at the Turn of the 19th Century

By Zalewski, Zygmunt Stefan | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Activity of the Islamic Order Al-Sanusiyah at the Turn of the 19th Century


Zalewski, Zygmunt Stefan, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


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. …

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