The Sanusiyah is a sufi brotherhood based in Libya and the central Sahara founded by Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi (1787-1859). The Sanusi brotherhood is well known for its role in the resistance movement against French and Italian colonialism, but it was formed as a strictly religious brotherhood based on the doctrine of the Shadhiliyah order.
Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi was born near Mostaganem in Algeria. In his early life he studied Sufism and Islamic sciences including law and tradition in the reformist environment of Fez. In 1823 he moved to Cairo and later to Hijaz to continue his studies. In Mecca he studied under the guidance of Ahmad bin Idris, a well known sufi teacher. Soon afterward, when Ibn Idris left for Yemen, al-Sanusi was in charge of his students and built the first lodge at Abu Qubays outside Mecca in 1827. In 1841 he returned back to North Africa settled in Cyrenaica and founded his new organization.
The Sanusiyah is commonly known as a “revivalist” brotherhood but its doctrine is not different from other traditional Sufism. It disapproves of excess in ritual, such as dancing or singing. Its great emphasis is on the role of the prophet and on following his example. Al-Sanusi wrote several books arguing for the right of ijtihad. He put this into practice by incorporating elements usually found in Shafi’i school but still maintaining his way to be a Maliki one.
The structure of the organization was simple and centralized. The local lodge had very little autonomy and was ruled by three or four officials appointed by the center. The core area of the organization was a desert that of the Bedouin of Cyrenaica. The order also had a number of urban lodges and into non-Bedouin areas like Tripolitania and Fezzan in western Libya as well as in Hijaz. It spread across the Sahara to the east of Lake Chad.
The brotherhood was not at all militant; rather, it promoted learning and piety among its adherents. It also had a strong work ethic, particularly to the building and upkeep of new lodges and development through agriculture. The brotherhood became an important factor in the development of Trans-Saharan trade. The center of the order was established in Jaghbub, on the Libyan-Egypt border, but later on moved to Kufa in the middle of Libyan desert in 1895. The French, who were moving toward Lake Chad saw the Sanusiyah as an activist and inimical force and opened hostilities at the Bir Ali Lodge in Kanem in 1901. The Sanusiyah were caught unaware and withdrew. But they quickly took up arms, and the population in the region fought the French in the name and under the leadership of the brotherhood until the Sanusiyah were forced to withdraw around 1913-14.
When Italians invaded Libya in 1911, the Sanusiyah order was not targeted as enemies, but when Turkey withdrew from Libya the following year, the Sanusi leader Ahmad al-Sharif raised the call for jihad and led a large Bedouin force against the invaders. The Sanusi held the Italians at bay for several years, but an attack on the British forces in Egypt led to the brotherhood’s defeat. Al-Sharif was replaced by his cousin, Muhammad Idris. After the rise of fascism in Italy, the struggle became a more purely Bedouin one led by tribal leaders like Omar Mukhtar, while the Sanusi led by Idris was in exile in Egypt. During this time, which lasted until 1932, the Sanusi organizational structure of lodges was largely destroyed. When the modern state of Libyan was created and in 1951 was made king of Libya. He was removed by the coup of Mu’ammar Qadhdhafi in 1969. Later on the religious Sanusiyah brotherhood had become a monarchical order. Today the order is not tolerated in Libya, and outside Libya only a few lodges remain, including the oldest one at Abu Qubays near Mecca.