Who are the Sanusi and why do they remain so influential to so many? Only by understanding the Sanusi order, the Cyrenaica tribes and the historic role of both in the development of Libya will we be able to make sense of both the recent moves towards autonomy and prospects for the future of Libyan democracy and unity.
The tribes of Cyrenaica have been resistant to central control for millennia, from the Egyptian Pharaohs to the Ottoman Empire. This resistance was partly due to their tribal code of behaviour, which stressed honour, hospitality, revenge and liberty.
The disparate Cyrenaica tribes, which often fought each other, united in the 19th century under the Sufis of the Sanusi order. The order was founded by Muhammad ibn Ali as-Sanusi (1787-1859), a descendent of the Prophet of Islam. Known as the Grand Sanusi, he attracted many disciples teaching in Mecca and set off into Africa to promote his teachings, bringing education and knowledge of Islam to local tribes.
The Grand Sanusi established a hierarchical Sufi structure centred in the remote oasis of Jaghbub in Eastern Cyrenaica. He built a renowned university in Jaghbub that had the reputation of being the most prestigious and important educational institution in Africa, after Al-Azhar in Cairo.
The British scholar, EE Evans-Pritchard, noted in his classic book – The Sanusi of Cyrenaica – that everyone in Cyrenaica “almost to a man” followed the Sanusi order, despite it having “never once resorted to force to back its missionary labours”. The Sanusi, however, found few followers in Western Libya