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Senussi dynasty
(Arabic: السنوسية‎)
Country Cyrenaica
 Kingdom of Libya
Founder Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi
Final ruler Idris I
Current head Mohammed El Senussi;
Idris bin Abdullah al-Senussi (rival claimant)
Deposition 1969: Overthrown by Muammar Gaddafi's 1 September Coup d'état

The Senussi or Sanussi (Arabic: السنوسية‎) are a Muslim political-religious Sufi order and tribe in Libya and the Sudan region founded in Mecca 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. From 1902 to 1913 the Senussi fought French expansion in the Sahara, and the Italian colonisation of Libya beginning in 1911. In World War I, the Senussi fought against the British in Egypt and Sudan. During World War II the Senussi tribe provided vital support to the British 8th Army in North Africa against the German and Italian forces. The Grand Senussi's grandson became King Idris of Libya in 1951. In 1969, King Idris I was overthrown by a military coup led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. A third of the population in Libya continue to be affiliated with the Senussi movement.


  • Beginnings 1787–1859 1
  • Developments since 1859 2
  • Chiefs of the Senussi Order 3
  • Senussi family tree 4
  • See also 5
  • Sources 6
  • Notes 7

Beginnings 1787–1859

The traditional Senussi banner, later used as the flag of Cyrenaica and eventually incorporated into the flag of Libya

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 obtain.

The fortresses and army of religious brotherhood of Sidi es Senousi 1883

Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi (1787–1859), the founder of the order and a proponent of Sufism, was born in Algeria near Mostaganem 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 Fatimah, the daughter of Mohammed. He studied at a madrassa in Fez, then traveled in the Sahara preaching a purifying reform of the faith in Tunisia and Tripoli, gaining many adherents, and then moved to Cairo to study at Al-Azhar University. 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. Due to Wahhabi pressure Senussi left Mecca and settled in Cyrenaica, Libya in 1843, where in the mountains near Sidi Rafaa' (Bayda) 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. He accepted neither the wholly intuitive ways described by some Sufi mystics nor the rationality of some 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.[1]

In 1855 Senussi moved farther from direct Ottoman surveillance to Jaghbub, a small oasis some 30 miles northwest of Siwa. He died in 1860, leaving two sons, Mahommed Sherif (1844–95) and Mohammed al-Mahdi, who succeeded him.

Developments since 1859

Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi bin Sayyid Muhammad as-Senussi (1845 – 30 May 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 (1858–74) and the Sultan Yusef (1874–98) 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 Kufra, and Borku were cultivated by the Senussites and trade with Tripoli and Benghazi was encouraged.

Senussi going to fight English in Egypt (c.1915)

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 Jaghbub by the pasha of Benghazi 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.

Sidi Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Senussi, King of Libya

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 (the future King Idris of Libya), who signed the Acroma treaty[2] with the Italians in 1917, and was later recognized by them as Emir of Cyrenaica[3] on October 25, 1920.

The Senussi, encouraged by the German Empire and Ottoman Empire, played a minor part in the First World War, fighting a guerrilla war against the Italians in Libya and the British in Egypt from November 1915 until February 1917, led by Sayyid Ahmed and in the Sudan from March to December 1916, led by Ali Dinar, the Sultan of Darfur.[4][5] In 1916, the British sent an expeditionary force against them, led by Major General William Peyton.[6] According to Wavell and McGuirk, Western Force was first led by General Wallace and later by General Hodgson.[7][8]

Italy took Libya from the Ottomans in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911. In 1922, Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini launched his infamous "Riconquista" of Libya — the Roman Empire having done the original conquering 2000 years before. The Senussi led the resistance and Italians closed Senussi lodges, arrested sheikhs, and confiscated mosque land. Libyans fought the Italians until 1943, with between 250 000 and 300 000 of them dying in the process.[9]

Chiefs of the Senussi Order

The royal standard of King Idris of Libya

Senussi family tree

many generations go by
Ali ibn Abi Talib
Hasan ibn Ali
Abdullah bin Hasan
Idris bin Abdullah
Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi
Muhammad al-Mahdi
bin Muhammad
Idris I
of Libya
Queen Fatima
bin Ahmad
Abdullah bin
Muhammad al-
Abid as-Senussi

of NTC)
Idris bin


See also


  • 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
  • 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
  • M.G.E. Bowman–Manifold, An Outline of the Egyptian and Palestine Campaigns, 1914 to 1918 2nd Edition (Chatham: The Institution of Royal Engineers, W. & J. Mackay & Co Ltd, 1923)
  • Russell McGuirk The Sanusi's Little War The Amazing Story of a Forgotten Conflict in the Western Desert, 1915–1917 (London, Arabian Publishing: 2007)
  • Field Marshal Earl Wavell, The Palestine Campaigns 3rd Edition thirteenth Printing; Series: A Short History of the British Army 4th Edition by Major E.W. Sheppard (London: Constable & Co., 1968)
  • 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.
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain


  1. ^
  2. ^ A. Del Boca, "Gli Italiani in Libia - Tripoli Bel Suol d'Amore" Mondadori 1993, pp. 334-341
  3. ^ A. Del Boca, "Gli Italiani in Libia - Tripoli Bel Suol d'Amore" Mondadori 1993, p. 415
  4. ^ Field Marshal Earl Wavell, The Palestine Campaigns 3rd Edition thirteenth Printing; Series: A Short History of the British Army 4th Edition by Major E.W. Sheppard (London: Constable & Co., 1968) pp. 35–6
  5. ^ M.G.E. Bowman–Manifold, An Outline of the Egyptian and Palestine Campaigns, 1914 to 1918 2nd Edition (Chatham: The Institution of Royal Engineers, W. & J. Mackay & Co Ltd, 1923), p. 23.
  6. ^ William Eliot Peyton Centre for First World War Studies. Accessed 19 January 2008.
  7. ^ Wavell pp. 37–8.
  8. ^ Russell McGuirk The Sanusi's Little War: The Amazing Story of a Forgotten Conflict in the Western Desert, 1915–1917 (London: Arabian Publishing, 2007) pp. 263–4.
  9. ^ John L. Wright, Libya, a Modern History, Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 42.
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