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LIBYA. Islam in nineteenth-century Libya-known at the time as the regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fazzan-was marked by Sunni orthodoxy in its urban areas (primarily Tripoli, Benghazi and the mercantile centers of Sabha and Murzuq in Fazzan) and by a number of heterodox and more populist interpretations in the rural hinterlands and among the nomadic tribes of the desert areas. The latter reinterpreted and adapted the austerity of Sunni Islam to the Islamic practices of the regions’ tribal communities. Small pockets of Ibadl Muslims dotted the Tripolitanian landscape.


The second Ottoman occupation of 1835, meant primarily to forestall European colonial designs after the French invasion of neighboring Algeria in 1830, resulted in the first manifestations of both antiOttomanism and anti-Western sentiments expressed in overtly Islamic terms. This identification of a popular expression of Islam with political opposition would become a defining characteristic of politics in Libya-a characteristic that not only marked the anticolonialist struggle and the Sanusi monarchy after independence but has also played a significant role in Mu’ammar Qadhdhafi’s Jamahirlyah, a political system run directly by the people.

Sanusiyah. In part to escape foreign encroachments and defend Islam against them, and simultaneously to revitalize and purify the religion, Sayyid Muhammad ibn `All al-Sanusi, an Algerian religious scholar who had traveled to Mecca, founded the Sanusiyah order. Isolated Cyrenaica-outside European influence and only nominally under Ottoman suzerainty-provided the ideal locale for a religious movement that relied in part on the doctrine of hijrah (“withdrawal” in emulation of the prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina) to settle among the tribes of the territory’s hinterlands.

For almost nine decades the Sanusiyah represented a powerful Islamic revivalist movement that combined both economic and religious elements as it spread across Cyrenaica, Fazzan, and parts of rural Tripolitania. Its economic importance, pointed out by Emrys Peters, resulted from the order’s manipulation of tribal power over the trading routes that ran from the Sahara via Cyrenaica to the Egyptian coast. Peters (1990) delineates a system of alliance patterns among local tribal leaders and shaykhs that allowed the order to dominate both local and long-distance trade. The order’s religious relevance to the local tribes was expressed through its incorporation of the shurafd’ (descendents of the prophet Muhammad who acquire thereby some of his qualities) and of murabitun (locally acclaimed pious individuals endowed with saintly qualities).

By the end of the century the Sanusiyah, centered first in Jaghbub and then retreating to the even more isolated desert oasis of Kufrah in 1895, became the dominant religious and political power in Cyrenaica. As part of its mission it imposed a previously unknown degree of Sunni orthodoxy among its rural adherents and paved the way for the further spread of Sunni practice into Waddai and Tibesti, areas now incorporated in modern Chad. The declining Ottoman Empire unofficially agreed to what Evans-Pritchard (1949) describes as a “Turco-Sanusi Condominium.” With its property officially recognized by the Ottomans as waqf, the order came to symbolize orthodox Islam wherever its zawdyd (lodges) were found.

By the early part of the twentieth century, only some of the `ulama’ in the urban centers could challenge the hegemony the Sanusiyah had established. Not surprisingly, the order led the local resistance, particularly in Cyrenaica, to the Italian invasion after the Ottoman Empire abandoned that effort in 1912. Although the Sanusi leadership eventually fled to Egypt, it left behind a number of individual shaykhs, such as `Umar alMukhtar, who would continue the struggle against Italy until 1927.

Owing in part to the Sanusi alliance with the British in World War II, and in part to the great powers’ determination that Libya should not fall once more under Italian tutelage, the Kingdom of Libya was proclaimed in 1951 with King Idris al-Sanusi, the grandson of the order’s founder, as its head. More concerned with matters of religious importance-such as the creation of an Islamic university in Al-Bayda’-and with personal piety, Idris proved unable effectively to face both the demands of a younger generation imbued with a growing sense of nationalism, and those of an oil economy that grew at a phenomenal pace after the first marketing of oil in 1961. By the eve of the Qadhdhafi coup in 1969 the monarchy had become a political anachronism, but, significantly, the confluence of religion and a growing political opposition (to the West) would remain a significant feature of the military regime that succeeded it.

Qadhdhafi’s Revolution and Islam. Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi’s “revolution” was originally considered as one of the earliest examples of the political renewal of Islam since the North African countries obtained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s. The Libyan leader had not been trained in Islamic jurisprudence and had only a cursory knowledge of Islamic theology. His knowledge and interpretations of Islam reflected primarily the recent history of both his country and the Sanusi kingdom.

The earliest pronouncements of the regime included a number of nationalist as well as Islamic references, and the substantive measures initially taken by the regime in its early days-among them the revival of Qur’anic criminal penalties and the banning of alcohol and nightclubs-indicated an open admittance of Islam as a guiding force in the country’s political life. But, although Islam would clearly be part of the revolution’s ideology, it was mentioned only briefly in article 2 of the country’s new constitution of ii December 1969, and then simply as “the religion of the state.” Despite the fact that Qadhdhafi himself often referred to the importance of Islam to his revolution, the unveiling of his political program during the Libyan Intellectual Seminar in May 1970 made only perfunctory references to Islam–except in the context of Qur’anic education, which the government initially left untouched.

Both events, however, hinted at the fact that if Qadhdhafi and his revolutionary officers were to be considered Islamic reformers, this reformism-as events later confirmed-consisted of a highly idiosyncratic interpretation and a highly politicized version of Islam. The experience of Islam in Libya since 1969 can thus be characterized both as a conscious choice to promote political mobilization and as the embodiment of moral commitments by the revolution’s leadership. The regime firmly believed that its search for legitimacy could only be achieved within Libya’s conservative society if it could demonstrate its adherence to Islamic principles.

Simultaneously, however, this search for legitimacy would also entail the evisceration of all potential competitors, in particular the rural religious elites formerly affiliated with the Sanusi lodges and the orthodox `ulama’ in the urban centers. The imposition of a new bureaucratic structure after 1970-only partly successful-was meant to secure the first objective. The latter, although already foreshadowed by expressions of distrust made by the regime vis-a-vis the `ulama’ during the 1970 Intellectual Seminar, would take until early 1975, when they were removed from committees set up to reform the country’s legal system. By that time Qadhdhafi had already taken a number of measures that put his experiments at odds with Sunni Islamic practice elsewhere.

Qadhdhafi’s initiatives involved a series of legal reforms, dating back to a decree issued shortly after the 1969 revolution, that called for the implementation of shari’ah law; this was extended by the islamization of Libyan law in October 1971. The new regulations, derived from Maliki legal practice, called for the maintenance of existing laws if they agreed with shad `ah principles, and for the use of customary law (`urf) when applicable. In essence, the regime devised a two-track approach by arguing that matters of religious doctrine were inviolable but that “secular” issues could be subjected to ijtihdd (innovative reasoning). Similarly, Qadhdhafi was less willing to accept hadith, sunnah, ijma` and qiyds, pronouncing them unnecessary accretions to Islam. In particular, he maintained that only part of the sunnah could be considered a constitutive element of shari’ah and argued furthermore that ijtihad was an acceptable means of broadening its scope in the modern world. In a celebrated discussion with the country’s `ulama’ at the Mawlay Muhammad Mosque in Tripoli in July 1978 (reprinted in Barrada et al., 1984) Qadhdhafi reiterated most of these points.

Islam, Qadhdhafi argued, should not simply reassert traditional values but should become a progressive force. As such, the Libyan leader clearly saw the revival of shari’ah in particular as a means for both ideological renewal and greater political legitimacy. It was this populist reinterpretation of Islamic law, devoid of input from specialized jurists, that assumed increasing importance throughout the 1970s and 1980s and that made every individual-in line with the regime’s populist aspirationsa potential mujtahid, an individual capable of interpreting and innovating Islamic doctrine and law. These legal reforms in effect afforded the Libyan regime the opportunity carefully to control independent religious organizations. By taking control of waqf property through special legislation enacted in 1972 and 1973, the regime further reduced the already diminished impact of the urban `ulama’ The `ulama’ now bereft of the financial basis of the religious establishment, for all practical purposes became state employees and lost whatever cultural, financial, and political autonomy they had once possessed. The Libyan state assumed the role of patron of the religious establishment, heavily subsidizing religious life and observance after 1970, including financial support for pilgrims performing the hajj and the construction of a significant number of new mosques.

Qadhdhafi started to conceptualize his ideas that would eventually result in the Green Book and its Third Universal Theory of political action based on Islam that would replace both capitalism and communism. At the April 1973 Zuwarah speech that ushered in his cultural revolution, Qadhdhafi revealed the principles on which the country’s political system would be based: Arab unity, direct popular democracy, and Islamic socialism. According to the Libyan leader, the new theory would solve once and for all the tension, inherent in a secular concept of the state, between din and dawlah: Islam would serve as the source of inspiration for political renewal and innovation, and as a means of legitimizing the regime’s political institutions. Qadhdhafi’s vision of egalitarian individualism-visible now in the country’s political institutions, which were run directly by the people represented in People’s Congresses and in Islam through the application of individual ijtihad-was repeated in the Green Book, which was implicitly based on Islamic doctrine.

The creation of the Jamahiriyah in 1977 was the culmination of this egalitarian process and ushered in a new stage of Qadhdhafi’s interpretation of Islam. The economic aspects of his Green Book-which included the abolishing of private property-were judged by the `ulama’ as contradictory to Islam; they objected that Qadhdhafi seemed determined to use the Green Book’s principles as an alternative to the traditional teachings of shad `ah law. In response, Qadhdhafi further elaborated his interpretations of Islam, declaring, for example, in 1977 that the Libyan calendar now started with the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 rather than with the customary date of the Hijrah in 622. He finally mounted an all-out offensive against the power of the `ulama’ in early 1978, arguing that since the Qur’an was written in Arabic, there was no need for expert interpretation. The Qur’an was declared the sole source of shari`ah law, and the sunnah, as well as qiyas, ijma`, and hadith were now rejected as errors. The mosques were put under popular control; the status of women in divorce cases was declared equal to that of men; and the hajj to Mecca was no longer considered a pillar of Islam.

As on all other occasions, Qadhdhafi’s innovations served political as well as religious purposes: they afforded the regime greater legitimacy for whatever actions it took in secular matters and simultaneously freed it from the constraints of Islamic doctrine and tradition, which, Qadhdhafi argued, were outdated and open to individual interpretation. Although the reaction of the `ulama’ within Libya remained necessarily muted, Qadhdhafl’s actions in time would be labeled by the country’s underground Islamist movements as bid`ah (heretical innovation). By the mid-1980s these movements’ followers-among others, the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami and the local version of the Ikhwan al-Muslimin-were increasingly targeted, and several were publicly executed by the regime. By the early 1990s they had been singled out as potentially the most dangerous opposition and were denounced in vitriolic terms by Qadhdhafi, who declared them public enemies of the revolution.

Conclusion. Islam in Libya in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has shown the lingering impact of the country’s historical legacy. During the colonial period in particular, the two groups of competing religious establishments-the Sanuisi-allied shaykhs and the urban-based, orthodox `ulama’-cooperated with the British and the Italians respectively, and as a result undermined confidence among young Libyans who grew up during the Arab nationalist period that these established powers could serve as trustworthy political interlocutors.

Qadhdhafi’s pronouncements on Islam since 1969 have clearly referred to this earlier historical period; in particular, the pro-Western attitude and weak nationalist credentials of the Sanusi monarchy indelibly impressed the Libyan leader as he grew up in the country’s hinterland. This endowed him with a clear suspicion of any type of organized religious group in the country, and led eventually to their evisceration. It also resulted in his strong conviction, maintained consistently throughout his tenure in office, that religious affairs were both within the purview of government and subject to personal interpretation.

Soon after the 1969 coup Qadhdhafi adopted a highly activist political stance in which he proclaimed himself a mediator between different interpretations of Islamic precepts. His insistence on the right of personal interpretation necessitated a number of doctrinal interpretations that pitted him both against his country’s `ulama’ and against much of the orthodox Sunni religious establishment throughout the Arab world. In the end, it resulted in a political process where he simply imposed his own views on Libyan religious leaders and the country’s population alike. The Islamic precepts that Qadhdhafi had originally advocated as valuable in and of themselves assumed an evocative symbolism within Libya, anchored within the teachings of the Third Universal theory, that would allow them to become one of the regime’s array of political instruments.

Despite this, Islam in the Jamahiriyah today is not an attempt to foster religious revivalism by radical means. Qadhdhafi has sought simply to extend a long tradition of government that is based on and legitimated by religious precepts. If his attitude toward Islam is considered radical, it is primarily so because his overall political, secular ambitions are radical as well. The regime rejects Islamic tradition, relying instead on a popular reinterpretation of Islam steeped in the egalitarian tradition in which Qadhdhafi himself had grown up.

[See also Sanusiyah; and the biographies of Mukhtdr and Qadhdhafi. ]


El-Horair, A. S. “Social and Economic Transformations in the Libyan Hinterland during the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century: The Role of Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanussi.” Ph.D. diss., University of California-Berkeley, 1981. The only comprehensive study of Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi, who became one of Libya’s national heroes for his stance against the colonial power.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford, 1949. Classic study of the Sanusiyah.

Martel, Andre. La Libye, 1835-1990: Essai de giopolitique historique. Paris, 1991. Excellent essay on Libyan history, with some attention to the Islamic dimension of the country’s background.

Peters, Emrys L. The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Studies in Personal and Corporate Power. Cambridge, 1990. A much needed update and reinterpretation of Evans-Pritchard’s earlier work, from an anthropological perspective.

Qadhdhifi’s Islam

Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Islam and the Third Universal Theory: The Religious Thought of Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhdft. London, 1987. Arguably the best explanation of Qadhdhafi’s thought and ideology, contained within a hagiography of the Libyan leader.

Barrada, Hamid, et al. “Kadhafi: ” Je suis un opposant d i’echelon mondial.” Lausanne, 1984. Contains several thoughtful interviews with the Libyan leader, as well as a number of important statements and debates engaged in by Qadhdhafi.

Burgat, Franqois, and William Dowell. The Islamic Movement in North Africa. Austin, 1993 Substantial treatment of North African, including Libyan, Islamist movements.

Mason, John Paul. Island of the Blest: Islam in a Libyan Oasis Community. Athens, Ohio, 1977. Excellent study of the effect of Qadhdhafi’s revolution and his interpretation of Islam on one Libyan oasis.

Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. Islamic Law in Libya: Analyses of Selected Laws Enacted since the 1969 Revolution. London, 1977. The best available interpretation of some of Qadhdhafi’s edicts and statements on Islam and Libya’s legal system.

Qadhdhafi, Mu’ammar al-. The Green Book. 3 vols. Tripoli, 198o. The Libyan leader’s thoughts bundled into three slim volumes.

2011 Revolution

After the Arab Spring movements overturned the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, Libya experienced a full-scale revolt beginning on 17 February 2011. By 20 February, the unrest had spread to Tripoli. On 27 February 2011, the National Transitional Council was established to administer the areas of Libya under rebel control. On 10 March 2011, France became the first state to officially recognise the council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

Pro-Gaddafi forces were able to respond militarily to rebel pushes in Western Libya and launched a counterattack along the coast toward Benghazi, the de facto centre of the uprising. The town of Zawiya, 48 kilometres (30 mi) from Tripoli, was bombarded by air force planes and army tanks and seized by Jamahiriya troops, “exercising a level of brutality not yet seen in the conflict.”

Organs of the United Nations, including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the United Nations Human Rights Council, condemned the crackdown as violating international law, with the latter body expelling Libya outright in an unprecedented action urged by Libya’s own delegation to the UN.

On 17 March 2011 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 with a 10–0 vote and five abstentions including Russia and China. The resolution sanctioned the establishment of a no-fly zone and the use of “all means necessary” to protect civilians within Libya. On 19 March, the first act of NATO allies to secure the no-fly zone by destroying Libyan air defences began when French military jets entered Libyan airspace on a reconnaissance mission heralding attacks on enemy targets.In the weeks that followed, American forces were in the forefront of NATO operations against Libya. More than 8,000 American personnel in warships and aircraft were deployed in the area. At least 3,000 targets were struck in 14,202 strike sorties, 716 of them in Tripoli and 492 in Brega. The American air offensive included flights of B-2 Stealth bombers, each bomber armed with sixteen 2000-pound bombs, flying out of and returning to their base in Missouri on the continental United States. Clearly the support provided by the NATO air forces was pivotal in the ultimate success of the revolution.

By 22 August 2011, rebel fighters had entered Tripoli and occupied Green Square, which they renamed Martyrs’ Square in honour of those killed since 17 February 2011. On 20 October 2011 the last heavy fighting of the uprising came to an end in the city of Sirte, where Gadhafi was captured and killed. The defeat of loyalist forces was celebrated on 23 October 2011, three days after the fall of Sirte.

At least 30,000 Libyans died in the civil war.

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/libya/

  • writerPosted On: July 28, 2014
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