The Sanusi

By: Stephen Epstein

Originally Published in 1987

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The Sanusi order, founded by Muhammad Ibn al-Sanusi (ca. 1787-1859), is part of the Sunni or orthodox branch of Islam. Al-Sanusi was disheartened by the internal divisiveness that he saw in the Islam of his day, and sought to revive the simplicity and purity of the early days of that faith. While the Sanusi are within the tradition of Sufism or Islamic mysticism, they are among the most conservative of Sufi orders. Rather than seeking an identification with God, this group sought a spiritual identification with the prophet Mohammad. This goal is to be achieved through a contemplation of the life and words of Mohammad and an imitation of his actions. The use of stimulants and ecstatic aids to transcend the senses (for example, the music and repetitive body movements or “whirling” of the Dervishes) were forbidden by al-Sanusi. He also required that members of his order work for their livelihoods instead of existing on alms.

The Grand Sanusi traveled, studied, and taught widely throughout North Africa and Arabia before settling among the Bedouin of Cyrenaica. For these people, the austerity of his message–essentially the faith and morals preached by the Prophet to the Bedouin of Arabia in the 7th century–carried a special appeal.  The order was formally established near Mecca in 1837, and gained sufficient popularity to threaten the established religious and political leadership at Mecca itself. Opposition from these authorities led the Grand Sanusi to leave Arabia for native North Africa in 1841. On his journey he spent some months in Siwa, where he presented his teachings to the people of the Oasis.

The first Sanusi lodge was founded in 1843 on the central plateau of Cyrenaica, near the ancient city of Cyrene. By 1902, a network of 146 lodges linked the caravan routes of Libya, Egypt, the Sudan, and Arabia. These lodges were not only religious chapterhouses, they also served as cultural and commercial centers, with mosques, schools, law-courts, caravansaries, and poorhouses. During the 29th century, the successors of al-Sanusi became involved in regional politics and sought to check the expansion of European colonialism. In 1951, the head of the order, Sayyid Mohammad Idris, became the first king of an independent Libya. He ruled until overthrown by the 1969 military coup that brought Muammar Qaddafi to power, and ended with the identification of the Sanusi with Bedouin nationalist sentiment.

Cite This Article

Epstein, Stephen. "The Sanusi." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 1 (March, 1987): -. Accessed April 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-sanusi/


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