From Academic Kids

The Senussi or Sanusi are Muslim nomads who live in the Libyan Desert, many of whom raise camels and goats. Old enemies of the Ottomans, the Senussi were involved in World War I. Prior to World War II, they provided the core of Libyan resistance to Italian colonization.

The Senussi founded a fraternal Sufi Muslim order under the head of the clan, which have been so closed to Europeans and outsiders that reports of their beliefs and practices are at wide variance. Though it is possible to sketch some main facts in the lives of the Senussi sheiks and to indicate the range of their direct political influence, the aims and extent of their spiritual influence cannot be gauged so accurately.

Sidi ("Lord") Mahommed ben Ali ben es Senussi el Khettabi el Hassani el Idrissi el Mehajiri (ca 1791/1803 - 1859/60), the founder of the order, commonly called the Sheik es Senussi, was born near Mostaganem, Algeria, and was called es Senussi after a venerated Muslim teacher. He was a member of the Walad Sidi Abdalla tribe, tracing his descent from Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed. He studied at a madrassa in Fez, then travelled in the Sahara preaching a purifying reform of the faith in Tunisia and Tripoli, gaining many adherents, and thence moved to Cairo, where he was opposed by the ulema of Al-Azhar University as unorthodox. Senussi went to Mecca, where he joined Mahommed ben Idris el Fassi, the head of the Khadirites, a confraternity of Moroccan origin. On the death of el Fassi, 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. While in Arabia, Senussi's connections with the Wahhabi caused him to be looked upon with suspicion by the ulema of Mecca. Finding the opposition to him at Mecca too powerful Senussi settled in Cyrenaica in 1843, where in the mountains near Derna he built the Zawia Baida ("White Monastery"). There he was supported by the Sultan of Wadai and his connections extended throughout the Maghreb.

In 1855 Senussi moved farther from direct Ottoman surveillance to Jaghbub, a small oasis some 30 miles northwest of Siwa. Here he died in 1859 or 1860, leaving two sons, one Mahommed Sherif (1844 - 1895) and the other, Senussi El Mahdi, to whom was left the succession.

Senussi el Mahdi (1845 - May 30, 1902), only fourteen when his father died, was at first under the guidance of his father's friends Amran, Reefi and others. He enjoyed all his father's reputation for holiness and wisdom, attributes consistent with all that is known of his life.

The successors to the Sultan of Wadai, Sultan Ali (1858 to 1874) and the Sultan Yusef (1874 to 1898) continued to support the Senussi. Under the Mahdi the zawias of the order extended from Fez to Damascus, to Constantinople and to India. In the Hejaz members of the order were numerous. In most of these countries the Senussites wielded no more political power than that of numbers of other Muslim fraternities. In the eastern Sahara and in the central Sudan the position was different. Senussi became the most powerful sheik, acquiring the authority of a territorial sovereign in a vast but almost empty desert. The string of oases leading from Siwa to Wadai Kufra, Borku, were occupied and cultivated by the Senussites, trade with Tripoli and Benghazi was encouraged, law and order were maintained among the Bedouin. Of more importance to the order was the dominating influence possessed by the sheik at the Sultan's court of Wadai.

Although named El Mahdi by his father the younger Senussi never claimed to be the Mahdi, though so regarded by some of his followers. The famous "Mahdi" was Muhammad Ahmad, the Dongalese, who rose against the Egyptian government (which was under British control in that time) in the eastern Sudan and proclaimed himself the Mahdi. The sheik Senussi decided to have nothing to do with the Sudanese Mahdi, though Muhammad Ahmed wrote twice asking him to become one of his four great khalifs, he received no reply. In 1890 the Mahdists advancing from Darfur were stopped on the frontier of Wadai, the sultan Yusef being firm in his adherence to the Senussi teaching.

The growing fame of the sheik Senussi el Mahdi made the Ottoman regime uneasy and drew upon him the unwelcome attention of the Turks. In many parts of Tripoli and in Benghazi the power of the sheik was greater than that of the Ottoman governors. In 1889 the sheik Senussi was visited at Jaghbub by the pasha of Benghazi at the head of some troops. This event showed the sheik the possibility of danger and led him (in 1894) to remove his headquarters to Jof in the oases of Kufra, a place sufficiently remote to secure him from any chance of 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.

The sheik Senussi was succeeded by his nephew Ahmed-el Sherif, but the adherents of the Senussi el Mahdi 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.

King Idris I of Libya, named Emir of Cyrenaica by the British in 1917, was the grandson of Muhammad bin Ali al-Senussi, the founder of the Senussi order. Another famous leader was Omar Al-Mukhtar, who led the fight against the Italian Fascist army in Libya until his capture and execution in 1928.

See also:

partly based on the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911


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