We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Libya - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result


Dirk Vandewalle
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Related Content


Islam in nineteenth-century Libya—known at the time as the regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fazzān—was marked by Sunnī orthodoxy in its urban areas (primarily Tripoli, Benghazi, and the mercantile centers of Sabhā and Murzuq in Fazzān) and 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 Sunnī Islam to the Islamic practices of the regions ’ tribal communities. Small pockets of Ibāḍī 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 anti-Ottomanism and anti-Western sentiments expressed in overtly Islamic terms. This identification of a popular expression of Islam with political opposition became a defining characteristic of politics in Libya—a characteristic that marked not only the anti-colonialist struggle and the Sanūsī monarchy after independence, but has played a significant role in Qadhdhāfī 's Jamahiriya as well.

The Sanūsīyah.

Sayyid Muḥammad bin ʿAlī al-Sanūsī, an Algerian religious scholar who had traveled to Mecca, founded the Sanūsī order in part to defend Islam against foreign encroachments, and to simultaneously revitalize and purify the religion. Isolated Cyrenaica—both 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 Muḥammad 's flight from Mecca to Medina) to settle among the tribes of the territory 's hinterlands.

For almost nine decades the Sanūsī order represented a powerful Islamic revivalist movement that combined both economic and religious elements as it spread across Cyrenaica, Fazzān, 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 Cyenraica to the Egyptian Coast. Peters delineated 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 use of shurafāʿ (descendants from the Prophet Muḥammad who acquire thereby some of his qualities) and of mrabtin (local pious individuals endowed with saintly qualities).

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

By the early part of the twentieth century only some of the ʿulamāʿ in the regions ’ urban centers could challenge the hegemony the Sanūsī had established. Not surprisingly, the Sanūsī order led the local resistance, particularly in Cyrenaica, to the Italian invasion after the Ottoman Empire abandoned its efforts to do so in 1912. Although the Sanūsī leadership eventually fled to Egypt, it left behind a number of individual shaykhs—such as ʿUmar al-Mukhtār—who continued the struggle against the fascists until 1927.

Due in part to the Sanūsī alliance with the British in World War II, and because of the Great Powers ’ determination that Libya should not fall once more under Italian tutelage, the Kingdom of Libya was proclaimed in 1951 with King Idrīs al-Sanūsī, 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-Bayḍāʿ—and personal piety, Idrīs proved unable to effectively face the demands of a younger generation imbued with a growing sense of nationalism and an oil economy that grew at a phenomenal pace after the first marketing of oil in 1961. At the eve of the Qadhdhāfī coup in 1969, the monarchy had become a political anachronism and significantly, the confluence of religion and the growing political opposition to the West remained an important feature of the military regime that succeeded it.

Qadhdhāfī 's Revolution and Islam.

Indeed, Qadhdhāfī 's “revolution” was originally considered 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 was not 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 his country and of the Sanūsī 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—among them the revival of Qurʿānic 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. 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 December 11, 1969, and then simply as “the religion of the state.” Despite the fact that Qadhdhāfī himself on numerous occasions 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 Qurʿānic education, which the government initially left untouched.

Both events hinted at the fact that the reformism of Qadhdhāfī and his revolutionary officers (if they were to be considered Islamic reformers), consisted of a highly idiosyncratic, politicized interpretation of Islam. Islam in Libya since 1969 can thus be characterized as both 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 highly conservative society if it could demonstrate its adherence to Islamic principles.

Simultaneously, however, this search for legitimacy also entailed the evisceration of all potential competitors—in particular the rural religious elites formerly affiliated with the Sanūsī lodges and the orthodox ʿulamāʿ in the country 's urban centers. The imposition of a new bureaucratic structure after 1970 was meant in part to secure the first objective. The latter, although already foreshadowed by expressions of distrust made by the regime vis-à-vis the ʿulamāʿ during the 1970 Libyan Intellectual Seminar, took until early 1975 when they were removed from committees set up to reform the country 's legal system. By that time Qadhdhāfī had already taken a number of measures that put his experiments at odds with Sunnī Islamic practices elsewhere.

Part of Qadhdhāfī 's initiatives involved a series of legal reforms that dated back to a decree issued shortly after the 1969 revolution that called for the implementation of sharīʿah law; this was extended by the Islamization of Libyan law in October 1971. The new regulations, derived from Mālikī legal practice, called for the maintenance of existing laws if they agreed with sharīʿah principles and for the use of customary law (ʿurf     ) 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 ijtihād, or innovative reasoning. Similarly Qadhdhāfī was less willing to accept ḥadīth, sunnah, ijmāʿ and qiyās and pronounced them unnecessary accretions to Islam. In particular he argued that only part of the sunnah could be considered a constitutive part of sharīʿah, arguing that ijtihād was an acceptable means of broadening its scope in the modern world. In a celebrated discussion with the country 's ʿulamāʿ at the Mulay Muḥammad Mosque in Tripoli in July 1978 Qadhdhāfī reiterated most of these points.

Islam, Qadhdhāfī argued, should not simply reassert traditional values, but should become a progressive force. As such the Libyan leader clearly saw the revival of sharīʿah law as a means for both ideological renewal and greater political legitimacy. And it was this populist reinterpretation of Islamic law, devoid of specialized jurists, that assumed increasing importance throughout the 1970s and 1980s and that made every individual—in line with the regime 's populist aspirations—a potential mujtāhid, an individual capable of interpreting and innovating Islamic doctrine and law. These legal reforms in effect afforded the Libyan regime the opportunity to carefully control independent religious organizations. By taking control of waqf property through special legislation in 1972 and 1973 the regime further reduced the already diminished impact of the urban ʿulamāʿ. The ʿulamāʿ, now bereft of the financial basis of the religious establishment, for all practical purposes became state employees in Libya 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 religious observance after 1970—including pilgrims performing the ḥajj and the construction of a significant number of new mosques.

As Qadhdhāfī started to conceptualize his ideas that eventually resulted in the Green Books and its Third Universal Theory—political action based on Islam that would replace both capitalism and communism—his statements on Islam and political action based on Islam grew bolder. At the April 1973 Zuwarah speech, which ushered in his cultural revolution, Qadhdhāfī 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 contradiction inherent in a secular concept of the state caught between dīn (religion) and dawlah (state): Islam would serve as the source of inspiration for political renewal and innovation, and as a means of legitimizing the regime 's political institutions. Qadhdhāfī 's vision of egalitarian individualism—visible in the country 's political institutions that were run directly by the people represented in People 's Congresses and in Islam through the application of individual ijtihād—was repeated in the Green Book, which was implicitly based on Islamic doctrine.

The creation of the Jamāhīrīyah in 1977 was the culmination of this egalitarian process and augured in a new stage of Qadhdhāfī 's interpretation of Islam. The economic aspects of his Green Book, which included the abolition of private property, was seen by the ʿulamāʿ as contradictory to Islam, and they objected to Qadhdhāfī 's determination to use the Green Book 's principles as an alternative to the traditional teachings of sharīʿah law. In response Qadhdhāfī increased his own interpretations of Islam, and declared in 1977, for example, that the Libyan calendar would start with the death of the Prophet Muḥammad in 632 rather than the customary date of the hijrah in 622. He finally mounted an all-out offensive against the power of the ʿulamāʿ. In early 1978, he argued that since the Qurʿān was written in Arabic, there was no need for expert interpretation. The Qurʿān was declared the sole source of sharīʿah law; the sunnah, as well as qiyās, ijmāʿ, and ḥadīth were 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 ḥajj to Mecca was no longer considered a pillar of Islam.

As on all other occasions Qadhdhāfī '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 Qadhdhāfī argued were outdated and open to individual interpretation. Although the reaction of the ʿulamāʿ within Libya remained necessarily muted, Qadhdhāfī 's actions in time would be labeled by the country 's underground Islamist movements as bidʿ—heretical innovations. By the mid-1980s followers of these movements, including among others, the Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr al-Islamī and the local version of the Ikhwān al-Muslimīn, were increasingly targeted and on several occasions publicly executed by the regime.

During the early 1990s the confrontations between the Qadhdhāfī regime and Libya 's Islamists increased dramatically. The latter were singled out by the regime as the most dangerous opposition and were denounced in vitriolic terms by Qadhdhāfī, who declared them public enemies of the revolution, a fifth column often compared to those Libyans who had earlier helped the Italians in their colonial conquest of the country. Several confrontations between the Libyan army, security services, and revolutionary committees on the one hand, and Islamist groups on the other, took place, particularly in the eastern part of the country—an area the regime considered less secure than Tripolitania. By the mid-1990s, most of the opposition to the regime by Islamist groups had been effectively eliminated. The country 's Islamist opposition joined its secular counterpart in exile in neighboring countries, Great Britain, and the United States. As the country slowly sought a rapprochement with the West—culminating in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the lifting of economic sanctions by the United States after 2003—the focus and relevance of whatever Islamist opposition to the Libyan regime still existed was gradually lost.


Islam in Libya in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries shows the lingering impact of the country 's historical legacy. During the colonial period in particular, the two competing religious establishments—the Sanūsī-allied shaykhs and the urban-based, orthodox ʿulamāʿ—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 they could serve as trustworthy political interlocutors.

Qadhdhāfī 's pronouncements on Islam since 1969 clearly refer to this earlier historical period. In particular, the pro-western attitude and weak nationalist credentials of the Sanūsī monarchy indelibly marked the Libyan leader as he grew up in the country 's hinterland, and resulted in his suspicion of any type of organized religious groups in the country, and eventually led to their evisceration in the mid-1990s. It also resulted in Qadhdhāfī 's strong conviction, maintained consistently throughout his tenure in office, that religious affairs were clearly both within the purview of the government and subject to personal interpretation.

Soon after the 1969 coup, Qadhdhāfī 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—that fused both his political and religious aspirations—necessitated a number of doctrinal interpretations that pitted him both against his country 's ʿulamāʿ and much of the orthodox Sunnī religious establishment throughout the Arab world. It resulted in a political process in which the Libyan leader simply imposed his own views on Libyan religious leaders and the country 's population alike. The Islamic precepts that Qadhdhāfī had originally advocated as valuable in themselves assumed an evocative symbolism in Libya, and anchored within the teachings of the Third Universal Theory, became a political instrument of the regime.

Despite this, Islam in the Jamāhīrīyah today is not undergoing a religious revival by radical means. Qadhdhāfī has sought simply to extend a long tradition of government that is based on and legitimated by religious precepts. If his attitude toward Islam has been considered radical, it is primarily because his overall political, secular ambitions were viewed as radical as well. As the latter seemingly lost their urgency and coherence in the late 1990s when Libya 's confrontation with the West gradually subsided, the former have been viewed, increasingly, as simply an idiosyncratic and popular reinterpretation of Islam that was steeped in the egalitarian tradition Qadhdhāfī himself had grown up in.



  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E.The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949. Find it in your Library
  • 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.” PhD diss., University of California at Berkeley, 1981.
  • Martel, André. La Libye 1835–1990; Essai de géopolitique historique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1991. Find it in your Library
  • Peters, Emrys. The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Studies in Personal and Corporate Power. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Find it in your Library

Qadhdhāfī 's Islam

  • Ayoub, Mahmoud M.Islam and the Third Universal Theory: The Religious Thought of Muʿammar al-Qadhdhafi. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987. Find it in your Library
  • Barrada, Hamid, Mark Kravetz, and Mark Whitaker. Kadhafi; “Je suis un opposant à l ’échelon mondial.”Lausanne, Switzerland: Pierre-Marcel Favre, 1984. Find it in your Library
  • Burgat, François. L ’islamisme au Maghreb: La voix du Sud. Paris: Karthala, 1988. Find it in your Library
  • Mason, John Paul. Island of the Blest: Islam in a Libyan Oasis Community. Ohio University: Center for International Studies, 1977. Find it in your Library
  • Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. Islamic Law in Libya: Analyses of Selected Laws Enacted since the 1969 Revolution. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1977. Find it in your Library
  • Qathafi, Muammar al- (Muammar Qaddafi). The Green Book. Tripoli: World Center for Studies and Research of the Green Book, 1980. The Libyan leader 's thoughts bundled in three slim volumes. Find it in your Library
  • Vandewalle, Dirk. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Find it in your Library
  • Vandewalle, Dirk. Libya Since Independence: Oil and State-Building. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. Find it in your Library
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice