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Knut S. Vikør
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Founded by Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Sanūsī (1787–1859), the Sanūsīyah is a Ṣūfī brotherhood based in Libya and the central Sahara. The Sanūsī brotherhood is well known for the role it played in the resistance to French and Italian colonialism, but it was formed as a strictly religious brotherhood based on the doctrine of the Shādhilīyah order. The founder, al-Sanūsī, was born near Mostaganem in Algeria. In his early life he studied Sufism and Islamic sciences including law and tradition in the reformist environment of Fez. In 1823 he moved to Cairo, and later to the Hejaz to prolong his studies there. In Mecca he met the very influential Ṣūfī teacher Aḥmad ibn Idrīs, and his Ṣūfī doctrine was from then on virtually identical to that of Ibn Idrīs. When Ibn Idrīs left Mecca for Yemen shortly afterward, al-Sanūsī was put in charge of his students in Mecca and built the first lodge at Abū Qubays outside Mecca in 1827. However, Ibn Idrīs never formed a structured order around his teachings, and after his death in 1837 several of his students set up independent orders like the Khatmīyah and the Rashīdīyah. Al-Sanūsī moved back to North Africa, and after an apparent period of indecision he settled in Cyrenaica (northeastern Libya) in 1841, founding his new organization.

The Sanūsīyah is commonly known as a “revivalist” brotherhood, but its doctrine does not show great variation from traditional Sufism. It disapproves of excesses in ritual, such as dancing or singing. The founder put great emphasis on the role of the Prophet and on following his example. Al-Sanūsī was more controversial in his views on Islamic law; he wrote several books arguing for the right to ijtihād, the interpretation of dogma in the light of original sources. He put this into practice by incorporating elements commonly found in the Shāfiʿī school of law into the prayer ritual of the Sanūsīyah, while still maintaining his way to be a Mālikī one.

The brotherhood was typical of some newer orders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in its internal organization. The structure was simple and centralized. The local lodge had very little autonomy and was ruled by three or four officials appointed by the center, each with specific tasks and answering to the center. Shortly before al-Sanūsī's death, a central lodge was established in Jaghbūb, on the Libya-Egypt border.

The Sanūsīyah was primarily a desert order. The core area was that of the Bedouin of Cyrenaica, and the larger part of the population there came to identify with the order. It was not confined to this area, however; the order also had a number of urban lodges, and it spread into non-Bedouin areas such as Tripolitania and Fazzan in western Libya, as well as in the Hejaz. Toward the end of the nineteenth century it spread across the Sahara to the area east (and partly northwest) of Lake Chad, where it gained adherents from among other population groups.

The brotherhood was in this period not at all militant; rather, it promoted learning and piety among its adherents. It also had a strong work ethic, in particular relating to the building and upkeep of new lodges and development through agriculture. The brotherhood became an important factor in the development of trans-Saharan trade. The lodges provided safety as well as a network of resting places and contacts for the traders, and many of them joined the order.

Through its internal organization and the increasing identification of the local population with the order, the Sanūsīyah acquired the capacity for political leadership in the eastern Sahara. In spite of this, there is no indication that the building and extension of the brotherhood was made with a conscious political objective. Although relations with the Ottoman rulers of the region may have cooled toward the end of the nineteenth century, this was not the major reason that the center of the order was moved from Jaghbūb to Kufra, in the middle of the Libyan desert, in 1895. This was more likely a result of the order's increasing importance in the south, beyond the desert, and a wish to be closer to that region. How-ever, the French, who were moving toward Lake Chad, saw the Sanūsīyah as an activist and inimical force and opened hostilities at the Bir al-ʿAlī lodge in Kanem in 1901. The Sanūsīyah were caught unaware and withdrew. However, they quickly took up arms, and the population in the region fought the French in the name and under the leadership of the brotherhood until the Sanūsīyah were forced to withdraw around 1913–1914.

At the same time, the Italians invaded Libya in 1911. They did not initially target the Sanūsī brotherhood as enemies, but when Turkey withdrew from Libya the following year, the Sanūsī leader Aḥmad al-Sharīf raised the call for jihād and led a largely Bedouin force against the invaders. The Sanūsī held the Italians at bay for several years, but an attack on the British forces in Egypt (then allies of Italy) led to the brotherhood's defeat. Al-Sharīf was replaced by his cousin Muḥammad Idrīs, and a settlement was reached whereby the Sanūsī retained large degree of autonomy. After the rise of fascism in Italy, the agreement broke down, and hostilities recommenced. At this stage, however, the struggle became a more purely Bedouin one led by tribal leaders like ʿUmar al-Mukhtār, while the Sanūsī hierarchy led by Idrīs remained in exile in Egypt and became more a focus of identity than an actual strategic leadership. In the course of this struggle, which lasted until 1932, the Sanūsī organizational structure of lodges was largely destroyed. When the modern state of Libya was created, Muḥammad Idrīs was brought back as amir of Cyrenaica and in 1951 was made king of Libya; he was removed by the coup of Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī in 1969. The order showed some signs of revival under his patronage, but essentially the religious brotherhood had become a monarchical order. Most of the organization was destroyed in the conflicts in Egypt and Chad as well as in Cyrenaica. Today the order is not tolerated in Libya, and outside Libya only a few lodges remain, including the oldest one at Abū Qubays near Mecca.

See also IBN IDRīS, Ahmad; IDRīSīYAH; LIBYA; and MUKHTāR, ʿUMAR.


  • Ciammaichella, Glauco. Libyens et Français au Tchad, 1897–1914: La confrérie senoussie et le commerce transsaharien. Paris, 1987. Contains a number of documents.
  • Dajjānī, Aḥmad Ṣidqī al-. Al-ḥarakat al-sanūsīyah: Nashʿatuhā wanumūwuhā fī al-qarn al-tāsiʿ ʿashar. Beirut, 1967. The most complete Arabic study on the Sanūsīyah in print.
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E.The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford, 1949. Classic anthropological study of the interaction of the brotherhoods with the Bedouins. Its main thesis has been criticized by Peters, below.
  • Martin, B. G.Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth-Century Africa. Cambridge, 1976. Contains a chapter on the Sanūsīyah.
  • O’Fahey, R. S.Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad Ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition. London and Evanston, Ill., 1990. Places al-Sanūsī in a Ṣūfī context.
  • Peters, Emrys L.The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Studies in Personal and Corporate Power. Cambridge, 1990. Includes a criticism of the “structural” explanation of the Sanūsīyah in Cyrenaica.
  • Triaud, Jean-Louis. Tchad, 1900–1902: Une guerre franco-libyenne oubliée? Une confrérie musulmane, la Sanūsiyya, face à la France. Paris, 1987. Collection of documents from the African conflicts.
  • Triaud, Jean-Louis. Les relation entre la France et la Sanūsiyya, 1840–1930: Histoire d’une mythologie coloniale; découverte d’une confrérie saharienne. Paris, 1991. A most complete study of the French “creation” of the Sanūsīyah enemy.
  • Vikør, Knut S.Sufi and Scholar on the Desert Edge: The Heritage of Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Sanūsī and His Brotherhood. Evanston, Ill., 1995. Discussion of the founder of the movement, with a survey of its organization in the early period.
  • Vikør, Knut S.“Sufism and Social Welfare in the Sahara.” In Social Welfare in Muslim Societies in Africa, edited by Holgar Weiss, pp. 80–97. Stockholm, 2002.
  • Vikør, Knut S., and R. S. O’Fahey. “Ibn Idrīs and al-Sanūsī: The Teacher and His Student.”Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara 1, no. 1 (1987): 70–83.
  • Ziadeh, Nicola A.Sanūsīyah: A Study of a Revivalist Movement in Islam (1958). Reprint, Leiden, 1983. Basic study of the brotherhood, although somewhat dated.
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