- Posted August 16, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
- Benghazi Reads
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Libya has it's own Ikwan. Part. 1
Dust Off the Dthikr: Libyan Islamic History under Attack Once More
Abstract: As a person who loves anything and everything about all things Libyan, I have found myself, as of late, quite confused. Like much of the world, I was certain that, given only the chance, the Libyan people would at last not only embrace the freedoms that a post-Gaddafi era would ensure, but that they would, like their native son St. Simon of Cyrene, take what was initially a burden and see in it a reality of countless blessings. However, since the Arab Spring of 2011 and the ensuing February 17th Revolution which toppled the former regime, much attention has been focused on the emergence of conflicting Islamic ideologies that threaten to distort and undermine Libya’s rich history and unique role in the Muslim world. The rise of radical, often violent, Islamic extremism that espouses intolerance is not native to the Libyan religious experience. It has developed slowly on the fringes of society, only to be put at the forefront as competing factions, internal and external, vie for dominance in the new Libya. Here we examine the founder of the Sanusiyah Order and how Western perceptions of the movement are reflected in a way that show us that perhaps there is a historical element to the perceptions gleamed from events in Libya. An emerging threat to the status quo is always seen as threat by those who benefit from doing so.
“If my possessions were not in the Hijaz, I would live in Barca and never leave it, because I know no land more peaceful.”
-Amr ibn el-Aasi, 643 A.D.1
Abu Bakr had sent famous General, Amr ibn el-Aasi, to conquer Alexandria, the great Hellenistic city of learning and bastion of the African church. Having done so, Amr ibn el-Aasi then took it upon himself to continue west across the Sahara into Cyrenaica, or eastern Libya. He had his eyes on the Pentapolis, or five Greek, then Roman, and finally Byzantine cities of immense wealth and fame that predated Alexandria by 300 years and rivaled Carthage. Barca, the modern city of el-Merj, lies just east of Benghazi and became the seat of the new Arab government. The conquering Arab army built what would be the first mosque in Libya and, for all intended purposes, felt a special connection to the local Berber and their heavenly surroundings that would be shared by later waves of Arab migration. Just a decade after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Libya had witnessed and embraced Islam in its earliest and purest form and done so from those who had heard the words of the Seal of the Prophets himself.
From the initial Arab invasion until the 18th century, Libya witnessed the spread of the Arabian dromedary camel to its hinterlands, a change from Sunni to Shia caliphs which eventually lead to three rival caliphates, a 2nd mass Arab migration in 1050 A.D. , the development of Sufi and Wahhabi doctrines, and, the rise & fall of the Ottoman Empire. All of these events would drastically shape the environment in which the Sanusiyah Brotherhood was formed and the role it served in Libyan society.
The Grand Sanusi, Sayyid Muhammed Bin Ali al-Sanusi, was a man who was privy to a keen insight which escapes most observers of Libya, past and present: Libya is a residual category (not Tunisia, not Algeria, not Egypt). As an avid and studied traveler with keen foresight, he saw spiritual fertility in a land that colonial powers had thus far passed over while grabbing the low hanging fruit of Libya’s neighbors. Born in near Mustaghanim, Algeria, around 1787, the Grand Sanusi was of Shariffian descent and in his early years had shown profound intelligence and a piety that reflected his noble bloodline. He felt compelled to carry on the family business, so to speak, and after memorizing the Koran in his youth, undertook formal studies first in his own town before ensuing on a life-long a scholastic tour of the Islamic world. Studying initially in Mazun, and then at Qarawiyin Mosque University of Fez, his curriculum focused on the disciplines of theology, interpretation of the Hadith, exegesis of the Koran, and jurisprudence. While in Fez, The Grand Sanusi garnered wide acclaim for his profound command of the subject matter, even attracting the eye of the Moroccan Sultan who solicited to him to serve in his court.4 The Grand Sanusi politely declined and instead, slowly began making pilgrimage to Mecca. It was a slow journey in that he proceeded to stop at every single zawiya, or lodge he could find on his trek east towards Egypt.
At some he primarily studied, while at others he was more inclined to teach. More importantly, however, he exercised both, while observing each brotherhood, order and lodge for positive and negative, for purity or innovation. In addition, he went on to join a number them, including the Qadririyah, Shadhiliyah, Jazuliyah, Darqawiyah, Tijaniayah and Nasiriyah, among other Sufi orders.5 In one city, Laghout, he taught grammar and jurisprudence, while in another, Messa’d, he took a wife and stayed long enough, so that, by 1830, he witnessed the French Occupation of Algiers. 6
Undoubtedly reading the bloody writing in the sand, The Grand Sanusi made a sharp mental note of the inevitable engulfment of the French, and headed for the border. By this time, he had developed a loyal chain of intelligentsia who saw in him both scholarly purity and spiritual piousness. Still heading towards Mecca, he stopped along the way in both Gabes and Tripoli before making a fateful visit to Eastern Libya. While in Tripoli, he was urged by many leaders to remain in the country, for such a man was badly needed. Once again, he declined but surely made another mental note. He stayed in Benghazi for weeks, where he formed his first group of Ikhwan, or brothers, to serve as a vanguard in his mission of faith.
Hoping to study at the famous al-Azahar, he arrived in Cairo only to find that his reputation had been swifter than his traveling party. Thus, he made a hasty departure as the Sheiks there bid him off, jealous and suspicious of his pious zeal and speculative nature.7 He left towards Mecca but not without first receiving a good bye fatwa from the Cairo Ulema8, primarily over his refusal to provide Pasha Mohammed Ali his audience upon his request. Noting that the Pasha had not made an appoint to see him, he refused his visit. Dually noting the danger of clerics serving as political pawns, he moved on to the Hejaz.
Upon arriving in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Grand Sanusi was at last in his intellectual and spiritual element. In Mecca he exchanged ideas and experiences with the throngs of faithful of all degrees; the clergy, the leaders, and the laymen.9 It was in the Hejaz, surely, that he began to piece together his own version of an elite brotherhood that would appeal to all, yet slowly but surely indoctrinate the faith back to its purest forms. He was, perhaps, formulating a vaccine for a patient whom he observed from his travels as susceptible to dangerous virus manifested as Sufi and Wahhabi innovations . Such things often happen when there has been a shortage of one essential vitamin, tolerance, and/or way too much of another, saint worship, or idolatry. Such a vaccine might have, like others, utilized a harmless strain of the virus to inoculate the patient against further infection by far more dangerous strains, which could in fact destroy the body in time. If, however, it were a particularly serious threat and the vaccine was disregarded or stamped out by European Colonialism , the body could begin to terminally attack itself by quickly multiplying mutated cells of death spawned by the internal chasm. The Grand Sanusi had studied his way through Saudi and Gulf corruptions and mutations to spread the same tolerant Islam that had originally been brought to Libya.