Theses Doctoral

Italy and the Sanusiyya: Negotiating Authority in Colonial Libya, 1911-1931

Ryan, Eileen

In the first decade of their occupation of the former Ottoman territories of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in current-day Libya, the Italian colonial administration established a system of indirect rule in the Cyrenaican town of Ajedabiya under the leadership of Idris al-Sanusi, a leading member of the Sufi order of the Sanusiyya and later the first monarch of the independent Kingdom of Libya after the Second World War. Post-colonial historiography of modern Libya depicted the Sanusiyya as nationalist leaders of an anti-colonial rebellion as a source of legitimacy for the Sanusi monarchy.

Since Qaddafi's revolutionary coup in 1969, the Sanusiyya all but disappeared from Libyan historiography as a generation of scholars, eager to fill in the gaps left by the previous myopic focus on Sanusi elites, looked for alternative narratives of resistance to the Italian occupation and alternative origins for the Libyan nation in its colonial and pre-colonial past. Their work contributed to a wider variety of perspectives in our understanding of Libya's modern history, but the persistent focus on histories of resistance to the Italian occupation has missed an opportunity to explore the ways in which the Italian colonial framework shaped the development of a religious and political authority in Cyrenaica with lasting implications for the Libyan nation.

As a latecomer to the European "Scramble for Africa", the Italian occupation of the Libyan territories has received little attention in Italian historiography or in larger works on late European imperialism. The perception that the Italian colonial project in North Africa was too short and insignificant to merit serious analysis persists in Italian intellectual and public discourses, but the Italian occupation of the Libyan territories represented a critical moment of national formation in Italy. Coming just four decades after the territorial unification of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the movement to invade the Libyan coast and subsequent debates concerning methods of colonial rule reflected conflicting visions of the type of nation Italy should become as it attempted to expand overseas.

In the years leading up to the invasion of the Libyan coast in 1911 and for the following decade, the Italian colonial administration largely adhered to a liberal ideal of indirect rule by appealing to Muslim elites even while the Occupying Forces engaged in a frequently brutal repression of armed rebellion. The attempts of Italian administrators to negotiate a power-sharing system with Sanusi elites placed them in an international competition among imperial powers jockeying for influence in Muslim North Africa. A perception of the Sanusiyya as a highly centralized and powerful organization capable of calling on the loyalties of Muslims throughout the region inspired the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II to arm the Sanusi zawāyā or religious centers at the end of the nineteenth century in the hopes that the Sanusi elite would lead local populations against European expansion. Subsequent colonial administrations in the region courted the favor of the spiritual leader of the Sufi order, Ahmad al-Sharif, despite the widespread doubts concerning the extent and nature of his political authority among the region's tribal leaders.

When it became clear that the recognized head of the Sufi order, Ahmad al-Sharif, would not lend his support to pacifying the Cyrenaican interior, the Italian administration, with a strong push from British officials in Egypt, identified his cousin Idris al-Sanusi as an alternative intermediary who could generate consensus for Italian rule. From 1916 until 1923, the Italian state cultivated Idris al-Sanusi's authority by providing him with armed forces and allowing him to adopt the symbols of government in a semi-autonomous emirate in the Cyrenaican interior. An invitation from a group of Tripolitanian notables for Idris al-Sanusi to extend his emirate into the western region precipitated the decision of the fascist Ministry of Colonies, Luigi Federzoni, to denounce previous negotiations with the Sanusiyya in 1923, and he expressed concerns that the Italian state had created a political authority where one did not exist, rewarded Italy's enemies, and invested misplaced trust in a regional leader that proved unable or unwilling to generate consensus for Italian colonial rule. Idris al-Sanusi left the Libyan territories for Cairo where he remained in exile until the United Nations placed him on the throne of the independent Kingdom of Libya. With the departure of Idris al-Sanusi and the dissolution of the Sanusi emirate, Federzoni and his administration initiated a program of territorial expansion to fulfill the nationalist quest for land in the Libyan interior. In the late 1920s, Italy initiated a series of brutal military campaigns culminating in the capture and hanging of the Sanusi shaykh Omar al-Mukthar in 1931.

This dissertation explores the Italian approach to colonial rule in eastern Libya as a reflection of internal national struggles over the relationship between religious and political authority and as a formative moment in the political history of the Libyan nation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
De Grazia, Victoria
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 17, 2012