1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Senussi

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SENUSSI [Sanusi] and SENUSSITES, the names respectively of a Moslem family (and especially its chief member) and of the fraternity or sect recognizing the authority of the Senussi. Considerable diversity of opinion has prevailed among writers and travellers claiming knowledge of the Senussia; it is possible, however, to distinguish the main facts in the lives of the Senussi sheiks and to indicate the range of their direct political influence. The extent of their spiritual influence, the ramifications of the fraternity and the 'aims of its chiefs cannot be gauged so accurately.

Seyyid or Sidi (i.e. Lord) Mahommed ben Ali ben Es Senussi el Khettabi el Hassani el Idrissi el Mehajiri, the founder of the order, commonly called the Sheik es Senussi, was born near Mostaganem, Algeria, and was called es Senussi after a much venerated saint whose tomb is near Tlemçen. The date of his birth is given variously as 1791, 1792, 1796 and 1803. He was a member of the Walad Sidi Abdalla tribe of Arabs and his descent is traced from Fatima, the daughter of Mahomet. As a young man he spent several years at Fez, where he studied theology. When about thirty years old he left Morocco and travelled in the Saharan regions of Algeria preaching a reform of the faith. From Algeria he went to Tunisia and Tripoli, gaining many adherents, and thence to Cairo, where he was opposed by the Ulema of El Azhar, who considered him unorthodox. Leaving Egypt Senussi went to Mecca, where he joined Mahommed b. Idris el Fassi, the head of the Khadirites, a fraternity 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 at Abu Kobeis near Mecca. While in Arabia Senussi visited the Wahhabites, and his connexion with that body caused him to be looked upon with suspicion by the Ulema of Mecca. It was at Mecca, however, that Senussi gained his most powerful supporter, Mahommed Sherif, a prince of Wadai, who became in 1838 sultan of hisFoundation of the order. native state, the most powerful Mahommedan kingdom in the Central Sudan. Finding the opposition to him at Mecca too powerful Senussi quitted that city in 1843 and settled in the Cyrenaica, where in the mountains near Derna he built the Zawia Baida or White Monastery. There he was in close touch with all the Maghribin, gaining many followers among the Tripolitans and Moroccans. He also maintained a close correspondence with the sultan of Wadai, who greatly favoured the spread of the Senussia in his state. The sultan of Turkey viewed with some disfavour the growth of Senussi’s influence as likely to become detrimental to his own position as the Khalifa of Islam. Probably with the desire to be independent of pressure from the Turks, Senussi removed in 1855 to Jarabub (Jaghbub), a small oasis some 30 m. N.W. of Siwa. Here he died in 1859 or 1860, leaving two sons, one Mahommed Sherif (named after the sultan of Wadai), born in 1844, and the other, El Mahdi, born in 1845. To the second son was left the succession. It is related that as the younger son showed a spirit in all things superior to that of his brother the father decided to put them to the test. Before the whole zawla at Jarabub he bade both sons climb a tall palm tree and then adjured them by Allah and His Prophet to leap to the ground. The younger lad leapt at once and reached the ground unharmed; the elder boy refused to spring. To El Mahdi, “who feared not to commit himself to the will of God,” passed the birthright of Mahommed Sherif. Mahommed appears to have accepted the situation without complaint. He held the chief administrative position in the fraternity under his brother until his death in 1895.

Senussi el Mahdi, 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. Mahommed Sherif, theSenussi
el Mahdi.
sultan of Wadai, had died in 1858, but his successors the Sultan Ali (who reigned until 1874) and the Sultan Yusef (reigned from 1874 to 1898) were equally devoted to the Senussia. Under the Senussi el 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 occupied a position in no respect more powerful than that of numbers of other Moslem fraternities. In the eastern Sahara and in the central Sudan the position was different. From the western borders of Egypt south to Darfur, Wadai and Bornu; east to Bilma and Murzuk, and north to the coast lands of Tripoli, Senussi became the most powerful sheik, acquiring the authority of a territorial sovereign. The string of oases leading from Siwa to Wadai—Kufra, Borku, &c.—were occupied and cultivated by the Senussites, trade with Tripoli and Benghazi was encouraged, law and order were maintained among the savage Bedouin of the desert. But the eastern Sahara, though vast (covering approximately about 500,000 sq. m.), is among the most desolate and thinly populated parts of the world, and of more importance to the order was the dominating influence possessed by the sheik at the court of Wadai.

Although named El Mahdi by his father there is no evidence to show that the younger Senussi ever claimed to be the Mahdi, though so regarded by some of his followers. When, however, Mahommed Ahmed, the Dongalese, rose against the Egyptians in the eastern Sudan and proclaimed himself the Mahdi, Senussi was disquieted. He sent an emissary via Wadai to Mahommed Ahmed, this delegate reaching the Mahdi's camp in 1883 soon after the sack of El Obeid.

“The moral and industrial training of the Senussi” [delegate], writes Sir Reginald Wingate, “revolted from the slaughter and rapine he saw around him. The sincere conviction of the regeneration of the world by a mahdi whose earnest piety should influence others to lead wholesome and temperate lives, the dignity of honest labour and self-restraint, these were the sentiments which filled the mind of the emissary from Wadai.”

The sheik Senussi, there is reason to believe, shared the lofty views which Wingate attributes to his agent. He decided to have nothing to do with the Sudanese Mahdi, though Mahommed Ahmed wrote twice asking him to become one of his four great khalifs. In his second letter, the text of which has been preserved, the Mahdi urged Senussi either to attack Egypt or to join him in the Sudan. To neither letter did Senussi reply, and he warned the people of Wadai, Bornu and neighbouring States against the newcreed. 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. As evidence of the influence of the sheik may be instanced the appeal made to him in 1888 by the sultan of Borku (or Borgo), a state to the north of Wadai, when invited by the chiefs of Darfur to rise against the khalifa Abdullah. Senussi advised Borku to abstain from Sudan affairs and only to fight against the Mahdists should they attack his kingdom. The Darfurian revolt of 1888–1889 against the khalifa was nevertheless carried out in the name of the Senussi.

The growing fame of the sheik Senussi el Mahdi 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, and though Abdul Hamid II. looked favourably on an organization which might become actively anti-Christian, he did not desire that a new mahdi should arise to dispute his authority. In 1889 the sheik Senussi was visited at Jarabub 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 leave Jarabub and fix his headquarters at 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 Senussia had arisen; the French were advancing from the Congo towards the western and southern borders of Wadai. In 1898 Senussi, in his character of peacemaker, wishing also to range together all the states menaced by the French advance, sought to reconcile Rabah Zobeir (q.v.) and the sultan of Bagirmi; neither of those chieftains belonged to the Senussi order and the sheik's appeal was unavailing. At the end of the previous year, at the request of Sultan Yusef, the sheik had sent an envoy to Wadai to be his permanent representative in that country. Yusef's successor Ibrahim, who ascended the throne of Wadai in 1898, showed signs of resenting the advice of the sheik, stirred perhaps by the overthrow of the khalifa Abdullah at Omdurman. Senussi retaliated, says Captain Julien in his history of Wadai, by prohibiting the people of Wadai from smoking tobacco or drinking merissa, the native beer, “which is to the Wadaiin what the skin is to the body.” Sultan Ibrahim rejoined that his people would fight and die for merissa; rather than give it up they would renounce Senussiism. The sheik had the wisdom to give way, declaring that in response to his prayers Allah had deigned to make an exception in favour of the faithful Wadaiins. Ibrahim died in 1900 and his successors fell again under the influence of the sheik, who again changed his headquarters, leaving Kufra for Geru, in Dar Gorane, a western province of Wadai, where he was welcomed with veneration. He built and strongly fortified a zawia on the top of a rocky hill, difficult of access. His object conmd in taking up this position was, presumably, to prevent the the advance of the French. But, as Julien points out, Conflict
with the
Senussi was too late; Rabah had been slain by the French (April 1900), and Bagirmi was occupied by them. Nevertheless the sheik made an effort to prevent the French obtaining possession of Kanem, a country north-east of Lake Chad and on its northern and eastern frontiers bordering Saharan territory, which the Senussites considered their particular preserve. A zawia was built at Bir Allali, in Kanem, that site being chosen as it was an entrepot for the trade of Tripoli with all the Chad countries. Bir Allali was strongly garrisoned by the Senussites and war with the French followed.[1] After a severe engagement Bir Allali was captured by a French column under Commandant Tétard in January 1902. The sheik Senussi, much affected by the loss of Kanem, died shortly afterwards (May 30, 1902). He was succeeded by his nephew Ahmed-el-Sherif, who in view of the presence of the French on the borders of Dar Gorane removed to Kufra.

The new head of the Senussites maintained the friendly relations of his predecessors with Wadai, and, following the example of his uncle, made advances to Ali Dinar, the sultan of Darfur, which were not reciprocated. To keep in touch with Darfur a zawia had been built on the caravan route from Kufra to that country. The adherents of the Senussi el Mahdi in the deserts bordering Egypt maintained for years that he was not dead, and in March 1906 a public declaration was made at Siwa that “Sidi Mahommed-el-Mahdi had returned from his secret journey to Kufra.” Commenting on this announcement Sir R. Wingate wrote: “It is well known that the body of the late sheik lies in a tent at Zawia-el-Taj in the identical shrine which was made for it at Geru when he died” (Egypt No. 1 (1907), p. 120).

It will be seen that the Senussites occupy desert fastnesses which could only be attacked by Europeans after overcoming great difficulties. By Henri Duveyrier and other writers of the last half of the 19th century they were regarded as likely to proclaim a jihad or holy war against the Christians of North Africa. This view was founded upon the supposed tenets of the order and upon geographical and political considerations. The record of the first and second Senussi sheiks shows them, however, to have acted chiefly on the defensive. A study of all available data up to 1906 led M. L. G. Binger, one of the greatest authorities, to the conclusion that the politics of the sect were subordinated to the material interests of their chief, and that the Senussi sheik was as unable as were other noted Moslem leaders (such as Abd el Kader in Algeria; Samory in the western Sudan and the Dongolese Mahdi in the Egyptian Sudan) to overcome the rivalries and divergence of interests of their own co-religionists. This view received confirmation in the events of 1906–1910 when the French came in conflict with the sultanate of Wadai. Although there was severe fighting the French found less difficulty than had been expected in seizing the capital of Wadai, nor was there any general movement of the Senussites against them. The French also sent flying columns into Borku and Enndi. The comparative ease with which these operations were carried out seemed to demonstrate the weakness of the Senussites (see Wadai). Nevertheless, like any other Moslem fraternity, and perhaps more readily, the Senussites might be speedily transformed into a powerful fighting organization. Through the seaports of Tripoli and Benghazi, with the connivance (or in defiance) of the Turks, the importation of arms and ammunition into the eastern Sahara is a matter of little or no difficulty, and the Bedouin of that region could furnish a numerous and well-armed lighting force. A Senussi sheik would also recruit many followers in the central Sudan. At the same time the Senussi organization is not so widespread The power of the Senussites. in the Sudan and the western Sahara as would appear from the exaggerated reports once current. The Senussi sheiks, with the doubtful exception of Darfur, are without followers in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Bagirmi, Kanem and other states once dependent on Wadai did not embrace Senussiism. In the Hausa States and in the greater part of the western Sudan as far as Timbuktu the Moslems acknowledge the spiritual headship of the emir of Sokoto, whose influence is believed to be sufficiently strong to prevent the spread of Senussiism among his followers. The general attitude of the Mahommedans in the western Sudan towards the Senussi emissaries was described by European observers in 1907 as one of good-natured tolerance. They are occasionally allowed to preach, but apparently with little effect. In Bornu, which does not acknowledge the spiritual supremacy of Sokoto, the Senussi propaganda meets with less opposition, but the adherents of the order are not numerous. Here and there in the western Sahara are tribes professing Senussiism, but they are regarded as unimportant.

It should, however, be remembered that while other dervish fraternities are mystical and latitudinarian in theology, and only sporadically meddle in politics, the Senussites have exercised a continuous political influence and have sought to revive the Tenets.faith and usages of the early days of Islam. The order is in a sense an outcome of the Wahhabite movement, but, as gathered from the writings of Mahommed el Hechaish, a Tunisian sheik, and other trustworthy sources, appears to be neither mystical nor puritan. There is less of secrecy about their rites than is usual in Moslem fraternities. The use of tobacco and coffee is forbidden, but the drinking of tea is encouraged, and the wearing of fine clothes is allowed. While they profess to belong to the Malikite rite (one of the four orthodox sects of Islam), the Senussites are charged by the Ulema of Cairo with many deviations from the true faith; chiefly they are accused of interpreting the Koran and Sunna without consulting one of the recognized glosses. Thus the Egyptian theologians regard the Senussites as inaugurating a new rite rather than forming a simple fraternity; in this, if not in puritanism, resembling the Wahhabites. Their great work in the eastern Sahara, apart from proselytism, has been colonization and the encouragement of trade. Wells have been dug and oases cultivated, rest houses built along caravan routes, merchants from Tripoli, Bornu, Wadai and Darfur welcomed. Such at least is the report of Mahommedan writers and of French and British political agents; very few Europeans have had opportunities of making personal observations. Gustav Nachtigal was in Wadai in 1873, Gerhard Rholfs traversed the Cyrenaica and visited Kufra in 1879; but in general the Senussi, supported by the Turks at Tripoli, have closed the regions under their control to Europeans. At the oasis of Siwa (Jupiter Ammon), however, they are in contact with the Egyptian administration. Siwa was visited by Silva White in 1898 and by Freiherr von Grünau in 1899. The last-named reports that he found the representative of Sheik Senussi living in perfect agreement with the Egyptian authorities, the inhabitants of the oasis being divided into two sections, known respectively as the Mussulmans and the Senussites, a distinction which goes to show the special position occupied by the Senussites in Islam.

The missionary zeal of the Senussites is undoubted. Outside the regions adjacent to their headquarters they appear to be most strongly represented in Arabia. In the eastern Sahara and Wadai practically all the population are Senussites; the order in other countries draws its adherents from a higher social rank than the generality of Moslem secret societies. Its chief agents are personages of wealth and importance and highly educated in Oriental lore. They are in general on good terms with the rulers of the countries in which they live, as instanced in 1902 by the conferment of the Legion of Honour on the head of the zawia at Hillil in Algeria. These agents make regular tours to the various zawias placed under their charge, and expound the Senussi doctrines at the Moslem universities. From all that has been said it is apparent that the Senussi sheik controls a very powerful organization, an organization probably unique in the Moslem world.

Bibliography.—L. Rinn, Marabouts et Khouan, a good historical account up to the year 1884; O. Depont and X. Coppolani, Les Confréries religieuses musulmanes (Algiers, 1897), an authoritative work; Si Mohammed el Hechaish, “Chez les Senoussia et les Touareg,” in L’Expansion col. française for 1900 and the Revue de Paris for 1901. These are translations from the Arabic of an educated Mahommedan who visited the chief Senussite centres. An obituary notice of Senussi el Mahdi by the same writer appeared in the Arab journal El Hadira of Tunis, Sept. 2, 1902; a condensation of this article appears in the Bull. du Com. de l’Afr. française for 1902; “Les Senoussia,” an anonymous contribution to the April supplement of the same volume, is a judicious summary of events, a short bibliography being added; Capt. Julien, in “Le Dar Ouadai” published] in the same Bulletin (vol. for 1904), traces the connexion between Wadai and the Senussi; L. G. Binger, in “Le Péril de l’Islam” in the 1906 volume of the Bulletin, discusses the position and prospects of the Senussite and other Islamic sects in North Africa. Von Grunau, in Verhandl. ges. f. Erdk. for 1899, gives an account of his visit to Siwa. Sir F. R. Wingate, in Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan (London, 1891), narrates the efforts made by the Mahdi Mahommed Ahmed to obtain the support of the Senussi; Sir W. Wallace, in his report to the Colonial Office on Northern Nigeria for 1906–1907, deals with Senussiism in that country. Consult also H. Duveyrier, La Confrérie musulmane de Sidi Mohammed ben Ali es Senoûssi (Paris, 1884), a book containing much exaggeration, and A. Silva White, From Sphinx to Oracle (London, 1898), which, while repeating the extreme views of Duveyrier, contains useful information.

The present writer, in endeavouring to arrive at a just conclusion on an obscure and much controverted subject, is indebted, in addition to the above, to the article by D. A. Cameron in the 10th ed. of this encyclopedia, and to communications from Prof. D. B. Macdonald.  (F. R. C.) 

  1. In the accounts of the fighting in French equatorial Africa at this period it is necessary to distinguish between the sheik Senussi el Mahdi and the sultan Mahommed el Senussi (b. c. 1850) of N’Delé, a prince who had married the sister of Rabah Zobeir. Senussi of N’Delé became an ally of the French. The state of N’Delé lies S. of Wadai and is cut by 9° N., and 20° E. (See Karl Kumm in Geog. Jour., Aug. 1910.)