The Post-Almohadian Man and the Construction of Modern Libya

Below the essay of Massimo Campanini, University of Trento, that is the first chapter of our monography State-Building in Libya. Integrating Diversities, Traditions and Citizenship

This short paper is meant to be an introduction intended to wonder whether Libya ever existed or is a modern invention1. Broadly speaking, the answer can be found in the following clear-cut sentence of Jamil Abu’n-Nasr: “The area forming present-day Libya begins to have its own political identity after the Arab conquest only with the establishment of Ottoman rule in it at the middle of the sixteenth century. Between the seventh and the fifteenth century it was a passageway for conquerors, merchants and pilgrims, but little besides that”2. That being said, this obscure landscape can be enlightened in some ways.

The Pharaonic history of ancient Egyptians tells us that in classical times, the Libu were a savage population that often invaded the fertile Nile valley. Originally, they were connected with the so-called Peoples of the Sea, the mysterious populations that upset the Mediterranean world just before the collapse of the Bronze Age. The 22nd Dynasty of Egypt was a dynasty of “Libyan” kings, among whom Shesonq I (or Sisach or Shisak in Biblical terms, Kings I, 14, 25) reigned ca. 945-924 – roughly shortly after the fabulous time of Solomon –, campaigned in Palestine and pillaged Jerusalem3.

In the Odyssey – most likely composed in the 9th century – Libya is directly quoted by its name in IV.85 during Ulysses’ circumnavigation of the Mediterranean. The famous episode of the lotus-eaters (Λωτοφαγοι, IX.83-105) and their fantastic world, in ancient times already, was normally located in present-day Libya4. Much later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods “Libya” hosted flourishing cities like Cyrene, giving name to Cyrenaica, but it was a “Hellenistic-Roman” civilization without any specific or separate (African or otherwise) identity consciousness.

This consciousness should have emerged with the spreading of Islam and Muslim political organization; but this did not happen. Muslim Arabs conquered Egypt in 642 and, soon after, their armies moved westwards, reaching present day Morocco. During this expansion, the territory we presently referred to as was subdued by the new conquerors. It is important to stress that while the pristine populations of the Maghreb quickly embraced Islam, they often embraced a heterodox Islam. Actually, Kharijism (a form of deviant, egalitarian and militant Islam grounded upon the idea that sinners must be expelled from the Community and even killed, while the imam must be the “best” amongst believers, even a slave if necessary) took roots everywhere in the Maghreb and in “Libya” too. Most likely, embracing Kharijism was, for the Maghribi populations, a way to accept Islam while at the same time marking their “ethnical” specificity. It is no accident that Kharijism spread mainly among the Berbers, in opposition to the Arab identity. A Kharijite-Ibadite imamate was founded in Tripolitania in the second half of the 8th century (Christian era), although it survived mostly in the sphere of the more powerful emirate of Tunis. Later, the Rustamid state of Tahert, another Ibadite-Berber state centered in Algeria, exercised influence in Tripolitania and on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, reaching as far as Sirte. The major dynasties of Aghlabids (9th century), Fatimids and Zirids (10th century) dominated most of North Africa, including the peripheral and poor “Libya”, for hundreds years. However, Tripolitania gravitated around the political orbit of Western (Tunisian, Algerian) more than Eastern (Egyptian) Muslim rulers, also because the desert land between Tripoli and Egypt contributed to sharply divide the two parts of North Africa and also to isolate a substantial part of “Libya” (Cyrenaica firstly).

Finally, in the 12th and 13th centuries, Tripolitania was controlled by the powerful Almohad (Sunni) caliphate, and the region again suffered the same fate under the Hafsids of Tunis. Considering its geographical position, it is obvious that Cyrenaica was controlled by the Mamluks of Egypt from the 13th century onward, until Ottomans’ conquest.

Therefore, it is plainly clear that no “Libyan” entity existed for many centuries; moreover, the deep Berber identity of influent Maghribi tribes or confederation of tribes (such as the Masmuda, the Sanhaja etc.) is equally not meaningful in defining what “Libya” was and actually is.  The great Tunisian historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) did underline the strong Berber character of the Maghreb but he had no awareness of a specific political or cultural region identifiable with a supposed “Libya”, neither under an ethnical perspective5. Rather, Ibn Khaldun’s theory is important to this topic because of the concept of ‘asabiyya (“group feeling”) and the study of the relation between Bedouin (‘umran badawi) and urban (‘umran hadari) civilizations. Briefly, the “group feeling”, or ‘asabiyya, is particularly strong in the badawi civilization, while its strength loosens up in the hadari civilization. Blood ties are the main pivot of primitive Bedouin society, but ‘asabiyya can be obtained indirectly through the artificial links of sworn alliance and clientage. These three factors together have the effect of instilling new force into the tribal framework, thus strengthening the inner ties of cooperation. Through group feeling the original rural regime of life creates the state and transform itself into the more advanced and complex urban civilization. However, tough a more sophisticated one, such civilization slowly decades and, in due time, dies. Hence, a continuous dialectic between centripetal and centrifugal forces, Bedouin and urban, tribal and concentric societies is always operating, producing rivalries and strife. Actually, Libya suffered and still suffers from this kind of dialectics, and Ibn Khaldun’s theory represents a useful lens through which to view it, as tribalism and blood ties and alliances shaped and were shaping the Libyan society until Mu‘ammar Gheddafi’s time and beyond.

The religious dialectics are worth being stressed anew. After Kharijism, in the Islamic Maghreb during the Almoravid and Almohads empires (11th to 13th centuries) a harsh conflict arose between traditionalist and legalist Malikism, on the one hand, and popular mystical religious beliefs and elitist rational philosophy, on the other. It is important to focus briefly on the Almohads. The Almohads were a Messianic movement that ruled a great part of Maghreb and Andalusia consciously aiming at establishing a “universal” caliphate. They promoted a reformist policy grounded upon a “rationalistic” approach to the Qur’an and the prophetic sunna, emphasizing God’s Unity and Oneness (tawhid) and the indoctrination of the masses6. This rational and reformist trend put the Almohads in conflict with the juridical establishment of the Maghribi Malikite ‘ulemas6. The Almohads gained the strong support of the famous qadi and Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd/Averroes (d. 1196), who formulated a theory useful for his masters’ struggle against the Malikite ‘ulemas. Averroes supported the Almohad religious project of marginalizing the Malikite-Asharite theology in favor of a more rationalistic approach to religion with wide resort to philosophy7. The Almohad project failed because, after Averroes and the death of the two caliphs he served (Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf and al-Mansur, 1163-99), the dynasty quickly declined and was eventually overcome by the Christian reconquista. However, the Almohads remain the last dynasty of classical Islam to have nurtured a far-sighted vision of religious and political renewal (tajdid).

A few centuries later, it is under the Ottoman occupation of North Africa that a first embryo of a Libyan principality was born, as Abun’n-Nasr argued. As we have seen, originally our “Libyan” territory gravitated under the more powerful orbit of foreign dynasties. The Ottomans succeeded in unifying under their dominion all North Africa except Morocco. It is well-known that Ottoman political structure was weakly centralized; peripheral territories were largely autonomous but did not demonstrate the main characteristics of the modern state: boundaries, administration and bureaucracy, unity of culture and language. Ottoman provinces were a-centric political unities. If this worked for Tunis and Algiers, it did even more so for “Libya”. As the beylicates of Tunis and Algiers were nominally subservient to Istanbul but substantially independent, under the semi-autonomous Qaramanli dynasty in the 18th century a part of Libya at least emerged as a self-governing “state”. The Qaramanli dynasty ruled from 1711 to 1835 first in Tripolitania and then, at the peak of its power, influenced the affairs of Cyrenaica and Fezzan. However, the authority of Qaramanlis and principality remained always far less important than the beylicates of Tunis and Algiers, as previously happened with the Rustamids and the Aghlabids. Moreover, it did not realize a real unification among the three not homogeneous components of the so-called “Libya”, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan.

During the late Ottoman presence in the Nineteenth century, Sufism or tasawwuf, the Islamic mysticism, flourished in “Libya”. The Maghreb has always been a cradle of saints and marabouts and the “Libyan” Sanusiyya order (tariqa) was not in itself a novelty. The brotherhood’s founder, Muhammad Ibn ‘Ali al-Sanusi (d. 1859), was Algerian by birth but settled in Cyrenaica, from there spreading his message into North Africa8. Therefore, Sanusiyya must be considered “Libyan”, in a sense. Its consolidation and expansion was based on a network of zawiyas (convents) covering, from the oasis of Jaghbub, a wide territory comprising not only Cyrenaica and the Libyan desert, but also the Southern fringes of the Sahara and even the Eastern borders of the Egyptian desert. At one time, this network seemed to foreshadow a sort of “union” of otherwise fragmented territories and populations in a homogeneous religious-political organism, but indeed without showing the necessary centripetal attraction and military prowess. Millenarianism and Mahdism were characteristic of the first Sanusiyya, as of all African Islam in the Nineteenth Century (it would be enough to think of the Sudanese Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad). However, at least in B.G. Martin’s opinion, millenarianism, Mahdism and proselytism were not sufficient in “Libya” to successfully contrast the aggressive encroachment of colonialism (especially French colonialism, and later Italian), because Sanusiyya was too “religious” for being militarily efficient9.

While the Ottoman Empire slowly weakened in the Nine-teenth century, European imperialism subdued all Maghreb under its grip: Algeria (1830), Tunisia (1881) and Morocco (1911) became French departments or protectorates; Egypt became an English protectorate in 1882; and “Libya”, not without difficulties, was conquered by the Italians (from 1912 onward). Two prominent Maghribi intellectuals emerge in the discourse on why the Arab-Islamic world decayed in modern times and was almost entirely subjected to colonialism: the Moroccan Abdallah Laroui and the Algerian Malek Bennabi, whose reflection is worth considering in the present analysis.

Abdallah Laroui was mainly a historian; his famous L’Histoire du Maghreb, un Essai de Synthèse has a militant character. It is not a book in the footsteps of the today so widespread “subaltern” studies, but it denounces very harshly the distortions and the falsifications that “colonialist” historiography – sourtout French of course – made of Maghribi history since the Islamic conquest until modern times10. “Colonial” historiography claimed that Maghrebins were unable to become what they had to be: “Westernized” and “civilized” peoples. At odds with this cultural bias, Laroui emphasizes the “unity” of Maghribi history and the manifold endeavors of unification among the different states that took place since the Arab conquests until the Ottoman one through the prominence of caliphates like the Almohads and the Hafsids. In this framework, it is meaningful that Laroui deals with “Libya” only marginally and cursorily: in practice, he never quotes Cyrenaica, but only Tripoli and Tripolitania; moreover, Tripoli is always quoted in relation to the true Maghribi political realities, Morocco and Tunis. Because of its irrelevance, “Libya” did not play a visible role.

The Algerian philosopher Malek Bennabi tried to find explanations to the Arab-Muslim decay after the splendor of classical times. After the Almohad period, which he considered as the extreme light of Islam, Bennabi contended that an irreversible down-fall affected the Arab Muslim peoples. Bennabi argued that the Arab post-Almohadian man was colonized because it was “colonizable11: that is, Arabs were not provided with the necessary strength and resources to resist the European imperialist assault. We have seen that the Almohad Empire was the last great Muslim caliphate. The Arab-Muslim man who survived to this extreme vestige of Islamic Majesty is the post-Almohadian man, the “colonizable” man who was colonized12. Bennabi’s analysis appeared a bold one in the Forties and Fifties of the past century, when his book was published, but was vitiated by a too idealistic of an approach, grounded almost entirely upon conscience and cultural practice, upon “le divorce entre la pensée et l’action”, as Bennabi himself contended. The post-Almohadian man is a man who has lost not only his identity, but most significantly the creative attitude to re-think the basis of his civilization and to produce a new framework of ideas.

Despite its “idealism”, Bennabi’s paradigm is heuristically useful. If we ask why the post-Almohadian man was “colonizable” in relation to Libya, we have to stress more political and social elements, previously suggesting a methodological key of interpretation.

In order to understand the “colonizabilité” of Libya, the concept of “configuration” could be put forward13. The issue at stake is to think of a historical fact from the perspective both of internal structural and conjunctural factors, and of external and equally structural and contextual factors. “Configuration”, however, moves a step further, because it argues that a historical occurrence depends not only on internal and external factors, but also on the strategies of individual actors. This suggestion could be applied to Libya and is generally valid insofar as the “colonizabilité” of Libya was actually the outcome of both conjunctural and contextual factors.

In a “short” period of historical perspective, decisive conjunctural factors are both the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, unable to assert its authority against the European imperialist ambitions, and the already stressed heterogeneity of the main parts of the region, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (not to speak of Fezzan), which represented an insuperable impediment to factual integration.

From the contextual point of view, meaning the “long” period of historical perspective, Libyan territory followed the destiny of all North African territories. What we have discussed regarding the inexistence of a Libyan identity has been a hindering factor in promoting the “collective perception” of a nation. Algeria as well struggled significantly before becoming a “unitary (nation) subject”; for a long time, an intellectual like Ferhat ‘Abbas in the Thirties and Forties considered “Algeria” as an empty concept without any historical foundation. Finally, the brutal repression by France of the autonomist movements compelled all patriots to realize that the only way out from slavery was war and to complete independence. Such an analogous catalyzing factor did not operate in Libya.

The young Italian scholar Simona Berhe argued recently that, after the occupation of Libya, Italian colonial policy, albeit oppressive and violent, was not able to hold in check «the strength of the colonized society’s river»: the conquerors cannot subdue the conquered indefinitely. For example, in Berhe’s opinion, the 1914-15 revolt against Italians encouraged and fastened the state building process, which was already ongoing since 1912 in the Jabal under Sulayman al-Baruni’s charismatic leadership14. Despite the coherence of Berhe’s argument, this process, while indeed factual, involved only Tripolitania, while Cyrenaica and Fezzan retained their previous isolation; therefore, one might say that it can hardly be considered as a “national” movement.  Later, however, when Libya was declared independent under the Sanusi imam and King Idris (1951), the religious mark became a hampering obstacle on the national path towards progress and real political and economic autonomy. This time, Idris remained linked to Cyrenaica, and made very poor efforts to be identified as a “Libyan” leader recognized by all the components of his surreptitious kingdom, including Tripolitania. Mu‘ammar Gheddafi’s revolution (1969) was the unavoidable outcome of Sanusi’s conservatism and backwardness.

The idea of nation-state was particularly unfeasible in the case of Libya. Broadly speaking, the idea of “nation-state” was and still is at odds with Islamic political and institutional traditions (mainly the caliphate, but tribalism too). Therefore, when it was imposed upon Muslim states by colonial subjugation, the nation-state idea resulted more a disrupting than a unifying factor15. Actually, if we consider the whole contemporary Middle Eastern history, we realize that many nation-states (Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya) were unable to become organic national countries with common interests and shared objectives. On the international plane, the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria (1958-61) and the impotence of the Arab League throughout its precarious existence (since 1945 to the present day) are equally telling. The heterogeneous Libya, destabilized by ongoing centrifugal contradictory tensions (much stronger than the centripetal ones), never became a “nation-state” and the myth of a “Libyan nation” reveals all its inconsistency. The situation was worsened by the fact that there exists no “singular” Libyan identity. While Morocco and Egypt, for instance, could vindicate a long-standing identity (Egypt has been a state with an “Egyptian” consciousness since thousands of years, since the Pharaonic times; Morocco remained independent from Ottoman Empire), this was not the case for Libya.

The same human, cultural and socio-political elements that made the post-Almohadian man “colonizable” in Morocco or Algeria existed in Libya as well. Hence, a second crucial point, which is worth to consider, has been the conflict with modernity and the difficulty to find crossroads in too much divergent paths. Religion, or better Sufism, is a case in point. Mysticism was and still is generally condemned by religious scholars like the Malikites, outstanding in all the Maghreb since the Arab conquest until today, and actually its syncretism and flawed theology are obstacles for the reception of modernity. Syncretism is a common feature of Sufism, and remained a long-standing attitude of African Islam16, in a way that weakened the original puritanical strength of Muhammad’s religion. We have already hinted to Sanusiyya and its inadequacy. Even when the Sanusiyya tariqa had a fundamental role in Libyan history in the Twentieth Century, bravely opposing Italian imperialism and conducting a highly symbolical resistance under ‘Omar al-Mukhtar’s leadership17, acquiring decisive political character, the grip of imperialism was too tight to be solved in those circumstances.

Equipped with these premises, we are able to conclude emphasizing three points. The first involves tribalism and ‘asabiyya. The Khaldunian paradigm operated in “Libya” throughout centuries, provoking decentralization and acting as a powerful centrifugal factor hampering the cohesiveness of a potentially united Libya. Ibn Khaldun keenly argued that the urban de-tribalized elites in the Maghreb were not able to counter-balance the role of tribal aristocracy18. This argument is valid not only for the 14th century Maghreb but also for modern North Africa, at least until the end of the 19th century, and Libya is again a case in point. The first phases of the “Libyan revolution” against Mu‘ammar Gheddafi in 2011 were strongly marked by tribal factionality: without the NATO intervention, Gheddafi would have probably resisted much more because thanks to the support he gained from a number of tribes. After Gheddafi’s fall, local interests and identities – Tripolitania vs. Cyrenaica, for instance – surfaced again. It is important to remember that Bedouinism is far from being “Islamic”: Islam has been all over its history an urban civilization. However, this urban development poorly succeeded in “Libya”.

Another element to be stressed is that the Libyan culture on the verge of colonial occupation was on the whole pre-modern, somewhat “medieval”. The prominence of Sufism (the Sanusiyya order above-quoted) and of tribal self-reference hampered the growth of a “modernism” like that of Tunisia (with Khayr al-Din and the first Arab constitutional experiment in 1862 – دستورية) or Egypt (with Muhammad ‘Ali and his successors and the Salafiyya movement of al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh). Actually, nahda and islah touched Libya only superficially, or did not touch her at all.

All in all, in order to answer the question at the very beginning of this article, Libya seems to be an entirely “invented” nation-state. “Libya” was created on paper, first by Italian colonialism and then by British-American (neo)colonialism in the Twentieth Century, sewing together three very dissimilar and probably irreducible regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. It is not surprising that an invented state turned into a “failed state”19. To be precise, this negative outlook could be variously nuanced, but in any case, the “weight of history” – as Abdallah Laroui would have put it20– has been particularly heavy and conditioning in Libya. In presence of an invented or failed state, the issue of a democratic reconstruction of Libya after Mu‘ammar Gheddafi’s regime’s fall sounds a secondary and scarcely relevant problem. The most urgent issue is state-building, but it is difficult to foresee how historical fragmentation could be definitely overcome by the emergence of a modern nation-state after the dissolution of Ghaddafi’s jamahiriyya.


1 This last draft of the paper benefited from the discussions and observations of the panelists. I thank them all collectively.

2 J. Abu’n-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK 1987, p. 187.

3 Cfr. I. Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 2000, spec. pp. 328-329 and bibliography p. 465.

4 See Odissea, eds. V. Di Benedetto and P. Fabrini, Bur Rizzoli, Milano, 2010, p. 505 and notes.
5 I. Khaldun, Kitab al-‘Ibar or Histoire des Berbères et des dynasties musulmanes de l’Afrique septentrionale, trans. by Baron De Slane, Geuthner, Paris 1982; Muqaddimah, translated by F. Rosenthal, abridged by N. Dawood, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1978. See G. Turroni, Il mondo della storia secondo Ibn Khaldun, Jouvence, Roma 2002.

6 See recently M. Fierro, The Almohad Revolution, Variorum, Ashgate, 2012 and A. Fromherz, The Almohads: the Rise of an Islamic Empire, I.B. Tauris, London, 2010.
7 See M. Geoffroy, “L’Almohadisme Théologique d’Averroes”, Archives d’Histoire Doctrinale et Litteraire du Moyen Age, 56 (1999), pp. 9-47. Averroes, The Decisive Treatise on the Connection of Islamic Religious law and Philosophy, ed. M. Campanini, Gorgiaspress, Piscataway 2017, Original Italian edition Il Trattato Decisivo sulla connessione della religione con la Filosofia, BUR Rizzoli, Milano, 2015.
8 K. Vikør, Sufi and Scholar. Muhammad Ibn Ali al-Sanusi and his Brotherhood, Hurst, London, 1995.
9 B. G. Martin, Muslim Brotherhoods in 19th-Century Africa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1976.
10 A. Laroui, L’Histore du Maghreb. Un essai de synthèse, Centre Culturel Arabe, Casablanca 1995.
11 Here is quoted the French word, as the Oxford Advanced Dictionary does not have an entry with the same meaning: it does exist the term “colonization”, but not “colonizability”.
12 M. Bennabi, Vocation de l’Islam, Seuil, Paris 1954. See M. Campanini, Il pensiero islamico contemporaneo, Il Mulino, Bologna 20163.
13 Moncef Djaziri discussed it in the Conference.
14S. Berhe, Notabili libici e funzionari italiani: l’amministrazione coloniale in Tripolitania (1912-19), Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli 2015.
15 See the monographic issue of “Oriente Moderno” 1/2017 devoted to “Arab Nationalism(s) in the Twentieth Century”, published in March 2017.
16 A. Piga De Carolis, L’Islam in Africa, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2003.
17 G. Rochat, R. Rainero, E. Santarelli (a cura di), Omar al-Mukhtar e la riconquista fascista della Libia, Marzorati, Milano 1981
18 See Y. Lacoste, Ibn Khaldoun. Naissance de l’Histoire, passé du tiers monde, Maspero, Paris 1981, spec. pp. 172-174.
19 See D. Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012.
20 A. Laroui, Islam et Histoire, Albin Michel, Paris, 1999.