For the first time in nearly twenty years, followers of the Senussi order, one of the most renowned Sufi schools of thought, commemorated the birthday anniversary of their leader, Imam Muhammad Ibn Ali as-Senussi (the Grand Senussi) on February 9. The ceremony was observed at a large square in Jaghbub region, on the ruins of the Senussi in Zawiya, demolished by Gaddafi’s regime in 1984.

For the first time in nearly twenty years, followers of the Senussi order, one of the most renowned Sufi schools of thought, commemorated the birthday anniversary of their leader, Imam Muhammad Ibn Ali as-Senussi (the Grand Senussi) on February 9. The ceremony was observed at a large square in Jaghbub region, on the ruins of the Senussi in Zawiya, demolished by Gaddafi’s regime in 1984.

The occasion falls on the ninth of the month of Safar in the Islamic calendar. The commemorative event was attended by about 2,000 people from Jaghbub, and other towns, including Tobruk, Derna, Bayda, Benghazi and a number of southern and western cities.

Peaceful celebration

In preparation of the celebration, bulldozers cleaned the place and removed the remaining piles of stones left over after the demolition of Zawiya. Residents built a large camp provided with necessary utilities, while sacrificial animals and other components were donated by Senussis all over the country.

Osman Ibrahim, head of Jaghbub Local Council said: “We formed a security chamber within the council and entrusted it with protecting the celebration, because we do not have the powers to hold or cancel it.”

He considered the decision to participate in the celebration a personal choice, occurring in the context of freedom of belief. However, a number of the region’s youth, especially salafists, boycotted the ceremony and opposed it entirely, deeming it heresy in violation of Sharia.

Despite those objections, the celebration was peaceful without any violence, due to the fact that most residents in the area are mostly Sufis, Senussis in particular.

Oldest Senussi

Seventy-seven year-old Sheikh Mohammed Nasseeb Resslan – the oldest Senussi in Libya and the spiritual father of all Senussis in the Jaghbub area, as well as their imam and guide– has allocated more than half of the area of his house for knowledge seekers and visitors of what has been left of the shrines of the Senussi movement. There, one can also see rare portraits of the Senussi family members and other renowned imams who studied or taught in Zawiya.

During his early childhood, Resslan studied the Koran, Sunna, and Arabic language in Zawiya. He later moved to Bayḍa to continue his studies at the Islamic University built by the Senussis, from which he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 1965.

He was among the first to graduate from that university, which was founded in 1953. Resslan and his colleagues were honored by King Idris of Libya. When he returned, he became director of the Islamic Institute in Zawiya for many years, and later earned a Master’s Degree in Sharia, along with Arab and African students studying in Zawiya.

Resslan was the last person to hold this position before Muammar Gaddafi ordered the demolishing of Zawiya and its facilities in December 1984.

Demolition order

Resslan still recalls those moments as though they happened yesterday. “We were getting ready for Friday prayers on December 11, 1984. Just as the muezzin made the first call for Friday prayer, we heard an awful explosion. Immediately after the prayer, we dashed into the direction of the sound. We saw bulldozers demolishing Zawiya, surrounded by a number of heavily armed soldiers, policemen and revolutionary committee members, led by Abdulsalam Zadma and Hassan Ashkal – Gaddafi’s relatives and two of his most powerful army officers, whom Gaddafi was said to have later killed on different occasions,” he recalled.

“By virtue of a Gaddafi’s order, his soldiers demolished Mohammed Ibn Ali as-Senussi’s mosque and college. They tampered with the library and looted all its contents,” he added, comparing their action to what Tatars (Mongols) did when they entered Baghdad and destroyed its famous library, or what the Italians did to Sayyid al-Mahdi Senussi’s library upon their occupation of Kufra in 1931 when they used the rare books and manuscripts as fuel for cooking their food.

Resslan stressed that besides the printed books, more than 1,070 manuscripts, some of which dated back hundreds of years, covering all the sciences, were looted. “Some of those had been bought or written by the Grand Senussi himself. Among the books of the library was a collection of hand written copies of the Koran, and a copy of the Bible printed in Paris in 1837,” Resslan explained.

He further added that the demolition also included the graves of the Senussi family; all the Senussi family’s nineteen graves were dug up, including that of the Grand Senussi, and his body and that of his son, Sayyid Mohammed Al-Shareef, were stolen.

Confrontation and imprisonment

“They blew up the main dome by dynamite after failing to demolish it by bulldozers, in an attempt to literally carry out Gaddafi’s order to wipe out that site,” Resslan painfully recalled adding: “A member of the revolutionary committees was crying out ‘Al-Fateh! Al-Fateh!’ – the famous slogan of Gaddafi’s loyalists – from the top of Senussi Mosque’s minaret. I tried to persuade him that minarets are only used to glorify God’s name, but he cursed me.”

When he returned to his house that day, Resslan discovered that members of the revolutionary committees had stormed it and destroyed all the pictures pertaining to Zawiya, its scholars and the distinguished members of the Senussi family. Resslan said that behavior was not new to him because he had been previously arrested by Internal Security Agency. Resslan has been imprisoned five times, the latest of which lasted seven years, between 1995 and 2002, in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.

All the charges leveled against Resslan were not clear; his mere affiliation with the Senussi movement was enough to arrest him and throw him behind bars.

Gaddafi re-writes Senussi history

Soon after he came to power in 1969, Gaddafi tried to defame and obliterate the history of the Senussi movement. He accused it of collusion and collaboration with the colonialists, and sought to isolate everything that happened in the history of Libya before rising to power, which he ascribed to himself and his alleged ‘global’ revolution. As a result, history books used in Libyan schools and universities ignored the entire Senussi history and distorted it.

These efforts went as far as questioning Libya’s independence gained in 1951 Gaddafi attributed modern Libya to his founding and development even though the first state in the true sense of the word was established in 1951 by King Idris of Libya, the first full-fledged ruler over the Libyan territories with its current borders.

Reform and the Senussi

After the emergence of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi’s eldest son, in the Libyan political scene his launch of the so-called “Tomorrow’s Libya” project, which called for change and reform, Gaddafi’s son did not ignore the Senussi file, which had been essentially banned under his father.

The Gaddafi heir visited Jaghbub a few years before the revolution, met its population, and expressed his extreme shock and regret for the tragic fate of Zawiya, the ‘seat of Senussi preaching’. He even dared to say: “Used to annually graduate hundreds of preachers who took it upon themselves to spread Islam deep in the African jungles, and to hold up the banner of jihad against the French and the Italians,” in contradiction of the history his father had delineated.

According to some people who attended the meeting, Saif al-Islam told them that he was “stunned” to see Zawiya in that condition and also by the horrendous thefts and looting of its contents. He allegely promised to rebuild it and return the remains of the Grand Senussi and of his son, al-Mahdi as-Senussi.

Those promises however remained elusive for several years, and were added to a list of other promises made by Saif al-Islam to the Libyan people who never believed that he could fulfill a promise that did not fall in line with his unchallenged father’s policy and persuasions.


As the Senussis celebrated the birthday anniversary of the founder of their order, news state media reported that the new government of Ali Zeidan has decided to earmark five million Libyan dinars (US $ 3,970,000) for Zawiya’s reconstruction.

However, Osman Ibrahim said he received no official confirmation of the news, the sum of money, or the method of spending it.

Resslan rejoiced when he heard the news. “I have spent my whole life waiting for this moment,” he said, explaining that during his last seven-year imprisonment, he designed a model for a new Zawiya. He did not hide his cherished hope to approve his model and said his old age and the fact that “some prison officers and soldiers, who, like many others across Libya, believed in the Senussi order,” showed respect towards him and enabled him to complete his model.