Points of View

'Libya' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article outlines Libyan history as background for Hisham Matar's novel In the Country of Men. The article is reprinted from The Islamic World: Past and Present in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Libya is an oil-rich country that shares borders with Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Chad, and Niger. Its population of more than 5 million is of mixed Arab-Berber ancestry, and an overwhelming majority of Libyans are Sunni Muslims.

Historically, the part of North Africa now known as Libya consisted of three distinct regions separated from one another by harsh deserts: Tripolitania in the northwest, Cyrenaica to the northeast, and Fezzan in the southwest. Before Libya became an independent nation in 1951, its history revolved around these regions and their major cities, the tribes in the area, and a series of foreign invasions. Since 1969 Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi has attempted to create a distinct Libyan state and identity based on his unique concept of Islam.

Hard-Fought Freedom.

During ancient times, various groups conquered and settled the region, including the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. The ancient Egyptians applied the term Libya to a single Berber tribe, and the Greeks used the word to refer to most of the land west of the Nile River. Nevertheless, the name did not refer to the territorial boundaries of modern Libya until the mid-1900s.

After Arab armies conquered Egypt in 642 C.E., they extended their raids to the west. Although the townspeople and farmers of the coastal areas readily accepted Arab rule, the nomadic Berber tribes of the interior resisted Arab political domination. By 705, however, the region that now includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya was incorporated into the Muslim empire.

A succession of Arab and native dynasties ruled the land for the next 800 years. The people who lived in North African cities and towns embraced Islam relatively rapidly. By contrast, the nomads of the desert did not convert to Islam until after the 1000s, when Bedouin tribes from Arabia and Egypt invaded the region. Even then, the Berbers maintained elements of independent tribal identity.

During the 1500s, the Ottoman Turks defeated the Arabs and extended their authority over Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. France invaded neighboring Algeria in 1830, threatening Turkish domination in North Africa, which led the Ottomans to strengthen their direct control over the regions of Libya. Such events generated both anti-Western and anti-Ottoman sentiment among the people. Leading the opposition movement were members of the Sanusi, a Sufi brotherhood founded in 1837 by Algerian religious scholar Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi.

With its headquarters in Cyrenaica, a region largely isolated from European and Ottoman influence, the Sanusi spread rapidly across Libya. They formed alliances with local shaykhs and tribal leaders who controlled trade routes from the Sahara to the coast of Egypt. By the late 1800s, the Sanusi was the leading political and religious force in Libya.

In 1911 Italy launched a war against Turkey, claiming control of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Although the Ottomans surrendered in 1912, the local population defied Italian occupation. Resistance to colonial rule, led by Umar al-Mukhtar , remained strong over the next years. During the 1920s, an estimated 25 percent of the Libyan population perished in the fighting.

After its defeat in World War II (1939 – 1945), Italy lost control of its African colonies, including the provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Several years later, the United Nations granted the provinces independence, and in 1951 , they were united to form the kingdom of Libya. The head of the Sanusi at that time, Idris al-Sanusi, became the country's king. In 1953 Libya joined the Arab League.

A Revolutionary Leader.

The young country faced many challenges, including extreme poverty and an underdeveloped economy. The discovery of oil in 1959 provided much-needed revenue, but the previous pattern of foreign domination continued as King Idris permitted Western oil companies to lease huge tracts of land. Idris proved incapable of effectively managing the growing demands of an oil economy and the strong feelings of nationalism in Libya. In 1969 a group of army officers led by Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi seized power in a coup.

As head of the Revolutionary Command Council and the leader of the newly proclaimed Libyan Arab Republic, Colonel Qaddafi broke diplomatic ties with Great Britain and the United States and nationalized the oil industry, banking, and other segments of the economy. Qaddafi declared that Libya would observe shari'ah, and he instituted a socialist system of government.

Focused on the idea of Arab unity and determined to spread his concept of government outside Libya, Qaddafi attempted to form alliances with Egypt, Syria, and other nations. Qaddafi's anti-imperialist views led him to support acts of terrorism by such groups as the Irish Republican Army, the Basques in Spain, and Palestinian resistance organizations.

During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the United States actively opposed Qaddafi. The U.S. government banned the import of Libyan oil in 1982. In 1986, in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Germany attributed to Libya, American planes bombed the Libyan capital of Tripoli in a failed attempt to remove Qaddafi from power. In 1988 the United States accused Libya of planning the destruction of a Pan Am passenger jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. When Libya refused to cooperate in the investigation of this event, the United Nations imposed sanctions on the country.

During the 1980s, the Libyan economy declined as a result of various internal and external factors, including tribal opposition in Cyrenaica, declining oil prices, U.N. sanctions, and the U.S. embargo on oil-producing equipment and military sales to the country. In recent years, Qaddafi has adopted a more moderate attitude toward the West, and Libya has become a mainstream North African state. As of 2003 , its per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was the highest in Africa.

Distinctive Political System.

The official name of Libya is the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah. A jamahiriyah, or state of the masses, refers to a system of government in which the people hold decision-making power. In theory, Libya is a direct democracy in which the people are represented by the General People's Congress (GPC). The GPC consists of 750 members from locally elected or appointed committees. These representatives elect both the head of state (the premier) and the premier's cabinet. Under this system, Qaddafi has no official title. Nevertheless, the government has little or no actual power. Libya is essentially a military dictatorship with Colonel Qaddafi as its unofficial head.

Against the Establishment.

When Qaddafi seized power in 1969, he declared Islam to be the guiding force in Libya. But his version of Islam differed significantly from that of the country's Sunni religious leaders. Although Qaddafi called for the implementation of shari'ah, his regime follows a two-track approach to governing. Traditional Islamic law applies only to spiritual matters. Ijtihad (independent reasoning) is used to find solutions to issues not covered in traditional sources of law. It also applies to social conditions that have changed with modern times. In effect, Qaddafi declared that anyone—not just traditionally-trained jurists—could interpret the law.

Qaddafi also rejects ijma (community consensus), hadith, and parts of the sunnah and has declared them unnecessary to Islam. Furthermore, like other rulers of Muslim countries, Qaddafi passed laws that gave the government control of waqf, the donations that are the primary means of financial support for religious organizations. By imposing his alternative views of Islam and by criticizing the ulama, Qaddafi has effectively weakened the cultural and political influence of Libya's traditional religious leaders.

In 1973 Colonel Qaddafi declared the beginning of an Islamic-based cultural revolution. He outlined his ideas in the Green Book, which proclaimed a Third Universal Theory of political action that would replace both communism and capitalism in his country. The revolution reached its peak in 1977 with the creation of the Jamahiriyah. In addition, Qaddafi further elaborated his alternative interpretations of Islam. He declared that the Qur'an was the only source of Islamic law and that the pilgrimage to Mecca was no longer one of the five Pillars of Islam. Qaddafi's “reforms” served his political as well as his religious purposes, giving the regime greater legitimacy in secular matters and freeing it from the restrictions of Islamic doctrine and tradition.

Islamic revivalists have expressed their opposition to Qaddafi by attacking military posts and government officials. Qaddafi has responded with a brutal campaign of repression against such activities, including public executions of the opposition movement's followers and the closing of Muslim institutions believed to be fronts for extremist groups. His secret police imprisoned dozens of opposition figures at the university in Benghazi in 2000 on similar charges.

Not Without a Fight

When the Italians invaded Libya in 1911, they envisioned a swift, effortless military campaign. They did not anticipate a powerful popular insurrection in Cyrenaica. Umar al-Mukhtar, a tribal elder of the Sanusi and a veteran fighter, used a combination of religious authority, skill, and personal appeal to unite local tribes in a fierce struggle against the Italian troops. For almost ten years, his small guerrilla force confounded the Italians, who were better equipped and greater in number. In the end, however, the superiority of the occupiers became apparent, as they forced the Bedouin population into concentration camps and cut off their supply lines. In September 1931, the Italians captured al-Mukhtar and executed him. Although the resistance movement soon crumbled, Libyans still regard al-Mukhtar as a national hero.


"Libya." In The Islamic World: Past and Present edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t243/e195.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #204: 'Libya' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/204.