BENGHAZI, Libya: Twelve men, members of a mystical Muslim brotherhood that has written chapters of Libyan history that Moammar Gadhafi sought to erase, sit in silent prayer in a mosque in Benghazi.
“Gadhafi keeps saying people here are ‘Al-Qaeda.’ Look around. We are all moderates, local people, people of the heart,” says Mufti Hassan Shaoosh, 72, smiling gently from under his neat headscarf.
At the start of the popular uprising rocking his four-decade rule, Gadhafi accused rebels fighting to topple him of being stooges of Osama bin Laden, a claim that profoundly shocked people in eastern Libya, the historic land of the Senussi Sufis.
“He wanted to eradicate the Senussi brotherhood because he saw it as a threat to his power,” says Shaoosh, surrounded by his fellows at a small lime-green mosque in the Al-Hadaiq district of Benghazi, the Mediterranean stronghold of the rebellion.
Like other Sufi movements the Senussi, whose order was founded in the 19th century by the Algerian Mohammad al-Senussi, believe in seeking the hidden meaning of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, rather than going by its literal meaning.
But unlike other Sufi orders that often use music and dance in their “dhikr” incantations of God to reach states of ecstasy, the Senussi shun such practices.
In 1824, the young Senussi met a Sufi master in Mecca in search of a successor for his fraternity. The teacher chose him over other brilliant disciples, including Mohammad Osman al-Mirghani, who later founded the Khatmiyya order that is still influential in eastern Sudan.
In 1840, Senussi established his order in the Jebel Akhdar (green mountain) region of eastern Libya. Its influence spread south into the eastern Libyan desert, and the Senussi center was eventually moved to Jaghbub, a remote oasis near the Egyptian border.
In the late 19th century the Senussi challenged the authority of the Ottomans, who then ruled what is now Libya.
Then, in the first half of the 20th century, they fought against Italian colonizers under the leadership of Sheikh Omar al-Mukhtar, a national hero whose face now adorns the posters of the rebellion against Gadhafi.
Mukhtar inspired generations of Libyans and was immortalized by Oscar-winning actor Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film “Lion of the Desert.”
When Libya gained independence in 1951, it was the grandson of the Senussi founder who became King Idris I. But after the monarch was deposed by Gadhafi in a 1969 military coup, the order went largely underground.
So powerful was Mukhtar’s, that Gadhafi declared the start of his revolution from Mukhtar’s tomb.
But Ahmad Rifi, 33, says “Gadhafi did not like the Senussi. He did everything to destroy the order, but it still has followers – like me.”
“If you were identified with the brotherhood you couldn’t get a job in the military or police,” he adds.
Igor Cherstich, a doctoral scholar on Sufism in contemporary Libya at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says that “after Gadhafi’s revolution in 1969, the Senussi was practically disbanded, at least officially.”
“The reasons are clear: the brotherhood was seen as a source of support to the [deposed] king,” he says.
“The Senussi had a fundamental political role in Libyan modern history ... [but] there is a debate on whether the role of the Senussi was the consequence of an intrinsic political vocation of the order, or the result of historical circumstances,” Cherstich says.
“We are Sunni Muslims like the others, and we are very moderate. We do not mix politics with religion,” says Fatheh al-Ammari, 51.
“People say ‘yes, but Sheikh Omar al-Mukhtar was in the brotherhood and he fought against the Italians, so there is a political message.’ I tell you: if people invaded your home, you would not sit idly and pray,” he proclaims.
The declining brotherhood has not played a role in the popular uprising against Gadhafi, but its members support the ideals of the rebellion and want nothing to do with a return of the Senussi monarchy.
“We do not want a return to monarchy, but a democratic Libya,” Ammari says.