The Senussi: Saints of the Desert

Sud Moroco

This article (below) appeared in The Century Magazine of June 1925 and provides a concise history of a little known North African Islamic sect called the Senussi (named after it’s founder Sayed Mohammed Ibn Ali el Senussi).  It accurately notes that this religious movement’s strong conservative ideology could be described as a type of “puritanism” or as we would say today “fundamentalist”.  The Senussi may have been the first recognized conservative Islamic religious movement that the Western powers recognized as a potential threat.   The Senussi’s first formal establishment was organized in 1843 and predates the Muslim Brotherhood (also founded in Egypt in 1928) by almost 85 years.  The Senussi also preceded the rise of Muhammad Ahmad (1845–1885), the Sudanese sheikh who declared himself Mahdi in 1881 and fought the Turkish and Egyptian rule in Sudan and whose followers fought on after his death against the British until 1899.  For one hundred years, the Senussi were active in resisting Western European encroachments into North Africa, particularly the Italians and to some degree the British in Egypt.   The Senussi was a potentially powerful Islamic movement that scared the merde out of the French North African colonial administration for decades.  They feared the rise of a Senussi version of the mahdi rebellion that would unite the faithful Muslims in Algeria, Tunisia. Morocco and the Sahara and overthrow French rule.  During WWI they fought against Allied interests in western Egypt and Libya, but never had much of an impact outside of minor guerrilla type hit and run attacks.  The Senussi had their greatest military success in leading the resistance to the Italian take over of Libya in 1922.

Which leads me to the realm of fiction where the plotting and machinations of an Islamic religious fanatic was so often the main threat against the Foreign Legion post, or behind the plans to steal modern weapons, kidnap diplomats (or their women), or instigate a mass revolt of tribesmen against the French.  It was this bogeyman of an organized mass religious uprising, perceived as so dangerous in real life, that became a standard plot device in many Foreign Legion movies, novels and other stories of the early 1900’s.  Sometimes these holy men were depicted as blood thirsty fanatics intent on whipping up the tribes into a religiously inspired harka of epic proportions.  Some plots had the holy men in disguise–speaking French, dressed in western clothes and deceitfully plotting their attacks against the Legion or other western intruders.  Sometimes, the holy men were depicted as older, gentle and less violent but who were being exploited by other elements to stir up trouble.  One could say the holy men were the North African equivalent of Cochise, Geronimo, or Sitting Bull who rallied Indian tribes against the U.S. Cavalry forts or settler’s wagon trains.  (But, I’m not a professional critic–I just thought I would make a note of that.)

Saints of the Desert

Of course, over time our popular culture grew tired of Foreign Legion stories and it’s now a rare book or movie that retells these tales of desert adventures and bravery against the fanatical Saints of the Desert.  Although, I must note two things…

—A good book called Gorgeous East by Robert Girardi that features a religious like cult leader formulating a Saharan uprising amongst the Sahrawi refugees in Mauritania and Western Sahara.  An odd pick up team of an American Legionnaire, hard cases from the 2nd REP, a member of the Foreign Legion band, and a pretty girl must rescue Foreign Legion Colonel de Noyer and foil the plans of the fanatics.

Opération Serval.  Operation Serval is the the ongoing French military operation in Mali whose objective is to defeat Islamic militants who “stirred up trouble” among the faithful.  Pretty much the Senussi plot all over again played out in real life mode.

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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2 Responses to The Senussi: Saints of the Desert

  1. thomas savage says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on “Gorgeous East”. Have been considering buying for awhile but could not decide. I will look it up.. thanks, Thomas Savage


    • Jack Wagner says:

      I liked it but some might find it a bit tounge-in-cheek at times. The characters are well developed and the numerous references to the legion traditions, legends and lore were pleasing to read and mostly accurate. Some sex but it does not distract from the story or seem grafted on. The author might have traveled to the region because he really describes the areas and background situations well.


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