The Sanusiya was a religious reformist movement founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Ali al- Sanusi. Born in Algeria, al-Sanusi studied in Cairo and Mecca. He was heavily influenced by the teachings of the noted Sufi Ahmad ibn Idris. Al-Sanusi established his first lodge, or Suficollective, outside Mecca in 1827. After ibn Idris’s death, he moved to Cyrenaica in present day Libya and established zawiyas (collectives) along the desert trade routes into the Sahara.
The Sanusiya stressed the role of the prophet Muhammad and encouraged members to practice a pious way of life with a stress on Islamic education. It discouraged excessive rituals involving singing or dancing. The orders were highly centralized and individual zawiyas were governed by several key officials.
With their stress on the importance of work, the Sanusiya zawiyas flourished economically and attracted more followers. From Cyrenaica, new orders were established in the oases of Jaghbub and Kufra that became the center of the movement in 1895.
Although its base was primarily from among the desert bedu, it also attracted urban followers. The Sanusiya also spread into Chad in the southern Sahara and, by the turn of the century, into Niger where the movement was repressed by the French.
Although the Sanusiya cooperated with the Ottoman governors in the northern Libyan coast, they opposed French expansion into Algeria and became fierce opponents to Italian imperial designs over Libya. Thus like many Islamic revival movements it gradually became a nationalist force against imperial domination.