General Information
About Libya
Ecotourism In Libya
Ecotourism Activities
Travel To Libya
Tour Operators
Other Information
  The People  
  Peoples of Libya
  Black Africans
  Other People
  The languages  
  The Languages of Libya
  The Society  
  Structure of Society
  Evolutionary changes in traditional society
  The Family, the Individual and the sexes
  Family and Household
  Religios Life
  Tenets of Islam
  Saints and Brotherhood
  The Sanosis
  Islam in Revolutionary Libya

Peoples of Libya

Tribal elders in a rural village engage in a traditional game
Courtesy United Nations

The present population of Libya is composed of several distinct groups. By far the majority identify themselves as Arabs. Arab invaders brought the Arab language and culture to Libya between the seventh to the eleventh centuries, but intermarriage with Berbers and other indigenous peoples over the centuries has produced so mixed a strain that few Libyans can substantiate claims to pure or even predominantly Arab ancestry. These Arabic-speaking Muslims of mixed Arab and Berber ancestry make up 90 percent of the country's population. Berbers, other indigenous minority peoples, and black Africans make up most of the remainder, although small scattered groups of Greeks, Muslim Cretans, Maltese, and Armenians make up long-established communities in urban areas.



The successive waves of Arabs who arrived beginning in the seventh century imposed Islam and the Arabic language along with their political domination. Conversion to Islam was largely complete by 1300, but Arabic replaced the indigenous Berber dialects more slowly. Initially, many Berbers fled into the desert, resisting Islam and viewing it as a urban religion. In the eleventh century, however, tribes of the beduin Bani (see Glossary) Hilal and Bani Salim invaded first Cyrenaica and later Tripolitania and were generally effective in imposing their Islamic faith and nomadic way of life. This beduin influx disrupted existing settlements and living patterns; in many areas tribal life and organization were introduced or strengthened. A further influx of Arabic-speaking peoples occurred in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as a result of the upheavals accompanying the fall to the Christians of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain.

It is estimated that the total number of Arabs who arrived in North Africa during the first two migrations did not exceed 700,000 and that in the twelfth-century population of 6 or 7 million they did not constitute more than 10 percent of the total. Arab blood later received some reinforcement from Spain, but throughout North Africa Berber background heavily outweighed Arab origin. Arabization of the Berbers advanced more rapidly and completely in Libya than elsewhere in the Maghrib and by the mid-twentieth century relatively few Berber speakers remained. By contrast, in Morocco and Algeria, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia, Berbers who had yet to become Arabized continued to form substantial ethnic minorities.

In the countryside traditional Arab life, including customary dress, was still predominant at the time of Libyan independence in 1951. The subsequent discovery of petroleum and the new wealth that resulted, the continuing urban migration, and the sometimes extreme social changes of the revolutionary era, however, have made progressive inroads in traditional ways. For example, in the cities, already to some extent Europeanized at the time of the revolution in 1969, men and some younger women frequently wore Western clothing, but older women still dressed in the customary manner.

Among the beduin tribes of the desert, seasonal shifts to new grazing lands in pursuit of rainfall and grass growth remained widespread. Some tribes were seminomadic, following their herds in summer but living in settled communities during the winter. Most of the rural population was sedentary, living in nuclear farm villages. But often the nomadic and the sedentary were mixed, some members of a clan or family residing in a village while younger members of the same group followed their flocks on a seasonal basis.

The distinction between individual tribes was at least as significant as the distinction between Arab and non-Arab. Tracing their descent to ascribed common ancestors, various tribal groups have formed kinship and quasi-political units bound by loyalties that override all others. Although tribal ties remained important in some areas, the revolutionary government had taken various measures to discourage the nomadic way of life that was basic to tribal existence, and by the 1980s it appeared that tribal life was fast becoming a thing of the past.

Arab influence permeates the culture, among both the common people and the social, political, economic, and intellectual elite. The cultural impact of the Italian colonial regime was superficial, and Libya--unlike other North African countries, with their legacy of French cultural domination--suffered no conflict of cultural identity. As a rule, those few Libyans achieving higher education obtained it not in Europe but in neighboring Arab countries.



Part of what was once the dominant ethnic group throughout North Africa, the Berbers of Libya today live principally in remote mountain areas or in desert localities where successive waves of Arab migration failed to reach or to which they retreated to escape the invaders (see fig. 5). In the 1980s Berbers, or native speakers of Berber dialects, constituted about 5 percent, or 135,000, of the total population, although a substantially larger proportion is bilingual in Arabic and Berber. Berber place-names are still common in some areas where Berber is no longer spoken. The language survives most notably in the Jabal Nafusah highlands of Tripolitania and in the Cyrenaican town of Awjilah. In the latter, the customs of seclusion and concealment of women have been largely responsible for the persistence of the Berber tongue. Because it is used largely in public life, most men have acquired Arabic, but it has become a functional language for only a handful of modernized young women.

By and large, cultural and linguistic, rather than physical, distinctions separate Berber from Arab. The touchstone of Berberhood is the use of the Berber language. A continuum of related but not always mutually intelligible dialects, Berber is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is distantly related to Arabic, but unlike Arabic it has not developed a written form and as a consequence has no written literature.

Unlike the Arabs, who see themselves as a single nation, Berbers do not conceive of a united Berberdom and have no name for themselves as a people. The name Berber has been attributed to them by outsiders and is thought to derive from barbari, the term the ancient Romans applied to them. Berbers identify with their families, clans, and tribe. Only when dealing with outsiders do they identify with other groupings such as the Tuareg. Traditionally, Berbers recognized private property, and the poor often worked the lands of the rich. Otherwise, they were remarkably egalitarian. A majority of the surviving Berbers belong to the Khariji sect of Islam, which emphasizes the equality of believers to a greater extent than does the Maliki rite of Sunni Islam, which is followed by the Arab population (see Religious Life , this ch.). A young Berber sometimes visits Tunisia or Algeria to find a Khariji bride when none is available in his own community.

Most of the remaining Berbers live in Tripolitania, and many Arabs of the region still show traces of their mixed Berber ancestry. Their dwellings are clustered in groups made up of related families; households consist of nuclear families, however, and the land is individually held. Berber enclaves also are scattered along the coast and in a few desert oases. The traditional Berber economy has struck a balance between farming and pastoralism, the majority of the village or tribe remaining in one place throughout the year while a minority accompanies the flock on its circuit of seasonal pastures.

Berbers and Arabs in Libya live together in general amicability, but quarrels between the two peoples occasionally erupted until recent times. A short-lived Berber state existed in Cyrenaica during 1911 and 1912. Elsewhere in the Maghrib during the 1980s, substantial Berber minorities continued to play important economic and political roles. In Libya their number was too small for them to enjoy corresponding distinction as a group. Berber leaders, however, were in the forefront of the independence movement in Tripolitania.



About 10,000 Tuareg nomads live scattered in the southwest desert, wandering in the general vicinity of the oasis towns of Ghat and Ghadamis. They claim close relationship with the much larger Tuareg population in neighboring Algeria and with other Tuareg elsewhere in the Sahara. Like other desert nomads, they formerly earned their livelihood by raiding sedentary settlements, conducting long-distance trading, and extracting protection fees from caravans and travelers. The ending of the caravan trade and pacification of the desert, however, have largely deprived this proud people of their livelihood and have reduced many to penury.

The Tuareg language, Tamasheq, is a Berber dialect, and the Tuareg adhere to a form of Sunni Islam that incorporates nonorthodox magical elements. Men--but not women--wear veils, and the blue dye used in the veils and clothing of nobles frequently transfers to the skin, causing the Tuareg to be known as "blue men." Marriage is monogynous, and Tuareg women enjoy high status; inheritance is through the female line, and as a general rule only women can read and write.


Black Africans

In southernmost Libya live about 2,600 Tebu, part of a larger grouping of around 215,000 Tebu in northern Chad, Niger, and Sudan. Their ethnic identity and cohesion are defined by language, not social organization or geography, although all Tebu share many cultural traits. Their language, Tebu, is a member of the NiloSaharan language family, not all dialects being mutually intelligible. The basic social unit is the nuclear family, organized into patrilineal clans. The Tebu economy is a combination of pastoralism, farming, and date cultivation. The Tebu are Muslim, their Islam being strongly molded by Sanusi proselytizing in the nineteenth century (see The Sanusis , this ch.). Neighboring peoples view them as tough, solitary, desert and mountain people.

A significant number of sub-Saharan Africans live in desert and coastal communities, mixed with Arabs and Berbers. Most of them are descended from former slaves--the last slave caravan is said to have reached Fezzan in 1929--but some immigrated to Tripoli during World War II. In recent years, waves of migrant workers from Mali, Niger, Sudan, and other Sahelian countries have arrived. A majority work as farmers or sharecroppers in Fezzan, but some have migrated to urban centers, where they are occupied in a variety of jobs considered menial.

Another distinct but numerically small group of blacks, the harathin (plowers, cultivators) have been in the Saharan oases for millennia. Their origins are obscure, but they appear to have been subservient to the Tuareg or other Libyan overlords for at least the last millennium. As with other blacks, their status has traditionally been quite low. In Libya as a whole, dark-skinned people are looked down upon, the degree of discrimination increasing with the darkness of the skin.


Other Peoples

Jewish colonies were firmly established in both Cyrenaica and Tripoli before the Christian era. The Jews lived amicably with the Muslims until increasing pressure for a Jewish homeland after World War II caused violent anti-Jewish reactions throughout the Arab world. During the late 1940s, most of the Jewish population departed, many to take up residence in the new state of Israel. Anti-Jewish violence erupted in Tripoli in 1967, and in 1970 the revolutionary government confiscated most remaining Jewish property , subject to compensation in government bonds. In the 1970s fewer than 100 members remained of a Jewish community that had numbered 35,000 in 1948.

A residual Italian community of nearly 30,000 continued to live in Libya during the 1960s, a majority in Tripoli and most of the remainder on farms in the surrounding area. A 1960 law had discouraged foreign residents by prohibiting their acquisition of additional land, and immediately after the 1969 revolution a number of new restrictions were imposed upon them. In 1970 the revolutionary government issued a declaration that it would "restore to the Libyan people" the properties taken by Italians during the colonial period. Assurances of personal safety were given to foreigners, but nearly all of the Italians departed immediately, although some returned later.

The European community in Libya in 1986 amounted to 40,000 persons, a decline of more than half from the levels of 1984-85. Included in this figure were 100 to 300 Americans, most employed in the oil industry.


Languages of Libya

All but a small minority of the Libyan people are native Arabic-speakers and thus consider themselves to be Arabs. Arabic, a Semitic language, is the mother tongue of almost all peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. Three levels of the language are distinguishable: classical, the language of the Quran; modern standard, the form used in the present-day press; and the regional colloquial dialects. In Libya classical Arabic is used by religious leaders; modern standard Arabic appears in formal and written communication and sometimes in the schools. Many people learn Quranic quotations without being able to speak the classical language.

In classical Arabic, as in other Semitic scripts, the text is read from right to left, and only consonants are written. Vowel signs and other diacritical marks appear sometimes in printed texts as aids to pronunciation. Modern standard is grammatically simpler than classical and includes numerous words unknown to the Quran.

The spoken dialects of Tripolitania and Fezzan belong to the Maghribi group, used throughout the Maghrib. They are mutually intelligible but differ considerably from dialects in the Middle East. Dialects of Cyrenaica resemble those of Egypt and the Middle East. Urban dialects differ somewhat from those of the hinterland, and in the southern part of the country some Sudanese influence exists.

Arabs find great beauty and style in their language. It is a keystone of Arab nationalism and a symbol of Arab creativity. Libya has played a leading part in the campaign to make Arabic an official language in the forums of the UN and other international organizations. Yet although Arabic has a richness of sound and a variety of vocabulary that make it a tongue for poets, its syntactic complexity makes it one of the world's most complex written languages. Its intricate vocabulary also is not well suited as a medium for technical and scientific expression. Even modern standard Arabic contains little in the way of a technical vocabulary , in part because many Arabs are purists about their language and resist the intrusion of foreign words.

These deficiencies of Arabic, coupled with a tradition in Arab schools of learning by rote methods, have seriously interfered with scientific and technical advancement. In Libya, as well as in the other Maghribi countries where a similar problem exists, educators reluctantly recognize that preparation of suitable Arabic vocabulary additions, textbooks, and syllabi are still a generation or more away. In the meantime, scientific and technical subjects in the Libyan universities are in large part taught by foreigners employing foreign languages.

Under the colonial regime, Italian was the language of instruction in schools, but only a scattering of Muslim children attended these institutions. As a consequence, the Italian language did not take root in Libya to the extent that French did elsewhere in North Africa. Nevertheless, the strong wave of nationalism accompanying the 1969 revolution found expression in a campaign designed to elevate the status of the Arabic language. An order was issued requiring that all street signs, shop window notices, signboards, and traffic tickets be written in Arabic. This element of Arabization reached its apogee in 1973, when a decree was passed requiring that passports of persons seeking to enter the country contain the regular personal information in Arabic, a requirement that was strictly enforced.

Despite the progress of Arabization during the 1970s, English occupied an increasingly important place as the second language of the country. It was taught from primary school onward, and in the universities numerous scientific, technical, and medical courses were conducted in English. A Tripoli shopkeeper or a hotel doorman was unlikely to speak the language, but business people were accustomed to corresponding in it. The government also issued at least some internal statistical documents and other publications in a bilingual English-Arabic format. In 1986 Qadhafi announced a policy of eliminating the teaching of English in favor of instruction in Russian at all levels. Whether this policy would actually be carried out remained to be seen in 1987, but it seemed safe to assume that English would remain in wide use for the immediate future if not longer.



Well into the postindependence period, tradition and traditional values dominated social life. Established religious and tribal practices found expression in the policies and personal style of King Idris and his regime (see Independent Libya , ch. 1). The discovery of oil, however, released social forces that the traditional forms could not contain. In terms of both expectation and way of life, the old order was permanently disturbed.

The various pressures of the colonial period, independence, and the development of the oil industry did much to alter the bases of urban society and to dissolve the tribal and village social structure. In particular, as the cash economy spread into the countryside, rural people were lured out of their traditional groups and into the modern sector. Values, too, began to change under the impact of new prosperity and the arrival of large numbers of foreigners. Since 1969 the pace of change has greatly quickened. Yet, for all the new wealth from petroleum and despite relentless government-inspired efforts to remake Libyan society, the pace of social change was slow, and the country remained one of the most conservative in the Arab world.


Evolutionary Changes in a Traditional Society

To a great extent, the cities have been crucibles of social change in modern Libya. The Sanusi brotherhood drew its strength from the tribal system of the desert, and the cities were marginal (see The Sanusi Order , ch. 1). More recently, however, they have become centers of attraction, drawing people out of the tribal and village systems and to some extent dissolving the bonds that held these systems together.

Before the arrival of the Europeans in the 1920s, urban centers had been organized around specific areas referred to as quarters. A city was composed of several quarters, each consisting of a number of families who had lived in that place for several generations and had become bound by feelings of solidarity. Families of every economic standing resided in the same quarter; the wealthy and the notable assumed leadership. Each quarter had leaders who represented it before the city at large, and to a great extent the quarter formed a small subsociety functioning at an intimate level in a manner that made it in some respects similar to a country village.

Occupations had different levels of acceptability. Carpenters, barbers, smiths of all kinds, plumbers, butchers, and mechanics were held in varying degrees of low esteem, with these kinds of work frequently performed by minority-group members. The opprobrium that continued to attach to the occupations even after independence, despite the good pay frequently obtainable, has been attributed to the fact that such jobs did not originate in the pastoral and agrarian life that was the heritage of most of the population.

The arrival of the Europeans disturbed the traditional equili- brium of urban life. Unaccustomed to the ways of life appropriate to traditional housing, the newcomers built new cities along European lines, with wide streets, private lawns, and separate houses. As growing numbers of Libyans began to copy Europeans in dress and habits and to use European mass-produced products, local artisans were driven into reduced circumstances or out of business. European-style housing became popular among the well-to-do, and the old quarters gradually became neighborhoods of the poor.

Urban migration, which began under the Italians, resulted in an infusion of progressively larger numbers of workers and laid the basis for the modern working class. The attractions of city life, especially for the young and educated, were not exclusively material. Of equal importance was the generally more stimulating urban environment, particularly the opportunity to enjoy a wider range of social, recreational, cultural, and educational experiences.

As urban migration continued to accelerate, housing shortages destroyed what was left of quarter solidarity. The quarters were flooded with migrants, and old family residences became tenements. At the same time, squatter slums began to envelop the towns, housing those the town centers could not accommodate. In place of the old divisions based primarily on family background, income became the basic determinant of differentiation between residential neighborhoods.

Italian hegemony altered the bases of social distinction somewhat, but the change was superficial and transitory; unlike the other Maghribi countries, Libya did not receive a heavy infusion of European culture. As a result, the Libyan urban elite did not suffer the same cultural estrangement from the mass of the people that occurred elsewhere in North Africa. At the end of the colonial period, vestiges of Italian influence dropped quickly, and Arab Muslim culture began to reassert itself.

Before independence rural Libyans looked upon their tribal, village, and family leaders as the true sources of authority, and, in this sense, as their social elite. Appointments to government positions were largely political matters, and most permanent government jobs were allocated through patronage. Local governments were controlled largely by traditional tribal leaders who were able to dispense patronage and thus to perpetuate their influence in the changing circumstances that attended the discovery of oil.

The basic social units were the extended family, clan, and tribe. All three were the primary economic, educational, and welfare-providing units of their members. Individuals were expected to subordinate themselves and their interests to those units and to obey the demands they made. The family was the most important focus of attention and loyalty and source of security, followed by the tribe. In most cases, the most powerful family of a clan provided tribal leadership and determined the reputation and power of the tribe.

Various criteria were used to evaluate individuals as well as families in the competition for preeminence. Lineage, wealth, and piety were among the most prominent. Throughout Libya's history, and especially during the period of the monarchy, family prominence and religious leadership became closely intertwined. Indeed, religious leadership tended to reside within selected family groupings throughout the country and to be passed successively from generation to generation. By the 1960s, local elites were still composed of individuals or families who owed their status to these same criteria. Local elites retained their position and legitimacy well into the mid-1970s, by which time the revolutionary government had attempted to dislodge them, often without success.

Rural social structures were tribally based, with the nomadic and seminomadic tribesmen organized into highly segmented units, as exemplified by the Sanusi of Cyrenaica (see The Sanusis , this ch.). Originally, tribe members had been nomads, some of the beduin tracing their origins to the Arabian Peninsula. Pride in tribal membership remained strong, despite the fact that many nomads had become sedentary. At the same time, tribally based social organization, values, and world view raised formidable obstacles to the creation of a modern nation-state, because there were virtually no integrative or unifying institutions or social customs on the national level.

In the mid-1970s, the nomads and seminomads who made up most of the effective tribal population were rapidly dwindling in numbers. Tent dwellers numbered an estimated 200,000 in 1973, less than 10 percent of the population, as compared with about 320,000 nomads in 1964. Most of them lived in the extreme north of the country.

By this time, the revolutionary government had come to look upon tribal organization and values as antithetical to its policies. Even Qadhafi, despite his beduin roots, viewed tribes as anachronistic and as obstacles to modernization. Consequently, the government sought to break the links between the rural population and its traditional leaders by focusing attention on a new elite--the modernizers who represented the new leadership. The countryside was divided into zones that crossed old tribal boundaries, combining different tribes in a common zone and splitting tribes in a manner that weakened traditional institutions and the force of local kinship. The ancient ascriptive qualifications for leadership--lineage, piety, wealth--gave way to competence and education as determined by formal examination.

Tribal leaders, however, scoffed at efforts encouraging members to drop tribal affiliations, and pride in tribal lineage remained strong. This was remarkable in light of the fact that many tribes had long ago shed their beduin trappings and had become agrarian villagers. In effect, the government had brought about the abolition of the tribal system but not the memories of tribal allegiance. According to a 1977 report, a survey of tribes had found that more than three-fourths of the members canvassed were still proud of their tribe and of their membership in it. Yet the attitude shown was a generally mild one; there was little opposition to the new programs and some recognition of the government's efforts on their behalf.

The conversion of nomads into sedentary villagers was accompanied or followed by the selective depopulation of many villages, as a disproportionate number of men between fifteen and forty-five left their herds, farms, and villages to seek urban employment. Their defection was a decisive factor in a decline in agricultural production during the 1970s. As a result, the revolutionary government adopted a variety of measures aimed at stemming the migration. Of particular importance was an extremely ambitious 10-year agricultural land reclamation and farmer resettlement scheme initiated in 1972; its aim was to reclaim 1 million hectares of land and provide farms for tens of thousands of rural families. The hold of tradition showed in Cyrenaica, however, where farmers chose to resettle only in projects located in their tribal areas, where they could preserve both tribal and territorial linkages.

Still, many of the most energetic and productive were leaving the countryside to seek employment in cities, oil fields, or construction work or to become settlers in the new agricultural development schemes. In some cases entire farm villages considered by the government to be no longer viable were abandoned and their populations were moved elsewhere; thus, the social and political influence of local leaders was ended forever. At the same time modernization was coming to villages in the form of schools, hospitals, electric lights, and other twentieth-century features. In an increasing number of rural localities, former farm laborers who had received titles to farms also owned a house in which electricity, water, and modern appliances (including a radio and perhaps a television set) made their residences almost indistin- guishable from those of prosperous urban dwellers.



Social life in Libya centered traditionally on the individual's family loyalty, which overrode other obligations. Ascribed status often outweighed personal achievement in regulating social relationships, and the individual's honor and dignity were tied to the good repute of the kin group, especially to that of its women.

Women have played a role secondary to that of men in most aspects of life, and tradition has prescribed that they remain in the home, often in seclusion. The status of women in the 1970s, however, improved substantially, and the once-common seclusion became less common, Nonetheless, to a considerable extent the two sexes continued to constitute largely separate subsocieties, each with its own values, attitudes, and perceptions of the other.


Family and Household

Libyans reckon kinship patrilineally, and the household is based on blood ties between men. A typical household consists of a man, his wife, his single and married sons with their wives and children, his unmarried daughters, and perhaps other relatives, such as a widowed or divorced mother or sister. At the death of the father, each son ideally establishes his own household to begin the cycle again. Because of the centrality of family life, it is assumed that all persons will marry when they reach an appropriate age. Adult status is customarily bestowed only on married men and, frequently, only on fathers.

In traditional North African society, family patriarchs ruled as absolute masters over their extended families, and in Libya the institution seems to have survived somewhat more tenaciously than elsewhere in the area. Despite the changes in urban and rural society brought about by the 1969 revolution, the revolutionary government has repeatedly stated that the family is the core of society.

The 1973 census, the last for which complete data were available in mid-1987, showed that the typical household consisted of five to six individuals and that about 12 percent of the households were made up of eight or more members. The pattern was about the same as that reported from the 1964 census, and a 1978 Tripoli newspaper article called attention to the continued strength of the extended family. Individuals subordinated their personal interests to those of the family and considered themselves to be members of a group whose importance outweighed their own. Loyalty to family, clan, and tribe outweighed loyalty to a profession or class and inhibited the emergence of new leaders and a professional elite.

Marriage is more a family than a personal affair and a civil contract rather than a religious act. Because the sexes generally were unable to mix socially, young men and women enjoyed few acquaintances among the opposite sex. Parents arranged marriages for their children, finding a mate either through their own social contacts or through a professional matchmaker. Unions between the children of brothers were customarily preferred, or at least matches between close relatives or within the same tribe. One study, however, showed that many marriages occurred outside these bounds, the result of increased levels of education and internal migration. Nomads, particularly the Tuareg, have always allowed much more freedom of choice and courtship.

According to law, the affianced couple must have given their consent to the marriage, but in practice the couple tends to take little part in the arrangements. The contract establishes the terms of the union and outlines appropriate recourse if they are broken. The groom's family provides a dowry, which can amount to the equivalent of US$10,000 in large cities. Accumulation of the requisite dowry may be one reason that males tend to be several years older than females at the time of marriage.

Islamic law gives the husband far greater discretion and far greater leeway with respect to marriage than it gives the wife. For example, the husband may take up to four wives at one time, provided that he can treat them equally; a woman, however, can have only one husband at a time. Despite the legality of polygyny, only 3 percent of marriages in the 1980s were polygynous, the same as a decade earlier. A man can divorce his wife simply by repeating "I divorce thee" three times before witnesses; a woman can initiate divorce proceedings only with great difficulty. Any children of the union belong to the husband's family and remain with him after the divorce.

Both the monarchical and revolutionary governments enacted statutes improving the position of females with respect to marriage. The minimum age for marriage was set at sixteen for females and at eighteen for males. Marriage by proxy has been forbidden, and a 1972 law prescribes that a girl cannot be married against her will or when she is under the age of sixteen. Should her father forbid her marriage to a man whom she has chosen for herself, a girl who is a minor (under the age of twenty-one) may petition a court for permission to proceed with her marriage.

The revolutionary government has enacted several statutes expanding women's rights and restricting somewhat those of men in matters of divorce. Women received increased rights to seek divorce or separation by either customary or legal means in cases of abandonment or mistreatment. Other laws prohibit a man from taking a second spouse without first obtaining the approval of his first wife and forbid a divorced man from marrying an alien woman, even an Arab from another country. A companion law prohibits men in the employ of the state from marrying non-Arab women. Yet the child born abroad of a Libyan father is eligible for Libyan citizenship irrespective of the mother's nationality, while a child born to a Libyan mother would not be accorded automatic Libyan citizenship.

In a society as tradition-bound as Libya's, the effects of these new laws were problematic. Despite the backing of the regime and Qadhafi's calls for still further modifications in favor of women, the society reportedly was not yet ready to acknowledge the new rights, and women were still hesitant in claiming them.



Nearly all Libyans adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, which provides both a spiritual guide for individuals and a keystone for government policy. Its tenets stress a unity of religion and state rather than a separation or distinction between the two, and even those Muslims who have ceased to believe fully in Islam retain Islamic habits and attitudes. Since the 1969 coup, the Qadhafi regime has explicitly endeavored to reaffirm Islamic values, enhance appreciation of Islamic culture, elevate the status of Quranic law and, to a considerable degree, emphasize Quranic practice in everyday Libyan life.

In A.D. 610, Muhammad (the Prophet), a prosperous merchant of the town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations said to have been granted him by God (Allah) through the agency of the archangel Gabriel. The divine messages, received during solitary visits into the desert, continued during the remainder of his life.

Muhammad denounced the polytheistic paganism of his fellow Meccans, his vigorous and continuing censure ultimately earning him their bitter enmity. In 622 he and a group of his followers were forced to flee to Yathrib, which became known as Medina (the city) through its association with him. The hijra (flight: known in the West as the hegira) marked the beginning of the Islamic era and of Islam as a powerful historical force; the Muslim calendar begins with the year 622. In Medina Muhammad continued his preaching, ultimately defeated his detractors in battle, and had consolidated the temporal as well as spiritual leadership of most Arabs in his person before his death in 632.

After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled his words that were regarded as coming directly from God in a document known as the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam. Other sayings and teachings of the Prophet, as well as the precedents of his personal behavior as recalled by those who had known him, became the hadith ("sayings"). From these sources, the faithful have constructed the Prophet's customary practice, or sunna, which they endeavor to emulate. Together, these documents form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the faithful in most Muslim countries.

In a short time, Islam was transformed from a small religious community into a dynamic political and military authority. During the seventh century, Muslim conquerors reached Libya, and by the eighth century most of the resistance mounted by the indigenous Berbers had ended. The urban centers soon became substantially Islamic, but widespread conversion of the nomads of the desert did not come until after large-scale invasions in the eleventh century by beduin tribes from Arabia and Egypt.

A residue of pre-Islamic beliefs blended with the pure Islam of the Arabs. Hence, popular Islam became an overlay of Quranic ritual and principles upon the vestiges of earlier beliefs--prevalent throughout North Africa--in jinns (spirits), the evil eye, rites to ensure good fortune, and cult veneration of local saints. The educated of the cities and towns served as the primary bearers and guardians of the more austere brand of orthodox Islam.


Tenets of Islam

The shahadah (profession of faith, or testimony) states succinctly the central belief, "There is no God but God Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet." The faithful repeat this simple profession on ritual occasions, and its recital designates the speaker as a Muslim. The term Islam means submission to God, and he who submits is a Muslim.

The God preached by Muhammad was previously known to his countrymen, for Allah is the general Arabic term for the supreme being rather than the name of a particular deity. Rather than introducing a new deity, Muhammad denied the existence of the pantheon of gods and spirits worshipped before his prophethood and declared the omnipotence of God, the unique creator. Muhammad is the "Seal of the Prophets," the last of the prophetic line. His revelations are said to complete for all time the series of revelations that had been given earlier to Jews and Christians. God is believed to have remained one and the same throughout time, but humans are seen as having misunderstood or strayed from God's true teachings until set aright by Muhammad. Prophets and sages of the biblical tradition, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are recognized as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only the message, rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger. It accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, resurrection, and the eternal life of the soul.

The duties of the Muslim form the "five pillars" of the faith. These are shahadah, salat (daily prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). The believer prays facing Mecca at five specified times during the day. Whenever possible, men observe their prayers in congregation at a mosque under direction of an imam, or prayer leader, and on Fridays are obliged to do so. Women are permitted to attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from men, but their attendance tends to be discouraged, and more frequently they pray in the seclusion of their homes.

In the early days of Islam, a tax for charitable purposes was imposed on personal property in proportion to the owner's wealth; the payment purified the remaining wealth and made it religiously legitimate. The collection of this tax and its distribution to the needy were originally functions of the state. But with the breakdown of Muslim religiopolitical authority, alms became an individual responsibility. With the discovery of petroleum in Libya and the establishment of a welfare society, almsgiving has been largely replaced by public welfare and its significance diluted accordingly (see Health and Welfare , this ch.).

Fasting is practiced during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan, the time during which the first chapters of the Quran were revealed to Muhammad. It is a period during which most Muslims must abstain from food, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity during the daylight hours. The well-to-do accomplish little work during this period, and many businesses close or operate on reduced schedules. Because the months of the lunar calendar revolve through the solar year, Ramadan occurs during various seasons. In Libya, among the strictest of Muslim countries, cafes must remain closed during the day. But they open their doors after dark, and feasting takes place during the night.

Finally, at least once during their lifetime all Muslims should make the hajj to the holy city of Mecca to participate in the special rites that occur during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Upon completion of this and certain other ritual assignments, the returning pilgrim is entitled to the honorific "al Haj," before his name.

In addition to prescribing specific duties, Islam imposes a code of conduct entailing generosity, fairness, honesty, and respect for others. Its proscribes adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol. Although proscription of alcohol is irregularly enforced in most Muslim countries, the Libyan revolutionary government has been strict in ensuring that its prohibition be effective, even in the households of foreign diplomats.

Muslims traditionally are subject to the sharia, or religious law, which--as interpreted by religious courts--covers most aspects of life. In Libya the Maliki school is followed. One of several schools of Islamic law, it predominates throughout North Africa . The sharia, which was developed by jurists from the Quran and from the traditions of the Prophet, provides a complete pattern for human conduct.


Saints and Brotherhoods

Islam as practiced in North Africa is interlaced with indigenous Berber beliefs. Although the orthodox faith preached the unique and inimitable majesty and sanctity of God and the equality of God's believers, an important element of North African Islam for centuries has been a belief in the coalescence of special spiritual power in particular living human beings. The power is known as baraka, a transferable quality of personal blessedness and spiritual force said to lodge in certain individuals. Those whose claim to possess baraka can be substantiated--through performance of apparent miracles, exemplary human insight, or genealogical connection with a recognized possessor--are viewed as saints. These persons are known in the West as marabouts, a French transliteration of al murabitun (those who have made a religious retreat), and the benefits of their baraka are believed to accrue to those ordinary people who come in contact with them.

The cult of saints became widespread in rural areas; in urban localities, Islam in its orthodox form continued to prevail. Saints were present in Tripolitania, but they were particularly numerous in Cyrenaica. Their baraka continued to reside in their tombs after their deaths. The number of venerated tombs varied from tribe to tribe, although there tended to be fewer among the camel herders of the desert than among the sedentary and nomadic tribes of the plateau area. In one village, a visitor in the late 1960s counted sixteen still-venerated tombs.

Coteries of disciples frequently clustered around particular saints, especially those who preached an original tariqa (devotional "way"). Brotherhoods of the followers of such mystical teachers appeared in North Africa at least as early as the eleventh century and in some cases became mass movements. The founder ruled an order of followers, who were organized under the frequently absolute authority of a leader, or shaykh. The brotherhood was centered on a zawiya (pl., zawaya--see Glossary).

Because of Islam's austere rational and intellectual qualities, many people have felt drawn toward the more emotional and personal ways of knowing God practiced by mystical Islam, or Sufism. Found in many parts of the Muslim world, Sufism endeavored to produce a personal experience of the divine through mystic and ascetic discipline.

Sufi adherents gathered into brotherhoods, and Sufi cults became extremely popular, particularly in rural areas. Sufi brotherhoods exercised great influence and ultimately played an important part in the religious revival that swept through North Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Libya, when the Ottoman Empire proved unable to mount effective resistance to the encroachment of Christian missionaries, the work was taken over by Sufi-inspired revivalist movements. Among these, the most forceful and effective was that of the Sanusis, which extended into numerous parts of North Africa.


The Sanusis

The Sanusi movement was a religious revival adapted to desert life. Its zawaayaa could be found in Tripolitania and Fezzan, but Sanusi influence was strongest in Cyrenaica. Rescuing the region from unrest and anarchy, the Sanusi movement gave the Cyrenaican tribal people a religious attachment and feelings of unity and purpose.

The Sanusis formed a nucleus of resistance to the Italian colonial regime (see Italian Colonialism , ch. 1). As the nationalism fostered by unified resistance to the Italians gained adherents, however, the religious fervor of devotion to the movement began to wane, particularly after the Italians destroyed Sanusi religious and educational centers during the 1930s. Nonetheless, King Idris, the monarch of independent Libya, was the grandson of the founder of the Sanusi movement, and his status as a Sanusi gave him the unique ability to command respect from the disparate parts of his kingdom.

Despite its momentary political prominence, the Sanusi movement never regained its strength as a religious force after its zawaya were destroyed by the Italians. A promised restoration never fully took place, and the Idris regime used the Sanusi heritage as a means of legitimizing political authority rather than of providing religious leadership.

After unseating Idris in 1969, the revolutionary government placed restrictions on the operation of the remaining zawaya, appointed a supervisor for Sanusi properties, and merged the Sanusi-sponsored Islamic University with the University of Libya. The movement was virtually banned, but in the 1980s occasional evidence of Sanusi activity was nonetheless reported.


Islam in Revolutionary Libya

Under the revolutionary government, the role of orthodox Islam in Libyan life has become progressively more important. Qadhafi is a highly devout Muslim who has repeatedly expressed a desire to exalt Islam and to restore it to its proper--i.e., central--place in the life of the people. He believes that the purity of Islam has been sullied through time, particularly by the influence of Europeans during and after the colonial period, and that its purity must be restored--by such actions as the restoration of sharia to its proper place as the basis of the Libyan legal system, the banning of "immodest" practices and dress, and the symbolic purification of major urban mosques that took place in 1978.

Qadhafi also believes in the value of the Quran as a moral and political guide for the contemporary world, as is evident from his tract, The Green Book, published in the mid-1970s (see The Green Book, ch. 4). Qadhafi consideres the first part of The Green Book to be a commentary on the implications of the Quranic injunction that human affairs be managed by consultation. For him, this means direct democracy, which is given "practical meaning" through the creation of people's committees and popular congresses. Qadhafi feels that, inasmuch as The Green Book is based solely on the Quran, its provisions are universally applicable--at least among Muslims.

Soon after taking office, the Qadhafi government showed itself to be devoutly fundamentalist by closing bars and nightclubs, banning entertainment deemed provocative or immodest, and making use of the Muslim calendar mandatory. The intention of reestablishing sharia was announced, and Qadhafi personally assumed chairmanship of a commission to study the problems involved. In November 1973, a new legal code was issued that revised the entire Libyan judicial system to conform to the sharia, and in 1977 the General People's Congress (GPC--see Glossary) issued a statement that all future legal codes would be based on the Quran.

Among the laws enacted by the Qadhafi government a series of legal penalties prescribed during 1973 included the punishment of armed robbery by amputation of a hand and a foot. The legislation contained qualifying clauses making its execution unlikely, but its enactment had the effect of applying Quranic principles in the modern era. Another act prescribed flogging for individuals breaking the fast of Ramadan, and yet another called for eighty lashes to be administered to both men and women guilty of fornication.

In the early 1970s, Islam played a major role in legitimizing Qadhafi's political and social reforms. By the end of the decade, however, he had begun to attack the religious establishment and several fundamental aspects of Sunni Islam. Qadhafi asserted the transcendence of the Quran as the sole guide to Islamic governance and the unimpeded ability of every Muslim to read and interpret it. He denigrated the roles of the ulama (see Glossary), imams, and Islamic jurists and questioned the authenticity of the hadith, and thereby the sunna, as a basis for Islamic law. The sharia itself, Qadhafi maintained, governed only such matters as properly fell within the sphere of religion; all other matters lay outside the purview of religious law. Finally, he called for a revision of the Muslim calendar, saying it should date from the Prophet's death in 632, an event he felt was more momentous than the hijra ten years earlier.

These unorthodox views on the hadith, sharia, and the Islamic era aroused a good deal of unease. They seemed to originate from Qadhafi's conviction that he possessed the transcendant ability to interpret the Quran and to adapt its message to modern life. Equally, they reinforced the view that he was a reformer but not a literalist in matters of the Quran and Islamic tradition. On a practical level, however, several observers agreed that Qadhafi was less motivated by religious convictions than by political calculations. By espousing these views and by criticizing the ulama, he was using religion to undermine a segment of the middle class that was notably vocal in opposing his economic policies in the late 1970s. But Qadhafi clearly considered himself an authority on the Quran and Islam and was not afraid to challenge traditional religious authority. He also was not prepared to tolerate dissent.

The revolutionary government gave repeated evidence of its desire to establish Libya as a leader of the Islamic world. Moreover, Qadhafi's efforts to create an Arab nation through political union with other Arab states were also based on a desire to create a great Islamic nation. Indeed, Qadhafi drew little distinction between the two.

The government took a leading role in supporting Islamic institutions and in worldwide proselytizing on behalf of Islam. The Jihad Fund, supported by a payroll tax, was established in 1970 to aid the Palestinians in their struggle with Israel. The Faculty of Islamic Studies and Arabic at the University of Benghazi was charged with training Muslim intellectual leaders for the entire Islamic world, and the Islamic Mission Society used public funds for the construction and repair of mosques and Islamic educational centers in cities as widely separated as Vienna and Bangkok. The Islamic Call Society (Ad Dawah) was organized with government support to propagate Islam abroad, particularly throughout Africa, and to provide funds to Muslims everywhere.

Qadhafi has been forthright in his belief in the perfection of Islam and his desire to propagate it. His commitment to the open propagation of Islam, among other reasons, has caused him to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-based fundamentalist movement that has used clandestine and sometimes subversive means to spread Islam and to eliminate Western influences. Although the brotherhood's activities in Libya were banned in the mid-1980s, it was present in the country but maintained a low profile (see Religious Opposition , ch. 4). In 1983 a member of the brotherhood was executed in Tripoli, and in 1986 a group of brotherhood adherents was arrested after the murder of a high-ranking political official in Benghazi. Qadhafi has challenged the brotherhood to establish itself openly in non-Muslim countries and has promised its leaders that, if it does, he will support its activities.

Qadhafi has stressed the universal applicability of Islam, but he has also reaffirmed the special status assigned by the Prophet to Christians. He has, however, likened them to misguided Muslims who have strayed from the correct path. Furthermore, he has assumed leadership of a drive to free Africa of Christianity as well as of the colonialism with which it has been associated