Frederic Wehrey

In Libya, religious endowments and their associated wealth have become a magnet for intense and often violent competition among Libya’s many political and religious currents.



The current political rivalries for control of offices of the awqaf and their attendant moral and social authority, along with the disputes over waqf land and properties, stem in many respects from the legacy of Qadhafi’s torturous rule (1969–2011) and the preceding disruptive period of Italian colonial occupation (1911–1943).

Yet it is important when examining these periods to avoid the analytical pitfall of positing a primordial and doctrinally pure awqaf that is uncorrupted by politics or foreign influence.

Throughout history, the institutions of the awqaf in Libya and elsewhere in the Muslim world have always been inherently political. They have also been influenced by an array of foreign powers, from within the Arab and Muslim world and from outside.

These legacies, combined with the decade of factional violence and political contestation of post-2011 Libya, have undoubtedly shaped the authority of the institution today and how Libyan citizens perceive its significance and roles. Throughout Libya’s modern history, the types of awqaf assets were marked by regional differences.

For centuries in eastern Libya, awqaf consisted primarily of land administered by the Sanusi Sufi brotherhood and dynasty, associated with local zawaya (singular zawiya, or religious schools, lodges, or orders that play an important social role in their surrounding communities).

In the colonial region of Tripolitania, in contrast, awqaf holdings were more diverse and were administered by the Ottoman sultan until 1915 when they fell under Italian control.

In subsequent years, the Italian colonial powers dealing with the awqaf tried to incorporate preexisting legal and administrative frameworks from the Ottoman era—associated with the Hanafi and Maliki schools of jurisprudence—as part of their efforts to impart an Islamic face to their rule.

Rome’s subsequent changes to the awqaf administration were often couched as Islamically sanctioned reforms, undertaken with token input from pro-Italian Libyan notables, that safeguarded—the Italian authorities maintained—the religious integrity of the institution.

More broadly, Italian colonial policies in Libya occurred during a time of intense criticism and introspection from within the Muslim and Arab world about the institution’s economic viability and overall efficiency.

When Italian colonial officials moved more forcefully to seize eastern awqaf properties in the late 1920s as part of a brutal counterinsurgency strategy against Sanusi-led resistance, they cited these voices in an attempt to justify their policies.

The net effect of this foreign interference and manipulation in the awqaf left behind a legacy of ambiguity and politicization that persisted until well after the demise of Italian rule. The post-Italian period before the Qadhafi regime constituted a period of relative continuity, if not a renaissance, of awqaf administration.

Notably, the Allies did not interfere in the institution during their postwar governance from 1943 to 1951, when the British administered the Libyan regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and the French oversaw the southern region of Fezzan.

Under the independent United Kingdom of Libya, formed in 1951, awqaf holdings, particularly those overseen by the Sanusi zawaya, formed an important source of authority for the short-lived Sanusi monarch, King Idris. Here again awqaf administration did not change significantly.


When Qadhafi toppled the monarchy in 1969, he implemented several policies to undercut the vestiges of the Sanusis, replacing Sanusi figures with non-Sanusi ulema, or religious scholars, as well as putting the zawaya under government supervision and forbidding the building of new ones.

But, by and large, he did not significantly intrude on the awqaf institutions during this initial period. Rather, he sought to maintain their authority and influence, albeit under non-Sanusi clerical control, to bolster the Islamic credentials of his new regime.

Resulting changes to the awqaf bodies were modest and mostly administrative, designed to further diminish Sanusi influence.

In 1971, for example, the regime enacted a law that unified the awqaf offices under the newly created General Authority for Awqaf, which brought under its purview the administration of Islamic universities (which had previously been under Sanusi supervision), Islamic proselytization, the administration of mosques, and the zawaya.

Shortly thereafter, the 1972 creation of the Islamic Call Society subsumed the general authority’s supervision of the awqaf, and then another law, modeled after Syrian and Egyptian legislation, clarified certain provisions related to the awqaf’s authority over inheritance and other matters.

The regime undertook increasingly repressive measures against outspoken ulema, while greater power on religious matters was devolved to the regime’s popular committees. But starting in 1973, regime policies toward the awqaf shifted dramatically.

That momentous year saw the start of Qadhafi’s purported cultural revolution, which incorporated a farrago of socialism, Islamic doctrine, and the so-called direct democracy articulated in Qadhafi’s Green Book and formalized in 1977 with the proclamation of the new state of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

The consequences of this ideological shift for Islamic institutions and Muslim clergy were profound. As part of this new vision, Qadhafi came to see the clerical class as anachronistic interlopers between God and the masses and as political threats to his authority.

Consequently, the regime undertook increasingly repressive measures against outspoken ulema—who resented being stripped of their clerical authority and privileges, including oversight of the awqaf—while greater power on religious matters was devolved to the regime’s popular committees.

By the 1980s, increased pushes toward collectivization—including the forbidding of rental income—led to the regime’s outright abolition of the awqaf authority and a ban on donations on behalf of the awqaf.

Qadhafi’s government also transferred some awqaf holdings in cities and towns to the regime’s favored tribes, who had recently arrived from rural areas.

From the 1990s to the 2000s, the awqaf authority enjoyed something of a resurgence, albeit under tight regime control. Specifically, it became a proxy for the government in administering mosques, supervising imams, and aligning all religious practices with a state-approved form of Islam.

This became especially apparent by the mid-2000s, when the regime began instrumentalizing the Madkhalis, the pro-regime Salafist current, as a bulwark against jihadi militancy.

Mosque imams, appointed by awqaf authorities, increasingly came to be dominated by Madkhalis, who were approved by and in some cases connected to the security services.

A former member of the awqaf authority in the port city of Misrata described serving on an awqaf committee before the 2011 revolution charged with appointing mosque imams and khatibs and being compelled to pass the resumés of candidates to internal security authorities for vetting.

Invariably, Madkhalis were chosen, often with only thin formal education and training. Echoing this, another Libyan observer close to the Salafists asserted that, by the late 2000s, “the manabar [mosque pulpits] were overflowing with Madkhalis.”

The ascendant Madkhali current would become one of several contestants for control of the awqaf body and other Islamic institutions after the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in 2011.


Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and Islamist politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.





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