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Mukhtār, ʿUmar al-

By:
Knut S. Vikør
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Mukhtār, ʿUmar al-

ʿUmar al-Mukhtār ibn ʿUmar al-Minifī (c.1858–1931), a Libyan resistance leader, grew up in a religious family connected to the Sanūsīyah Ṣūfī order in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya). He came from the ʿĀʿilat Farḥāt branch of the Minifīyah, an independent client tribe. ʿUmar studied at the lodge of Zanzūr, moving on to the Sanūsī capital and university of Jaghbūb in 1887, then moving with the leadership to Kufra in the Libyan desert in 1895.

Two years later he was appointed shaykh of the al-Qaṣūr lodge in western Cyrenaica, in the territory of the unruly ʿAbīd tribe. ʿUmar was successful in solidifying the authority of the order in the region. His success noted, he was again called south in 1899, when the order was expanding into Borku (northern Chad). He was appointed shaykh of the ʿAyn Qalakkah lodge. Here he had his first military experiences fighting the French forces. In 1903 he moved back to al-Qaṣūr as shaykh of the lodge.

When the Italians invaded Libya in 1911, ʿUmar led the ʿAbīd in the ensuing jihād. By the time the first war ended in a truce in 1917, ʿUmar had gained great influence with the new leader of the Sanūsīyah, Muḥammad Idrīs. In 1923, the Italians reopened hostilities. Idrīs went into exile in Egypt and appointed ʿUmar as one of the leaders for the campaign in Cyrenaica. Already more than sixty years old, as nāʿib al-ʿāmm (general representative) he became a charismatic figure who inspired the tribes to join and maintain the struggle.

ʿUmar, known as "Assad al-Saharaʿah" ("The Lion of the Desert"), displayed considerable tactical skill and was able to lead the mostly tribal units in a campaign that for more than six years confounded the Italians in spite of their great numerical and material superiority. Eventually his guerilla forces started to be worn down as food became scarce and vital ammunitions ran out, and in 1929, after a series of defeats, ʿUmar asked for truce negotiations. They led nowhere, and after three months he resumed fighting. But Italian superiority was now evident, in particular after, in 1930, they began rounding up the bedouin population into concentration camps and cut off supply lines by closing the Egyptian border with barbed wire. ʿUmar's fighters became hunted groups, and on September 11, 1931, ʿUmar himself was captured in a chance encounter. He was brought to Benghazi, submitted to a mock trial, and was publicly hanged on September 16 at Solush. After his death the resistance crumbled, ending within three months, and ʿUmar became a martyr of the Cyrenaican rebellion.

What made ʿUmar al-Mukhtār such a charismatic leader was a combination of religious authority and personal skill. Although the forces he led were largely tribal, he himself came from a relatively minor, client tribe. His first military power was based on the ʿAbīd tribe, among whom he was the leader of the Sanūsī Ṣūfī lodge. ʿUmar did not venture outside Libya to defy order, but simply defended his land. While he did not articulate novel ideas, he was a devoted practitioner of freedom, and his basic understanding of authority compelled him to fight and die for his nation.

See also LIBYA and SANūSīYAH.

Bibliography

  • Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif. The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance, 1830–1932. Albany, N.Y., 1994. Find it in your Library
  • Del Boca, Angelo. Gli Italiani in Libia. 2 vols. Rome, 1986–1988. Thorough study of the period from an Italian point of view. Find it in your Library
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E.The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford, 1949. Still the major study of the period in English. Find it in your Library
  • Santarelli, Enzo, Giorgio Rochat, Romain Raniero, and Luigi Goglia. Omar al-Mukhtar: The Italian Reconquest of Libya. London, 1986. Concentrates on the last years of the war, using Italian sources in a critical perspective. Find it in your Library
  • Vandewalle, Dirk. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge, U.K., 2006. Find it in your Library
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