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Qadhdhāfī, Muʿammar al-

Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti
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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Qadhdhāfī, Muʿammar al-

Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī (1942–2011) was a Libyan military and political leader. When the monarchy in Libya was overthrown by a military coup between August 31 and September 1, 1969 by a group of “free unionist army officers,” Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī became the leader of the newly proclaimed Libyan Arab Republic. A Council of the Command of the Revolution (CCR) took over the political future of the country. Qadhdhāfī was elected president and was promoted from captain to colonel on September 13, 1969. Qadhdhāfī's biography prior to 1969 is a synthesis of historical evidence, oral reports, and legendary elements, often fostered by his own cult of personality.

Life and Rule.

Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī was born in 1942 (date uncertain) in the inland desert of the Sirte region, of a nomadic peasant family of bedouin belonging to the Qadhdhāfah tribe. Like most of his kin, as a very young boy he was a shepherd in accordance with the bedouin way of life, until now the only one morally acceptable in his opinion. Recognizing the boy's intelligence, his father found (in 1949–1950) a teacher of classical Arabic and the Qurʿān for him from Fezzan. In the early 1950s, Qadhdhāfī went to primary school in Sirte. Though very poor—he slept at the local mosque—he was a brilliant student and made up quickly for his late start at school. He then moved with his family to the Fezzan region and went to secondary school, where he met some of the people, including ʿAbd al-Salām Jallūd, who would later join him in his seizure of power.

Qadhdhāfī at this time was fascinated by the personality of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Nasser's theory on Arabism according to which there is only one Arab nation, which must find its unity. In 1956, during the Suez War, he organized a demonstration supporting Egypt among his schoolfellows. He was fourteen, but he gave his first public political speech in front of the French Consulate in Sebha. During the same period, Qadhdhāfī was certainly actively involved in political activity opposing Western interference in the Arab world. He was expelled from Sebha and all the schools of Fezzan for his political activities in 1961; together with his family, he moved to Miṣrātah on the coast. He entered the Military Academy of Benghazi in 1964; there he organized the first underground structures of the movement that brought him to power. He attended a training course in Great Britain (Beaconsfield) in 1966: this was the only direct experience of Europe, since his knowledge of Italy—his main point of reference (as Libya's major first economic partner) and antagonist (he regularly claims compensation for the damages for colonial legacy)—was only mediated. He never resided in Italy.

From 1969 onward, Qadhdhāfī's biography is coincident with the political stages of the Libyan Republic. On September 18, 1969, he drafted the main outlines of his political program. The following month, he ordered foreign military (U.S. and U.K.) forces to evacuate Libyan territory, calling for neutrality and national/Arab unity. The main pillars of the economy (banks, clinics, oil, etc.) were nationalized a few months later. On December 11, the CCR issued a provisional Constitution. In July 1970, three laws were passed: the confiscation of all property owned by Italians and Jews and the expulsion of both communities. In 1970 he began the long struggle against the military presence of Great Britain and the United States on Libyan territory and, at the same time, the process which would end in 1973 in oil nationalization. Political parties were banned in 1970, and in June 1971 the Arab Socialist Union was founded.

Between 1971 and 1973, Qadhdhāfī, as part of his “cultural and popular revolution,” reintroduced Islamic law, but refused to accept the traditional role of the ʿulamāʿ (the traditional experts of law [fuqahaʿ]). This was one of the steps towards the establishment of the Arab Popular Socialist Libyan Jamāhirīyah, officially proclaimed only in 1976. He claimed to set up a new system of government: placing power in the hands of the masses, but is expressed by a peculiar structure of committees that represent the decision-making and executive bodies of the state. The aim was the assumed political responsibility by Libyan people and its mobilization also in military terms. Libya's mission was to be a model for the world. Qadhdhāfī published the first three parts of his “third universal theory,” i.e., The Green Book, in 1973, completed between 1974 and 1979. Qadhdhāfī also tried hard to implement the process of unification of the Arab world, but he faced severe failure practically in all his initiatives: all the attempts to confederate with other Arab states (for example, Egypt in 1972, Tunisia in 1974, Morocco in 1984) did not last; a fundamentalist Islamic opposition, especially from 1978 onwards, challenged his authority for years before being severely repressed. In spite of all the efforts (International Congresses, critics, publications, and translations of The Green Book), the “third universal theory” did not gain serious attention in the international arena. His support for many liberation movements, from ETA to radical Palestinian movements and the IRA, was used as evidence of his involvement with international terrorism that justified the U.s. air attack on Tripoli and his residence (December 4, 1986), and worst of all was the intermittent but long conflict with Chad (1973–1994), which ended with no results for Libya.

An attempt on Qadhdhāfī's life was made in 1988. This year marked a real change in his ideological view and, consequently, in his political behavior. Since then, he has mellowed down in his criticism of the West; he abandoned any protagonism; and, especially after September 11, 2001, he undertook a gradual rapprochement with the United States, which led, between 2004–2006, to the restoration of relations with Libya in the perspective to resume diplomatic relations. It is commonly believed that he is “sponsoring,” as his possible successor, his reform-minded son, Sayf al-Islām, educated in the United Kingdom and largely responsible for the changes at stake.

Despite these efforts, Qadhdhāfī's regime was not immune to the series of democratic reform and protest movements referred to as the Arab Spring (or the Arab Awakening) that swept the region in early 2011. The protests within Libya quickly gained momentum despite (or, very likely, because of) Qadhdhāfī's violent response. By March, the country was engulfed in a civil war, as defectors from the government joined rebels fighting largely in Eastern Libya. The regime drew fierce criticism for allegedly targeting civilians in its crackdown. When Qadhdhāfī's forces were on the verge of seizing the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi, the United Nations declared the area to be a no-fly zone. A NATO air campaign against the government followed and, over the next several months, the tide began to turn in favor of the rebellion as loyalist forces retreated to Tripoli. The ensuing battle in the capital resulted in another rebel victory; by then, the Arab League had joined with many others in the international community to declare the newly formed transitional council to be the recognized Libyan government. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Qadhdhāfī's arrest for crimes against humanity. In October, having retreated to his hometown of Sirte, a severely wounded Qadhdhāfī was discovered hiding by advancing rebel forces and apparently executed while being held prisoner. The graphic images of his final moments appeared in news broadcasts throughout the world, leading to calls for the killers to be brought to trial under the interim government. Qadhdhāfī's body was put on display as per Islamic custom, and then buried in an undisclosed desert location.

Political and Social Thought.

Qadhdhāfī's political and social thought was grounded in The Green Book, but it is mostly expressed in an enormous corpus, the Sijillal-Qawmi (a kind of “official gazette”), which contains all his public speeches. Philosophically, he considered society to possess a concentric structure from the minimal aggregation (the family) to the global aggregation (people/nation). The nation is held together by culture, religion, and language; the people are the preeminent political subject. The state is not a natural outcome, though social ties can be naturally converted into a conscious national identity. Democracy should express the real power of the people/nation. There should therefore be self-government of the people, and democracy must be direct and participatory, without the delegation of powers.

According to the contingent political context and to the countries he refers to, the basic elements of the identity of peoples/nations are differently located: Arabism as theorized by Nasser and the Arabic language during the period of the attempts to establish a federation with other Arab countries; Islam, as an anti-imperialist religion, and its ethical duty to divide wealth and resources equally, when his propaganda addressed to African Muslim countries; a kind of “Sahara” spirit when he strongly acted in favor of the formation of the Community of Saharan and Sahelian States (1992); a mixture of Islam and cultural heritage, oriented by a common experience of oppression and colonialism throughout Africa, one of his main concerns, also stated in the Fifth Summit of the African Union held in Sirte in July 2005.

Islam plays a role in his philosophy. Although he does not mention it in The Green Book, Qadhdhāfī considered Islam to be the natural religion to meet the immediate needs of the individual and of humanity as a whole. Mysticism and asceticism are useless, as are religious hierarchies. In practical terms, this means that only the Qurʿān can be the direct source of reference. Qadhdhāfī was a modernist, in the sense that he denied legitimacy to any specific body of interpreters. Tradition and religious interpretations evolved over succeeding centuries cannot help the believer. He was convinced that his political, social, and economic theory corresponds to the real nature of Islam. He attempted to bridge the gap between his roots and modern needs while rejecting the westernization of Muslim societies.

Qadhdhāfī's ideal society rejected class struggle and was based on solidarity. In this perspective, the individual's dignity is essential. Nothing can force humans into a condition of slavery—hence his rejection of salary-based work. Of particular interest is Qadhdhāfī's attitude toward women. Claiming to be a correct interpreter of Islam, he promoted women's access to all levels of education and, to a certain extent, to the job market. In July 1979, he opened the first women's military academy in the Arab world. So much for the theory; the reality on the ground was much different.

It is not correct to say that Qadhdhāfī was always the mad dictator that the world saw during the insurrection of 2011. It is true, however, that the regime, which was established after the Officer's Revolution led by Qadhdhāfī, was not, strictly speaking, a democratic one. In fact, from the beginning, the home policy was rigid and repressive, especially toward intellectuals, a stance that was shared by many of the leaders of the Arab world. But, in a quite exceptional way, for example on the economic level, his regime was quite generous, albeit in a nepotistic and demagogic fashion. It was after his failure in the international arena, from 1977 on, that he began to implement the cult of personality, to concentrate in his hands all of the decisions, and to emphasize his role as the true representative of Libya. The result was that he became more and more isolated not only from the Libyan masses but also among his own collaborators, which is a possible reason why so many of them decided to abandon him during the rebellion, even before his defeat appeared to be inevitable. It is likely that the public perception of him only grew worse as it became clear that his attempt to be accepted by Western powers did not bring about all of the desired results. Because of this isolation, Qadhdhāfī began to rely heavily on his family and tribe, and to surround himself with corrupt mercenaries. His public appearances became pure folklore, even when they were focused on a serious political issue, as in the case of his signing a treaty with Italy in 2010 in which the Italian government recognized the right of Libya to request comensation for damages attributed to Italian colonialism. But it would be an oversimplification to blame the revolt on Qadhdhāfī's folkloric appearances. One must also take into account the lack of a coherent national politics, which contributed to the explosion of tribal conflicts. Moreover, the role of Western influence in the uprising, even before the NATO operation, remains open to question. After all, attempts to manipulate the country's oil supply stretch back to before the Qadhdhāfī regime.

It will take time to write the real history of what happened in Libya in 2011. Leaving aside the horror of how he was killed, it is difficult not to have the impression that, generally speaking, the rebels and some European powers found Qadhdhāfī's death to be a more desirable outcome than an international trial. This situation leaves the country's near future in question. What is clear is that Qadhdhāfī will not be remembered as the poor boy who overthrew a king sponsored by Western powers, but as the cruel tyrant who turned on the people who dared to challenge his power and arrogance.

See also LIBYA.


  • Burgat, François. La Libye. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999.
  • Del Boca, Angelo. Gheddafi: una sfida dal deserto. Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1998. The most reliable biography.
  • Djaziri, Moncef. Etat et société en Libye. Paris: Harmattan, 1996.
  • Esposito, John L.Islam and Politics, 4th ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • El-Kikhia, Mansour. Libya's Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.
  • “Libya” entries in Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1969.Contains annual updates on Qadhdhāfī's internal and external policies.
  • Vandewalle, Dirk, ed.Qadhafi's Libya, 1969–1994. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
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