The most serious issue that a colonialist state must face when it operates in a Muslim country endowed with ample lands that could assure the formation and development of a colony is, certainly, that of the availability of the land itself, which is for the most part set aside for constitution as habus [waqf] patrimony, and then immobilized. Hence the need to find a solution meeting these substantial requirements: first, avoiding any offence to Islamic basic principles; secondly, simultaneously allowing colonization of land constituted as habus. Above all, the solution must prevent land from being constituted as habus once more, which removes them from circulation, while allowing the colonization of the assets already constituted as habus.*

The economic institution of the Awqaf has been described as a primordial institution for the redistribution of wealth, and is considered Islam’s system of social welfare. A waqf is a charitable endowment dedicated to the benefit of society to please Allah. The dedicated assets are put in possession and ownership of Allah eternally, and are held in trust for the benefit of the people. In the middle of the 19th century half of all agricultural land in Algeria, and a third of agricultural land in Tunisia in 1883 belonged to the waqfs. In Cyrenaica, vast amounts of land were maintained as waqf assets by the Sanusiya prior to Italian’s occupation of the region. Although the exact size of these assets remains unknown, they include at least several hundreds of thousands hectares of agricultural land, thousands of coastal plots, educational institutions, mosques, zawiyas, and burial grounds, all immobilised by the Sanusiya as waqf property. That this land was held in trust prevented the amassing of provincial estate power and landlordship, and prohibited the evolution of feudalism in these societies. Islamic society was financed through the Awqaf, and it has been suggested that the “the evolution of Islamic civilisation is incomprehensible without taking account of them”. As an institution of great economic, strategical, and cultural significance, the Awqaf would stand as a formidable obstacle to Italian’s colonial economic penetration, and waqf policy became a crucial component of Italy’s colonial enterprise.

The Italian colonial forces were required to maintain nominal respect for indigenous Muslim institutions, which they had pledged to preserve as part of their colonial policy, while facilitating the acquisition of land and agricultural exploitation. Land surveys conducted by colonial forces in the prelude to occupation continued in the early years following the invasion, and revealed that Tripolitania and Cyrenaica did not have much free land to fulfil Italy’s demographically oriented enterprise, in which they saw Italian settlers exploiting arable land. In 1913, Land Registry Offices were established in Cyrenaica and a decree initiating a process of property certification was enforced by the Italian government. Extant title deeds obtained by the Italians show that land was divided into three categories: mulk or private, miri or state property, and waqf. By 1915, the issue of the waqf was defined in official records as the main obstacle to colonisation.

A further measure taken by the colonial authorities in the early years of the occupation was the establishment of a commission responsible for examining waqf assets and suggesting reforms. The commission was made up of selected pro-Italian Muslim notables; among them Hassuna Karamanli, Farhat Bey, and Dawud Afandi, and Italian so-called scholars of Islamic Law, including David Santillana and Carlo Alfonso Nallino. The deliberations began in November 1915 and records of the meeting reveal the options considered by the commission. These include exchanging waqf assets, as attempted in Tunisia, which was ruled an ineffective means of reform. Although it moved property back onto the market, exchange of waqf assets failed to reduce the size of patrimony alienated through the Awqaf, and therefore did not allow the Italian authorities to increase the assets available to colonisation. Long-term or perpetual tenancy, or inzal was also considered as an option. The inzal contract had been used in Tunisia to the great benefit of the French, and was considered by some to be in accordance with both Islamic and colonial interests. Carlo Alfonso Nallino drew up a report following the commission’s deliberations highlighting what he saw as naïveté on the part of the Italians, and suggesting that the waqf was being used an instrument by the Muslim notables who sought to exploit the institution’s complexity to their own advantage. He criticised the commission’s obsession with inzal in particular and suggested that the Italian members of the commission had fallen “into the trap skilfully set by the natives”. Nallino proposed further reforms for consideration, including using the khuluw al-intifa contract, which entitled the Italians to the lesser rights of usufruct for waqf property that had deteriorated, and the hikr contract for agricultural land, which Nallino interpreted as tying rent to increases in the value of waqf assets. A further reform he suggested was that of mugharasa, or land leasing.

Nallino is reported to have countered the attempts of the commission’s Muslim members to reassert Italian control over waqf assets on several occasions. In one such instance, Muslim members proposed that waqf revenues set aside for educational ventures could be used for the establishment of a “Scientific Islamic University” in Tripoli, similar to Zaytuna in Tunis or Al-Azhar in Cairo. Nallino, recognising such an venture would be contrary to Italian interests, suggested that the revenues should instead be used to for an Islamic Cultural institution to be established by the Italian colonial administration (such was the case with the Imam Malik ibn Anas al-Deen Quranic School).

In Tripolitania between 1914 and 1922, 3612 hectares of land belonging to the Ottoman administration had been seized by the colonial state and given to Italian settlers. From 1922, the Italians started to take more concerted measures to increase the expanse of land under their control. They decreed all uncultivated land would be considered state property, and between 1922 and 1926, seized a further 58000 hectares of land, 31000 hectares of which was granted to Italian settlers. In 1928, Italy now under fascist rule, a new legislation concerning state subsidised colonisation was enacted, and by 1931, 220000 hectares of land was under the ownership and control of the colonial state; of which half was ceded for cultivation to 7500 Italian settlers.

Carta Dimostrative della Tripolitania. Map published by Antonio Vallarde, 1910.

As much as guns and warships, maps have been weapons of imperialism. Insofar as maps were used in colonial promotion, and lands claimed on paper before they were effectively occupied, maps anticipated empire. Surveyors marched alongside soldiers, initially mapping for reconnaissance, then for general information, and eventually as a tool of pacification, civilisation, and exploitation in the defined colonies. But there is more to this than the drawing of boundaries for the practical political or military containment of subject populations. Maps were used to legitimise the reality of conquest and empire.**

Italy’s greatest obstacle to colonial penetration in Cyrenaica were the Sanusiya and their network of Awqaf assets. In 1913 and 1914 the Italian government ordered the political administration of Cyrenaica to carry out a census of zawiya estates, which yielded no conclusive outcome. The Sanusiya are reported to have prevented the Italians from conducting land surveys of the region on several occasions. Following the failure of the Italians to assert their control over Sanusi territories in Cyrenaica prior to First World War, the Italians and Sanusiya came to a modus vivendi at Acroma, a town in the Butnan district, in April 1917. Although an agreement was reached, which included amongst the terms the closing of a battleground in the area, neither party was willing to relinquish their claim of sovereignty over the area, and Mohammed Idris Sanusi continued to wield sovereign power over Cyrenaica. Another term of the agreement outlined the appointment of a mixed commission responsible for conducting a census of all Sanusiya assets in the region, and included Massimo Colucci and Fernando Valenzi, who were assigned to manage land offices in Benghazi and Derna, and an associate of the Sanusi Emir, Sheykh Mohammed Bu-Negima al-Fahasi. Unlike previous census attempts, this commission was successful in giving the Italians an important basis for the verification of title to the land, which would later be used for confiscation during fascist rule. A report by Colucci and Valenzi from August 1919 reveals the Italians had surveyed and registered the estates of only fourteen zawiyas (of a total of at least forty), totaling to 45033 hectares of land along the Mediterranean coast. The survey yielded no proof of the economic value of the remaining zawiya territory for the Italians, which would remain under the control of the Sanusiya. The collaboration between the Italian administration and the Sanusiya was legally formalised in an agreement in October 1920 in the town of al-Rijma. This agreement granted direct sovereignty over the Libyan coast and highlands to Italy, while entrusting self-governing administration of the rest of Cyrenaica to Mohammmed Idris Sanusi.

In May 1930 Graziani ordered the shutting down of all the zawiyas in Cyrenaica, and initiated the final decisive phase of the occupation. Military seizures ordered by Graziani were followed by legal investigations intended to legitimise the final transfer of property. The final phase of the land grab was confiscation by royal decree. Italian forces wanted to dispel suspicions that they were carrying out an assault on the Awqaf, and instead attempted to justify confiscation as a measure taken against the rebels, and that had no “anti-religious nature”, as the minister De Bono claimed. Adolfo Fantoni, a judge tasked with preparing the legal basis for colonial authorities’ confiscation programme, cited a professor of Islamic law at Cairo University affirming that the foundation of the Awqaf was irreligious. In a report Fantoni drew up in August 1930 he writes, “The abolition of the Sanusi zawiyas does not conflict with religious law. Rather, it is in keeping with the advice of the most authoritive scholars of Islamic law.” Del Bono, introducing Fantoni’s report went as far as to claim that the “the Sanusiya was able to establish to its benefit in Cyrenaica a series of economic privileges that have no serious foundation even in Islamic law”.

From its outset, the Italian invasion was designed to replace the original inhabitants of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica with Italians. As such, the occupation devastated communities, and the Sanusiya brotherhood in particular. The Italian forces carried out a campaign of assassinations, deportations, internment in concentration camps, and the whole scale massacre of livestock. The Bedouin population of Cyrenaica was reduced by at least half. Zawiyas were either bombarded and decimated, or turned into Italian military posts. Zawiyat al-Bayda, the oldest zawiya of Cyrenaica and the centre of the Sanusiya brotherhood until the establishment of the zawiya of Giarabub in 1855, was turned into Italian government offices and a post for the Carabinieri.

What Italy had achieved in the region was not the total abolition of the institution of the Awqaf; the brotherhood was able to consolidate its hold on some of its so-called “religious” assets. More devastatingly the colonial administration reduced the Sanusiya to merely a religious order, one prohibited from collecting tolls, rates, tithes, and other taxes, and from maintaining and managing their vast waqf wealth for the benefit of their community. Italy’s policies of redefinition and reduction of the region’s resources was not without precedent. In drawing up their legal arguments, colonial forces referred to the system of modernisation and development launched by the Ottoman reforms, or Tanzimat, which permitted them to acknowledge only religious assets – mosques and cemeteries, as bound by waqf, and allowed Italy to pursue the colonial appropriation of land. It is thought that this channelling of wealth and resources, once distributed through the Awqaf, later through colonial control, assured the colonialists’ absolute hegemony over the lands of Islam. The confiscation of land in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was not just the transfer of ownership of vast resources; it denied the Muslim natives an economic base to resist Italy’s broader socio-economic agenda, and initiated the deceptive, tyrannical modernisation of Muslim society in Libya; a decline which continues unabated in succeeding regimes, and whose cure lies only, as Sheykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi writes, in ‘Amal.

Selected bibliography

Angelo Del Boca (1986). Gli Italiani in Libia: Tripoli Bel Suol D’Amore 1860-1922. Roma: Laterza.

*Archivio Storic del Ministero dell’Africa Italiana 113/1

Archivio Storic del Ministero dell’Africa Italiana 150/7

Asvat, R. (2014). Capital Investments in Businesses in the Ottoman Empire: Cash Awqaf. The Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies. Available at:

Ghazaleh, P. (2011). Held in Trust: Waqf in the Islamic World. New York: The American University in Cairo Press.

**Harley, J. and Laxton, P. (2002). The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kuran, T. (2001). The Provision of Public Goods Under Islamic Law: Origins, Impact, and Limitations of the Waqf System. Law and Society Review. 35(4).

Sheykh Abdalqadar As-Sufi. (2000). Letter to An Arab Muslim. Palma de Mallorca: Kutubia Mayurqa.

Sheykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi. (1996). The Return of the Khalifate. Madinah Press.