Gadhafi used ‘renegade’ Islamic view for ‘purely political purposes’
Scholars say Gadhafi practiced his own brand of Islam, one that helped keep him in power.
October 21st, 2011
10:41 AM ET

Gadhafi used ‘renegade’ Islamic view for ‘purely political purposes’

By Dan Merica and Alex Zuckerman, CNN

Washington (CNN)– Moammar Gadhafi may have held onto power in Libya for more than 40 years, but the role Islam played in Gadhafi's personal life and leadership remains shrouded in mystery and debated by scholars. After his death, scholars are distancing Gadhafi from Islam and characterizing his religious views as “renegade” and “dictatorial” more than Islamic.

“It should also be made quite clear that Gadhafi was no more of a Muslim leader than Slobodan Milosevic or Robert Mugabe should be considered to be Christian leaders,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."

“My sense is Gadhafi’s religion was Gadhafisim,” said Kelly Pemberton, assistant professor of religion and women’s studies at George Washington University. “It was clear to many Libyans that his brand of Islam was purely political; it served his political purposes.”

Pemberton, who traveled to Libya with a group of scholars last year, said this was evident not only by the way he lived his life, but the way that he was viewed throughout the Muslim world.

“I think most people did see him as a renegade,” Pemberton said. “I would venture to say he had no friends in the Arab world, and he had no friends in the Muslim majority, and he had very few friends in Africa more generally.”

Though Gadhafi was a Sunni Muslim, he was more influenced by the idea of Arab united, said Harris Zafar, national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

“When it comes to Gadhafi, even Sunni clerics have declared fatwas to kill him,” Zafar said. “He has always been this renegade, he hasn't really affiliated with a particular side. He almost made his own little brand.”

Zafar said Gadhafi was more influenced by events and people during his childhood than the Quran. In particular, Gadhafi admired the rise of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt.

And according to a 1971 Time magazine interview, Nasser admired Gadhafi, too. “You know,” Nasser said during an interview, “I rather like Gaddafi. He reminds me of myself when I was that age."

Nasser, while criticized for his politics specifically toward a then growing Israeli population, is widely considered the most successful champion of Pan Arabism, the idea of unifying all countries of the Arab world, from Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean to Oman on the Arabian Sea. When he came to power as the second president of Egypt, Nasser moved to create the United Arab Republic, the predecessor to the Arab League.

Gadhafi idolized Nasser for these views. As a way to honor his hero, after taking control of Libya, Gadhafi converted the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the Mosque of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

According to the same 1971 Time report, “[Gadhafi’s] dual preoccupations are the destruction of Israel and, through lavish outlays of his country's oil money, making himself Nasser's successor as the leader of Pan-Arabism.”

But Nasser pushed Pan Arabism as a secular movement, and in many instances he pushed programs of modernization and secularization. Gadhafi’s actions while leading Libya, however, shrouded how much he followed Nasser’s plan of secularization.

And when Pan Arabism seemed out of reach, Gadhafi changed his focus.

In 2009, the Libyan strongman was the chairperson of the African Union. During his tenure, he proposed a United States of Africa as a way to provide stability to the African country.

According to a number of scholars, Gadhafi made contradictory statements on Islam throughout his life. While at times he disavowed himself from Islam, especially Islamists, he also told a crowd in Niger that Islam was the world’s only universal religion. Under his rule, the Libyan government granted financial aid to Islamic communities around Africa, including building Islamic schools.

“You don't come to power without giving some sort of lip service to Islam and establishing your credentials as a believer,” said Pemberton from George Washington. “I think he did that openly when he came to power and certainly talked about the Quran and Sharia.”

But, said Pemberton, once he had come to power, it was evident that “Gadhafi’s Islam was not a true Islam. It was much more based on Pan Arabism ideals.”

Robin Wright, foreign policy analyst at the United States Institute of Peace and author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” echoed Pemberton’s claim.

“He, at the end of the day, was secular,” Wright said. “This is a country without sectarian violence. It had deep tribal difference but not sectarian differences, unlike Bahrain and Syria.”

And according to Wright, more than being secular, Gadhafi was anti-Islamist. This was evident in his actions against the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization that hoped to depose Gadhafi.

“Brutality helped him stay in power,” said Wright, speaking of Gadhafi’s regular crackdowns on the organization. “He feared the rising tide of Islam as a political force and as a potential force to mobilize against him.”

Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni, with some estimates as high as 97% of Libya practicing Sunni Islam. Though Sunni Islam is referred to as the orthodox view of Islam with the vast majority of practicing Muslims identifying as Sunni, Zafar said Gadhafi never fully embraced the orthodoxies of Sunni Islam.

“He did expose his religious ideologies to a certain extent, but it wasn't the same as other rulers,” Zafar said. “He was always speaking as a proponent of Islam. He really didn't give much to religious tolerance.”

In one of the more bizarre chapters in the Libyans leader's life, Gadhafi hired 200 Italian models in 2010 while visiting Rome and lectured them on the Quran. Additionally, he called people who did not follow Islam “losers” and said the Christian Bible was a forgery.

“When he had this ludicrous ideas of Sharia law, of everyone converting to Islam, particularly women, he definitely showed his intention or desire for Islam to rule, but he did not identify with a certain sect or thought process,” concluded Zafar.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Africa • Belief • Islam • Libya

soundoff (233 Responses)
  1. Muneef

    Meanings of the word 'FITNAH' in the Qur’aan and Sunnah:
    by Muslim Ummah Awakeners-( M U A)- on Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 4:31am

    The act of Corruption and corruptors 

    October 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  2. Muneef

    Good Muslim, Bad Muslim – An African Perspective
    Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Anthropology, Columbia University
    Islam and Christianity have one thing in common. Both share a deeply messianic orientation. Each has a conviction that it possesses the truth. Both have a sense of mission to civilize the world. Both consider the world beyond a sea of ignorance, one that needs to be redeemed. Think, for example, of the Arabic word al-Jahaliya, which I have always known to mean the domain of ignorance.

    Eqbal Ahmed writes of a television image from 1985, of Ronald Reagan meeting a group of turbaned men, all Afghani, all leaders of the Mujaheddin. After the meeting, Reagan brought them out into the White House lawn, and introduced them to the media in these words: "These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America's founding fathers."

    This was the moment when official America tried to harness one version of Islam in a struggle against the Soviet Union. Before exploring the politics of it, let me clarify the historical moment.


    October 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  3. Muneef

    What does Gaddafi's fall mean for Africa?
    As global powers become more interested in Africa, interventions in the continent will likely become more common.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  4. Jimbo

    an article needing to be written! He forgot to mention Qaddafi's little Green book which espoused his 'religion' and was required reading in Libya! This work was quite influential but despised today by the new Libya.

    October 24, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  5. hippypoet

    nobody builds anything anymore – all the rulers of today do is try to not fuk up everything... sad really...

    October 24, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Muneef


      Peace is not in the heart of the carnal man. Peace is not in the hearts of ministers, advocates, businessmen, dictators, kings and emperors. Peace is in the hearts of Yogis, sages, saints and spiritual men. It is in the heart of a desireless man, who has controlled his senses and the mind. Greed, lust, jealousy, envy, anger, pride, and egoism are the enemies of peace. Slay these enemies by the sword of dispassion, discrimination, and non-attachment. You will enjoy perpetual peace.


      October 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  6. Jihad Johnny

    With the dictator out of the way, radical Muslims will take over and this will become another Egypt. The persecution of non-Muslims in Egypt stated immediately after their dictator was removed. Expect no less in this country. Western nations will regret removing Gadhafi as Libya slides further into Islamic Extremism.

    October 23, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Ezekiel 29:14-16

      October 24, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Muneef


      The 'peace' that prevails today is the peace of fear and the peace of preparation. Ignoring the sincere advice of men of wisdom, the great nations of the world are intent upon demonstrating their destructive strength. That way lies war, not peace.

      Self-styled enlightened men started interfering with the customs and manners of people, in an effort to civilize them. The people lost their old moorings, and the reformers could not offer new, sound ones. Masses of people drifted away into chaos. How can blind men lead other blind men ? 

      ""You must first acquire the Supreme Knowledge of the Reality. Then, and then alone, can you lead another in the right path.""

      You can elevate others only if you have elevated yourself. This world can be saved only by those who have already saved themselves. A prisoner cannot liberate other prisoners. One realized sage can do more for the promotion of peace than a thousand missionaries preaching and disputing, day in and day out.

      October 24, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  7. Muneef

    Allow me to Quote;

    And those who believed and did righteous deeds will be admitted to gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding eternally therein by permission of their Lord; and their greeting therein will be, "Peace!" (14:23).

    Have you not considered how Allah presents an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky? (14:24).

    It produces its fruit all the time, by permission of its Lord. And Allah presents examples for the people that perhaps they will be reminded. (14:25).

    And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, not having any stability. (14:26).

    Allah keeps firm those who believe, with the firm word, in worldly life and in the Hereafter. And Allah sends astray the wrongdoers. And Allah does what He wills. (14:27).

    Have you not considered those who exchanged the favor of Allah for disbelief and settled their people [in] the home of ruin? (14:28).

    October 23, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Jihad Johnny

      The quran is a complete perversion of the Torah and Christian New Testament. It is completely contradictory to the teachings of both.It is a religion of hate and intolerance created by a "prophet" who was a ped0phille and a war monger...

      October 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Johnny, The offsprings of Cain (1st murderer in this earth age, son of satan, killed his brother Abel) created all the phony religions in the world. Took 95% of Jesus Christ's truth, added 5% of satan's lies so that doubters would doubt and hence not bother to read or take Jesus' word as truth. Satan and his offsprings don't want anyone to get close to Jesus or be on the same page. Satan certainly wants to take as many souls with him to the eternal flames, blotted out for eternity with him. Satan doesn't want to fry alone and Satan truly believes he can win over God.


      October 23, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • Rick

      Jihad Johnny: As opposed to the "god" who knocked up the 13 year old and, like today, left the rest of the world to deal with the mutterings of the illegitimate child?

      October 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Rick, what are you talking about?


      October 24, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Muneef

      Even as a Muslim I wouldn't accept your allegation nor allegation of J.Johny... Any way read this quote;


      A Christian thinks, "There will be peace if all people embrace Christianity". A Muslim thinks, "There will be peace if all people embrace Islam". This is an erroneous notion. Why do people in the world fight ? Why do Catholics and Protestants fight ? Why do Saivites and Vaishnavites fight ? Why do brothers fight among themselves ? The heart must change. Greed and selfishness must perish. Then alone there will be peace in the world.

      People merely talk of religion. They are not interested in practicing it, in living it. If Christians lived by the Sermon On The Mount, if the Buddhists followed the Noble Eightfold Path, if the Muslims truly followed the teachings of the Prophet, and the Hindus shaped their life in accordance with the teachings of the Lord, of saints and sages, there will be peace everywhere.

      Peace, to be lasting and constructive, must be achieved through God. There can be no peace without the Lord or God. God is Peace. Root yourself in Peace or God. Now you are fit to radiate peace.


      October 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Rick

      I am pointing out to Jihad Johnny that, if he wants to characterize one religious icon as a ped0phile, that others can be characterized as such too

      October 25, 2011 at 3:51 am |
    • Muneef

      I know what you meant by that but you are curing some thing by some thing equal...

      That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another

      October 25, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  8. ***Dude***

    Everyday, every blog, you are a broken record. Ever consider staying on topic or do you just to whine to everyone.

    October 23, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Hi Dude.. are you Bo? he uses the same markers as you, or used to...If you are referring to HS and my question to her I agree same question and no answers but there are none.

      October 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      EvolvedDNA, you non-believers babble on about nothing, get angry when Christians post scriptures or write about Jesus and your bullying techniques of ganging up on us or stealing our handles to write nonsense doesn't work. Too bad.


      October 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Rick

      you believers babble on about nothing, get angry when non-Christians tell you your "scriptures" or your view of what Jesus (supposedly) said mean nothing to us. then you blather forth empty proxy threats. without bullying, your main conversion technique is dead in the water. Too bad.

      October 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Heavensent.. no answer then.. I have asked you to explain J's truth and you simply cannot put into words..it is empty rhetoric, and simply a statement which, if unchallenged, sounds impressive..

      October 24, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You sound surprised. HS never has any answers. All she does is wag her tongue at the "unbelievers". She is unable to explain or present any cogent argument to back her claims.

      October 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, I'm still waiting for something/anything logical to bounce in between that gray matter you have between those ears and spill out to the keyboard. You haven't thought out any of the flawed arguments of evolution or the big bang theory to it's conclusion.

      I'll just keep shaking my head and praying for you.


      October 24, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ah, I wondered what that rattling sound was.

      If you believed what you were spewing, you wouldn't respond to my posts at all. You do so because you know there is truth in them. You are a sanctimonious old bat who does nothing for others while criticizing their beliefs as false. Too bad your zealotry got you canned from your job.

      October 25, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  9. IslamInsanity

    This country will follow Egypt, and become another center for Islamic terrorists. At least the dictators could keep these animals under control. NATO just opened up a whole new area of danger for the west.

    October 22, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • Muneef

      The real animal is who calls others animals...

      So you must be working in the zoo...just be careful from donkeys they are not to be trusted...

      October 24, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  10. Muneef

    You know what...!

    We will see, if this country of his after his death became all well smoothly in a short time with out any more bloodshed then I will believe he was a bad man and should have been removed long time ago...!

    But if now that he is dead and the country is driven into further wars,bloodshed, sufferings and shame then I would believe that they are paying for his unjust coward assassination...! Only time will tell and all we are to do is watch and see...

    Strange but my heart tells me that now super&rich powers will each adopt groups of those fighters or mercenaries and fight over the land to finally divide the cake among them selves if not victor takes it all....!?!

    October 22, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.