The moral imagination of E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s anthropology discerned great value in the cultures he studied, and he spoke out against the destruction of that value. By doing so he exhibited the finest elements of his own particular Western cultural inheritance, as a Christian, English gentleman, who was later, and appropriately, knighted.

Evans-Pritchard’s The Sanusi of Cyrenaica[1] is his least known work, and has attracted little attention even among fellow anthropologists. I think this is a pity, since the book deals with two issues of great significance for the present day: the religion of Islam, and its relation to the West. Moreover reading the book today one can’t help reflecting that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Evans-Pritchard gathered the material for this study while himself in the midst of tumultuous historical events. Cyrenaica is the eastern part of modern Libya, formerly a separate entity politically and culturally. During World War Two Evans-Pritchard was stationed there with the Sanusi Bedouin tribes as Tribal Affairs Officer, liasing between the tribesmen and the British Military Administration in the fight against Italian and German Fascists. Like Lawrence of Arabia, Evans-Pritchard led Bedouin Arabs into battle. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica was written in gratitude for the hospitality and kindnesses of his hosts.

Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard had been born in 1902, into the English ruling class; his father was a Church of England clergyman, while from his mother’s side the family still owned a ruined castle in Ireland. After attending elite public schools he came up to Exeter College, Oxford, to read Modern History, before changing over to Anthropology. There also he ran with the bohemian cliques of the post-war, Brideshead Revisited era, being a member of the Hypocrites’ Club at same time as Evelyn Waugh. Even when living in the wildest of conditions, Evans-Prichard retained characteristics of an upper-class English gentleman: a certain born-to-rule air, a tendency towards deflection and irony, a streak of wilful eccentricity. His aristocratic gentlemanliness is perhaps best illustrated by an observation he made about life with the Azande. The Azande of Sudan were a people whose everyday behaviour was guided by magical oracular pronouncements, resulting from feeding a poisonous substance to a chicken. Evans-Pritchard recalled, “I always kept a supply of poison for the use of my household and neighbours and we regulated our affairs in accordance with the oracles’ decisions. I may remark that I found this as satisfactory way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of.”[2]

E. E. Evans-Pritchard

This wry bon mot, indeed, contains something of Evans-Pritchard’s approach to anthropology. For Evans-Pritchard became the pre-eminent anthropologist of his generation—Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford—as the first to practice a participant observation. Earlier authorities like Sir J.G. Frazer used the supernatural beliefs of archaic peoples to argue that magic and religion are the lowest stages in a scientific law of intellectual evolution. But Evans-Pritchard maintained that what is important for anthropology is how the spiritual convictions of a society “affect . . . the minds, the feelings, the lives, and the inter-relations of its members.”[3] In giving such an account of lived magic, lived religion, the anthropologist’s own sense of value necessarily comes into play. This doesn’t mean that anthropology cannot be objective, but its form of objectivity is dictated by the nature of its subject matter, human societies: anthropology is not a natural science like physics, but a human science like history. E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s own valutions were those of one who had, as he said, “always been a Catholic at heart,”and who was received into the Catholic Church at the age of forty-two, in the Cathedral at Benghazi (yes, that Benghazi).[4]

And so we come to Islam, more specifically the Islam practised by the Sanusi Bedouin tribes of Cyrenaica. Up till the time Evans-Pritchard knew them these Bedouin were following the age-old life of the tents, moving between different regions according to the season with their camels and sheep. They were, as they had always been, Muslims, and Sunni or orthodox Muslims. Yet their Islam is scarcely recognizable as such from the conventional Western perspective. For example, the tribesmen almost completely neglected their daily prayers, a duty which, Evans-Pritchard notes, is “absolutely obligatory” for Muslims and “sinful to omit.”[5] Also, “I have never met an ordinary Bedouin who had been to Mecca or who even contemplated going there.”[6] While they constantly fought among themselves, the tribes did not engage in jihad, religious war, for eight hundred years. Perhaps the most unexpected element in their religion, though, is the cult of marabouts, holy men or saints. These marabouts were mostly foreigners from Morocco or Algeria who with “their fanaticism, asceticism, ability to read and write, and thaumaturgic [wonderworking] powers, impressed the simple Bedouin.” They were said to have “baraka, an ample measure of God’s grace which flowed through . . . to ordinary folk.” Upon their deaths shrines were built to them, also called marabouts, which the Bedouin visited to make requests, and “There is no saint whose tomb is much visited who has not performed miracles.”[7]

As Evans-Pritchard describes them—and this is clearly his intent—there is a profound correspondence between the marabouts and Catholic saints; especially the Catholic saints from the legends of the Dark and Middle Ages, but even as they appear in “peasant” or “popular” Catholicism today. In both Islamic and Catholic instances veneration of saints is “very near to the hearts of the common people.” Official Islam, Evans-Pritchard explains, tends to be “a cold and formalistic religion,” with the “gulf between God and man . . . too wide for simple people.” “The need for personal contact and tenderness finds expression in the cult of the saints.”[8]

It was through their veneration of marabouts that the Bedouin came to accept the Sanusi. The Sanusi Order was founded by Sayid Muhammed bin Ali al-Sanusi, known as the Grand Sanusi. Born in Algeria, educated in Morocco and at Mecca and Medina, he was a scholar, Sufi mystic, and missionary. Though labelled by some a fanatic, he dreamed of restoring the original, ideal community of the Prophet, hardly a radical project within Islam. In his mission to Cyrenaica, undertaken in 1843, he pursued the limited aim of bringing the Bedouin to a better understanding of Islam, using spiritual authority alone. The Bedouin knew his kind: he was welcomed as a marabout. The difference in the case of the Grand Sanusi was that he had organized followers. His Sanusi Order established zawiyas, religious lodges, run by Brothers of the Order, and soon these were dotted all over the country, and playing a central role in Cyrenaican society. “[L]ike the Christian monasteries in the Dark Ages,” Evans-Pritchard writes, “the Sanusiya lodges served many purposes.” “They were schools, caravanserai, commercial centres, social centres, forts, courts of law, banks, store houses, poor houses, sanctuary and burial grounds, besides being channels through which ran a generous stream of God’s blessing.”[9]

On Evans-Pritchard’s evaluation, the Grand Sanusi and his followers exerted an overwhelmingly positive effect on the Cyrenaican Bedouin: having “softened the harshness of their customs,” and “exercised a persistent and transformative influence on their morals.”[10] Moreover, Catholic Christian that he was, Evans-Pritchard greatly admired the religious character formed by Islam and the Sanusi Order. “The Bedouin certainly have a profound faith in God and trust in the destiny He has prepared for them[,] and this faith and trust enhance that superb dignity which often contrasts so strikingly with their poverty and rags.”[11] The tribesmen’s continued neglect of rites and regulations does not shake this impressivenes, from a Christian perspective, since “piety and holiness, as we have often been admonished, are not the same.”[12] The legalistic Pharisee, in Christ’s parable, is condemned, while the rule-breaking Publican, heart centred on God, “‘went down to his house justified’” (Lk 18:14). It should be noted that the same teaching is present in the Koran. “Righteousness does not consist in whether you face towards the east or the west”; “Woe to those . . . who make a show of piety and give no alms to the destitute.”[13]

It is at this point that colonialism, in the form of an Italian invasion, enters the story. Cyrenaica had been part of the Ottoman Empire since 1517. But as long as taxes were paid and a minimum amount of order maintained, the Turkish government was content to keep to the towns and leave the Bedouin well alone—Cyrenaica having, for those times, no enticing riches. However by the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was crumbling under assaults from “Christian” Western Powers, mostly England and France. On the 29th of September, 1911, Italy made the fateful decision to join the plunder, and reached across the Mediterranean to attack Cyrenaica. In regards to the Turks, the invasion was wholly successful: the few Turkish troops could not withstand it, and Turkey signed a peace treaty with Italy the next year. Now Italian propaganda had proclaimed that Italy was conquering Cyrenaica to free Arabs from the Turkish yoke. But, says Evans-Pritchard, “The Arabs did not feel themselves to be under a yoke.”[14] They believed Italy’s real intent was to seize their lands, and repress their way of life and religion. For the Bedouin, “the issue was their right to live by their own laws in their own land.”[15] This putative right is, as Evans-Pritchard was no doubt aware, crucial to some types of conservatism; appearing in Edmund Burke’s defense of “little platoons” against the imperialism of his day, and more recently championed by Russell Kirk. Since the Bedouin believed their very identity was at stake, they kept fighting after the Turks had given in. Without Turkish government the Bedouin were led by tribal chiefs, sheiks, but increasingly resistance crystallized round the Sanusi Order, and its Heads, descendants of the Grand Sanusi. The Bedouin became the Sanusi of Cyrenaica. The religious basis of their struggle, additionally, was formally recognized when the Caliph of Islam declared it a holy war. For the first time in eight centuries these Bedouin were fighting a jihad: they were mujahadin, fighters for the faith.

Reading Evans-Pritchard’s account of the Italo-Sanusi war, one has a most disconcerting experience of déjà vu. Disconcerting because, at the same time as feeling the déjà vu, one recognizes that it is literally preposterous. The war narrative fits so clearly the pattern of other wars, and seemingly Evans-Pritchard must be referencing them. Yet the Italo-Sanusi war, and Evans-Prichard’s account, predate by many years the wars of France against native uprisings in Algeria and Morocco, and the wars of America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

Thus, the Italian army marched triumphantly from town to town and occupied the towns, but had yet to learn that this “does not make any great impression on an enemy for whom places have little significance, and that it is one thing to force Bedouin bands to give ground and quite a different thing to conquer a hardy and elusive people scattered over a wild and rugged country.”[16] Since the Italian army was modern, mechanized while the Bedouin fought with single round rifles, from horseback, the conflict soon became a guerilla war. The Bedouin obeyed the “guerilla imperatives—strike suddenly, strike incessantly, strike hard, get out quick.”[17] The resistance was carried out by small bands, which suffered heavy casualties, but whose ranks were constantly replenished by eager volunteers. And they were always able to meld back into the general population, where they were concealed and provisioned. “In the end the Italians came to the conclusion that they could trust no Cyrenaican. . . . The hearts of all were with their fighting fellow countrymen and fellow Muslims.”[18]

By 1914 Italy had 60,000 troops in Cyrenaica, yet still only had control of military posts, the coastal towns, and surrounding areas. Italy’s entry into World War One further derailed the campaign, and there was a period of negotiations and peace accords, which lasted until Mussolini’s Fascists came to power in 1922. The Fascists felt it essential to their prestige that they demonstrate the ability to subdue this nation of desert shepherds; war was recommenced with far greater will, and ruthlessness. The main tactical innovations of the Fascists were barbed wire, and concentration camps. They constructed concentration camps for the whole tribal population of Cyrenaica. In the summer of 1930, for example, 80,000 men, women, and children and 600,000 animals were confined by barbed wire in the smallest possible sites. “Hunger, disease, and broken hearts took a heavy toll of the imprisoned population. Bedouin die in a cage.”[19] The observation of Simone Weil may be recalled: “Hitlerism consists in the application by Germany to the European continent, and more generally to the white race, of colonial methods of conquest and domination” [20]. By 1932 the war was won; between that time and the first invasion one half to two thirds of the Bedouin population had fled as refugees, or been killed.

The colonization which followed realized the Bedouin’s fears. All the best land was seized to provide farms for Italian immigrants, and the Fascist State prepared the farms and built entire villages for the newcomers, complete with schools, Fascist clubs, and Catholic churches. By 1939 northern Cyrenaica had become to all appearances part of Italy. By that time too, though, the clash of the European Powers was reaching its crescendo, and the Italian Fascists in Cyrenaica, with their Nazi German allies, came up against a very different opponent. The British Army, which had one Captain E.E. Evans-Pritchard co-ordinating with Sanusi allies.

There is a certain grim satisfaction in Evans-Pritchard’s recognition that Italy’s crimes against a people he loved set her on the road to ruin. Italy wasted enormous amounts of money and manpower on the conflict. But she also entered into the escalating mimetic rivalries of the Great Powers, and these eventually destroyed her. As it is written, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal 6:7). Yet evil as the Italian record in Cyrenaica was, Evans-Pritchard maintains that it wasn’t very different from the colonial records of other Western nations. All were scrabbling to seize and exploit territories in Africa and Asia, and the disaster of Italy was just an episode in the resulting, apocalyptic, European Civil War.

Evans-Pritchard’s anthropology of the Sanusi Bedouin gives the lie to a persistent stereotyping, or scapegoating, of Islam. For one thing, he shows Islam has not invariably engaged in holy war and historical Christianity has not always been a religion of peace; “they” are not always the aggressors, while “we” merely defend our own. It is often said today that mass immigration is the new form of Islamic aggression against the West; fearing their traditional communities will be overwhelmed by Muslims, nationalist conservatives invoke the “right to live by their own laws in their own land.” But as The Sanusi of Cyrenaica makes clear, this is to pretend that centuries of Western imperialism didn’t happen. No doubt colonialism brought technological advances, some material advantages, the righting of some grave injustices. But at the cost of destroying local economies, decimating traditions and cultures, and uprooting peoples—all in order for Westerners to rule and profit. So the sudden discovery by white nationalists that cultures and races should not mix rings hollow. Nor can it plausibly be denied that the recent Muslim immigration results from recent Western adventurings—invasions of Muslim lands, arming of the disaffected, plotting and bombing for regime change. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned in his Harvard Address, “It is difficult yet to estimate the total size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West, and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns will be sufficient for the West to foot the bill.” [21] “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

Evans-Pritchard was able to find in the apparently alien world of Cyrenaican Muslims resemblances to Christianity at its best. He did not idealize the Sanusi Bedouin, he certainly did not approve of all their customs and prejudices; he recognized their political immaturity and the need for prudence when dealing with them politically. Still, the moral imagination of his anthropology discerned great value, and Evans-Pritchard spoke out against the destruction of that value. By doing so he exhibited the finest elements of his own particular Western cultural inheritance, as a Christian, English gentleman, who was later, and appropriately, knighted. In the world our troubled past and present delivers us, of peoples fleeing war zones, ravaged cultures, ruined economies, of the mingling of cultures and races, this seems to me an admirable model. It is Sir E.E. Evans-Pritchard who is in the true tradition of Burke and Kirk, and achieves an imaginative conservatism.

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[1] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1968; original edition 1949). Since this is the book my essay is based on, and there are numerous quotations from it, these quotations are followed by the relevant page numbers from the book in brackets.

[2] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, abridg. Eva Giles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 126.

[3] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 119.

[4] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “Fragment of an Autobiography,” New Blackfriars, Volume 54, No. 632, January 1973, p. 37.

[5] The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, pp. 62-3.

[6] Ibid., p. 63.

[7] Ibid., pp. 66, 65, 67.

[8] Ibid., pp. 8, 1, 1.

[9] Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Ibid., p. 64.

[11] Ibid., pp. 63-4.

[12] Ibid., p. 63.

[13] The Koran, trans. N. J. Dawood (Harmondsworth, Mddx: Penguin, 1981), sura 2, verse 177, p.350; sura 107, verses 4-7, p. 28.

[14] The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, p. 101.

[15] Ibid., p. 166.

[16] Ibid., p. 117.

[17] Ibid., p. 171.

[18] Ibid., p. 163.

[19] Ibid., p. 189.

[20] Simone Weil, Simone Weil on Colonialism: An Ethic of the Other, trans. J.P. Little (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), p. 110.

[21] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Exhausted West,” Harvard Commencement Address, June 8 1978, p. 21.

The featured image is “Prince Marko and Musa the Outlaw” (1900) by Vladislav Titelbah (1847-1925), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The photograph of E. E. Evans-Pritchard is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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