The jibba: clothing for Sufi and soldier



The jibba: clothing for Sufi and soldier


Mahdi; Sudan; clothing, textiles, REM


The jibba was a simple shift of rough, homespun cotton, similar to the knee-length smock still worn by rural Sudanese today.
Representing contempt for the material things of this world, it reflected a Sufi novice’s aspiration to humility, poverty and asceticism. As the cotton frayed and tore, the garment was not replaced but repaired with patches of coarse wool or felt – giving the jibba another name, the muraqqaʾ (patchwork). When Muḥammad Aḥmad the future Mahdī completed his own Sufi novitiate in 1868 and was appointed a sheikh of the Sammānīa brotherhood, the letter recognising him as a qualified preacher specified not just his academic credentials but also his “absolute licence regarding the teaching of novices, guiding eager disciples … and wearing the jibba, the patched rag for which he is qualified.”

Some Sufi sects, including the Khatmīa and the Qādirīa, spurned ostentatious trappings of poverty and prided themselves on being respectably turned out – but the Mahdī made the jibba compulsory for all. Even in a letter to General Gordon in March 1884, he urged the British officer to convert to Islam and adopt “the dress of ascetics and men of true happiness, who reject lustful desires in their pursuit of high ideals – a jibba, an under-shirt, trousers, a turban, a straw skull-cap, a belt and prayer-beads.” The garment enforced unity and cohesion, blurring traditional visual markers differentiating potentially fractious tribes. If anyone objected, the Mahdī quoted an analogy made in a vision by the Prophet Muḥammad himself: “The body of every man is made up of patches. His face is a black patch, the skin of his lips is a red patch, his teeth are a white patch and his fingernails are yellow patches.”

In the years between the emergence of the Mahdī and the crushing of his successor’s rule, the jibba evolved into a highly stylised, finely tailored and appliquéd garment. It seems certain that women as well as European captives were involved in the manufacturing process: selecting and sewing the patch materials, sometimes recycled from the uniforms of dead enemy soldiers and non-combatants. For senior commanders and then their lieutenants, the patches were tailored straight, symmetrical and deliberately colour-coded. It is no coincidence that the majority of surviving jibbas – collected from the battlefields of the ʿAṭbara, Tūshka and Omdurman – are of this much more regulated, militarised design.


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