Mahdi Tunics

A Mahdi follower's tunic, Sudan, late 19th century. A Mahdi follower's tunic, Sudan, late 19th century. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum, acc. no. af1979,01.5090.

The so-called Mahdi tunics (jibba), decorated wih appliqué, were worn by the followers of Mohammad Ahmad bin Abd Alla (1844-1885). He was a Sufi sheikh from the Sudan who in 1881 proclaimed himself the Mahdi (messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith). This took place at a time of growing local resentment against the policies of the Ottoman-Egyptian rulers and the growing power of the British.

Mohammad Ahmad used the messianic beliefs of the time to propagate a ‘purer’ Islamic state. Followers (ansar) in the Mahdist army wore outfits (muraqqa`a), whose main garment was a tunic (jibba) made from cotton. A basic tunic had long sleeves and a flared skirt. The garment was decorated with large appliqué patches of cotton and/or wool in a variety of shapes. These patches were deliberate references to the virtues of poverty and humility espoused by the Mahdists and their Sufi background.

There were two forms of the Mahdi tunic, one worn by the rank and file followers and the other by the leaders. The ordinary tunics of the followers of the Mahdi were normally roughly appliquéd with blue and brown cotton and, later, woollen cloth, on an undyed cotton ground. The woollen cloth started to be used after the fall of Khartoum when stores of British cloth were found and distributed among the Mahdi’s followers.

The tunics worn by the leaders of the Mahdi army were much neater in appearance than those worn by the soldiers. The appliqué patches were used, for example, to accentuate the shape of the neckline. In addition, there was normally a scrolled pocket/patch on the chest. The entire tunic was often further embellished with embroidery that was used around the neck opening, sleeves, breast pocket and side patches. This form of Mahdi tunic was later adopted by other followers of the Mahdi and the Mahdi movement, but its use gradually died out in the twentieth century.

See also the TRC Needles entries on the Osman Digna’s tunic and on the Mahdi and decorative needlework.


  • HOLT, Peter Malcolm (2002). ‘Al-Mahdiyya,’ Encyclopaedia of Islam, Leiden: Brill, V:1247b, digital version.
  • PICTON, John and John MACK (1979). African Textiles, London: British Museum Publication, p. 171.

British Museum online catalogue (retrieved 23 April 2017).


Last modified on Monday, 24 April 2017 11:55