The Mahdi and Decorative Needlework

Famous coloured print showing the death of General Gordon in Khartoum, on 26 January 1885. Famous coloured print showing the death of General Gordon in Khartoum, on 26 January 1885.

Mohammad Ahmad bin Abd Alla (1844-1885) was a Sufi sheikh in Sudan who proclaimed himself the Mahdi in 1881. The rise of the Mahdi took place during a period 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.

In June 1881 the Mahdiyya movement supporting Mohammad Ahmad as the Mahdi or prophet started in earnest and over the next few years Ahmad led a series of successful military campaigns. In January 1885, the Mahdi led a siege against the British in Khartoum. This siege became famous for the death of the British military commander, General Charles Gordon (1833-1885). A few months later, however, Mohammad Ahmad died, apparently of typhus and gradually the movement died. The power of the Mahdist ideal, however, and the fact that the Mahdi had defeated Gordon, meant that the image of the Mahdi survives to the present day.

Decorative needlework, or more specifically appliqué, was used in different ways by the Mahdi and his followers. They used a specific type of flag that was decorated with appliqué Qur`anic texts. But they also used appliqué for their clothing. An extant outfit (muraqqa`a) now in the British Museum, London, has appliqué on the long-sleeved, cotton tunic (jibba) with flared skirt, the trousers and the cap.


  • ADAMS, William Y. (1977). Nubia: Corridor to Africa, London: Allen Lane, pp. 626-627.
  • HOLT, Peter Malcolm (1970). The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881-1898, Oxford: Claredon.
  • 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.

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 25 June 2016).


Last modified on Monday, 24 April 2017 12:25
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