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Unfolding Blessings; the Sudanese Hijab

Unfolding Blessings; Hidden Texts, Witches and the Wicked, Love and Body Armour

Setting the Scene

Left, bands of richly tooled, leather-bound Hijab (plural; Hijbaat) drape the arm of a Sufi of the Qaadiriyyah order at the weekly Friday dhikr ceremony, at Hamed EL-Nil, Omdurman in 2017. These amulets, believed to be pre-Islamic, possibly Babylonian or Syrian in origin, bear holy writings, sacred names and astrological symbols and are still “prescribed to grant safe passage through life’s changes” (Dr Ahmed Al Safi) for some Sudanese today. Interwoven within rituals that draw on rural medicine and herbology; mysticism, and folklore, they embody one of many expressions of Baraka, or benediction; blessings given by God and found in the person of holy figures, certain acts and “any phrase from an Islamic ceremony or prayer devotion which is believed to be infused with barakah and highly efficacious when retained on one’s person, either in the form of a memorized formula or an amulet…“ (Sanneh 1979:208), as quoted by Osman El-Tom (source below).

For more on the Sufi dhikr of Hamid El-Nil, see The Eternal Dance

Below, colonial photograph of a Beja tribesman wearing several Hijab. Many believe the term to come from the Arabic root for to veil or protect.

Bestowing luck, protection and blessings, Hijabs may be worn discreetly under clothes or as above, joyfully centre stage, acknowledging their intrinsic visual appeal and the craftsmanship in their making. R G Anderson (see below), a colonial surgeon in the Egyptian Medical Corps, noted in 1909 that among those Kordofanis who couldn’t afford the true article, “false charms holding only small blocks of wood instead of writing are worn as a sign of respectability or prosperity and also with the view of hoodwinking not only seen but unseen neighbors.” Indeed, Hijab use has always been creatively interpreted by those who seek them and Anderson explores the more colorful, if not picaresque side of Hijab use in his article “Medical Practices and Superstitions among the People of Kordofan, their treatment of disease and the chief drugs, instruments and appliances in common use”, (source below)

Below, another interpretation of barakah; a metal talisman with numbers and letters of mystical significance. Found in Omdurman market in the early 1980s. Personal collection. For more on the symbolic power of jewelry, see “A Necklace of Shells from Distant Seas…”


Left, illustration of infant wearing Hijabs from Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, by Griselda El Tayib, p126. Abdullah El Tayib recounted “The fekki would be asked to write a small Hijab for the baby. This was called the hafizah or protector. The hafizah was written on Abu Shubbak paper and folded into a rectangular shape and then bound in leather with strings to hang from the baby’s neck on to its chest and abdomen. When this custom was not observed, there would be continual nagging from relatives and visitors. The fekki’s wife and women-folk would be the most critical. Sometimes, however, the parents would delay the hafizah until the child was due for weaning. This would be considered as cheating by the fekki. And he would point out that it was necessary to provide the child with two written amulets, a hafizah and a Hijab…” After remonstrating with the family, the fekki would say “ a curse on you, hypocrites”, and he would write a big amulet which was folded inside a leather cover of cylindrical shape and grumble that the child had been cheated of his hafizah”. El-Tom recounts in 1980s that the cost of a Hijab ranged from one to ten pounds – a not inconsiderable sum, depending on the type of Hijab the status of the healer and his relationship to the client, the financial situation of both, the time of consultation ….(Berti Qur’anic Amulets). Anderson described the price of some in the early 1900s as “outrageous”.

My thanks to Bob Wilkinson of Sudan English Teachers FB Group for this exquisite photo of a woman in Gadat, in the Dar Zhagawa area in the 1980s. Around her neck she wears a small, plain leather Hijab. El-Tom noted that women tended to request different types of Hijab from those of their menfolk.

Griselda El Tayib, on her chapter on the attire of Riverain Sudanese, records “from babyhood females wore amulets and charms sewn up in little pouches and tied to them by string…older girls often wore them in neat little leather, cubed pouches on strings around their necks. Some had little silver cube amulet cases …..the more mature the wearer, the more important and decorative became the amulet case..” They were commissioned from the local feki, “according to the need at the time, like premature abortion, teething troubles, bed wetting, sterility and others.” Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, p 126

Below, cube-shaped Hijabs, from a Zalingei souq fakir, Darfur My thanks to John Rogers for this photo.

Left, “a charm against the evil eye and evil spirits compiled by one of the physicians of the late Mahdi and presented to me by his son (1)”, Hijabs for desires to be fulfilled, to shield against scorpion stings and snakebites, Hijabs empowered to cause both love and impotence, Hijab containing stones from the graves of holy men, and “a false charm, made for a woman, very bulky and containing only wooden blocks..”(15) Some of the remarkable collection of Hijab compiled by R G Anderson while serving in Kordofan in the early 1900s.

Gum arabic collectors of Kordofan, Anderson noted in 1909, would set out on their often dangerous work bearing large bunches of highly ornamental hijabs, strung around the upper arm, together with knives to protect against wild animals, surgical instruments, loops of medicinal herbs and emergency roots.

This week’s post draws on respected Sudanese, as well as colonial sources (links below) to reflect the Hijab as a cultural artifact of anthropological interest. Its discussion here should not be understood as either endorsement or disapproval of the custom. This blogpost makes no judgement on the religious acceptability of Hijab wearing and I cannot enter into any communication on the religious orthodoxy or otherwise of this custom.

Above, a 19th century Sudanese amulet, Wellcome Collection. Creative Commons.

Among my most treasured possessions are the two Darfuri Hijabs, pictured below, entrusted to me in the early 1980s while living in Dongola. This blogpost is written in gratitude for the kindness of the family who gave me these precious objects.

“..and finally the hijab charms, which are absolutely essential – a bride may be so poor that she can wear no gold, but she will never dispense with these charms. In new leather covers, one cylindrical and one square, they are worn on the neck, and two other square interlaced boxes are suspended one on each hip. A tiny hijab box is fastened on the upper arms.” Colonial account of wedding jertig rituals, from Marriage Customs in Omdurman (SNR Volume 261945). For more on the jertig, see Anointing in Robes of Red and Gold

Unfolding Blessings; Hidden Texts, Witches and the Wicked, Love and Body Armour

Hidden Texts

Right, 18th century Sudanese amulet, with the name of The Prophet depicted in three sketches, Wellcome images, creative commons.

Burnished to a deep ebony gloss by the warmth of my skin, my Darfuri Hijabs have journeyed with me for over forty years and over three continents. I have often wondered what is enclosed within their leather folds but I know I will never open them. The friend who gave them to me was a profoundly kind and gentle person and considered a faki or holy man by those in his village. He was often called upon by villagers to perform other forms of da’wah (invocation) or Talab min Allah (supplication) such as bakhra, ‘aziima or miHaaya* (terms explained at the end of this post).To open the Hijabs he gave me would be a betrayal of trust for those wearing Hijabs must both respect the skills of their prescriber and, as is also the case with the leather worker who encloses them, must never look at their contents. To do so would render them ineffective. The Hijab is personal to its bearer and specific in function. “Indeed, while making the hijab, the faki notes the nature or tabii’a of the client or that of the person to be charmed” and “that it is customarily worn by the person for whom it is prescribed if its purpose is protective, and hidden if it is required to bewitch someone.” (Al Safi, Traditional Sudanese Medicine). Researchers writing in the 1980s note that “impersonal Hijabs” are now sold in markets, a practice condemned by many fakis.”

While I will never open my Hijabs, the secrets of Hijabs studied by both Sudanese and colonial researchers are revealed below. You can find links to all the papers referenced here at the end of this post, together with background to the gifted, eccentric and complex figure, R G Anderson – and his cat.

Above, Hijabs owned by former Sudan English teacher, Alan Johnston. On the right, one of these Hijabs after three months’ wear. My thanks to Alan for kindly allowing me to use these photographs.

Right, a sketch based on a photo by Enikö Nagy, Sand in my Eyes pp 662-8, showing Hijabs hanging in the doorway of a Kordofan home. While Hijabs are usually worn, and encased in leather, their talismanic texts can also be buried, burnt, hung from the roof, inserted into walls and hung around necks of animals. Among the Berti, A. Osman El-Tom recounts, Hijabs are wrapped in cloth or the text left unfolded and uncovered in the case of the harrasa (guardian) Hijab and hung at the hut entrance. Al Safi defines Hijab as one element of huruz (sing; hirz) – items believed to charm or protect the bearer from harm or disease. These items include the “bones of animals or fish, dried chameleon or crocodile heads or skin, rhinoceros tusk, pig or dog’s canines, wolf’s teeth or skin, iguana skin, giraffe hair, cowry shells, pieces of a holy man’s clothing, hair clipping nail-paring or a zwara, a pinch of earth taken from his burial place.” (J S Trimingham, Islam in The Sudan, see below).

Above, herbology and mysticism overlap in the ‘ushar fruit (Calotropis procera). Al Safi explains “Some amulets acquire their special attributes from the special inscriptions they contain, from the nature of their material, their colour or their shape. Others, like the ‘ushar fruit are used for their symbolic value. Its seeds are noted for dispersing widely and growing apparently without need for water; it is not difficult to see why they are used as an amulet to promote fertility”. Anderson noted that the plant’s bark, roots, leaves, flowers and seeds were used as strong diuretics and purges.

See too

Left, the unfolded text of a “burda” Hijab, bearing the names of the four archangels, Koranic elements and the name of the Prophet, used among the Berti people and believed to “secure for its holder an easy passage in confronting his adversaries”. (Berti Qur’anic Amulets, A.Osman El-Tom, p 137). Hijabs may contain Qur’anic verses, the 99 names of God, angels and jinn as well as the writings of holy men, such as even the Mahdi himself, as Anderson discovered. Fakis draw from their libraries of sacred texts, invocations and formulae. But the texts are also organic and often reflect the phonetics of local dialect pronunciations of certain words, and include onomatopoeic elements similar to those of spells and incantations. Sacred texts are often only partially quoted or certain words frequently repeated. El-Tom notes that regional contexts also exert their sway; while he found no reference to seas or rivers in Hijab of the Berti of North Darfur, among the riverain Sudanese such references did occur. The paper used in the 1900s was, according to Anderson, imported especially, 13”x18” in size, folded to measure 1”x1”. The paper must be folded in a special way. The Hijab may be worn around the neck, upper arm, waist or across the trunk, depending on its function. Researchers agree that the testing of the efficaciousness of the Hijab is frowned upon as “faith and the names of God must not be doubted” and may, as Dr.El Safi, records, have humiliating consequences.

…”An anecdote, narrated in beautiful colloquial Arabic by Ibn Daif Allah in Al-Tabaqat about the special amulet, known as waraqat qubul, written by sheikh Hasan Husuna for Mahioba, a concubine in the Funj Kingdom… Mahioba asked Sheikh Wad Husuna to prescribe for her an waragat qubul, an amulet that would increase her chances among men. The holy man obliged, and the amulet worked to her satisfaction until it was unwrapped and the contents disclosed. The amulet was not holy verses or magical letters or numbers; it contained only mockingly abusive words.” .

Below, an extract from R G Anderson’s article, Medical Practices and Superstitions in Kordofan, p 286, outlining symbols used in the khatim or seal of the charm.

Witches and The Wicked

The history of Hijab wearing is studded with tales of both metaphysical jousting with wayward and willful dark powers bearing disarmingly human faults, and the playfully picaresque. Fertile soil for the less than honorable and the downright roguish:

Left, “the seven charms against Um el Sibian, offering protection during pregnancy, child-birth and infancy; and safeguarding against sterility, insanity and evil spirits.” (Anderson). Most Hijabs are protective or curative, seeking to ward off the evil eye, evil spirits, sorcery, weapons, or to ensure the bearer’s health and livelihood. Among the panoply of malevolent spirits with the powers to beset human endeavours, however, Um El Sibian provokes the greatest number of charms. As described by Anderson, she is “ a lean and loathsome old woman, possessing control over all mankind, traveling invisibly and destroying by her mere presence.” The powers of “this goddess of sterility and destruction” can only be combatted by the use of one or more of the seven charms which Suliman exhorted from her in the wilderness.” The batuta Hijab, El-Tom records, was believed to cause the wearer’s adversary to fall asleep or lose consciousness and so perhaps inevitably “Every professional thief in the area has at least one of these.”

“The owner of the highest number of hijbat was regarded as a troublesome person, and he had actually appeared in various local courts more than ten times. He had eight hijbat for ensuring that things would go his way if he was taken to court, and 44 hijbat in his total collection could be used in various situations involving trouble; some were for protection against various weapons, some for scaring off enemies and some for ensuring success in adultery and theft…” (El-Tom, see below)

Below, “spurious charms” compiled by “an illiterate imposter”. “This person, who, posing as a Fiki for a considerable time, sold his wares to the ignorant until he was eventually detected and punished.” (Anderson)

Love and Body Armour – Some Examples

Below, a love ketab, showing the construction of a khatim (seal) with the English translation. (Anderson)

Below, a Tasrif Hijab (to avoid various weapons), followed by a slideshow of its translation and explanatory notes.Note the onomatopoeic use of “tus” (El-Tom)

Below, Bob Wilkinson, a former Sudan English teacher, recounts the surprising story behind these Hijab. My thanks to Bob for so kindly sharing this with the blog.

These hijab were given to me by a fakii / fakir in Kutum who told me I must keep them with me at all times. This was after I and my colleague and friend Ali Abu Gassim, on a field trip with Save the Children Fund, were kept as ‘guests’ by a large group of Bediyat who were hiding out from the army and police in Da Zhaghawa.  Ali and I were following Wadi Hawa to meet up with a group of nomadic Zaghawa, but encountered the Bediyat  late in the afternoon, camped under a thick line of acacia trees.  After they had slaughtered a goat on the bonnet of our land rover, leaving bloody palm prints on the windscreen, we spent a night in a tent, discussing politics, Sudan and life. They were bristling with weapons, including kalashnikovs. Their leader, Umdah Ali, was a highly intelligent man, who, although leading a group of notorious bandits, took a moral high ground, and told me that Sudan was run by thieves.  When I returned to Kutum, I was arrested and asked a whole bunch of questions. Then, released, the fakii sought me out, and gave me these hijab – to ward off knives, sticks, dogs and bullets. After that,  the Zaghawa nomads who I worked with, called me Bob Zaghawa, a name that followed me all the way down to the edges of South Darfur. 

Below, more examples of charms collected by RG Anderson.


Berti Qur’anic Amulets by A.Osman El-Tom, University of Gezira, Sudan, Journal of Religion in Africa, XVII, 3;

Below, RG Anderson’s Medical Practices and Superstitions amongst the People of Kordofan, in a Wellcome Collection report. This volume is a fascinating resource covering everything from rural sanitation, medical treatment among the Mahdi’s followers to gum arabic and pipe smoking. It is free for all to use.

Also, the equally fascinating Traditional Medicine in Sudan, A primer for health care provides, researchers, and students, 2006, by Dr Ahmad Al Safi. Please note this document states clearly that the author gives no endorsement of any treatment modality discussed.

Below, explanation of terms such as ‘aziima, bakhra and other da’wah practices.

Below, shedding light on RG Anderson:

See too Islam in The Sudan, J.S.Trimingham, Frank Cass and Company Ltd, 1983, pp 166-178 and Abdullah El Tayib, Changing Customs of the Sudan, New Life Printing Press, Sudan.

2 comments on “Unfolding Blessings

  1. Joe brennan says:

    Beautiful. I worked with a sudani professor of French who kept his father’s hijabaat under the seat of his car. They’d kept him safe through the second World War service with the British army.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this. A wonderful story.

      Liked by 1 person

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