Laurence Galian's Sufi Archives

The famous and highly influential Andalusian Sufi, Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240) provides insight into the nature and significance of the Sufi robe (khirqa) in his magisterial work, al-Futuhat al-makkiyya:
"One of my teachers, 'Ali ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Jami', who was a companion of 'Ali al-Mutawakkil and Qadib al-Ban, had met Khadir; he used to live in his garden outside Mosul. Khadir had invested him with the khirqa in the presence of Qadib al-Ban. He in turn transmitted it to me, on the very same spot in his garden where he had received it from Khadir and in the same way that it had been performed in his case . . . From this time onwards I maintained [the validity and effectiveness of] investiture with the khirqa and I invested people with it because I understood that Khadir ascribed importance to it."
Ibn 'Arabi recognized Khadir as a legitimate and valued source from which to receive a khirqa. Thus not only did Ibn 'Arabi accept the notion of non-physical investiture, that is, investiture by Khadir, but it is clear from the above quotation that this kind of investiture was widely accepted as real. Following on this, it was widely understood in the medieval Islamic world that khirqas did not have to be physical objects.
The khirqa in the sense of the symbolic bond between an individual and a spiritual master is attested to frequently in Ibn 'Arabi's life. He received his first khirqa in 592/1195 in Seville from Khadir, to whom he had been introduced  by Abu al-Abbas al-Uryabi, an illiterate mystical guide whose influence on Ibn 'Arabi's early development seems second only to that of Abu Madyan (d. 594/1197), Ibn 'Arabi's primary mystical guide (although the two of them had never met in this world). He was again invested with the khirqa of Khadir in Mosul in 601/1204 as outlined in the anecdote from the Futuhat that I have just quoted.
The Sufis view that the khirqa is the most appropriate form of religious dress, derived from the prototypical costume worn by Adam (A.S.) and Eve (A.S.) when they were placed upon the earth. According to Ali Hujwiri (d. 469/1077), the wearing of a Patched Robe is the Sunna of the Prophet, who is believed to have said: "See that you wear woolen clothing so that you might find the sweetness of faith." There are many hadith that claiim that all the prophets wore wool.
The important Iranian Sufi writer 'Ala al-Dawla Simnani (d. 736/1336), who is one of the few medieval Sufis to have left substantial autobiographical writings, received a number of different robes from his teacher Nur al-Din Isfara'ini (d. 717/1317). Simnani also had a khirqa given to him by Isfara'ini that was supposed to contain a comb belonging to the Prophet (pbuh&his family). Simnani allegedly wrapped the comb in the khirqa and the khirqa in a piece of paper, although it is equally likely that the comb was itself the khirqa, providing further evidence that khirqas can be a variety of symbolic objects and not necessarily robes at all. The first robe that Simnani received from Isfara'ini had been worn by Isfara'ini during his mystical exercises, and that Isfara'ini gave his own robes to his favorite disciple in order to enable Simnani to benefit from the spiritual power that had been imbued in the robes. There was a widespread belief in medieval Sufi circles in an absolute correspondence between the physical and spiritual dimensions of the individual, as a result of which many Sufis believed that the robes themselves could influence an individual's spiritual state in tonic and prophylactic ways. Kubra's disciple Baghdadi held the opinion that is was acceptable for Sufi master to give khirqas to their disciples even before they had completed the requisite stages of the Sufi path because the robes would help them progress. According to one myth, Baghdad was saved from a flodd by casting Mansur al-Hallaj's khirqa into the river.
The power of clothing to have a transformative or tonic effect on individual Sufis is demonstrated in the conversion experience of Ibn 'Arabi. When he was a young man in Seville, he attended a banquet at which goblets of wine were being passed around. When it was Ibn 'Arabi's turn to drink, he heard a voice say, "Muhammad, it was not for this that you were created!" Ibn 'Arabi fled the banquet in an agitated state, and on his way home encountered a shepherd. Ibn 'Arabi exchanged his ornate clothing with the coarse cloak of the shepherd, then left the city and spent the next four days meditating in a cemetery. It was during this period of meditation following the exchange of worldly clothing for the cloak of a poor shepherd that Ibn 'Arabi had many mystical experiences that he was to recall in later life.
Hujwiri writes: "It is inward glow (hurqat) that makes the Sufi, not the religious habit (khirqat). To the true mystic there is no difference between the mantle ('aba) worn by dervishes, and the coat (qaba) worn by ordinary people." On the other hand, Hujwiri advises Sufis on how to patch robes so that they wil be distinguishable from the patched robes of people who don such clothing solely for ostentation. His own judgment is that how the patches are stiched is of less importance than the consideration that they should be stitched on only when needed, not to accessorize the robe. The classical Sufi writer Abu Nar al-Sarraj believed that it didn't matter what the mystic wore, any dress that was conveniently available being appropriate as long as it was not something the wearer had longed for or coveted.
In his Kitab al-luma, Sarraj discusses the virtues of poor dress, saying that not only is it the example of religious luminaries but that it also prevents the individual from being overly concerned with his appearance and gettting caught up in the desire to have more and better clothes. Among the most interesting traditions he quotes to support his opinion is the story of a Sufi mystic who owned only one shirt, which he wore both in winter and in summer. When he was questioned about this, he replied that he used to own many clothes, but that one night he had a dream in which he entered heaven where he found a group of fellow Sufis sitting down to eat. He wanted to join them, but a host of angels came and forced him to stand up, saying that these Sufis were each the possessor of only one shirt, and that he had many and therefore did not belong with them. After that time he made a point of never owning more than one item of clothing.
- information gleaned from "The Sufi Robe (Khirqa) as a Vehicle of Spiritual Authority" by Jamal J. Elias, as found in "Robes and Honor: The Medieval World of Investiture" edited by Stewart Gordon, published by PALGRAVE, 2001.