Better Sword-Singers - my greater jihad against the worldly love of games


I love Makela Leki so much. But One Way, baby. 

"That said, when I started writing Redguard I really thought about how unique the black people of Tamriel were: they came in and kicked ass and slaughtered the indigenes while doing so. They invaded. It was the first time I had encountered the idea of "black imperialism"...and it struck me big time, as something 1) new, 2) potentially dangerous if taken as commentary, and 3) potentially rad if taken as commentary…Which is a long way of saying: panther-love." - an actual factual Michael Kirkbride quote

It's my birthday and my gift to myself is posting about Elder Scrolls. 

Panther Love

I'm a little annoyed by all the discourse around how much ESVI is going to flatten all the weird cool parts of Redguard lore. Not that they won't, ofc, but because people don't realize that this has already happened; earlier representations of Redguards were considerably less beholden to the faux-Sahelian vibe (if even that, they often wind up somewhere around Hollywood Arab) that defines them today. More important by far were Afro-American - in the broad sense - and Japanese influences. This is true as late as Oblivion: Skyrim begun the shift and ESO cemented it. It is what it is. I was twelve when Skyrim came out, so that's what defined Redguards for me, and I still really like latter-day Raga culture despite myself. It was so fucking cool to see awesome Black Muslim-coded warriors in my favorite game as a Black Muslim kid. Idk, I guess I've just stopped caring about what Bethesda does with them. The Redguards in my head are already so divergent that I grow less and less invested in what the company decides to do - Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani would say this is the first of the heart's waystations.

In any case, discussion online nowadays for Redguard inspo focuses on Mali, Songhay, and especially a weird transhistorical vision of the Maghreb (i s2g ill die if i see the word "Moor" one more time), but my mind tends to veer towards the Fulbe jihad states of the 1800s, with the Sokoto Caliphate and Futa Jallon as the keystones. Unsure why more people don't do that. Shehu Usman Dan Fodio the aged mystic-turned-general and his uprising are like…perfect inspirational material for the War of the Singers on Yokuda and there's so much academic work to pull from on the jihad states. I've always thought that the later Caliphate and its relationship with the conquered (from the Hausa to the montagnards) had a good model for the Raga invasion - a blend of assimilation, domination, and elimination. Raga culture has got to be way more Nedic than the lore makes it look. Sokoto was a gun fanatic state and there's already the whiff of gunpowder in Redguard lore; just go all out and give them their Dane guns already. Also it just rocks - if you have a chance to put Nana Asma'u, Al-Hajji Omar Tall, or Maba Diakhou Ba expies in your games, then you do it. 


A New Vision for Singers 

The existing writing on Singers is one place where the incongruity between the more diverse nature of older lore and Redguards now creates problems - as folks elsewhere have pointed out, earlier stuff on the ansei and Yoku history in general is super Japanese-inspired. The whole period before the Singers' War is fantasy Sengoku Jidai. Mansel Sesnit is Oda Nobunaga. Randic Torn is the commoner successor Hideyoshi, calling a sword hunt and everything. Franar Hunding is pretty transparently Musashi right down to small details of biography, the dueling legends, and writing a legally distinct "Book of Circles." His Forging Maxims are a distillation of Edo swordsmithing practice. Even the word sword-saint is just a translation of kensai. The obvious answer is to keep the conflict, but all this does feel a little lazy + connects v. weirdly to the new direction in Yoku history that ESO presents. 

In my headcanon, the ansei of Yokuda and sword-singing's traditional canon are based off period histories, maghazi literature, and later Sufi hagiographies centered around the proto-Sufi warrior-scholar-renunciants of the second and third Hijri centuries, as well as their own surviving works.  These "scholars and saints of the frontier" - men like Abdallah ibn al-Mubarak, Ibn Wasi, Abd al-Rahman al-Awza'i, Ibrahim bin Adham, Shaqiq al-Balkhi, etc - lived during the early formative period of Islamic history, a time in which the schools of law, the field of hadith sciences, and conceptions of Islamic piety were still developing. They had broad, if often forgotten (al-Awza'i was the founder of a whole now-extinct school of law!), effects on the intellectual frameworks that came to define nascent Sunni thought/identity. 

Also I adore Maya from K6BD and Dan's dog-knights and all other grubby swordsman/philosophers. Starting to think that the renunciant-warriors of early Islam are maybe the best historical model for them, tbh - the blend of scholarly training, constant martial activity, and intense devotion to poverty is hard to find elsewhere. Maybe Japan's Ikkō-ikki? Crusading religious orders get close in concept but miss the mark in spirit; way too organized, too powerful, and the fact that the knights are not themselves monks undercuts it (see the intro to Conedera’s recent monograph Ecclesiastical Knights: The Military Orders in Castile, 1150-1330 for a discussion of the warrior-monks myth.) The ascetic-scholar warriors of early Islam recognized no superiors beyond God and self-organized small bands of students/colleagues to engage in jihad (always wary of the state) + the lack of a formal lay/clerical divide helps collapse boundaries in a way useful to us. I think that their critical stance towards caliphal institutions probably fits with the vibe - worth remembering that speaking a true word to a ruler is another part of the lesser jihad. Plus guys like the Templars just aren't poor enough imo. Gotta be wearing a ratty wool cloak and sleeping in Baghdad streets. The warrior-renunciants (like the Orders) tend have an imperialist edge that clashes with most wandering sword-scholars but fits the Redguards excellently - the warrior wave Makes Way.  

Sayings and Deeds of the Warrior Saints

Not sure where I'm going with this post, so I'm just gonna post some snippets from two good books on the renunciants that make me think of sword-saints - Neale's Sufi Warrior Saints: Stories of Sufi Jihad from Muslim Hagiography and Salem's The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunnī Scholasticism: ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak and the Formation of Sunnī Identity in the Second Islamic Century. It's not ordered or anything but I hope it gets the feeling across.

  • Ibrahim was known for his rigorous mujahada. When he could find no food that was religiously licit, he would eat dirt—he once ate only mud for an entire month. Someone asked Ibrahim, “When did you settle in Syria?” Ibrahim replied, “Twenty-four years ago. I did not come to [Syria] to carry out the military jihad and dwell on the frontier.” “For what reason then did you settle in [Syria]?” “To eat licit bread.
  • Ibrahim exemplified wara’ and zuhd—even when fighting the unbelievers. When he would go forth on one of his many military campaigns against the Byzantines, he would cleave to his stringent asceticism, countenancing nothing save what was absolutely necessary for the completion of the military endeavor. 
  • One of Ibrahim’s companions related, “I went on a military expedition with Ibrahim. I had two horses, and Ibrahim was on foot. I wanted him to mount [the other horse], but Ibrahim would not consent. I swore an oath [entreating him to mount the horse]. So he mounted until he was seated on the saddle, and said, ‘I have fulfilled your oath.’ He then dismounted. We journeyed thirty-six miles with that raiding party, and he was on foot.”
  • Ibrahim would eat only what he had carried with him and would fast. He would go to war on a worn-out old horse worth one dirham. He also had a donkey that he would compare to that old horse, and if I were to have given him a horse of gold or silver, he would not have received it. And he would not accept a sip of water.
  • Ibrahim was once invited to a party, which he attended. The others in attendance began to talk about a man who had not come, saying, “He’s boring.” Ibrahim said, “My carnal self has done this to me, and I have come to a place where people are talking badly about someone behind his back.” Ibrahim left forthwith and did not eat for three days.
  • Someone asked Ibrahim what he thought about marriage, Ibrahim said, “If I could divorce myself, I would."

  • Several important sayings and dicta are ascribed to Ibn Wasi’, including the following: “If the servant brings his heart nigh unto God, God brings unto him the hearts of those who believe.” “It is harder for people to guard their tongue than it is for them to guard a dirham or a dinar.” “If sins had a smell no one would sit next to me.”
  • Muhammad ibn Wasi’ epitomized austerity and self-mortification: He would dip dry bread in water and eat it, saying, “Whoever is satisfied with this has no need of mankind"
  • A man once asked Ibn Wasi’ for a precept, and he said, “I will give you a precept so that you can be a king in both this world and the next.” “How’s that?” asked the man. “Lead an ascetic life in this world so that you desire nothing from anyone and regard all mankind as needy—without a doubt, you will be wealthy and a king!"
  • Muhammad ibn Wasi’ was asked, “Do you know your Lord—may He be exalted?” He remained silent for an hour, and then he replied, “Whoever knows Him, his speech wanes and his wonder waxes.”
  • They asked Ibn Wasi’, “How are you?” He replied, “How do you think someone is whose life is diminishing while his sins are increasing?”

  • It is also related that one of his companions said, “I beheld Ibn al-Mubarak lying down in a garden in Syria, and a snake with a narcissus bouquet in its mouth kept shooing the flies from him until he awoke.”
  • It is said that during his lifetime Ibn al-Mubarak’s knowledge of hadith was unparalleled. In this respect a religious scholar said, “Among the hadith scholars Ibn al-Mubarak was like the Commander of the Faithful among the people"
  • As for the exemplary manner in which Ibn al-Mubarak lived his life, it is said that he would divide his time among three pious endeavors: One year he would perform the Hajj; the following year he would go to war against the unbelievers; and he would then engage in mercantile affairs for one year and distribute all the profits among the poor.”
  • Ibn al-Mubarak was asked, “What wonders have you witnessed?” He replied, “I saw a Christian monk who had grown thin through mujahada and was bent over from fear of God. I asked him, ‘What is the path to God?’ ‘If you knew God, you would know the path to Him.’ [The monk] then said, ‘I worship Him Whom I know not, whereas you sin against Him Whom you know.’ This was counsel for me and kept me from doing much one ought not to do.”
  • Harun al-Rashid came to the city of Raqqa, but the people [of the city] hastened after ‘Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, their sandals tattered and raising clouds of dust.The mother of one of Harun’s sons looked down from a palace tower, and when she saw the people, she asked, “What is this?” They replied, “A learned man from Khurasan named ‘Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak has come to Raqqa.” “By God,” she said, “This realm does not belong to Harun [al-Rashid], for he can gather the people only by means of his armed attendants and guards. 
  • Once they asked [Ibn al-Mubarak], “Which trait is most beneficial in a man?” “Abundant intelligence,” said he. “And if that is not present?” they asked. “Good comportment.” “And if that is not present?” “A compassionate brother to advise him.” “And if that is not present?” “To be ever silent.” “And if that is not present?” “Instant death.”
  • It is said that a youth once came before Ibn al-Mubarak, threw himself at his feet, and began to weep, saying, “I have sinned, and out of shame I cannot say what I have done!” “Tell me what it is you’ve done,” said ‘Abdullah. “I have fornicated!” said [the youth]. [Ibn al-Mubarak] said, “[Oh,] I feared that you had spoken ill of someone behind his back. This is no issue.”
  • A man once asked Ibn al-Mubarak for guidance. “Behold God” [said Ibn al-Mubarak]. The man replied, “What does this mean?” “Always comport yourself as if you were beholding God—mighty and exalted.”
  • It is also related that Ibn al-Mubarak said, “When a man knows the measure of his selfish spirit, he becomes—in his own estimation—more despicable than a dog.”
  • After Ibn al-Mubarak’s death, Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad said, “I saw ‘Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak in a dream and asked, ‘Which deeds did you find most preferable?’ ‘That for which I was noted [during my life].’ ‘Jihad and fighting on the frontier (al-ribat wa’l-jihad)?’ ‘Yes!’ 

  • A Zoroastrian became his traveling companion. The Zoroastrian asked Shaqiq, “What is your occupation?” “I am a merchant.” “If you seek after daily bread that is not ordained for you, you will never attain it—even were you to seek until the Day of Reckoning. And if you are seeking daily bread that has been ordained for you, cease, for it will come to you itself.” When Shaqiq heard this, his heart truly awakened, and this world became dead to him
  • Hatim al-Asamm related that Shaqiq once said to him, “Deal with people the way you deal with fire—take what benefits you, and avoid what burns you.” 
  • Regarding the inner jihad, Shaqiq said, “As for knowing the enemy of God, you must learn that you have an enemy [regarding which] God will accept naught save [that you] wage warfare, warfare in the heart, and that you be a tireless mujahid fighting against the enemy. This enemy is the self."
  • One day, [Shaqiq] was holding an assembly, when suddenly a cry was heard in the town that the unbelievers had come. Shaqiq rushed out, put the unbelievers to flight, and returned. A murid laid several flowers before the shaykh’s prayer rug, and Shaqiq inhaled their fragrance. An ignorant man saw this and said, “An army is at the gates of the city and the leader of the Muslims is sniffing flowers!” “Smelling this flower is a holier act than our defeat of the army” replied [Shaqiq]. 
  • It is related that Hatim-i Asamm said, “I went to war [against the unbelievers] with Shaqiq. One day, it was hard, and [the two sides] formed ranks. It was such that all one could see was spearheads, and arrows were whizzing through the air. Shaqiq said, ‘O Hatim! How do you find yourself? Do you imagine that it’s last night when you were sleeping in the bedclothes with your wife?’ ‘No,’ said I. ‘By God,’ said [Shaqiq], ‘I find my body now as you were last night in the bedclothes!’ Night fell, and [Shaqiq] lay down between the two armies, made a pillow out of his patched Sufi cloak, and went to sleep. And this he did among such foes, owing to the trust he had in God.

  • It is related that Bayazid was walking one day when a dog joined him. [Bayazid] pulled his robe away [so that the dog would not defile him]. The dog said, “If I am dry then there is no problem between us, and if I am wet seven washings will put things to right between us. Nevertheless, if you pull your robe away from me, you’ll not become clean even if you should wash in seven seas.” Bayazid said, “You have outer uncleanliness, and I have inner uncleanliness—come, let us join together, and it may be that on account of our union cleanliness will result between us.” The dog replied, “You are not worthy of my companionship, for I am spurned by the people, whereas you are accepted. Everyone who comes upon me throws a stone at me, but everyone who comes upon you says, ‘Peace be upon you, O Sultan of the Gnostics!’ While I have never put aside a bone for the morrow, you have a bushel of wheat.” Bayazid said, “If I’m not worthy of a dog’s company, how could I be worthy of the company of Him Who is Everlasting?”


  1. This is extremely good. I salute these absolute mad lads

    1. Thanks for reading, man! The insanity is, I think, by design.

  2. Happy Birthday, first and foremost!

    I love grubby, mendicant warrior-philosophers; of course, I didn't know anything about any of these historical figures. Every time I read one of your posts I learn something, and the love you have for your subjects and the joy you take in writing about them always shines through. What a pleasure it is to read this!

    1. That's so kind of you! Tbh, I only recently became familiar with them - I went looking for books on the Saffarids since they seem a little obscure and one book on them connected the ayyar phenomenon to the early renunciant-warriors. One of those rabbit holes you have to go down.

      I think the best part of this corner of the scene is the intense love of the hobbyist; if I can contribute to that, then I'm fulfilled. Thanks for reading, fam, always glad to have you.

  3. This is really good stuff. I love when these philosophy dialogues come off like standup comedy bits lol.

    1. Oh I forgot to also say in that comment above Happy Birthday :)!

    2. Thank you! Yeah, we talked about this on the Discord a bit, but I was genuinely surprised by how funny some of these are. I had the same reactions to Chan/Zen stories as well, maybe it's a mendicant thing. Thanks for reading, FAM!

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks, fam! Appreciate you reading (and the double well-wishes, considering the Discord)

  5. Great stuff. Not many people in the RPGsphere can competently cover this material, and the pleasure that you take in it is infectious

    1. Thank you so much! The blog was (partially) started out of dissatisfaction with Afrogames as a scene, but I've come to really enjoy blending my hobbies even beyond the framework of reaction to trends in the wider gaming world. Couldn't have been possible without a lot of support and insight from friends here, ofc. Anyways, it means a lot coming from you - your fiction and rpg work is impeccable!


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