Last month, a Saudi religious scholar attracted global media attention for his condemnation of chess as a form of gambling. In his words chess “can create enemies…[that can] make the poor man rich and the rich man poor”. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi believes that the boardgame is forbidden in Islam. Al-Shiekh made the decree some years ago, but a recent amateur chess tournament in Mecca resulted in the clip resurfacing. In the clip Al-Shiekh also described chess in this manner, “It is a waste of time and an opportunity to squander money, and it causes enmity and hatred between people”. Saudi Arabia’s largest chess federation, a full member of the international FIDE chess association, responded to the controversy with an open letter.

Al-Sheikh’s declaration is nothing new. Despite the efforts of potentates both Muslim and Christian over the centuries, chess has survived. Chess is the most played, studied, and controversial board game in world history. This is as true in the Islamic world as anywhere.

Chess was first introduced to the Arab-Islamic world by the Muslim conquest of Persia in 633 A.D. Whether chess was developed in Persia, Central Asia or India remains unclear, with most evidence pointing to Indian origins. The English phrase checkmate may in fact be a corruption of the Arabic phrase “shah moat” or “the shah is dead”.

One of the earliest Muslim chess players found in the historical record is Sa’id ibn Jubayr, a Koran scholar who died 714 A.D. An Iraqi of African heritage he rose from slavery to become one of the great Koranic scholars of his era. Ibn Jubayr was arrested in a failed rebellion against al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the Umayyad governor of Iraq.

While imprisoned Jubayr took up chess, becoming such a master of the game, that he was able to play others prisoners blind-folded. Other early Muslim chess players mastered blind chess as well, including Muhammad bin Sirin (died 728 A.D) and Hisham bin Urwa (died 765 A.D). Urwa’s grand-daughters also apparently became talented chess players. The first recorded game of blind chess in Europe took place in Florence in 1266 A.D.

In the court of the Abbasid caliphate, chess was a game of showmanship as much as strategy, and it attracted large crowds. It was as popular as football is today, and opponents were expected to goad each other. One chess puzzle written Al-Suli before his death in 946 A.D would not be solved until the mid-1980s. Muslims spread the game to North Africa and into Europe through Sicily and Spain, Europe’s two entrepôt for importing Muslim ideas into Christian Europe. The Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (763-809 A.D) who is featured in the tales of 1,001 Arabian Nights did his part, sending the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I an ornate chess set as a gift.
Soon Muslim religious authorities began to take skeptical views of chess. Islamic scholars reading of Ibn Jubayr’s chess playing centuries later dismissed it as a political act. They argued that by participating in the religiously frowned upon act of chess playing, he was seeking to make himself ineligible to serve as a judge under al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. Why the governor would offer a position to man who had rebelled against him was left unanswered.

In order to clean up the game’s image in the Islamic world, many boards offered abstract versions of the pieces. Yet the new simple pieces also made the game more affordable to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Despite efforts to ban the game later Muslim rulers also enjoyed playing chess. Tamerlane (1336-1405 A.D) for example, played and potentially even invented a larger version of “Tamerlane chess”. His version featured a larger board and additional pieces including a war machine and a camel. Although it, like much of Tamerlane’s empire did not survive his death, a version of it can still be played online (here).

A Political Pawn

When the Taliban banned chess in 1996, it was only the latest in a long line of failed government prohibitions. The first efforts to ban chess date to 680 A.D when the Byzantine Church banned the game. Al-Hakim the Fatimid ruler of Egypt banned chess in 1005 A.D and ordered all chess sets be burned. Similarly, King Louis IX forbade the game in France in 1254. The link between chess and gambling has never been firmly shaken. Neither has the game’s popularity.

The ruling of al-Shiekh is not surprising. Of the four major schools (ormadhabs) of Sunni religious thought, the Hannbali school which predominates in Saudi Arabia has long taken a hostile view of chess. The Hanafi school (the most commonly adhered to in the Sunni world) is also hostile to chess. Other Sunni schools of thought take less critical views. The Maliki madhab frowns on chess as a potential distraction from religious observances, but is otherwise tolerant of the game. The Shafi scholar Al-Nawawi (1277 A.D) agreed with the Maliki view that chess could be  played as long as it did not interfere with religious prayers. Al-Nawawi recently made headlines last year when his tomb was destroyed in fighting during the Syrian Civil War. Other Shafi scholars building on Al-Nawawi and others came to view chess as useful game for sharpening the mind and for military training.

In the Shia world, the Iranian revolution famously banned the game in 1979, a ruling that the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini overturned in 1988. Currently, the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani maintains that chess is forbidden though he only speaks for a fraction of Twelver Shias.

Since the end of the Cold War, three Muslim majority countries (Libya, Iran, and Indonesia) have hosted the FIDE World Chess Championship. In 2004, Uzbekistan’s Rustam Kasimdzhanov became the first Muslim to win a world chess championship. Last year the winner of the U-18 FIDE World Chess Championship was Masoud Mosadeghpour. Mosadeghpour is the second young Iranian to win the title this decade. It appears despite the views of Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, chess is enjoying a bit of revival in the Islamic world. Harun al-Rashid would approve.