Are Chess and Islam Incompatible?

1/26/2016 – Saudi Arabia’s top cleric recently issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against chess. But many Islamic scholars across the centuries said there is no reason to believe that the game violates the tenets of Islam. Jamaal Abdul-Alin, a Washington based freelance journalist, offers his in-depth opinion on the subject. We publish it in full, with the kind permission of the Agon Worldchess site.

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By Jamaal Abdul-Alin

When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti — Sheikh Abdelaziz Al-Sheikh — condemned chess recently as the “work of Satan” and a “waste of time and money,” it reignited a debate that has been part of the Islamic world for more than a millennium.

“The question of the legal position of chess-playing exercised the early Muslim lawyers not a little,” historian H.J.R. Murray wrote in his epic 1913 book, “A History of Chess.”

The reason the debate has persisted through the ages is because there is no specific mention of chess in the Qur’an or in any sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, according to Murray and other scholars, including those who are Islamic. “Nothing whatsoever from the Prophet concerning chess has been established,” proclaimed Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, a 16th century Egyptian-born Islamic scholar.

Be that as it may, many a mufti has still sought to determine whether the game is permissible for Islam’s faithful or whether it is something the religion proscribes like the consumption of pork and alcohol.

After the grand mufti’s pronouncement, the Saudi Chess Federation put out a statement, which said, “It is worth to mention that, in general, and for us as Muslims, all sports can fall into being religiously illegal once it involves gambling, directing players from religious practice (prayers, etc.) and, of course, it they lead to creating hatred between players.”

The body of literature on the legal status of chess in Islam is so rich that some of Islam’s faithful question why it was even necessary to rule on it again. “Medieval scholars said if it impedes on your prayer and if it has gambling in it, then it is bad. That’s not new,” said Adisa Banjoko, a follower of Islam who is best known as co-founder of the Hip Hop Chess Federation, a California-based nonprofit that uses the game of chess as an educational tool. (Banjoko stressed that while he is a Muslim, his organization is non-religious and seeks to bring people together from different cultures and faiths.)

“So to put a fatwa out saying what people said in the 15th century or whatever, I don’t understand why it’s necessary,” Banjoko said. (In fairness, the grand mufti was responding to a questioner on a call-in show when he issued the anti-chess fatwa.)

The question of chess’s permissibility in Islam has been asked since the earliest days of the religion. Notably, one of Islam’s first caliphs — and a close companion of Prophet Mohammed — did not condemn the game when Islam’s early believers inquired about its legality. “There is nothing wrong in it,” Omar ibn al-Khattab responded. “It has to do with war.”

Still, that did not stop more questions about the game and its legality — and differences of opinions — from rising in subsequent years and centuries. One of the most thorough explorations of the subject is “Chess in the Light of the Jurist,” by Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of the Zaytuna Institute, which is billed as the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States.

Yusuf’s piece chronicles Muslim jurists’ rulings on chess over the years — rulings that have ranged from the game being “highly discouraged” to “meaningless” and “impermissible” to being permissible as long as it does not become habitual. One jurist even concluded that testimony should be “not accepted from a chess player who plays it on a continual basis.”

Ironically, as Muslim jurists have debated the permissibility of chess through the ages, Muslim players were busy advancing the game and taking it to new heights.

The first in-depth book of analysis — Kitab ash-shatranj, or “The Book of Chess” — was written around 840 by a Muslim player named al-Adli, according to “The Immortal Game: A History of Chess,” by David Shenk that contains an entire chapter on chess and Islam, titled “House of Wisdom.”

Like other texts on the subject, Shenk notes how “a general consensus found the game acceptable in the Islamic world under certain conditions.” Those conditions included:

  • No wagering
  • No interference with religious duties
  • No displays of anger or improper language
  • No playing in public
  • No representational pieces — in accord with Islam’s stance against idolatry and images.

Some of those conditions, such as not playing for money, could be seen as problematic for Islamic adherents who wish to pay to play in prize tournaments. Banjoko, the Hip Hop Chess Federation founder, said he doesn’t play in prize tournaments himself and that his organization runs its own chess tournaments to show students what it takes to become good at something. He discourages any sort of wagering on games.

Other Muslim players apparently have no problem entering tournaments.

Ivan Sokolov, a Bosnian-born grandmaster who now plays for the Netherlands, is the coach for the United Arab Emirates. He noted that the United Arab Emirates has many chess professionals, including grandmaster Salem Saleh, who is reigning Asian Continental Champion. And the president of the Asian Chess Federation is His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.

Sokolov said the best chess clubs in the Emirates have premises that resemble an international company more than a chess club.

“So, in the UAE chess is on a rather high footage and in my line of work I never came across an issue as to chess permissibility in Islam,” said Sokolov, who said he prefers to think of playing in tournament chess as a “calculated risk” as opposed to a “gamble.”

Islam is by no means the only religion whose adherents have struggled to reconcile chess and faith. In a 1680 letter published in the 1700s in the Harleian Miscellany, an unknown Christian minister came to the same conclusion as Sheikh Abdelaziz Al Sheikh, writing that chess “wastes time and money and causes rivalry and enmity.”

In the letter, the minister wrote said that although chess is “lawful” and the “most ingenious and delightful” game ever invented, that it was also a “great time waster” that “hath occasioned, at times, some little expence of money,” according to a book called “Chess in Literature.”

The minister’s criticism of the game was partially self-directed. “My using of it hath occasioned much sin,” the letter states. “It hath caused the neglect of many duties, both to God and man.”

A personal observation by the writer of this article

For years, I’ve been torn between my love of the game and concerns that playing it might violate certain tenets of the Islamic faith. For one, I’ve spent countless hours playing with other chess addicts at DuPont Circle, the famed chess hub of Washington, D.C., missing prayers despite DuPont Circle’s proximity to the Islamic Center on Embassy Row.

And, when I play in tournaments, I don’t play for the love of the game — I play to win a cash prize. Interestingly, the last time I won a prize in a tournament — the Washington Chess Congress — I took home $625 — only for the tournament director to inform me later that I had been underpaid by $41 and some change.

That, of course, brought the grand total of my prize winnings to just over $666 — not exactly an easy number for a person familiar with Scripture to ignore.

Jamaal Abdul-Alin is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Education Week, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and US News & World Report. He studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. He has won several awards from NABJ and was named 2013 Chess Journalist of the Year. He resides in Washington, DC, and can occasionally be found playing chess at the tables in DuPont Circle. Jamaal has a home page and he can be followed on Twitter (@dcwriter360).

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ini_iyahdub ini_iyahdub 2/4/2016 06:23
ChessDrummer - You are spot on the points you make. A lot of the bigoted, biased comments here and around the web regarding this over-hyped comment is only a result of recent islamophobic propaganda waged by warmongers, nationalists or people who cant see past the eb of deception. Fundamentalists are never good in any religion or ideology, and that goes to christians, jews, atheists, communists, capitalists, fascists, and all the others isms and skisms out there. None of these people talk about the atrocities committed for centuries with their imperialistic, profit making mentality, by their own ancestors or still existent countries... And , no, im not a muslim, but i can think for myself and form my own opinion as opposed to believe everything i read or listen to in "mainstream" media.
HarryHaller HarryHaller 1/29/2016 12:18
Well, we know some things Islam is compatible with...murder, slavery, and especially rape. Lots and lots of rape.
Rational Rational 1/27/2016 09:33
Meanwhile , there have been 5 Jewish World Champions plus 3 others who tied a World Championship match.
James L Hankins James L Hankins 1/27/2016 07:54
chessdrummer, on what basis do you claim that the Saudi cleric gave his view and issued the fatwa without deliberation? Exercising control over humans is what these people do, it's what all religions do, and in the most absurd ways for the most ignorant reasons.
sxb103 sxb103 1/27/2016 05:41
@chessdrummer: you address none of the points. Islam is an incredibly intolerant religion and oppresses women treating them as little more than property. Western values have brought you all the progress you enjoy today since the age of Newton, while the Muslim world has stagnated. Western values allows equality f the sexes, freedom of religion , including atheism, and freedom of speech ( you can criticize religion and the prophet) . Islam forbids this. Islam does not tolerate non-believers.
Camembert Camembert 1/27/2016 02:58
China transmitted the concept of Chess to India.
India transmitted this concept to Persia
Persia transmitted the concept to Arab/Muslim
Arab/Muslim transmitted the concept to some part of Europe.
Europe look at it and saw it was not perfect, so they create "casling".

By the way why this cleric doesn't forbid Soccer ? It creates hate : Remember during a soccer match in Egypt, fans fought after the game : 70 deaths ! all muslims !
NJD NJD 1/27/2016 12:30
It is completely the wrong question to ask. The real question is, now that a prominent cleric has issued this statement, is some crazy person gonna threaten chess players and if so, what can be done about it?
tages erebus tages erebus 1/27/2016 11:04
Islam would appear to be incompatible with anything outside of the the year 570AD.
Stupido Stupido 1/27/2016 09:18
@chessdrummer - So if muslims kill muslims in the Middle-East, it is of course because of the evil Western countries; it is not their fault and it has nothing to do with the schism in Islam.... Of course, how delusional am I!
algorithmy algorithmy 1/27/2016 06:43
@ sranj
and you are shallow enough to believe that!
Europe learned chess from Muslims , Mr Deep mind!
sranj sranj 1/27/2016 05:17
Muslims are not deep enough to understand chess.. so they think its a waste of time.
chessdrummer chessdrummer 1/27/2016 04:25
Stupido... You stated,

"@chessisamazing - Alas this is far from the truth. The current wars in Middle East are muslims against muslims, victims of each others' madness. "

You understand so little of world history and international politics it's a travesty. If you think it is simply Muslims vs. Muslims and western countries have nothing to do with the turmoil, you're completely delusional.

The mufti was right about one thing, chess (sometimes) creates hatred as evidenced here by some of the comments, but you don't need chess to do that. Some people are simply hateful and mean-spirited anyway. What is unfortunate is that hateful, bigoted people are also attracted to chess. Some of you should post on stormfront... and probably do.
chessdrummer chessdrummer 1/27/2016 04:13
sxb103... so little of what you have said bears any truth and quotes that you have left are taken woefully out of context. Why would Islam have to change to be in accordance with Western values? Who made western values the standard that all should follow?? These comments are ethnocentric and imputable to an arrogant soul.

Anyone defending Donald Trump's suggestion is certainly not high on erudition. He is an arrogant, narcissistic, intellectual lightweight. It is doubtful that you have ever traveled to a predominant-Muslim country. A few facts. The Muslim world is only 15-20% Arab. The most populous countries are Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Nigeria. None are Arab and it is a very inclusive faith. Many speak only of the "Arab Muslim paradigm" because that is what is presented in the media... like the soundbites you listed. Countless societies around the world have had no trouble integrating Islam.

If you are in America (as evidenced by the way your English style), I know you are not speaking of another country's discrimination. America's history is replete with egregious violations and discriminatory crimes... as is Europe's. Stop sitting on a high horse.

By the way... Moorish Islamic civilization did bring chess to Europe. That much is known. Without the Muslim Moors, chess may have never reached Europe.

Lastly, the Saudi mufti is giving his view on a talk show without any deliberation. I doubt if the question was screened. Furthermore, chess will not stop in Muslim countries and Muslims will not stop playing chess. If we would stop watching the horrible mischaracterizations of the western media on Muslim nations, perhaps we would have a bit more balanced view.
Camembert Camembert 1/27/2016 12:40
"Islam has brought inner peace and comfort to billions of people through history", no kidding ?
Like in Paris last year ?
Funny, all those muslim immigrants don't run to the paradise of Saudi Arabia or other muslim country.
They run to Christian countries !
Why don't you quit them and show us how you can develop an ideal country.
I read Quran (just a pale copy of the Torah) but full of hate and jealousy.

algorithmy algorithmy 1/27/2016 12:24
@ chessisamazing;
you say "But I am afraid Islam has brought inner peace and comfort to ONLY it's adherent; Muslims. It has brought unspeakable misery, killing, and bloodshed to the non-muslims. "

simply not true at all, the numbers and facts go against you son. Crossroads, world wars1 and 2, and today's America, are the most destructive events in history, and they all has nothing to do with Islam.
can't you use your brain?? there is not a single Muslim soldier in Europe or America, but there are thousands of American soldiers in our land. Who is fighting who? who is causing killing and misery? have you any brain??
bin bin 1/27/2016 12:16
I have only one question why all the time I see Muslims playing backgammon wherever I go I see them playing it . This is not a waste of time? I am wondering.
ChessTalk ChessTalk 1/27/2016 12:13
Stupido, at least you are making your own decisions. All religions seek to make or influence decisions of their followers. I'm sure the wife and daughter are at macy's when you are at a tournament...Macy' of satan.
Stupido Stupido 1/27/2016 12:12
@chessisamazing - Alas this is far from the truth. The current wars in Middle East are muslims against muslims, victims of each others' madness.
Chess Delirium Chess Delirium 1/27/2016 12:11
Chess Delirium Just now
Chess Delirium Just now
algorithmy: That seems like a random quote from the Quran completely irrelevant to the matter at hand but I take it you think chess is a thing of the disbelievers, well since you are on this site you play chess hence your actions are against the quote from the quran as you are helping the disbelievers. In fact I do not think the game would lose anything if being banned in muslim countries which would of course be absurd, I think there is one muslim GM and his in the 2500s so not a big deal really.

Baffeled by this quote from your post "the world would never be better for any reason, the world is what it is, take or leave it, be mature and grow up kid, after all, we all die, a better world wouldn't help you in your grave!"

Without people striving for better world you would be still living in a cave and you would not be writing these posts on a computer, so yes the world can and will be a better place, food for thought.

"Islam has brought inner peace and comfort to billions of people through history, that what is called Genuine pleasure, but a game of chess or a cup of beer is what is called temporal pleasure. Your concepts are so messed up" Maybe yours are even more so - 30 000 terror acts committed by muslims since 9/11 (look it up).Please don`t bring up the crusades - they ended 100s of years ago, while terror acts committed by mislims continue relentlessly to this day, or may be that is what brings some muslims the pleasure you talk about after all such acts are perfectly just according to the Quran you quote.

To you it seems temporal and genuine pleasure are mutually exclusive and objectively they don`t really have to be. If you want to follow absurd "religous decrees" that claim that they should be that is your choice which again does not make them mutually exclusive objectively speaking.
Stupido Stupido 1/27/2016 12:03
Three papers on an obscurantist view on chess in a country that hardly plays chess at all? Are chess news so poor at the moment that chessbase has to relay that non-sense?

Mr Abdul-Alin is torn between his love for chess and his fear it may violate his faith because he misses prayers. Well I'm torn between my love for chess and my love for my dear wife and beloved daughter because I sometimes miss some good moments with them. Will chessbase let me write an article about it?
James L Hankins James L Hankins 1/26/2016 11:38
The fact that an educated journalist is "torn" between playing chess and adherence to Islam is all one needs to know about religion, and Islam in particular. It makes otherwise normal people retard their intelligence, believe in things that are beyond silly and often outright evil (do you feel compelled to stone your neighbor to death if he works on the Sabbath?), attacks directly the development of science, art, mathematics, literature and human culture (look up why Muslim culture in Baghdad, once a multicultural region of innovation, creativity, and the advancement of mathematics, suddenly slid into ignorance and backwardness in the 1100s), and assaults human beings in their basic integrity by stripping them of their intelligence and dignity based upon beliefs manufactured by ancient, ignorant peoples who had no understanding of the natural world, germ theory, earthquakes, lightning, and strapped us with fantastic stories of myth that prevail even today. With respect to Mr. Abdul-Alin, the question of whether chess is the work of Satan is not a question that needs to be harmonized with religion, it is a question that needs to be met with ridicule and condemnation, and exposed for the idiocy that it is, not as some serious comment on either religion or sport. If rational people let this sort of thing go without speaking against it as forcefully as possible, then it gives the appearance that declaring chess the work of Satan is something to be taken seriously. This kind of thought must be met immediately, shown to be what is, and criticized directly and without hesitation.
chessisamazing chessisamazing 1/26/2016 11:08
@algorithmy said "Islam has brought inner peace and comfort to billions of people through history"

But I am afraid Islam has brought inner peace and comfort to ONLY it's adherent; Muslims. It has brought unspeakable misery, killing, and bloodshed to the non-muslims.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 1/26/2016 10:43
The reasons don't make a lot of sense.

1) No wagering. Legally chess isn't "gambling" (no element of chance), but it says No Wagering. This is a Side Question, as chess doesn't involve either gambling or wagering.

2) No interference with religious duties. Another side question. Literally anything in the world might interfere with your duties, religious and otherwise.

3) No displays of anger or improper language. A third side question. The argument only applies to people who can't keep their temper. (BTW, is there a fatwa against golf? If not, there should be.)

4) No playing in public. A 4th Side question. Public play isn't required unless you're a pro.

5) No representational pieces. Granted, but not an issue with Staunton pieces, only on those Franklin Mint style sets that nobody actually plays on.

So, five reasons, and none of them really seem germane at all.

sxb103 sxb103 1/26/2016 09:14
Islam needs a reformation to be compatible with Western values, specifically
Allowance of open discussion of the Quran and its interpretation, no issuance of fatwa in response to disagreements and criticisms
Abolish Sharia law and the inequality of the sexes
Abolish “ commanding right and forbidding wrong” . In many parts of the Islamic world, any behavior deemed immodest is reason enough to kill a daughter or female relative
Remove imperative to wage Jihad, to convert/fight non believers
Remove focus on after life as more important than present life
No penalty for leaving the faith (Apostasy) . According to Pew: Those who favor the death penalty for leaving Islam: Pakistan (75%), Bangladesh (43%), Iraq (41%).
Tolerance of other religions: Pakistan small Christian minority is subject to intense discrimination and segregation. It is illegal there to declare belief in the Christian trinity. A million Christian foreign workers live in Saudi Arabia but the building of churches is banned even private acts of prayers are banned. When Donald Trump proposed banning Muslims, there was an outcry, including a protest from some Saudi prince. This is very disingenuous as Saudi Arabia effectively bans all Christians since they are not allowed to practice Christianity there.
Islam as it stands is an anachronistic system of beliefs that shackles human thought and behavior and is badly in need of reform to bring it in the 21st century
hargraves hargraves 1/26/2016 08:55
Islam has only brought conquest, slavery, genocide, technological and social regression... The only peace Islam has brought is because the person is dead, murdered by an act of Jihad.

Why are we still listening to 7th century psychopaths in today's world? Oh, they murder so many innocent people in sneaky massacres; and seek martyrdom because it's the only guarantee of Islam heaven.
genem genem 1/26/2016 07:25
Suppose a chess tournament charges an entry fee exactly sufficient to cover the organizer's costs of renting a playing hall, advertising, etc. The winners receive a ribbon as an inexpensive token of their achievement.
That would not be "gambling"; but...
What if instead the tournament charges an entry fee higher than the organizer's costs; for the purpose of using the extra money to pay sizable purses to the winners. Such tournaments are routine and occur every week, at the amateur level.
Is that "gambling"?
If it is gambling, it is the tournament that is the problem in Islam, not chess itself.
FanDuel and DraftKings, the dubious websites for weekly NFL tournaments between NFL fans who pay large sums to buy the statistical achievements of the player, say they are not "gambling" because "skill is involved". There is some skill involved, but does that mean it is not "gambling"? Besides, arguing about the dictionary is trivial; because the real question is whether the fans who spend money on these websites can exhibit all the same addictive and destructive behaviors that a roulette or slot machine addict can exhibit.
New York state (in the USA) declared FanDuel and DraftKings *are* gambling, and ordered them to stop doing business with NY state residents. Good decision, if gambling is meant to be illegal.
algorithmy algorithmy 1/26/2016 06:22
@ JeanH
Islam has brought inner peace and comfort to billions of people through history, that what is called Genuine pleasure, but a game of chess or a cup of beer is what is called temporal pleasure. Your concepts are so messed up, beside you don't even know what Islam is except the crap you hear in the media, but what you know about Islam?? have you read the Quran? probably not, so don't talk about what you don't know plz.
algorithmy algorithmy 1/26/2016 06:22
@ NewKidOntheBlock
the world would never be better for any reason, the world is what it is, take or leave it, be mature and grow up kid, after all, we all die, a better world wouldn't help you in your grave!
JeanH JeanH 1/26/2016 05:45
I am afraid that islam is incompatible with almost anything that brings genuine pleasure in this life.
NewKidOntheBlock NewKidOntheBlock 1/26/2016 04:55
World would do better without Islam in every possible aspect.
algorithmy algorithmy 1/26/2016 02:20
The Qur'an says:
"Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of what they have done that perhaps they will return "
Surat Ar-Rum(30) verse 41
algorithmy algorithmy 1/26/2016 02:11
The Quran says:
That finale abode we made for those who do not desire exaltedness upon the earth nor corruption. And the outcome is for the righteous. Whoever comes with a good deed will have better than it; and whoever comes with an evil deed - then those who did evil will not be recompensed except what they used to do. Indeed, He who imposed upon you the Qur'an will take you back to a place of return. Say, "My Lord is most knowing of who brings guidance and who is in clear error." And you were not expecting that the Book would be conveyed to you, but a mercy from your Lord. So do not be an assistant to the disbelievers. And never let them avert you from the signs of god after they have been revealed to you. And invite to your Lord. And never be of the polytheists. And do not invoke with god another deity. There is no deity except Him. Everything will perish except His Face. His is the judgement, and to Him you will be returned.
Surat AlQasas (28), verses:83-88