Are Chess and Islam Incompatible?

by ChessBase
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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