Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti recently ruled that chess is forbidden in Islam, as it is a waste of time and also encourages gambling. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh shared his opinion while answering questions on a television program in which he typically issues fatwas while responding to his audience’s queries on religious issues.
Sheikh justified his stance by citing a verse from the Quran that bans gambling, intoxicants, idolatry and divination, saying chess too can be categorized under gambling, as it has often spurred hatred and enmity between players.
Moves to suppress chess are likely to have stunned the country’s seventh-century Muslims, who adopted the game after conquering Persia and eventually exported it to Europe. Even though Muslim scholars place the skill-based game in a different category than those associated with chance, such as dice, they look down upon anything that could possibly distract a believer from performing his or her prayers five times a day. Not to mention, placing bets under any circumstance is also forbidden in Islam.
Earlier, Iraq’s supreme religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had issued a ruling forbidding chess. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran banned the playing of chess publicly, declaring it haram, following senior clerics’ association of the game with gambling. However in 1988, Iran’s then supreme religious authority Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini withdrew the ban, thereby allowing citizens to participate in the game as long as it was not being played for the purpose of gambling. Today, Iran has an active confederation for chess players who are in fact encouraged to participate in international games.
After Sheikh compared chess to gambling and described it as the work of Satan, Saudi Chess Association sent out a letter to World Chess Federation to clarify the grand mufti’s stance. Explaining how any sport could be perceived as haram under Islam if they involve betting, gambling or inciting hatred, SCA highlighted some of the initiatives that they have taken to promote the board game among Saudi nationals.
“Many local events and seminars are being organized and run as scheduled in all the cities of the Kingdom with an increasing number of participants from all ages. [...] Moreover, the Saudi Chess Association is currently in the last stages of implementing the Chess in Schools program aiming to widen the grassroots in exploring local chess talents,” stated the letter, signed by Yaser Al Otaibi, general Secretary of SCA.
British chess grandmaster Nigel Short said that Saudi Arabia’s banning of chess would qualify as a great tragedy.
“I don’t consider chess to be a threat to society. It is not something that is so depraved as to corrupt morals,” he said. “Even Ayatollah Khomeini came to the conclusion that he’d gone too far and repealed his own ban.”
Despite Sheikh’s comments, chess continues to enjoy a privileged status in Saudi Arabia. Not only does the game find mention in some of the oldest religious works of Islam but it also has a rich history that draws out young players year after year.
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