Saudi Grand Mufti Bans Chess: ‘A Waste of Time’

The grand mufti of Sunni Saudi Arabia has ruled that Islam prohibits chess because it leads to gambling in addition to a squandering of time and money.

Asked a question on a television show in which he issues fatwas (Islamic rulings) in response to viewers’ questions on everyday religious matters, Saudi Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said chess was “included under gambling” and was “a waste of time and money and a cause for hatred and enmity between players,” reports the Guardian.

Saudi Arabia’s highest religious cleric compared the game to a pre-Islamic Arabian game called “maisir” which was forbidden by the Koran, reports the Independent

He referred to the verse in the Qur’an banning “intoxicants, gambling, idolatry and divination” to justify his ruling.

The Guardian notes that it remains unknown when the ruling was issued.

Iraq’s supreme Shi’ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has previously forbidden chess.

“After the 1979 Islamic revolution, playing chess was banned in public in Iran and declared haram, or forbidden, by senior clerics because it was associated with gambling,” reports the Guardian. “But in 1988, Iran’s then supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, lifted the ban and said it was permissible as long as it was not a means of gambling. Iran now has an active confederation for playing chess and sends players to international games.”

“Moves to suppress chess are likely to have come as a surprise to the seventh-century Muslims who conquered Persia and adopted the game before exporting it to Europe,” it adds. “Muslim scholars tend to place chess, a skill-based game, in a different category from games of chance, such as dice, but frown upon it if it distracts a person from performing the five daily prayers. Placing bets under any circumstances is forbidden.”

Issuing a fatwa against chess in Saudi Arabia is a “great tragedy,” Nigel Short, British chess grandmaster, told the BBC.

“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 “Even Ayatollah Khomeini came to the conclusion that he’d gone too far and repealed his own ban.”

Strange fatwas are not rare in the Saudi region.

“In the early 2000s, Saudi and other clerics issued a fatwa against the popular Pokémon franchise, and during football’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa, religious scholars in the United Arab Emirates said that using the widely reviled vuvuzela instrument was forbidden if the sound produced was above 100 decibels,” notes the Guardian.

“It is unlikely that Sheikh’s ruling will be enforced, and more plausible that chess will be relegated to the status of other minor vices, such as music, which many in the clerical establishment frown upon,” it adds. “Moreover, since the ruling was in response to a specific question, it was probably meant as an advisory opinion rather than a formal edict.”


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