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The ancestor of chess: A shatranj set from the 12th century, Iran (Zereshk CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chess and religion have not always been the happiest of companions. From as early as the 10th century, monks and priests were regularly told by their superiors to abandon the game entirely. I can understand this: chess lends itself to obsessive interest, even addiction. It is, in its way, a competing version of the human need for the sublime. Generally, the medieval Jewish authorities were much less hostile, but even Maimonides pronounced those who played the game for money to be unworthy of credence in courts of law.

Yet it is Islam which has had the most troubled relationship with chess, a fact thrown into sharp relief by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, who in January was seen on Saudi TV declaring the game to be “haram”. He was answering a viewer’s question on his weekly show, With His Eminence the Mufti: the resulting fatwa was based on his opinion that chess “caused enmity and hatred among people”, was “a waste of time” and “an opportunity to squander money”.

This last, and most severe, criticism seemed to have been based on His Eminence believing that chess involves gambling — and games of chance are described as “filth from the work of Satan” in the Koran. Yet as a pursuit involving neither dice nor any other instrument of chance, chess is completely different from such games as backgammon or poker, where gambling money is at the heart of the competitive process.

The Grand Mufti is about a millennium out of date: in the earliest forms of what developed into chess, it was known for the players to use a form of dice to determine which move should be played. Among the first of these recognisably chess-like games, called Shatranj, appeared in Persia around 700AD: the word checkmate is a corruption of the original phrase “Shah mat” — the Shah is helpless.

When Persia was conquered by the Arabs, their game we now call chess was absorbed thoroughly into the invaders’ culture. Via additional conquests they then exported it to Europe via Spain (and it was in Europe in the 15th century that chess became the game as we play it today). The literature is hardly extensive, but the earliest recorded chess match was between players named as al-Adli and Ar-Razi, described by Ibn an Nadim in 988.

Modern Saudi Arabia is not a chess desert: the general secretary of the Saudi Chess Association responded to the Grand Mufti’s declaration by pointing out that the SCA “is officially recognised by the Saudi Olympic Committee . . . Many local chess events and seminars are run in all the cities of the Kingdom.” However, there is not a single Saudi player of even international master strength, let alone a grandmaster. And — perhaps unsurprisingly — the world chess federation’s published lists contain not a single female Saudi player. 
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