The age-old war between Muslim clerics and chess-players

The top religious cleric in Saudi Arabia denounced the sport of chess, declaring it “a waste of time” and reiterating reasons why it should be forbidden.

Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, was responding to viewer questions on his regular television show when he made the comments, a video of which circulated on social media this week. The Middle East Eyehas more:

“The game of chess is a waste of time and an opportunity to squander money. It causes enmity and hatred between people,” Abdullah is heard to say in the clip, comparing it to the pre-Islamic Arabian game of maisir – which is forbidden by the Quran — in which players shoot arrows to win pieces of camel meat.

The statement was not exactly a formal edict, but fits in with a longstanding body of religious proclamations aimed at chess, a sport and pastime that is popular in many parts of the Middle East and South Asia.

Islamic jurists over the centuries have regarded it as a vice. That narrative grew stronger following the advent of European empires, where numerous popular stories and plays depicted chess as the seductive distraction of indolent nawabs and sultans, who would fritter away their realms to the foreign invaders.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s current regional foe, chess was declared “haram,” or forbidden, by religious leaders due to its connections to gambling. As the Guardian reports, the country’s first supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lifted the ban in 1988 — provided there was no link between the act of playing chess and gambling — and Iran is now an active member of the global chess-playing community.


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