Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti has ruled that chess is forbidden in Islam, saying it encourages gambling and is a waste of time.
Sheikh Abdullah al-Sheikh was responding to a question on a television show in which he issued fatwas to viewers who sent in queries on everyday religious matters. He said chess was “included under gambling” and was “a waste of time and money and a cause for hatred and enmity between players”.
Sheikh Al-Sheikh justified the ruling by referring to the verse in the Koran banning “intoxicants, gambling, idolatry and divination”. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s supreme Shia religious authority, has previously issued rulings forbidding chess.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, playing chess was banned in public in Iran and declared as haram, forbidden, by senior clerics because it was associated with gambling. But in 1988, Iran's then supreme leader, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, lifted the ban and said it was permissible as long as it was not used for 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.
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.
The region’s clerical establishment figures are no strangers to seemingly strange fatwas, or edicts. In the early 2000s Saudi and other clerics issued a fatwa against the popular Pokemon franchise, and during the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, religious scholars in the UAE said using the widely reviled vuvuzela instrument was forbidden if the sound produced was above 100 decibels.
It is unlikely that Sheikh Al-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. Moreover, since the ruling was in response to a specific question, it was probably meant as an advisory opinion rather than a formal edict.