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Saudi Arabia: Religious Decree Forbids Chess

(Jan. 28, 2016) On January 21, 2016, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti, of the Sunni sect of Islam, who represents the formal religious institution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, issued a religious decree to ban the game of chess. He stated that he had issued the fatwa forbidding chess because it is like gambling and “a waste of time.” The Grand Mufti added that chess is a work of Satan that causes hatred and enmity between players. (Lizzie Dearden, Saudi Arabia’s Highest Islamic Cleric ‘Bans’ Chess, Claims Game Spreads ‘Enmity and Hatred,’ INDEPENDENT (Jan. 22, 2016).)

To justify his decree, the Grant Mufti referred to a verse contained in the chapter Al Ma’idah [The Table] of the Quran, which states “O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters [to other than Allah], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful.” (Al Ma’idah (The Table Spread), SAHIH INTERNATIONAL (last visited Jan. 27, 2016).) The decree does not have the force of law; its application depends on whether the religious police choose to enforce it or not (“religious police” refers to the Saudi Arabian Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice; its main purpose is to enforce Islamic law).

A representative of the Saudi Chess Association issued a statement dismissing the decree. The spokesman stated that the game does not encourage enmity as the decree claims and has nothing to do with gambling, and in fact, the game has been played in the Arab and Islamic world for hundreds of centuries. He added that the Association had held 70 events in the kingdom, including in the city of Jeddah (in western Saudi Arabia) and had posted photos of Saudi players. The Association has declared that it would not cancel the upcoming tournament that was scheduled to take place in Mecca on January 22, 2016.  (Ben Hubbard, Saudi Arabia’s Top Cleric Forbids Chess, but Players Maneuver, NEW YORK TIMES (Jan. 21, 2016).)

Attitude to Chess in Iran

The game of chess has also been forbidden by Shi’a clerics. On the official website of the Iranian Grand Ayatollah, Ali Hussain al Sistani, a well-known Shi’a cleric, there is a statement completely forbidding chess. A decree issued by al Sistani states that “playing chess is haraam mutlaqan (absolutely forbidden under any circumstances), even though betting is not used.” (Question and Answer: Chess, Ali Hussain al Sistani official website (last visited Jan. 25, 2016).) Sistani states that there is no difference if the game is played with customary pieces or by computer. He used the same Quranic verse cited by the Sunni cleric as justification for his decree.  (Id.)

After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, chess was prohibited by senior Shi’a religious clerics who claimed that it is gambling. However, in 1988, Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, lifted the ban. Currently, the Islamic Republic of Iran has an active chess association and sends players to international games. (Kareem Shaheen, Chess Forbidden in Islam, Rules Saudi Mufti, but Issue Not Black and White, GUARDIAN (Jan. 21, 2016).)