Is chess unIslamic?

JANUARY 28 — Last week, all the buzz in the chess world was about chess purportedly being banned in Saudi Arabia and the reaction was as rapid as it was massive. Within days, there were no less than 600 tweets, posts and articles in various social and mainstream media.

Now that the fuss has died down somewhat -- even if the issue might not quite be over -- it might be time to take stock of the situation.

First, the pronouncement was made by Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti who is supposedly the highest-ranking Muslim cleric but it was not clear if this was a religious edict. It seemed to be advice (and personal opinion) given in response to a question during his weekly TV show, the clip of which is widely available on YouTube.

Second, in essence what he said was: The game of chess is a waste of time and an opportunity to squander money. It causes enmity and hatred between people. While he seems to indicate that it was in a class of games that could lead to gambling, it was apparent he was more concerned that chess could interfere with the five-times-a-day ritual of prayers practised by devout Muslims.

Third was the response of the president of the Saudi Arabia Chess Federation, even published on FIDE website and this was really him putting on a brave face even while acknowledging the powers of the religious authorities should they wish to pursue the matter. At the same time, he confirmed that they would be continuing with both current and planned activities as before.

Because Saudi Arabia is the most conservative of Islamic states and because major holy sites are located within its territory, what happens here is followed closely by the Muslim world. Like the 85-90 per cent of Muslims in the world, Saudi Arabia is Sunni but the particular ideology here is Wahhabism.

There has, however, been such a precedent as Iran -- which is predominantly Shia -- banned chess after the 1979 revolution although today that seems almost a distant past.

One commonsense argument seen in many of the responses to the Grand Mufti's pronouncement is that many games (and in fact also common day-to-day activities) can lead to gambling and at the same time, there were jokes aplenty of how true it was that people can be so caught up with chess that very serious quarrels can occur!

Not many have expanded on the possible interference with prayer times but I would like to share two experiences I have had with these. 

In the late 80s and very early 90s when I was a chess player, there were very few tournaments and the Malaysian Closed Championship was one of the few events where players from all over the country took part. There were a few players from Kelantan who requested that their games be adjourned so they could perform their prayers, a request that was sometimes accommodated but when this was not possible, play continued without problem. Strangely enough I have not until today seen this necessary in any event held in the Middle East.

One of our genuine talents, for many years our undisputed top player, had a habit of quietly going off during a game for his prayers. In my opinion, this is correct as he should not impose on his opponent but this created suspicion when he headed back to his hotel room.

The solution I told him once when I was the arbiter was to inform me and I would ensure his opponent understood and it be done in such a way there was no problem at all.

Chess is very new in Saudi Arabia and it is a game which is given a great deal of attention. As a result not only do the Gulf States and other oil-rich countries in the Middle East pour huge amounts of money into sponsorship but there have been huge investments in infrastructure and a sizeable number of chess professionals depend on their coaching and administrative jobs there for a living.

Indian chess players have been big beneficiaries of this largesse but perhaps even more so the many from ex-Soviet republics that profess to be Islamic countries and my European chess friends who visit cannot have a complaint either!    

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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