Saudi cleric's chess fatwa faces checkmate
Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti has sent shock waves through the world of chess by issuing a fatwa that it is forbidden in Islam.
The pronouncement caused consternation among international grand-masters led by Nigel Short, Britain's most famous exponent of the game, who issued a message of support to Saudi Arabia's young national chess association. The fatwa came on the eve of one of its biggest events - a championship in Mecca, the religion's most holy place.
The secretary of the association, however, announced in response that he was not unduly worried by the ban, which was reiterating a previous policy of Saudi clerics, which the government had never seen fit to implement.
Musa bin Thaily confirmed that the ban was "by fatwa" but he went on to issue a lengthy string of polite tweets expressly designed, he said, not to "bring shame on my country". The tweets consisted of a series of pictures of Saudi Arabia's chess stars and games and tournaments being played with apparent full acquiescence of the authorities since the first fatwa of this sort was issued 40 years ago.
"Chess activities in Saudi have prospered in recent years because the ban wasn't strictly enforced," he said. "Tomorrow is the start of Makkah (Mecca) chess event, my best wishes for the staff and best luck for all players."
The Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, was asked whether the fatwa against chess still applied. The fatwa has meant, for example, that bringing chess pieces into the country is formally forbidden.
He said that it did, as "chess was a part of gambling". He also said it was a waste of time, might interfere with prayer times, and aroused competition between players.
The Koran bans gambling, which is formally illegal throughout much of the Muslim world, an injunction which means that even playing cards for fun is banned from cafés, including in otherwise liberal places like Dubai.
However, while the religious police have great power in Saudi Arabia, they are still subject to oversight from the government as well as the clerics. In practice, chess is treated like popular music - allowed, as long as it is not advertised too widely.
Chess was likewise banned in Iran after the Islamic revolution there in 1979, but permitted again in 1988 as long as it was not used as a subject for gambling.
The irony is that chess was introduced to the West from India via historic Persia at the time of the Muslim conquests, and the word "checkmate" comes from the Persian "Shah Mat", or "the king is dead".
Local chess sets feature kings with crowns adorned by crescents rather than the more usual crosses. Bishops are called "ministers". (© Daily Telegraph, London)