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In Islam, there are a number of reports (of variable grades of authenticity) that the prophet Muhammad either forbade or explicitly disliked the playing of chess. As is known, he was centered in what is now known as Saudi Arabia during the seventh century; while he may have known about chess as it was played in India, or China, that doesn't necessarily reflect how chess was played in Arabia during his rule. The colored areas in the following map (courtesy Wikipedia), especially those in brown, represent the regions he was most likely familiar with:

Spread of Islam

Islamic scholars have, as is their wont, attempted to derive rulings from (or in spite of) these reports as to whether playing chess itself halal or haram, and this is an issue on which there is no scholarly consensus. Even assuming that the reports themselves are deemed authentic, it is difficult to come up with a ruling as it is less clear why such a discouragement was originally made; this is especially important when attempting to derive rulings of analogous situations. Three major interpretations that I have seen posited are as follows:

  • Due to the fact that (some of) the pieces are carved in the shapes of living creatures, it is merely an extension of the ruling regarding graven images.
  • It is a form of entertainment (i.e. distraction) with no discernible benefit, so it is merely discouraged (but not outright forbidden) as a waste of time.
  • It an extension of the prohibition on gambling, as people would wager on the outcome of such games.

My own personal theory — and I am hardly an Islamic scholar — is based on the fact that similar reports are made discouraging and/or forbidding games of dice (especially backgammon): Such games where the outcome is based on chance would fall under (or at least encroach on) the prohibition against divination by arrows (i.e. a practice similar to "drawing the short straw" for decision-making).

Of course, modern chess has no element of random chance; it is a perfect-knowledge game in which the outcome can be based entirely on skill, in which case my own interpretation doesn't really make much sense. However, as the intellectual benefits of modern chess have received significant study (which would fly against the second scholarly opinion listed above), and even though gambling on games does exist, it is hardly the predominant goal of playing nowadays (which would fly against the third), it seems clear that what is now known as chess is not necessarily the same as what was known as chess back then.

I do, however, know that modern chess did not arrive from whole cloth; like many games, it evolved over centuries to become the game we see today. I know I have personally played (what is claimed to be) a dice-based precursor to chess that called itself Chatranga (although a bit of Wikipedia research suggests it was actually Chaturaji). As such, it is feasible that whatever variant of chess was popular in the Arab world during the seventh (and possibly early eighth) century could involve randomization in some form.

As such, the question lies thus: What flavour of chess was predominant in the early Islamic world during the time of Muhammad himself (570-630CE), as represented by the above map?

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Interesting question. I played chess my self growing up in Lebanon. We call it "Chataranj," but the rules are not different. It's merely the Arabic name of the game. As for it being discouraged, that's news to me. People play backgammon and chess incessantly in the levant. –  Mohamad Dec 8 '12 at 12:58
    
Interesting in its own right, I thought this was settled on Islam.se a while back? –  Pureferret Dec 8 '12 at 13:26
    
@Pureferret The Islam.SE question was regarding it's permissibility in general; this question is more towards figuring out what "chess" even meant at the time, to be deemed permissible or not. –  goldPseudo Dec 8 '12 at 16:15
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Wikipedia has an entry on the History of Chess. It states that the differences between what is now modern chess began in Europe in the 15th century. Besides the name changes for the pieces, the rules differed. The section covering The Indo-Arabic game appears to reference, Murray H.J.R. 1913. The history of chess. Oxford. reprint ISBN 0-936317-01-9

In early chess the moves of the pieces were:

Shāh: as King now.

Firzān: one square diagonally at a time (contrast modern Q).

Fīl: two squares diagonally (no more or less), but could jump over a piece in between (contrast modern B). This move meant that an individual fīl could move to only eight squares on the board, and no fīl could ever attack another fīl.

(Horseman): as Knight now.

Rukh: as Rook now.

Pawn: one square forwards (not two), capturing one square diagonally forward; promoted to firzān only.

The game could be won by 1. Mating the king; 2. By giving stalemate; 3. By capturing all the opponent's pieces. This kept down the number of draws.

The Murray book in its entirety is out of copyright, I found this section regarding Islam in India. He notes that the prophet supposedly denounced the game, and the difference in rules covered above on the Wikipedia page. This other site notes that Murray objects to the belief that Mohammed would have seen chess played in his lifetime, since the game is of Indian/Persian origin, and wouldn't have spread to the Islamic world until the fall of Persia.

"most probably the Prophet had never heard of the existence of chess, since the Muhammadan jurists have been unable to settle the question of the legality of chess-playing by any direct decision of Muhammad as recorded in the Qur'an, or in authentic tradition. (HJR Murray 187.)" It is difficult to state with any great certainty that chess was played in Arabia during the Prophet's lifetime; chess was after all an Indo-Iranian invention, and it is not unreasonable to assume that it entered Arabian culture through the conquest of Egypt and Western Asia after the Prophet's death. However, it is clear that chess had gained tremendous popularity amongst all classes and social spheres by the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, which took power in the year 750, still very early in Islamic history. It was at this time that religious scholars began to question the legality of playing chess.

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