[Ibn Girnada] A Chess-eyed Encounter: Saudi Arabia


With His Eminence the Mufti, a weekly television show where the Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikhh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, in response to a viewer’s question, had recently forbade Muslims from playing the game of Chess (Foreign Policy, 2016). He said chess was “included under gambling” as it was “a waste of time and money and a cause for hatred and enmity between players”. Justifying the ruling in reference to the verse in the Qur’an banning “intoxicants, gambling, idolatry and divination” (The Guardian, 2016). According to Sheikh Al-Qaradawi in his book “THE LAWFUL AND THE PROHIBITED IN ISLAM”, ‘In addition to being a game and recreation, chess is also a mental exercise which requires thought and planning. In this respect it is the opposite of backgammon, for while backgammon is a game of chance and therefore comparable to divining with arrows, chess is a game of skill and strategy which may be compared to archery; (Al-Qaradawi, 1994). This brings us to the leading question, why should anyone care?

It is unusual that this would even be considered news-worthy in light of recent events (ISIS, Houthi rebels and Iranian diplomacy) occurring in the region. But it has been speculated that it is about the idea behind chess that makes it worthy of attention. As Dr. Mona al-Fayez (2016) wrote in a tweet, ‘Those who don’t know the game of chess won’t know that the death of the king brings the end of the game.’ It is therefore much more serious than it appears to be and is therefore a stimulant for similar ideas. A sentiment satirized by twitter account Karl Sharro (2016) – tweeting, ‘I heard a news item about Saudi Arabia banning chess. I guess they don’t appreciate games that aim to topple the king’. The link between a game of chess and the Saudi monarchy is becoming intertwined as the idea appears to be spreading through social media and is therefore a social construction. The more people realize this, the more there is at stake when it comes to the ban – even if this was not the purpose of it in the first place.

Meanwhile, ‘Nigel Short (the British chess grandmaster) told the BBC that forbidding chess in Saudi Arabia would be a “great tragedy”’ (The Guardian, 2016). He does not perceive the game as a threat to society, even more so, that it would corrupt morals. ‘It is unlikely that 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’ (ibid).

In short, people in the region of the Middle East are becoming more politically aware and are becoming more inquisitive of their own state’s policies. Thus, there is a demand for knowledge because it transfers power to those who lack it. Ultimately it makes power more widespread than centralized therefore making it dependent on a social construction of the state. Whether it is good or bad is dependent on what the people intend to do with this knowledge just as the Mufti gave his opinion on chess.


Al-Qaradawi, Y. (1994) THE LAWFUL AND THE PROHIBITED IN ISLAM. Indiana: American Trust Publications

Dr.Mona Al-Fayez @Dr_Mona_AlFayez (2016) Twitter, 21 January. Available at: https://twitter.com/Dr_Mona_AlFayez/status/689783338043850752?lang=en [Accessed: 22 January 2016]

Foreign Policy. (2015). Even the Saudi Grand Mufti Can’t Stop These Chess Players. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/21/even-the-saudi-grand-mufti-cant-stop-these-chess-players/ [Accessed:22 January 2016]

Karl Sharro @KarlreMarks (2016) Twitter, 21 January. Available at: https://twitter.com/KarlreMarks/status/690140767671717888?lang=en [Accessed: 22 January 2016]

The Guardian. (2015). Chess forbidden in Islam, rules Saudi mufti, but issue not black and white. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/21/chess-forbidden-in-islam-rules-saudi-arabia-grand-mufti [Accessed: 22 January 2016]

Featured Image: The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/21/chess-forbidden-in-islam-rules-saudi-arabia-grand-mufti


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The Bamboo Shoots Scheme

The Bamboo Shoots Scheme features young IR students' work with distinct alternative thinking, in a bid to support their future aspiration in academia.

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