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Chess Takes It Up the Sistani

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Whether or not chess is permissable under Islam has gone around many times, including in the mainstream press. The Taliban said no, but then they said no to everything. Iran used to say no, but lately have said yes, even hosting the FIDE world championship final in 2000. Now that the Bush administration looks set to succeed where Bin Laden failed in turning Iraq into a Sharia state, this is again a hot topic, or at least a hot symbol of repression.

But I hadn't seen the Q&A section of Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq's website myself until now. The items on chess are quite categorical. It is "absolutely forbidden," coming in worse than anal sex on the sin chart and at the same level as abortion. Chess even gets this charming exposition:

It is not permissible, because it is a means for Lahv (debauchery) and gambling. Many traditions have been reported from the Holy Prophet and the Imams (a.s.) that prohibit playing chess. Moreover, when we do not know the reason behind the forbiddenness of an act, we are bound to obey in absolute obedience. There is a reason for it, but we do not know it and when we do not know it, it does not mean that we should not abide by it.

Well that settles that. Obviously this is all debatable, at least if you are far enough away not to be stoned to death for debating it. The Shiites in Iran and most other Muslims don't seem to agree. Some old-tyme Christian and Puritan sects also banned chess and other games. Even today Jehovah's Witnesses frown on chess because of its "military nature."

[Pointed out below that Tim Krabbé looked at Sistani's site and chess opinions (though not the one above about debauchery. Hey, I LIKE debauchery) in item 275 here. He even got a ruling that perhaps composing and solving chess puzzles might be okay, but it seems clear that such things are more like playing than not in that they are a similar "waste of time." So I wouldn't risk it.]

I first looked into chess and Islam when the US invaded Afghanistan in November, 2001. The following is part of a column I wrote at the time (Mig on Chess #155). Most of the info on Islam comes from HJR Murray's "A History of Chess."

"What are we going to do with all these computer cheaters and rating boosters?" was a popular question [during an online chat with users at KasparovChess.com]. Since traditional methods haven't worked (I'm a fan of letting them die of boredom), I decided to consult an expert from a more exigent justice system. I was lucky to get through to the Taliban Department of Justice, currently housed in Cave #329B, Kandahar. I figured that people who kill women for not having beards would be able to handle these computer cheats. The person I spoke with, who would only give his name as "Mullah O," was quite helpful. Transcript follows.

Recording: "You have reached the Taliban Department of Justice. Press one to report apostasy from Allah. Press two for this week's stoning schedule. Press three for a list of infidel crimes against Islam. Press four to smoke out Bin Laden. Ha ha, just kidding! Press zero to speak to an operator."

Mullah O: Thank you for calling the Taliban Department of Justice. This call may be monitored for reasons of customer service and by the CIA, KGB, or MI6. How may I help you?

Me: Hello. I'm hoping you can help me out. Our website is being bothered by people using computers to cheat at chess. Also, some people open multiple accounts and play them against one another to boost their ratings. We close these accounts when we find them, but I'm hoping you can suggest a better method.

Mullah O: Website? You mean like my Britney Spears fansite, Britneyburqa.com, with hundred of photos of Britney all digitally enhanced to show her covered from head to toe? Oh mama!

Me: Um, well, sort of. Most of us can't imagine how boring it must be to play chess with computer assistance or play against yourself, but some people keep doing it. We disable their accounts or give them C titles, but they create new accounts. What punishment would you recommend?

Mullah O: Chess? You mean the manipulation of idolatrous icons carved in direct violation of Sura v.92, that says images are an abomination of Satan? Following the decree of Mohammed's son-in-law, caliph 'Ali, in year 40, no true Sunni can play with pieces that resemble any living creature!

Me: Ooookay. Our graphics aren't really that great, so I don't think you can say the pieces really resemble any living creature. Plus, it would only be makruh and disapproved, not haram and forbidden, right? After all, the great Abu Hanifa himself did not refuse to greet a chessplayer at his game. It's not a game of chance, unless you count my games and lightning chess.

Mullah O: Don't quote the Hanifite code to me, infidel pig! Ash-Shaf'i wrote that chess itself is an image of war and should only be played as an exercise in military tactics! And al-Mawardi denounced chess as a sin of recreation and said that it should only be played if it did not cause the players to break any other rule of life.

Me: I can personally guarantee that none of KC's players have ever missed a call to prayer because of chess. Maybe a call to go to bed, or do some homework, but nothing worth chopping a limb off. So what about punishing those cheaters?

Mullah O: Have you tried logging their IP addresses and filing abuse reports with their ISPs?

Me: Sure, that's the first thing we do, and that stops most of them after a few abuse reports. But some ISPs just don't follow up on these things.

Mullah O: Curse them for making war on Allah and his messengers! Oh, sorry. Well, then I recommend taking them out into the middle of a football stadium and pushing a 20-foot brick wall over on top of them. That seems to work for us for most things. If they survive and do not repent, cut off one of their hands.

Me: Yeah, I guess it would be hard to alt+tab with the computer program and use the mouse to enter moves at the same time with only one hand. Great idea!

At this point the call was cut off suddenly and there was no answer when I called back, but I had what I needed. Lots of chess news coming out of Afghanistan these days. Look out for the upcoming book by Gary Lane and Tony Kosten on the "B-52 Attack."


Wow, I had this same item today in my blog! But thanks for the Q&A link.

Well Mig, you're only... six months late. Keep it up...
(item 275)

Yeah, I guess my first sentence is terribly confusing, but thanks for the link. I'm sure there are a few thousand more, feel free to post. The parts about debauchery and gambling seem new. Not to mention that I wrote about it four years ago myself. It's just making the mainstream news again, the reason for the item. I linked to this piece at the time:


More background from Google:


Hi Mig

Chess is free in Iran which is a country with Islamic rules. (It is called ISLAMIC republic of Iran).

The new Chess Life came today. B. Marninello's 2 page editorial made for interesting reading, but just as interesting was a letter to Larry Evans: a school teacher noted that his school has BANNED CHESS for reasons like those stated. I'm also a teacher, and in my travels visited a public school in New Jersey that banned Chess and all games; it seemed that Chess was placed by school officials in the same category as some sort of violent game whereby kids scrape each-others' knuckles with quarters (??!). More evidence that human civilization is de-evolving ('we are DEVO')!

What's most alarming is that the only part of Dan's comment that surprised me was that he said there were two interesting things in Chess Life.

robert bryne's column in chess life is decent but it is just recycled New York Times stuff.

That Daily News article was based on a mistaken idea. Iran has been a Islamic country for thousands of years and now you cannot expect it to adapt any western constitution. But Iraq today is a new country with freedom. No longer under dictatorship. So this is a great victory and the sacrifice made by so many soldiers is not in vain. May be its good for them if they do not want any separation between the state and religion. I mean, what a hypocricy we are seeing here it daily in our country. What we need to do is to respect their laws.

Religion influence government in America? Impossible. Public schools teaching that god created the earth? Well, that's not even religious, it's a founded scientific principal. I totally agree with your point Ryan, especially with the current white house. I believe there's an amendment Bush is trying to push, it wants to say "actually we meant separation of YOUR church from state, my church is perfectly fine...."

Nice thinking Ryan. Now than they are free then can banned chess and of course stone to dead adulterous women and impose others fine an holly religious beliefs.


You seem have little appreciation of the issues surrounding Iraq. The country has been uprooted and is in virtual chaos. It's hard to believe how much you've bought the propagandized Western media. Your post sounds like a George W. Bush sound byte.

"But Iraq today is a new country with freedom. No longer under dictatorship. So this is a great victory and the sacrifice made by so many soldiers is not in vain."

Sounds a lot like a Bush sound bite. Really amazing that people still believe these stories.


One of the things al-Sistani misses is the fact that earlier versions of chess were played with dice, making chess a game of chance and thus a gamble. There was a lot of discussion on this on discussion boards when the article broke about six months ago. The current version of chess is considered by some religious scholars to be mukarrah, or met with disapproval. However, most Islamic nations are indeed chess-friendly and either have active communities and/or are members of FIDE.

Ryan> "Iran has been a Islamic country for thousands of years" - yeah, especially since Islam was created by Muhammad between 567 and 572. Many thousands of years ago, to be sure.

It seems that the Iraqi players are not too worried about Sistani's comments - see the following article (in Italian)

"What we need to do is to respect their laws."

Why on earth then make up new laws for them?

Iraq has a interim constitution from 1990. (Couldn't be made legally established because the war hindered the referendum. Still de facto used.) Gee, I wonder why they couldn't use that one. Can't imagine it has anything to do with its words about "the build-up of the socialist system", gender equality, public ownership of national resources etc

Ozhegan - be gentle! Most americans are not too good with world history (or world geography, or world politics, etc.)


I agree that Ryan may have issues with history, but your explanation is not accurate either. How can your correct someone when everything in your statement is wrong!! First, the dates are wrong. Second, he did not CREATE Islam, it was REVEALED to him. Huge difference.

Macuga... how good is your history? You appeared to agree with ozhegan's arrogated, incorrect correction.

Stick to chess issues!


To address the issue of Muhammad "inventing" Islam, I would like to remind those who forget and inform those who never knew that Islam is NOT a new religion. Rather, it traces its accounts of history to the same source recognized by Christianity and Judaism, this being Abraham. The Quran shares much of its historical reference with the Torah, so it is quite inaccurate to say that somebody invented a religion which is considered by its followers to be the most accurate of numerous continuations of this religious lineage.

Now, onto Sistani's statement regarding what to do when one does not know the reason for undertaking certain actions. I have long held that such an approach of "We must do what those before us have done" has led to society being less advanced than our collective capabilities actually merit. This is quite backward thinking, to be certain, and should serve as a model for no one to follow. Blind keeping of tradition (or, at least, what have been interpretted as traditional ideas) has led to many of the ills of our society and those outside of it. Truly, anyone who hears such advice as this should say to himself either that he is being taken for a fool or that he is a fortunate sheep.



You got me wrong. I was not talking about the White House. I meant those liberal Judges, the ACLU and other similar groups.
we need Judges, who can interpret the Constitution as it is written and not rewrite it according to the wishes of New York Times.Their meetings start with: "God bless this honorable court." It's a hypocrisy to ask God to bless them and at the same time prohibit prayers in schools.


Prayers are not prohibitted in schools, Ryan. What is prohibitted is imposing religiosity upon others within the school environment. The judges are well within their right to interpret the Constitution; that is their job, afterall. The judges are rewriting nothing; on the contrary, it is the conservative movements which seek to rewrite legislation in hopes of making it illegal to do whatever they disagree with. Get your facts straight, guy; there is nothing hypocritical about upholding the seperation of church and state.



Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1820:
"You seem to think that the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of constitutional interpretation, a very dangerous doctrine indeed and one that would place us under the tyranny of an oligarchy."
And the First Amendment says:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Now we see since 1962, the courts have violated the First Amendment by consistently ruling against the free exercise of religion in schools, and public places.

The majority of people disagree with the Supreme Court's religion-in-schools rulings.

Abraham Lincoln at his First Inaugural Address in 1861 said: "At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court…the people will have ceased to be their own rulers having,to that extent, practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal."
The time has come now to declare ourselves free from judicial tyranny.


I think the clue here is what Maliq wrote: "What is prohibitted is imposing religiosity upon others within the school environment." Here in my backyards we're switching with parents doing teaching and other things in their christian community.

We've got to be involved, as simple as that. For example with the children of my sister, my niece care and my son in-law doesn't care much about religion. They both have the same parents and uncle. They're free to decide what they're going to do, We've given them opportunities. But we all agree that we should aim to do good things in life for us and others. With religion-in-schools I never have been introduced to the world of voluntary work (isn't religion being supposed to teach us to good things around us?) but because it is now parents who are teaching they decided that doing some voluntary work at least trying it one time was more in accordance with what Jesus taught us.

Ironically you're writing "The time has come now to declare ourselves free from judicial tyranny." and would like to have the religion-in-schools imposed?!

Hmmm... I respect your point of view but I doubt that neither you or me can imposed his point of view to the other.

I guess that's a kind of back-to-school thread for trolls... Not that I don't like it, it's quite a good one.

Maliq, could you please point me to any bag of superstitions, whether you call it a "religion" or not, that doesn't invent itself a history tracing back to whatever event they see fit and that isn't considered by its followers as the one and only truth ? Whenever some fool out there pretends to be Abraham's grandson, his most sacred religion instantly becomes as old as judaism ? Well, I hadn't realised there was so much history in the making, everyday.

Daim, it depends on who you ask. If the important events to you are revelations, it's more like 610-632. Or something completely different since these dates were determined by computations we now know are wrong.

Now, of course this makes the news because it is a move in the "wrong" direction - banning chess after its ancester shatranj was played by the likes of as-Suli under the reign of al-Muktafi, caliph of *Baghdad* - but then, just the opposite was discussed as well when Chessbase fell into yet another hoax pretending Karol Wojtyla had played and composed chess after his predecessors had banned it. Hey, I have an idea : I'll pretend I created the world a week ago (weeks will be nine days long in my systems, to make people work more), and of course I did it in sacred harmony with my favourite line in the Catalan, which shall henceforth be called the Holy Opening and be the only one allowed on 1.d4day (the day between 1.c4day and 1.e4day). Since my religion started just before the world was created, it is by definition older than anything else and history books shall therefore be amended. Any followers out there ?


Note, ozhegan, that I never said that Islam is or is not the "one and only truth" if, as it happens, such a thing does even exist in known form. I DID point out that Islam is rightly traced back to roots in Judaism; this is not even open for dispute. The three major monotheistic religions share a common root, so how can it be that one religion is said to have this origin while the others must have been "invented" afterward? No, they are just varied continuations of the religion, forks in the road.

For historical reference, the revelation year for Islam is supposed to be 622. It can be before, or after, or never, but that is the accepted year in most literature that I have encountered.

On a final note, you read me incorrectly. I don't need to be convinced of the shaky standing of claims based on religion. Long have I believed that religious teaching is mythology of a higher order to accomplish some perceived moral cause. Regardless, it is necessary to gain accurate accounts even of the mythology in order that we do not undo ourselves and lose credibility due to forwarding ideas which challenge accounts that never existed in the first place.



I thought about becoming A True Follower of ozhegan, but then thought: If he can, why not me?

I created the world 5 days ago, and my week will also have nine days, but to make people work less.
(tuesday sunday, wednesday, sunday, thursday, sunday, friday, saturday, sunday).

All shall do my bidding! (that is unless they don't feel like it)


Does the constitution also define science? Because those bible toting christians don't seem to know what it is. They want to teach (and have been successful) intelligent design along with evolution. The only "science" I know where no experiment could possibly take place nor are there any facts to test. This is not a debate on whether or not it is correct, just whether or not it is science, but I would hardly expect Bush and his room temperature IQ to be able to comprehend. I have no problem with religion being around, unfortunately there are lot of people in power who would like to force their views on others. I'm pretty sure phase 2 in iraq is to set up missons where they can teach islamic people how to be good christians.


Intelligent Design, as you well know, is a cloak which conceals the basic primitive concept of creationism. As such, it has absolutely no scientific merit and clearly fails to meet the standard for being a scientific theory. No, it should NOT be taught in schools. No, it should NOT be considered "another theory on par with evolution". This is like someone saying "But sir, Damiano's Defense is bad," and me saying "Well, that's one way to look at it." What I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to has been my challenge that advocates of "Intelligent Design" allow for the idea that, for example, the earth was created by God sending a chicken down from heaven to kick dirt in all directions, as is the Yoruba story of creation. They cannot give cause to support their mythology without giving cause to therefore consider other myths, but yet they attempt to do so. Then, they throw on this title so as to pretend to be a science, and people who do not understand what sciences are or may otherwise be looking for a reason to forward the account that they have believed in for their entire lives quickly jump on the bandwagon. Let us next teach that women giving birth is "a theory" which can also be accounted for by acknowledging the greatness of the baby-carrying stork, or that the effects which lead to thunder are a theory on par with that of angels bowling. It is equally absurd.



Hi Folks,

My first post, so kindly bear with me...just hoping to clarify some factual comments and add an opinion or two.

Yes, it is actually a "Judeo-Christian-Islamic" tradition, and all three faiths sprung from the same origins. A Muslim acquaintance once described it to me this way:

In a monotheistic religion, there are three elements: God, the people, and the prophet. God sent his message to the Jews, who came to venerate the people over God. So, the correction was sent, but now the Christians came to venerate the prophet over God. And so, Muhammad was sent, to return the people to God first and foremost.

Oh, I'll get blasted over this, but it's just a STORY, and helps illuminate the common roots. What people have done to them later, on the other hand...

OK, some dates - ozeghan and maliq have it bracketed. Muhammad was born roughly 570 A.D., and his revelations (brought to him by the Archangel Gabriel) began when he was 40, so around 610. The year 622 (year 1 for the Muslim calendar) represents the date of the embryonic Muslim community's flight (the Hejira - sp?) from persecution in Mecca to Medina.

Ryan's "historical background" has been dealt with, but to clarify: Iran was at the time a powerful empire (Sassanian dynasty), and Zoroastrianism was the "state religion". They were embroiled in fairly constant warfare with the Byzantine (Christian) empire, and had just concluded a long and costly war when Islam began a military expansion out of the Arabian peninsula. Iraq was not an independent country, an largely shared/battled over by the two powers, and smaller Arab (note: NOT Muslim) kingdoms.

The Byzantines were defeated at Yarmuk in 636, and Syria and Western Iraq passed under Muslim control, as did Egypt (Coptic & Orthodox Christian at the time...) by 640. Iran and Western Iraq are conquered also following the battle of Qadisiya, around 638.

Quick counter to the rubbish that appears daily in the news media - conquered populations were NOT converted at the point of the sword - Jews and Christians, as "Ahl-al-Kitab", (people of the book) were allowed to practice their faith largely undisturbed, but were required to pay a tax. Sad in light of present-day behaviors, but Islam has a great historical record of tolerance, compared with other faiths. Oh, and to those wasting time talking about the "violence" mandated in the Qu'ran, perhaps some reading of the Old Testament would help?

Finally, to Maliq's point - I have no problem whatever with "intelligent design" being taught, as long as 1)it's NOT taught in a science class, and 2) it's NOT restricted to the intelligent design of the Jerry Falwells of our world, though that is clearly the intent of the religious right.

Sorry, way to long, but in parting - can someone explain to me why religion in government and schools is a good thing in the USA, but bad in Iran or Iraq?

Thanks, all - I've enjoyed you all for a long time.


The common element is Abraham, who is a Patriarch and prophet in all three faiths.


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