And you thought chess was merely a game. This essay explores chess--its legal status, morality issues surrounding it, status as art and science, and ultimately its perseverance--over two thousand years the history in Iran and Persia.
banned in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Said to encourage
gambling, the public play of chess was pronounced haraam, a
reprehensible activity encouraging gambling, excess, warmongering, and
inattention to the five ritual prayers. Committed chess players were
forced to go underground to nurture their unshakable bond with the
ancient game, said by experts to have originated in Iran two thousand
years before the 1979 Revolution. The chess ban did little to
discourage clandestine play, and it was not long before the Ayatollah
Khomeini issued a new religious edict (fatwa) making chess permissible,
even admitting to the game's many virtues if played in moderation and
without stakes. Love and devotion for the game led to the creation of
dozens of chess parks, chess palaces, a national chess federation and a
new generation of chess players, including some international youth
Still, the debate on the legality of chess was not quite resolved. In 2000, one of the city of Kashan's elderly clergymen attempted to re-issue a religious decree against the game and enjoined others to join him in the public burning of chessboards. Although his pronouncement had no legal value, it did move local devotees to renewed debate and discussion. Ali Hachemi Tehrani, head of the chess association in Kashan, wrote to Iran's top clerics, newspapers and scholars to bolster a case in praise of the game. As Tehrani stated, "I respect the learned clergyman but he's referring to a chess that isn't played in our district. Chess has a very old history. Fourteen-hundred years ago, when Islam took root in Iran, there was a kind of chess played with dice. The only thing ruling the progress of pieces on the chessboard was luck. It had nothing to do with strategy and creativity; therefore, the Holy Prophet saw no benefit in the game-he considered it gambling. But when dices were removed, chess became a science and an art." 
While it is true that chess has been regarded as both art and science in many Islamic cultures over the ages, Tehrani's comment is not entirely historically accurate. Indeed, the recent controversies and confusion in Iran surrounding the sport of chess seem to mirror the profuse but ultimately inconclusive debates over the game's legal status in early Islamic history. According to HJR Murray, "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.
After the Prophet's death, great pains were taken to establish an accurate body of the Prophet's sayings (hadith) in order to set a precise code of conduct for the community of believers (ummah.) Muslim jurists and scholars emerged, attempting to establish Muhammad's attitude towards all social practices and mores, including his views on recreation. Scholars also turned to the Qur'an and began to generate schools of commentary and rules of practice. Due to chess' widespread vogue, particular attention was paid to the issue of the legality of chess play.
The jurists' main problem in making a conclusive decision on chess was two-fold. First, the end of the second Islamic century saw a proliferation of vying hadith traditions. Even after a science of hadith-testing (isnah) had been established, it remained difficult to surmise which accounts were accurate. Second, the Prophet did not seem to make any specific pronouncements on chess. At best, jurists were able to locate strands that emphasized the Prophet's hatred of games of chance in general.
Jurists would also find that chess is not mentioned by name anywhere in the Qur'an itself. As the tradition of Islamic legal jurisprudence continued to evolve, scholars were hard pressed to locate Qur'anic verses (ayas) that would shed light on the status of gaming. Sura V. 92 became frequently cited:
O true believers, surely wine and lots (maisir) and images (ansab) and divining-arrows ('azlam) are an abomination of the works of Satan, therefore avoid ye them that ye may prosper.
It is on this verse that the prohibition of nard (tables, backgammon), and the later-discovered games of cards is based. There is, however, a tradition which is preserved by al-Baihaqi (D.458/1066) that the caliph 'Ali once described chess as the Persian maisir, though the genuineness of the tradition is disputed by other writers-b.Sukaikir, for instance. The noted Hanbalite b. Taimiya (D.728/1328) makes the sensible distinction that in chess it is only the playing for money that is maisir, and quotes the opinion of Malik b. Anas that the stake made chess a far worse game than nard. The Sunnite Muslim sees a prohibition of carved chess-pieces which actually reproduce the King, Elephants, Horses&c., in the prohibition of images. Persian commentators, however, have explained the term as referring to idols, and the Shi'ite and Moghul chess-players have no objection to using real carved chessmen. The Sunnite player, on the contrary, will only use pieces of a conventional type in which it is impossible to see any resemblance to any living creature. 
Author: Zainab Mahmood.