Chess A Muslim Invention?

This article describes a British exhibition — supported by the UK government — that highlights 1,001 Muslim inventions from the 6th through the 16th centuries. The problem is that it includes inventions that do not appear to be Muslim in origin.

For example, the exhibit apparently describes chess as a Muslim invention, which is a bit of a stretch. Chess traces its origins back to a game called Chaturanga. Written references to Chaturanga go back to 500 BC, though how close that game was to chess is debatable. But references to a chess-like Chaturanga clearly emerges in the first few centuries of the first millenia AD which, the last time I checked, is pre-Islamic.

As one commentator notes it is also a bit ironic to attribute the invention of chess to Muslims given that chess has been viewed unfavorably by Muslim literalists. For example, Ayatollah Sistani writes of chess,

Question : Why is chess forbidden?

Answer : 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.

Who knew those high school chess clubs were a form of debauchery? Sure puts a new twist on the Queen’s Gambit.

3 thoughts on “Chess A Muslim Invention?”

  1. The true origin of chess is a controversial topic and can not be accurately pinpointed. The first documented records of chess have been found in the East in Islam, Persia, India, and China. The oldest known chess books were written as early as 850 AD, and with references to the game found in other documents it can be traced back to around the year 600. Before that there is only archaeology and conjecture.

    Chess was introduced into Western Europe at an unknown date before 1000 AD. The earliest references to the game in Europe are dated to around 1050, but they are short and ambiguous. Thusly, a definite route of introduction into Europe can not be accurately traced. After the year 1100, chess had become a regular feature of noble life, and there were many stories explaining its origin in the west. The invention of chess was attributed indifferently to the court of Charlemange, the court of King Arthur, and the siege of Troy. The latter was extremely popular among westerners as the date for the invention of chess.

    During the Middle Ages there was much experimentation with the rules of chess. There were demands for new rules to be applied in order to speed the game up. Such rules included allowing pawns to move two spaces on their first move, and allowing the king and queen to jump squares in the opening turns so as to get them into play faster.

    Despite many modifications to the rules of chess during the middle ages, it was essentially the same game at the end of the period as the one taken from Islam 500 years before. Around the year 1500 there is evidence of a sudden reform in the rules, creating a game almost identical to chess played today.

    There were three major modifications to the rules of chess. Each pawn was allowed an extended move on its initial turn. Another change was in the extending of the range of the bishop, which made rethinking of strategies necessary. The final change was to the movement of the queen. The medieval queen was an extremely weak piece, even weaker than the king. The reformed queen, however, became the most powerful piece on the board with its ability to move as both a rook and bishop.

    It can be seen that from actions in Europe around the year 1500 that chess had become strongly engrained in western society. In protestant Europe there were massive attacks on “ungodly pursuits,” but chess was often defended while other pastimes were denied.

    In the seventeenth century chess was in a transitional period. There were many new ideas and attitudes, but it was hard to tell which mattered most. By 1750, however, it became more clear which changes were important. So by the eighteenth century chess had completely broken away from its medieval inheritance. During this time, because of its difficulty and bookishness, chess diminished in its traditional appeal. At the same time this opened up new sources of support, and “chess grew and flourished because of its intellectual and sporting qualities rather than its prestige.” (Eales, 95)

    Chess in the nineteenth century was still very much a game for educated men, or those who saw themselves as such. It was still a genteel game, but increasingly there were more gentlemen. Chess clubs became common. There was much interest in the game, brought on by books at cheaper prices and the popular matches between champion players. This led to the rules finally being solidified.

    The social image of chess in the nineteenth century was set to repel those not of genteel status as well as women and the young. Chess clubs only appeared after the 1870’s in universities, and the standard of play stayed very low until 1914. During this time chess was very much considered a game exclusively for gentlemen.

    The changes in Europe from World War I affected almost every social activity, including games and sports. The most important development in chess during the 1920’s and 30’s was the mass chess movement in Soviet Russia while promotion in the west went haltingly. However, during this time several chess organizations were founded, such as the International Chess Federation, also known as Fédération Internationale des Echecs, or FIDE, in 1924.

    The development of chess in Russia after 1920 was much different from that in the west. Western works on technical chess theory were studied vigorously, and the Soviet leadership began investing heavily in the game. This was undoubtedly linked to the attitudes of the Bolsheviks and their successors towards the development of Russian society itself. This has led to a game mildly dominated by the Russians in the late twentieth century.

    In the last part of the twentieth century chess has become a popular game for all age groups, genders, and ethnicity’s. There are chess many tournaments and organizations where members can play against people from all over the globe and be ranked on the worldwide scale. There are chess computer games, chess over the internet, and informal chess clubs in schools. Chess is truly one of the most popular and timeless games ever.

  2. iam not surprised that muslims claim they invented chess.. chess was invented in india (shaturang). lot of things supposedly invented by muslims are actually stolen from other cultures (eg: parsi, hindu etc).

    some islam websites claim playing chess is a game of chance , hence forbidden.. chess needs intelligence, wit and ability to outhink your opponent.. there is no chance or luck here

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