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Oct 4, 2010, 5:36 PM 40

Recently I had a bit of discussion with a fellow North Carolinian.  He brought up The Immortal Game, a wonderful book written by David Shenk which recounts the history of Chess.  He also mused why some Muslim countries might have banned the game.

As of this time, no country that I know of bans chess. Iran did prohibit public chess and the sale of chess paraphanalia from 1981-1988.  In 2000 the city of Kashan in Iran banned the playing of chess in public parks when attempts for a stronger banned failed, but even this was overturned in 2008.

I do find it curious why Iran banned chess in the first place.  Since the origins and development of chess are intricately interwoven with Persia, and Islam itself; since Iran supports olypmiad teams; since there are at least 4 Iranian GMs, 2 WGMs and a  number of other masters; since there is an annual Iranian Championship and since no other Arab country banned chess, it would seem, on the surface at least, that Chess is a perfectly acceptable form of recreation in Iran.

Then why did Iran ban Chess for nearly a decade?   Since Iran is an Islamic country, the answer must be in the Qur'an, or more accurately, how it might be interpreted. 

From the many sites I visited in which Islamic mentors gave their explanations for the original ban, several reasons I found most commonly presented were :
1. That chess is, indeed, forbidden by religious law. This seems to be an interpretation supported by the most conservative elements.
2. That chess interferes with one's duties and that it wastes time.
3. That chess promotes gambling and other unlawful behavior.

Back to The Immortal Game, Mr. Shenk wrote:
Evidently, a general consensus found the game acceptable in the Islamc world under certain conditions:
          no wagering
          no interference with religious duties
          no displays of anger or improper language
          no playing in public
no representational pieces
This last item came out of the Koran's prohibition against images.

I'm not sure how common the consensus really is since many conservative elements still seems to consider chess haram or forbidden, but the more liberal factions understand that chess, as a rule, doesn't involve gambling.  Public chess doesn't seem to be an issue for the Iranian men or women players who take part in tournaments. Displays of anger or improper language seem no more, and possibly less, common in a chess environment than is most other recreations. Apparently Staunton pieces don't run counter to laws on handling representative pieces, since those are the sets used in tournament play.

Though the Qur'an seems to prohibit certain games, it obviously does not prohibit chess specifically since chess didn't even exist in its present form when the Qur'an was written. The issue is one of extrapolation and different elements extrapolate differently.

Iranian chess is flourishing today.  Hopefully chess and Islam can come to permanent terms and the 64 squares become a means of transcending differences rather than being a field of contention.

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