How the Islamic world embraced, rejected, then embraced chess again
Are chess ‘haram’ and ‘un-Islamic’? For a brief time fundamentalist Islamic “scholars” – from the Sunni and Shia camps – ruled that this was the case and banned the game. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, once stated that chess was forbidden in Islam, claiming that it encouraged play and was a waste of time. And Iraq’s top Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has also issued rulings banning chess. Iranian clerics banned playing chess in public after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, saying it was haram.
Fortunately, this phase has passed and today the Islamic world has several top players, little more exciting than the Iranian Alireza Firouzja, currently the third player in the world, although he took French nationality last year after a break with the Iranian chess federation which did not want him to play against Israelis. Today, the FIDE top 100 features several players of the Islamic faith, including Azerbaijani Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at No. 12, Uzbek Nodirbek Abdusattorov at No. 46, and the rising Saleh Salem of the United Arab Emirates at No. 53 .
In fact, one of the most uplifting things about the ongoing Chess Olympiad outside Chennai is that every Islamic world is taking part, despite the presence of Israel, except of course of Pakistan, who withdrew just before the opening citing the Olympiad torch relay crossing Kashmir. .
Of course, converts (in any religion) can always be trusted to be more extreme in displaying faith and piety than the originals. A few years ago, when cricketer Mohammed Kaif shared a photo of himself playing chess with his young son on social media, he was attacked by worshipers in the subcontinent, one who told him “Kaif bhai ye khel haram hai”, while another advised him to teach his son “deen aur quran”. Kaif’s elegant response: “Thekeedar ji se poochiye, breathe haraam or not.”
Indeed, Kashmir is at the heart of the chess story – a smarter Pakistan could have claimed chess, but they would claim Kashmir instead. A small problem with this is that chess predates Islam. One version of his origin is that he was born in Kashmir as “chaturanga” – where the shatranj world comes from. Most chess historians agree that it was then taken to Persia, where it became part of the princely or courtly education of the Persian nobility, and then went to Europe with Islamic conquests before return to India, becoming very popular among the Muslim elites.
Indeed, for centuries, chess has been central to the Muslim ethos of the subcontinent. This was best exemplified in Munshi Premchand’s classic 1924 story Shatranj ke Khiladi, brought to cinematic life by the great Satyajit Ray. It is unclear whether Premchand was aware of the Mir Sultan Khan and his exploits (more soon on India’s greatest chess player before Vishy Anand), which only gained international recognition in the period 1929-1933. But the nobles of Awadh, where the story of Premchand is set, and other principalities, were evidently inundated with gambling even when the Bahadurs Company arrived.
Among them was a Muslim overlord of Sargodha (in present-day Pakistan) named Colonel Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan Tiwana, who recognized the promise of early failures in his squire (stable boy) named Mir Sultan Khan. Vigorously promoting the illiterate young boy, the Nawab unleashed him on the European circuit in the late 1920s, causing a stir. Barely literate and only then familiarizing himself with Western systems and notations, the young Khan stunned the best players of his generation, winning three British Open crowns, chess’ era equivalent of Wimbledon.
An underrated accompaniment to Mir Sultan Khan’s story: Sir Hayat Khan’s servant Fatima also won the women’s British Open title in 1933. Dig into that, you orthodox fools. It wasn’t just Muslim men, Muslim women also played chess. Imagine a Muslim Indian making a splash in London some 85 years before the Indian women’s cricket team hit the headlines.
Khan’s exploits were widely reported in the media at this time, including in The Times of India in 1935, when he arrived in Bombay for a simultaneous chess display at a club on Tamarind Lane in Fort. Thereafter, he began to fade from public view, disappearing completely in the mid-1950s when Sargodha, his hometown, traveled to Pakistan, where his body, fame and reputation lie buried. But in his heyday he was a subject of immense curiosity and admiration among his contemporaries.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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