Chess in the Arab World
The Arab world derived its knowledge of chess from Persia. The Persian name of chess was chatrang. There was no letter c or ch or g in Arabic (the Arabic j could be pronounced like a hard g), so the Middle Persian word for chatrang was changed to shatranj. The Persian names of the chess pieces were retained in Arabic: shah, firzan, fil, rukhkh, faraz, and baizaq or king, vizier, elephant, rook, horse, and pawn.
In 644 CE, the Muslim armies defeated and conquered Persia under the caliphate Umar (Omar) bin al-Khattab (579-644). The introduction of chess was a result of the conquest of Persia.
The prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE and probably never heard of the existence of chatrang or shatranj. Muhammadan jurists and legal scholars were unable to settle the question of the legality of chess playing by any direct decision of Muhammad as recorded in the Koran or any other authentic tradition.
In 656, Ali ibn Abu Talib (600-661), cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, became caliph and disapproved chess for Muslims. He considered shatranj as the gambling game of non Arabs. His main objection was to the carved chessmen and not to the game itself. Sunnite Muslims use chessmen of conventional pattern. (Murray, p. 191).
Talib’s son, Husain ibn Ali, is recorded to have played shatranj with his children, and also to have watched a game and to have prompted the players. (Murray p. 191).
Chess became popular in the Muslim world after Islamic theologians decided that chess playing was not contrary to the teachings of Muhammad.
Abu Hurairah (603-681) a companion of Muhammad and the most prolific narrator of hadith, played shatranj Other companions, such as Abdullah ibn Abbas and Absall bin Zubair are stated to have been seen playing shatranj. (Murray, p. 191).
In 665, Sa’id ibn Jubair (665-714), was born in Africa. He later became an Islamic judge. According to ibn Taimiya, Jubair gave the flowing reason for playing chess. He had reason to believe that al-Hajaj was going to appoint him judge. Fearing that the patronage of al-Hajaj would be detrimental to his piety, he took up chess in order to disqualify himself. Jubair was the first person to be mentioned by name that played chess blindfolded. Jubair turned his back on the board and asked his slave to make the moves for him. Later, al-Hajjaj put him to death for taking part in a revolt. (Murray, p. 192)
From 685 to 705, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (646-705) reigned as the 5th Umayyad Caliph. He played shatranj and was the earliest Umayyad caliph associated with chess. (Murray, p. 193)
In 710 al-Walid I (668-715), an Umayyad caliph, killed a shatranj player when the player purposely played poorly against him. Walid was playing shatranj with Abdallah ibn Muawiyah when a Syrian visitor was announced. The caliph ordered a slave to cover over the board, and the visitor was allowed to enter. Walid then discovered the visitor was not knowledgeable in Muslim religion, so he uncovered the board and resumed his game. (Murray, p. 193 and Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam by Rosenthal, p. 86)
In 712 Seville was conquered by Arabs. Moorish invaders brought chess to Iberia. The Moors of North Africa rendered the word ‘shatranj’ as shaterej, which gave rise to the Spanish acedrex, axedrez, and ajedrez.
The Arabic poet al-Farazdaq (641-730) mentioned pawns of chess in one of his poems. He wrote, “…I keep you from your inheritance and from the royal crown so that, hindered by my arm, you remain a Pawn (baidaq) among the Pawns (bayadiq). (Murray, p. 194)
Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Mahdi (744-785) was the third Abbasid Caliph. He disapproved of shatranj. In 780 he wrote a letter to the people of Mecca to stop playing shatranj, along with nard, playing with dice, and archery. He considered these vanities that lead astray and from the remembrance of Allah. However, chess was played in his court. (Murray, p. 195)
In 776 the poet Abu Hafs Omar ibn Abdalaziz was also known as ash-Shatranji, the chess player.
In 780 Moorish invaders of Spain introduce chess to Western Europe.
Harun al-Rashid (763-809) was the fifth Abbasid caliph. He was a chess (shatranj) player who granted good chess players pensions. In 802, Harun sent Charlemagne a variety of presents, including chessmen. Harun also wrote a letter to Nicephorus of Byzantium (died in 811) in 802 mentioning shatranj. (Murray, p. 195)
In 805 Ash-shafi’i, a famous Muslim lawyer, played chess blindfold.
Harun’s eldest son and successor, Muhammad ibn Harun al-Amin (787-813), the sixth Abbasid Caliph, was also a chess player. Al-Amin and the musician Ishaq al-Mausili were playing chess after Ishaq wager his cloak on the game. Al-Amin won, but hesitated to take Ishaq’s cloak until he came up with the idea of giving up his own cloak as a gift. During the siege in Baghdad in 813, when the city was on the verge of capture, a messenger entered to warn the caliph. Al-Amin did not want to be interrupted as he was about to checkmate his opponent. Al-Amin was later captured by his brother, al-Ma’mun, during the siege in Baghdad and beheaded. (Murray, p. 197).
Abdullah Al-Ma’mun (786-833), the Abbasid caliph who reigned from 813 to 833, was also a chess player and frustrated that he could not master the game. It was Ma’mun’s opinion that chess was more than a game, and that to play it was excellent training for the mind. He always insisted that his opponent play his best, otherwise, he would refuse to play with the opponent ever again.
In 818 the strongest chess players were Jabir al-Kufi, Rabrab, and Abu’n-Na’am.
In 821 chess was introduced by Ziriab (Abul Hassan Ali ibn Nafi) in Cordoba, Spain. He was a Persian musician who lived in Baghdad.
In 840 al-Aldi was considered the best chess player in the world. It was only towards the end of his life that a rival, ar-Razi, appeared.
He may have also composed the oldest known chess problem.
Al-Adli (800-870) was considered one of the strongest chess (shatranj) players (aliyat) of the 9th century. He was patronized by several caliphs in the Arab world (al-Wathiq who came in power in 842 and al-Mutawakkil who came in power in 847).
He was at the height of his fame around 840 A.D. He was defeated in a match around 848 by ar-Razi in front of Caliph al-Mutawakkil of Baghdad who reigned from 847 until he was murdered by Turks in 861.
Al-Adli wrote a Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess) and a book on nard (Kitab an-nard). His books have long been lost, but some of his problems, endgames, and opening systems have survived. His book contained information on the older game of Chaturanga [Sanskrit], the earlier Indian form of chess. His name indicates that he came from some part of the eastern Roman Empire, possibly Turkey.
al-Adli was the first person to classify chess players. He recognized five classes of players. The highest contained the aliyat or grandees. The second class was called the mutaqaribat or proximes. There were three other classes.
al-Adli was the first to categorize openings into positions called tabiya (plural: tabiyat). Some of the opening names were: the goat-peg, Pharaoh’s stones, the old women, the wing or flank opening, the torrent, the sheikh’s opening, the strongly built opening, the sword, the slave’s banner, the army opening, and the shoulder.
al-Adli was the first to compile chess problems, called mansubat. He divided his collection into won endings, drawn endings, and undecided games.
al-Adli also showed how to use the chessboard as a kind of abacus for purposes of calculation. The calculation was to be carried out by the help of small stones that were heaped up on the square as necessary. This is a parallel use of the chessboard to that which gave a name to the Exchequer in Norman England.
al Adli may have been the first to use coordinates to record positions and moves in chess. He may have also been the first to discover the knights tour. His book contained diagrams which represent a knight’s tour on a chessboard.
al-Adli described a variation of chess played with dice. This is the earliest recorded instance of the use of dice to determine the moves of a form of chess.
Some of the older legends on the invention of chess come from al-Adli.
In the first legend, an Indian monarch named Hashran appeals to an Indian sage, Qaflan, to devise a game that would symbolize man’s dependence upon destiny and fate, and depict the way in which these forces work by means of man’s environment. The philosopher invented the game of nard, played with dice. Hashran was delighted with the game and introduced it in India, where it became extremely popular. At a later date there arose a king named Balhait who was advised by a Brahman that nard was contrary to his religion. The king accordingly planned to replace nard by a new game that should demonstrate the value of prudence, diligence, thrift, and knowledge. His Brahman friend undertook the task, and invented chess, explaining its name of shatranj by the Persian hashat-ranj, in which hashat means eight and ranj means side. It was made on the model of war, because war is the most effective school for teaching the value of administration, decision, prudence, caution, arrangement, strategy, circumspection, vigor, force, endurance, and bravery. Balhait was charmed with the game, and did his best to induce his subjects to adopt it in the place of nard.
In the second legend, the game is invented to assist in the military education of a young prince who was incompetent to lead his armies in war owing to his want of experience. Chess is alleged to have given the necessary training in tactics to convert him into an efficient commander.
In the third legend, chess is invented for a king named Shahram by the sage Sassa of Dahir.
In 848 ar-Razi defeated al-Aldi in the presence of caliph al-Mutawakki (822-861).
Al-Aldi and ar-Razi both wrote chess manuscripts. There are large portions of al-Adli’s work in various manuscripts, but only a few problems and endgames have survived of ar-Razi’s work. Ar-Razi wrote Latif fi ‘sh-shatranj (Elegance in Chess).
In 866 the caliph Abdullah Ibn al-Mutazz (847-869) was playing shatranj when the head of his chief rival, al-Musta’in, was brought to him. Al-Mutazz paid no attention to the news (or the head) until he had finished his game.
In 880 Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya as-Suli (al Suli) was born (880-946). He was an author of a book on shatranj.
By 880 coordinate notation was used in the Arab countries.
In 892 al-Mu’tadid bi-llah (854-902) came to power as the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. He was a chess player. However, when he discovered that his servants were playing chess rather than doing their duties, they were given several lashes with the whip. (Murray, p. 199 and Gambling in Islam by Rosenthal, 1975, p. 145).
In 0902, al-Muktafi (878-908) came to power as the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. He took into a favor a shatranj player named al-Mawardi. Then al-Muktafi heard about another shatranj player named Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya as-Suli (880-946), so the caliph arranged a match between the two shatranj players. Around 905, as-Suli defeated al-Mawardi in front of the caliph to become the so-called world shatranj (chess) champion. After al-Mawardi lost, the caliph said to him, “Your rose water has turned to piss.” (Murray, p. 199).
Besides chess, al-Suli was noted for his poetry and scholarship. He wrote a chronicle detailing the reigns of the caliphs al-Radi and al-Mattlaqi. Al-Suli remained the favorite shatranj player under succeeding caliphs al-Muqtadir and ar-Radi. Al-Suli’s shatranj-playing ability, including his blindfold play, became legendary and he is still considered one of the best Arab players of all time. The endgames of some of his matches are still in existence.
One of his most prominent achievements is his two-volume book, Kitab Ash-Shatranj (Book of Chess), which was the first scientific book ever written on chess strategy. It contained information on common chess openings, standard problems in middle game, and annotated end games. It also contains the first known description of the knight’s tour problem. Many later European writers based their work on modern chess on al-Suli’s work.
In later years, al-Suli fell in disfavor with the ruler. Al-Suli went into exile at Basra in 940, where he spent the rest of his life in poverty.
In 910, al-lajlaj (the stammerer) was a pupil of al-Suli, and was one of the first to publish chess openings and chess problems. He wrote Kitab mansubat ash-shatranj (Book of chess positions or problems). The original has been lost, but copies were made and exist from the 12th century.
Around 950, al-Masudi (896-956), an Arab historian (the Herodotus of the Arabs) and geographer, wrote on the history of chess in India and Byzantine chess.
In 965, Al-Hakam (915-976), Caliph of Cordoba started to collect 400,000 books. Some were Arabic manuscripts on chess.
In 988 ibn Ishaq an-Nadim wrote “Kitab al-fihrist,” (Book of Catalogs) a general bibliography. Chess Authors included Al-Aldi, Ar-Razi, As-Suli, Al-Lajlaj, and B. Aliqlidsi
In 1005, chess was banned in Egypt by Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (985-1021). All chess sets were burned. The order did not extend to the magnificent chess sets in the palace treasury, made of gold, silver, ivory and ebony. (Murray, p. 202)
In 1070, al-mutamid, Moorish king, was regarded as a chess patron.
In 1078, ibn Ammar defeated King Alfonso VI (1040-1109) of Castile in a game of chess.
In 1089, Jayyash led a revolt after disguising himself as Indian chess player.
In 1098, the Turkish General Karbuga was playing chess during the siege of Antioch by Peter the Hermit.
In 1100, Abu ‘l-Fath Ahmad as-Sinjari wrote a chess manuscript containing 287 mansubat.
In 1140, al-Mubarak wrote an Arabic chess manuscript for Abd-al-Hamid.
In the beginning, there was much opposition to chess and aspects of it; the most important being the ban on displaying realistic figures in chess pieces. The Sunni Muslims took a strict interpretation of one passage in the Koran, which states: “Believers, wine and games of chance, idols and divining arrows, are abominations devised by Satan. Avoid them, so that you may prosper”. So strict were their followings to their religion that they took the passage as a ban on all representations of animals and humans, forcing them to portray even chess pieces in abstract shapes. Even to this day, most Islamic countries continue to portray abstract chess sets. Playing the game itself was not banned, as long as it “did not interfere with the performance of religious duties, was not played for money, and did not lead to dispute or foul language.” However, this did not stop some extreme caliphs to order a destruction of all chess sets throughout the centuries. For a long time, chess prohibition was a part of the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan. Once the Taliban’s rule was overthrown, “the first objects to be taken out of hiding were radios, musical instruments, and chess sets.” Also, Iran prohibited public chess and the sale of chess items from 1981 to 1988 under the Ayatollah Khomeini.
– Bill Wall