Is it permissible to play chess and backgammon? Does the decree regarding the issue change according to madhhabs?

Details of the Question

It is state that chess is makruh in Shafii madhhab and haram in other madhhabs. Is the view of the madhhab that we follow valid? How shall we evaluate this decree?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Chess is a kind of board game which has become so common and popular in the world that it has been even encouraged at schools. There are courses and competitions that are held, and special sections and parts are allocated in magazines and newspapers to this game; and there are programs made about this game on television. In summary, this game is being played in public especially by young people at different times and places.

In this case, as in every game, there are some criteria that Islam imposed about chess. There are different viewpoints and perspectives as regards to its permissibility or prohibition. For this reason, no matter how common and popular it becomes, it does not stand as a credit for neither being religiously permissible nor being forbidden.

As is known, chess originated in Iran and it spread to other countries from there. It had not been known among Arabs before. However, when Iran was conquered and relations began with Iranians, their customs began to appear little by little among Muslims. Islam principally tolerates customs and habits that are peculiar to a nation and which fit its essence or which do not contradict it. Nevertheless, it forbids behaviors, attitudes and customs which might be harmful and it orders people to quit them.

Even though it is not included in hadith books, chess is named as “the owner of the queen” in some narrations and playing it is not regarded permissible. Ali (R.A.) does not tolerate chess and says,

“Chess is the gamble of the Persians”,

Abu Musa al-Ashari from the Honored Companions says,

“Only those who do not avoid committing sins play chess.”

Ibrahim an-Nahai, a great scholar of Islamic Jurisprudence, defined chess as “cursed” when he was asked about it. In the same way, Abdullah Ibn Umar holds the following view

“Chess is worse than other sorts of gambling”

and Imam Malik regards chess as backgammon and regards it forbidden as well.1

According to the majority of scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence who adopt these reports and viewpoints, playing chess is not religiously permissible but forbidden. The preferred opinion of the Hanafi school is the same.

On the other hand, some scholars do not categorize chess the same as other games and think that it might be permissible to play chess under certain circumstances. Imam Nawawi, one of the great scholars of the Shafii school, states the following regarding this issue:

“Chess is forbidden according to the most of the scholars. If a person misses the time of a prayer due to this game or plays it for a reward, we regard it not to be permissible.”

Ibn Abidin, one of the scholars of Hanafi school, states the following about chess “It is forbidden and it is a great sin in our school.” and he also notes that Imam Shafii, and according to a report, Imam Abu Yusuf regard chess to be acceptable. Wahbaniyyah indicates that Sharih’s statement “Chess is no harm” is “a narration.”2

As Imam Nawawi stated, there are four circumstances that should be available for chess to be religiously permissible:

1. Chess players must not be late for the prayer with the excuse of losing themselves in the game.

2. Chess must not be played for financial or similar benefits that will lead to gambling, in other words, it must be played under the circumstance that neither the winner nor the loser takes anything at the end as a reward.

3. Players should abstain from using a coarse language such as swearing words, lies, gossip during the game.

4. Those who have made playing chess a habit should not make it an addiction that cannot be given up.

In this case, according to this view, under the conditions of knowing the bounds, not preventing prayers and not causing sins, chess is regarded permissible.

Ibn Hajar al-Makki, one of the scholars of Shafii school who examined the permissibility of chess by the particular way of the game, explains the difference between backgammon and chess as follows:

“In the game of backgammon, the game depends on dice. However, chess depends on thinking and mental abilities. In this sense, this game can be utilized on planning war strategies.”

In his book titled “Az-Zawajir”, where he deals this issue broadly, Ibn Hajar reaches the following conclusion:

“There is no point in talking long about different viewpoints on this issue. Once the rule is clear, it becomes easy to make a decree based on it. Here is the rule:

“If such games depend on thinking and calculation, we should accept them as legitimate. Chess is like that. Yet, if it depends on dice and prediction, we have no choice but to call it forbidden. Backgammon is like that.”3

In conclusion, by complying with the conditions of Imam Shafii and Abu Yusuf, and considering Ibn Hajar’s explanation and preferring the permissible side, chess players may be relieved of the responsibility.

Footnotes:

1. Az-Zawajir, 2:200.
2. Raddul Muhtar, 5:523.
3. Az-Zawajir, 2:201-202.

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