The earliest versions of chess were played in India, Persia, and the Arab lands. Many sources debate as to where chess originated, but it is commonly believed to have originated in India. The Indian ancestor of chess was called chaturanga, developed in the 6th century AD. Meaning “Four Members”, it comes from the four military divisions of the Indian army: infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry(3). Instead of a queen, it had a vizier, the shah’s second-in command. Yalom, in her book The Birth of the Chess Queen, placed heavy emphasis on the influence of culture in regard to the evolution of chess, with a primary focus on the queen piece. In fact, the early predecessors of chess did not include a female piece of any kind, since the vizier’s command is more powerful in these countries. Eventually, the game spread to Persia where it became known as Shatranj. After the Islamic Conquest of Persia, the game spread westward and a large portion of the Arabian population began to take up chess where it became known as shatranj (but for the sake of this essay, I will continue to refer to it as ‘chess’).
In the Arab countries, chess was not limited to just the men of high status. In fact, according to Yalom, chess players included everyone: “rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old”(131). The caliphs were the ones to popularize chess among Muslim circles. Caliph Harun al-Rashid made chess into a mandatory court activity that even altered the course of history. Harun sought out skilled chess players with unusual prowess, for example, the ability to play chess blindfolded. He would admit these players, despite their economic standing, and present them with riches. This move was translated in the chess move of “queening”: promoting a pawn to the rank of vizier.
The Muslim female ideals translate to the pieces of the chessboard as well. Yalom makes the queen piece into a vital clue to a culture’s take on chess. It would have made no sense to have a queen on the chessboard in these early representations. For one thing, Chess was “resolutely and exclusively a war game enacted between male fighters mounted on animals or walking on foot”(XIX). Also, as pointed out earlier, the position of the vizier was firm and absolute by the Shah’s side. The Muslims did not share the Christian ideal of a monogamous pairing, but instead displayed possibilities for polygamous relationships. The power of the Muslim woman was thinned down and less significant; the wife of a shah was not expected to share political power with him. A shah may even have many wives. (XVIII)
Arab women, despite their low status in
culture, would appear in Muslim literature as chess players. In one story of Arabian Nights, the Muslim prince Sharkan competes in a game of chess with
the Christian princess Abriza. The prince is captivated by Abriza’s beauty and
loses, only to win her heart and hand in marriage. In many of such stories, the
theme of a “battle of the sexes” in a chess match is clearly defined. The
Arabic version of these stories usually has the Christian woman fall in love
and convert to Islam, while, in contrast, the European version has the exotic
Arab princess fall in love, and invariably convert from
Islam to Christianity (11). This says something
about gender realities in both Christianity and Islam. From what we can see here, chess is used as a
medium to reflect themes of love and religion (133). It is an important part of
early Islamic culture, just as video games and aspects of popular culture is today.
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. (6-7) Even to this day, most Islamic countries (save Turkey) continue to portray abstract chess sets. (238) 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 does not stop some extreme caliphs to order a destruction of all chess sets throughout the centuries. One example Yalom mentioned involved a more recent practice of chess prohibition as 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.” (7-8)
An expanding Arabian Empire was now spreading chess throughout Europe. By the 10th century, the Muslims have brought chess to far spread areas throughout North Africa to Spain. The nephew of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III brings chess to Christian territories, keeping the abstract set design. When chess is introduced to Cordoba, a Spanish Islam city, they allowed Christians, Arabs, and Jews to play together, both the men and the women. This “Golden Age” of Muslims and Jews helped spread chess and other aspects of Muslim culture along. After the Arab Invasion of Southern Europe we begin to see the next major transformation of chess: a queen piece in place of the vizier. In Persia, to this day, the chess pieces still retained their Muslim names. When brought to Russia, the queen piece is still based off the Arabic vizier. Funnily enough, Russians still kept the abstract chess pieces for many years. A few examples of Islamic influences on chess that still linger to this day.Bibliography:
Yalom, Marilyn. The Birth of the Chess Queen. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004 (hardcover)
"Chess: Introduction to Europe". Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-80430/chess.