Chess & Muslim Heritage

Chess is a significant part of Muslim history. The game originated in northern India in the 6th century AD & spread to Persia. When the Arabs conquered Persia, chess was taken up by the Muslim world


A history of chess & Muslim heritage…


The Indian ancestor of Chess was called chaturanga, developed in the 6th century AD meaning “4 Members”, it comes from the 4 military divisions of the Indian army: infantry, cavalry, elephantry, & chariotry. Two women play Chaturanga, c. 1805 — c. 1815



Eventually, the game spread to Persia. After the Islamic Conquest of Persia, the game spread westward & a large portion of the Arabian population began to take up chess where it became known as Shatranj Chess Piece as Seated Man, 13th c. Iran



The conquest of Persia by Islam is known to be the most important development in the history of the game of chess. Historians have accounted for the Muslim world’s relationship with the game of chess as they took chess with them wherever they conquered



Chess Set, 12th century, Iran from The Metropolitan Museum, New York


This nearly complete chess set is one of the earliest extant examples in the world. The pieces are abstract forms: the shah (king) is represented as a throne; the vizier (the equivalent of the queen) is a smaller throne



In Arab countries the caliphs popularised chess among Muslim circles. Caliph Harun al-Rashid made chess into a mandatory court activity. He sought out skilled chess players with unusual prowess, for example, the ability to play chess blindfolded



Harun al-Rashid 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 Saladin al-Ayoubi and Caliph Harun al-Rashid



The Charlemagne chess set might just be the most famous chess set in the world. Legend has it that an exquisite set of chessmen was presented to King Charlemagne as a gift from Caliph Harun al-Rashid. A replica of the Charlemagne chess



Harun’s successor his son al-Amin (died 813) has an incredible chess tale: At a critical point in the siege of Baghdad by forces loyal to his half-brother al-Ma‘mun, he received a message while playing chess that Baghdad’s capture was imminent Painting of Seige



The 2 most famous Abbasid chess masters, al-Lajlaj and al-Suli, appeared in the 10th century. Both are known from extracts of their writings in 2 manuscripts of the Book of Chess: Extracts From the Works of al-Adli, as-Suli & Others, compiled in the 12th century



At the Baghdad court, chess was not a silent affair. Players were expected to maintain a witty banter with each other & with spectators. “Chess players employ different kinds of pleasantry & jests designed to astound” wrote the 14th-century historian al-Mas‘udi



Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess from the Shahnama Book of Kings ca. 1300–30 How chess was introduced in Iran from India - apparently to avoid paying tribute to the Sasanians the Rajah of India sent an envoy challenging the Iranian ruler to figure out chess



After the Arabs conquered the Iberian Peninsula, known today as the countries of Portugal and Spain, the game was introduced into this part of Europe. The Caliphate of Cordoba promoted the culture, education, and sciences–which included chess



A Jew and a Muslim playing chess in al-Andalus. El Libro de los Juegos, 13th century Historically playing chess has connected cultures and people, as it is based on intellectual challenges and logical skills.



Alfonso X (1221¬–1284), king of Castile, Léon & Galicia, was a Christian patron of translations of Arabic learning. His Book of Games suggests that chess in 13th century Spain was in transition from the game played in the Middle East & North Africa



The game grew to become an essential act of pastime for travelers, helping in the further spread throughout Europe. The first account of the game of chess in Western Europe dates back 1010 A.D. A Christian and a Muslim playing chess, late 1200s.



In the 10th & 11th centuries, chess spread to Russia & Scandinavia from the Middle East with the Norse Volga River trade. Slightly later, chess moved into Italy. A chess piece, Fatimid dynasty period, Egypt, 10-11th century, found in Sicily



This is a manuscript on chess strategy from 1257CE (655AH), previously owned by the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid II




Vizier Buzurghmihr Showing the Game of Chess to King Khusraw Anushirwan, Turkey, 1525-1575 The central scene here depicts Buzurghmihr showing chess to his shah in a leisurely gathering. Though referencing a tale set in Iran, the scene evokes an Ottoman palace



The oldest chess set ever found dates circa 700, made of ivory, from Afrasiab, near Samarkand (Uzbekistan) - a historically important city of Central Asia on the Silk Route, the old trade route between China & the Mediterranean



The Persian term shah for the king chess piece drifted into various languages as the name of the game: scacchi in Italian, schaakspiel in Dutch, Schachspiel in German, shkak in Serbian, skaktafl in Icelandic & éches in French, from which comes chess in English



Across localities the shapes of the pieces varied. In Central Asia, for example, the camel sometimes replaced the elephant. Among Tibetans, the lion replaced the king & the tiger replaced the vizier Mughal Chess Set, the pieces are Indian riders on animals



Sänṭäräž ሰንጠረዥ is a regional chess variant played in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Traditionally, the board is not checkered, but marked into squares 18th c. MS painting of Senterej, Mancala & the ancient Egyptian boardgame



Chess was popular in Mughal India, a favoured game by Mughal Emperors. This South Indian chess set, 1775-1825 represents the opposing teams through opulent gem set pieces with rubies and emeralds. Sold at Christies for $187,500



An article from "Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly" (1883) called "Living Chess" claims that the Mughal, India emperor, Akbar (1542-1605) supposedly played a game of living chess on the pavement of the Pachisi court at Fatehpur Sikri