Problems of Islamic Heraldry (cont.) 3 BACK

Islamic Chess?

Another charge that needs some explanation is the 'chessboard' blazon on Figure 5

     Figure 5
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(potsherd, National Museum of Arab Art, Cairo, drawn from Mayer 1933, pl. X: 12). As far fetched as it would at first appear, it may have a relationship to a game, and a likely candidate is chess. No one is sure where or when chess was invented.  Scattered references in various languages have been used to support one culture or another. China and India, with long literary histories, emerge as likely candidates.  What is certain is that it was a game known during the Sasanian Empire (AD 250–650), as well as among the early Arabs. There are scattered literary references suggesting that chess was a popular game in the Islamic world. In AD 638 Caliph Omar sanctioned the game, and in 643 Omar b. al-Khattab (father-in-law of Muhammad) questioned if chess was consistent with Islam. In 655 Caliph Ali Ben Abu Talib forbade chess (Golombek 1976). To date the earliest known chess pieces are dated to the 6th to 8th century.  They were recovered at the site of Afrasiab, near Samarkand in modern Uzbekistan, although at that time the region was firmly in the Iranian sphere (Keene 1990). It is interesting to note that the date may lie on one side or the other of the Islamic conquest. Whatever the case there is no doubt that the game was known in the Islamic West. Arab chronicles note that they took the game of "shatransh" from the Iranians, who knew it as "chatrang." The latter game was  played on an un-checkered board with 8 x 8 squares, with two opposing armies of 16 pieces each. While the pieces used in the game changed over time, the arrangement of the field of play remained stable over time and space. Pieces changed over time and culture, and at least in Islamic lands, there may have been reluctance to use graven images:

Since the Koran strictly forbade all the believers to handle figures in any shape or form, it is not surprising that when chess did became known, the legitimacy of the game among the Arabs was suspect because of its image association, and it was only after many years of debate that the judicial decision was reached. It was finally decreed that the game of chess was perfectly legitimate provided that chess pieces used were of simple geometric shapes, and that the game was not played for the purpose of gambling. “...(Islamic) chess pieces can be of simple form and yet pleasing to the eye; the have a delightful symmetry, they are well balanced” (Mackett-Beeson 1968, 71).

Mackett-Beeson here assumes that as the game of chess was invented after Islam, there would be no direct prohibition in the Koran. As a result playing chess would raise issues about images as well as gambling.  Assuming that both concerns were addressed, the game was legal.  Yet there is no material evidence in the form of early Islamic chess pieces that can lend credence to this theory. Other scholars find no difficulty in the form of chess pieces, at least in some Islamic cultures:

    The Sunnite Muslim sees a prohibition of carved chess-pieces which actually reproduce the King, elephants, horses etc., in the prohibition of images. Persian commentators, however have explained the term as referring to idols, and the Shi'te and Moghul chess-players have no objection to using real carved chessmen. The Sunnite player on the contrary will only use pieces of conventional type in which it is impossible to see any resemblance to any living creature
    (Murray 1913,188).

Again, the passage above is based on fragmentary information. The situation as it exists today may be quite different from that of the past. Without detailed material evidence it is almost impossible to write the history of the game. Yet if one thing can be taken from this rather contentious discussion, it is that the pieces themselves may have been prohibited.  If the game were to be represented it would have to be without portraying the pieces.  This only leaves a representation of the board as an option. In many ways the board is the most important element of the game. The lack of chess pieces does not preclude playing, as they can easily be represented by pieces of paper, as is done in various countries today.

A great difficulty in suggesting that this blazon is a chess board is that chess boards from India and Iran did not apparently have white and black squares. The evidence is admittedly fragmentary, yet there are a number of reasons why there were pieces and squares of different colours. The first is that one had to tell the difference between identical pieces. This is particularly the case if paper players were used.  Yet in the latter case the colour of the squares would be obscured. Perhaps boards did indeed have coloured squares much earlier than is currently assumed. Perhaps the blazon has nothing to do with chess and represents another game. Indeed, it is even possible that the blazon is something else entirely. Only with further information can the issue be resolved.





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