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The age-old war between Muslim clerics and chess-players

A chess board and unemptied ashtrays in an abandoned house in the near-deserted and heavily bombed village of Yaroun in southern Lebanon on Monday, Aug. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)
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The top religious cleric in Saudi Arabia denounced the sport of chess, declaring it "a waste of time" and reiterating reasons why it should be forbidden.

Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, was responding to viewer questions on his regular television show when he made the comments, a video of which circulated on social media this week. The Middle East Eye has more:

“The game of chess is a waste of time and an opportunity to squander money. It causes enmity and hatred between people,” Abdullah is heard to say in the clip, comparing it to the pre-Islamic Arabian game of maisir – which is forbidden by the Quran -- in which players shoot arrows to win pieces of camel meat.

The statement was not exactly a formal edict, but fits in with a longstanding body of religious proclamations aimed at chess, a sport and pastime that is popular in many parts of the Middle East and South Asia.

Islamic jurists over the centuries have regarded it as a vice. That narrative grew stronger following the advent of European empires, where numerous popular stories and plays depicted chess as the seductive distraction of indolent nawabs and sultans, who would fritter away their realms to the foreign invaders.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia's current regional foe, chess was declared "haram," or forbidden, by religious leaders due to its connections to gambling. As the Guardian reports, the country's first supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lifted the ban in 1988 -- provided there was no link between the act of playing chess and gambling -- and Iran is now an active member of the global chess-playing community.

The irony is that chess, which is believed to have originated in India, has roots in the Middle East older perhaps than even Islam. According to one account, a chess set was gifted to a Persian king as a riddle and a challenge from a Hindu monarch in the 6th century AD.

It stuck and became deeply embedded in Persian culture and literary production, and proliferated elsewhere in the Middle East and further west to Europe. Chess and chess players are featured in Persian epics and miniatures, poems and songs.

In the Ottoman Empire, ornately carved chess sets were prized gifts for notables and foreign potentates.

Little surprise then, that it remains a popular activity now. Following the hubbub over the grand mufti's remarks, the Saudi Chess Association made a quick statement. A planned tournament for Friday would still go ahead.