Arab Contributions To The Game Of Chess
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Some have called chess the highest plane of human pleasure; others, an admirable effort of the human mind. Yet, in the past, some religious leaders have condemned it as a sinful type of diversion. However, for most people, like the medieval Arabs who carried it to the western world, it remains a truly fulfilling pastime.
More has been written about chess than any other game ever devised. No one is exactly certain where it was invented, but it is thought that a primitive type of chess could have been played in India over 5,000 years ago. In its original version, the game symbolized a battle between two armies. Hence, in the Indian sub-continent, it was called chaturanga (army game).
From the Indian sub-continent, in about 600 A. D., it was introduced into Persia. After the Arab conquest of that country, the game spread to all Islamic lands, reaching Spain before 900 A.D. According to A. Saidy and N. Lessing in The World of Chess, the conquest of Persia by Islam was the most important development in the history of chess. In less than a century, from China in the east to France in the west, this epitome of the indoor sport was diffused and took hold. Historians have asserted that wherever the Muslims conquered or colonized they carried chess with them.
The Arabs were the first people to study the game scientifically and it is to their early writers that we owe the most numerous and earliest references to this ancient pastime. Chess researchers all agree that its history can only be reconstructed from these Arab sources.
For about 500 years, Muslims dominated the game and their players were the best in the world. In that period of history, it became a widely played popular form of entertainment. A good number of caliphs were captivated by it and became expert players. In their book The Chess Scene, D. Levy and S. Reuben indicate that Harun al-Rashid of Arabian Nights’ fame was not only a player but also a patron of the game. When this famous Caliph was asked, “What is Chess?” he replied, “What is life?”
In that golden era of the Arabs, the game entered their legends and a vast literature relating to chess came into existence. H. Murray in A History of Chess quotes this verse by Ibn al-Mu’tazz, a chess-playing Abbasid Caliph’s son:
“0 thou whose cynic sneers express
The censure of our favorite chess,
Know that its skill is science’ self,
Its play distraction from distress.
It soothes the anxious lover’s care,
It weans the drunkard from excess;
It counsels warriors in their art,
When danger threatens, and perils press;
And yields us when we need them most,
Companions in our loneliness.”
The first documented history of the game is from the 9th century when al-‘Adli wrote what is considered to be the first book about this pastime, entitled, The Book of Chess.
However, the greatest chess players in early Islam were Al-Suli and his pupil al-Lajlaj who were renowned in the Abbasid court of Baghdad. Al-Suli’s superiority was recognized for centuries – until the European Renaissance. For many years people said of someone who showed remarkable skill in chess, “He plays like al-Suli.”
After the Arabs conquered the Iberian Peninsula, the game was introduced into that part of Europe. In the ensuing centuries, the flourishing and enlightened Caliphate of Cordova, which promoted culture, education and encouraged all sciences, became the pivot for the diffusion of chess to the remainder of Europe. To the Caliphate’s schools, students came from neighboring countries to study and, in the process, became acculturated to the norms of Arab society. When they returned home, they took back with them the art of chess.
The game also became an essential part of the belongings carried by troubadours and traveling minstrels, thus helping in the spread of its popularity throughout Europe. Initially, its dispersal from the Iberian Peninsula was only a trickle but, in spite of the fact that it was forbidden by the clergy and monastic orders, likely due to it being the ‘infidel’s’ game, the trickle soon became a torrent.
The first evidence of chess in western Europe dates from 1010 A.D. when the Count of Urgel left his rock-crystal chessmen to the Convent of St. Giles at Nimes. A few years later, it is believed that the game was introduced into England with the Danish invasion. In subsequent years, it was favored by the upper classes and became known as ‘the pastime of the nobility’. When the Normans occupied England, they named one of their departments of state Scaccarium (from the Arabic-Persian shah) after the chessboard, from which we get our modern word ‘exchequer’. In Spain, after the Moors were expelled, they left behind a repository of knowledge relating to chess, which was to establish the Spanish as the leading European proponents of the game for three centuries.
From its introduction into Christian Europe until 1200 A.D., chess was played according to the traditions and rules followed in the Muslim world. However, in the succeeding centuries, both the rules and names of the chess pieces changed. Improvements were made in the moves and rules and, as the years slipped by, the game lost its clear cut Arab framework.
Nevertheless, before others took over, the Arabs had contributed much to the development of chess, which they called shatranj, an adaptation of the Persian word chaturanga, itself derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga. The Arabs had borrowed as loan words certain foreign words pertaining to chess and translated others that they found difficult to pronounce.
With one exception, the Persian nomenclature of the chess-pieces was adopted into Arabic almost unchanged. Baizag (pawn), fil (bishop),firzan (queen) and rukhkh (rook) are the Arabized forms of the Persian payadah, phil, firzin and rukh. Shah (king) remained the same. Only asp, Persian for the horse, was given an Arab translated name, far as(knight) and firzan was later changed to vizir.
Due to the prohibition of human-likeness in Islam, the abstract Arab chess-pieces bore little resemblance to images. The Muslims created new chess-pieces to reinterpret the realistic-naturalistic Persian-Indian models. After the game entered Europe, the non-representational Arab chessmen were transformed into human likenesses. In the beginning, ignorance of their original significance caused certain pieces to be given a great variety of names. But over the years these names became standardized in the form we know them today.
The Arab ancestry of European chess can be easily established by the ‘Arabic-isms’ in the nomenclature of the European game. In medieval chess ferez was the Arabic (firzan), alfil (al- fil ), roc (rukhkh), check (shah) and mat or mate (mat). The Spanish name for chess, ajedrez and the Portuguese, xadrez are derived from the Arabic shatranj. On the other hand, the English name chess, French échec, and Italians are variations of the shah.
The Arabs were also responsible for dividing the game into the three parts we know today: opening, middle and end games. According to C. Alexander in his A Book of Chess, the Arabs not only invented the World Chess Championship but also the Grandmasters. He states that in 820 A.D. there were four ‘aliyat or ‘players of the highest class’, and in 847 the Persian al-Razi defeated al- ‘Adli in the presence of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil – an international contest that seems to carry a hint of the classic Fisher/Spassky clashes.
There is no better description of the Arabic influences in the game than that written by Michael Gartner in Newsday, an American publication:
“The shah of Iran is no more, but you remember him. He was a guy with lots of money and lots of troubles. He was called the shah because shah is the Persian word for king.
The word moved through Arabic into Old French as exchac, which eventually became the English check. By then, though, the word didn’t refer to any old king. Rather it referred to the king in the game of chess, and that’s why when your king is in danger, your chess opponent says ‘check’. That means, ‘Be careful. Your king is in big trouble’.
If you aren’t careful, after the next move he’ll say ‘checkmate.’ That comes from the Arabic al-shah mat, which means ‘the king is dead’. In chess, it means your king is captured, and you lose the game. That led to the use of the word check to indicate hindrances of various kinds. Hockey players are checked, military plans are checked, political maneuvers are checked. A square on a chessboard was originally called a checker or, in Middle English, escheker. Since chess was a royal game, involving kings and queens and knights, the royals of old took the name exchequer to describe the royal treasury. And it is from that word that the British get their cheques and we get our checks.”
More than any other pastime, chess has for hundreds of years symbolized circumstances encountered in daily living. This is put into perspective by these words of Omar Khayyam:
“We are but chessmen, who to move are fain.
Just as the great Chessplayer doth ordain;
He moves us on life’s chessboard to and fro,
And then in Death’s box shuts us up again.”
Today, chess is played in all countries of the globe, but its true home has become the western world. It is as it has been from the very beginning, a contest between two players each directing an equal size army in an imaginary war. Victory always falls to the one whose strategical imagination is greater.
Finally, it is said that chess has triumphed over shatranj. A. Saidy and N. Lessing state that the “Irony of ironies! Easterners now have to learn the fine points of chess and the latest innovations from the once – despised Westerners.” Yet, the enormous Arab contributions to this king of indoor sports has endured. As H. Golombek writes in Chess – A History:
“Just as the Arabs were the great popularisers of scientific mathematical knowledge, so were they also the innovators of scientific study in what we now call chess and they termed shatranj. One cannot but marvel at the intellectual energy of a people who flourished more than a thousand years ago and yet set the style for theoretical analysis which, with the natural differences that occurred as the game developed and changed, has endured all that time.”
1) Alexander, C.H.O’D., A Book of Chess, Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., London, 1973.
2) Eales, R ., The History of a Game, Facts on File Publications, Oxford, l985.
3) Gizycki, J., A History of Chess, The Abbey Library, London, 1972.
4) Golombek, H., Chess – A History, G . P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1976.
5) Lambe, R., The History of Chess, London, 1764.
6) Levy, D. & Reuben, S., The Chess Scene, Faber & Faber, London, 1974.
7) Murray, H.J.R., A History of Chess, Oxford University Press, London, 1969.
8) Saidy, A. & N. Lessing, The World of Chess, The Ridge Press, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London, 1974.
9) Wichmann, H. & S., Chess, The Story of Chesspieces From Antiquity to Modern Times, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1964.
10) The Encyclopedia of Chess ( Robert Hale London) compiled by Anne Sunnucks, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1976.