by Bill Wall


From 638 to 651, Muslim troops defeated and conquered the Persian empire.  It was during this period that Persian items became part of Muslim items.


Shatranj (Arabic  شطرنج)  is an ancestor of chess.  The Persian name of the game was chatrang.  The game came to Persia from the Indian game of chaturanga around the 7th century AD.  After the game spread to the Islamic world, its name changed to Shatranj.  Shatranj was played in the Arab world for the next 9 centuries.


The shatranj pieces were shah (king), fers (counselor or general that later became the Queen), rukh (rook), Alfil (elephant, which later became the bishop), faras (horse or knight), and baidak (pawn).  Castling was not allowed.  Stalemating the opposing king resulted in a win for the player delivering stalemate.  Capturing all of your opponent’s pieces was a win, unless your opponent could capture your last piece on his next move, was a draw everywhere in the Islamic world except for Medina, which was a win.


When shatranj was played, the board was not checkered.  There was no initial two-step pawn move or en passant capture option.  Pawns arriving at the last rank was always promoted to a fers.


Openings in shatranj were usually called tabbiyya (battle array).  Players aimed to reach a specific position, tabiya, mostly ignoring the play of the opponent.  A Shatranj problem was called a mansuba (position).  Chess problems, plural, were called mansubat.


In 780, caliph al-Mahdi wrote a letter to Mecca religious leaders to give up shatrang as it was considered gambling and he did not want any graven images.


Harun al-Rashid (763-809), Caliph of Baghdad, may have been the first caliph to play shatranj.  He was the 5th Abbasid caliph who ruled between 786 and 809.  In 802, al-Rashid sent Charlemagne an ivory shatranj set as a gift.


During the reign of the Arabic caliphs, shatranj players of the highest class were called aliyat. 


Around 820, Jabir al-Kufi, Rabrab, and Abun-Naam were three aliyat players during the rule of caliph Abu Jafar al-Ma’mun ibn Harun (786-833).  He was an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 813 to 833.


Al-Adli (800-870) was the strongest player (aliyat) during the reign of caliph al-Wathiq (died in 847).  Al-Wathiq reigned from 842 to 847.  He was also patronized by caliph al-Mutawakkil, who came to power in 847 and was murdered by the Turks in 861.


Al-Adli wrote a book on chess, Kitab ash-shatranj (book of shatranj), and a book on nard (kitab an-nard).  His books have long been lost, but some of his problems, endgames, and opening systems have survived.  His book also contained information on the older game of Chaturanga.  His name indicates that he came from some part of the eastern Roman Empire, perhaps Turkey.  He was the firs to classify chessplayers, the highest being aliyat.  He was the first to categorize the openings into positions called tabiya.  He was the first to compile chess problems, called mansubat.  He also showed how to use the chessboard as a kind of abacus for purposes of calculation.  He was the first to use coordinates to record positions and moves in chess.  He may have been the first to discover the knight’s tour.  He described a variation of shatranj played with dice.  This is the earliest recorded instance of the use of dice to determine the moves of a game.


In 845, ar-Razi wrote Latif fi-sh shatranj (Elegance in Chess), a book of shatranj problems.  He also wrote a book called Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of shatranj).


In 847, ar-Razi won a match against al-Adli in the presence of caliph al-Mutawakkil (821-861) in Baghdad.


In 866, al-Mutazz was playing shatranj when the head of his chief rival was brought to him.


In 880, Abu Muhammad ben Yahya as-Suli was born.  He became a very famous Arab shatranj player.  His great grandfather was the Turkish prince Sul-takin.  His uncle was the poet Ibrahim (ibn al-‘Abbas as-Suli)


Between 902 and 908, as-Suli defeated al-Mawardi, the court shatranj champion of al-Muktafi (who died in 908), Caliph of Baghdad (reigned from 902 to 908).  Al-Muktafi then made as-Suli the court shatranj player.  As-Suli remained in favor of al-Mukafti until his death, then in the favor of caliphs al-Muqtadir (who died in 932) and ar-Radi (who died in 940).  Some of the endgames of as-Suli are still in existence.  As-Suli was also famous for his skill in playing shatranj blindfolded.  As-Suli also taught shatranj.  His most well known student was al-Lajlaj (the stammerer). 


As-Suli was the author of Kitab Ash-Shatranj (Book of Chess).  This was the first scientific book ever written on chess strategy.  It contained information on common chess openings, middle game problems, and annotated endgames.  It also contained the first known description of the knight’s tour problem.


Around 910, al-Lajlaj (Abdul Faraj Mhammad ibn Obaidallah) was the first to publish shatranj openings.


Upon the death of ar-Radi in 940, as-Suli fell in disfavor with the new ruler, Al-Muttaqi, who reigned from 940 to 944..  As-Suli went into exile at Basra where he spent the rest of his life in poverty.  He died there in 946.


In 987, a general bibliography of shatanj was created by Ibn al-Nadim (who died in 995).  This book, called the Kitab al-Fihrist (The Catalogue), included al-Aldi’s Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess), ar-Razi’s Latif fi’sh-shatranj (elegance in chess), as-Suli’s Kitab ash-shatranj in two volumes, al-Laljlaj’s mansubat ash-shatranj (book of chess problems), and B. Aliqlidisi’s Kitab majmu’fi mansubat ash-shatranj (collection of chess problems).


In 1005, al-Hakim (996-1021) banned shatranj in Egypt and ordered all the chess sets burned.


In the 11th century, Muhammad ibn Abbad al-Mutamid (1040-1095), the Moorish king, was regarded as a shatranj patron.


Islamic writers that mention shatranj included Ali Ibn Rabban al-Tabiri (838-923), Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi (896-956), Abu Mansur Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Daqiqi (945-980), Hakim Abul-Qasim Firdawsi (935-1020), al-Malik Muhammad ath-Tha’alibi (961-1038), Abu Raihan Muhammad al-Beruni (973-1048), and Mahmud al-Amuli (died in 1352).