The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has ruled that chess is 'haram' or forbidden under Islamic law. Sheikh Abdullah al-Sheikh said that the board game encourages gambling and is a waste of time.

Al-Sheikh issued the religious judgement, or fatwa, on a television programme on which Saudis are invited to ask him questions on religious matters. He said chess was "included under gambling" and was "a waste of time and money and a cause for hatred and enmity between players".

He justified the ruling with reference to a verse from the Koran, which he said prohibits "intoxicants, gambling, idolatry and divination".

Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia
Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdullah al-Sheikh Getty

The pronouncement does not mean that the game is banned in Saudi Arabia, where it is a popular pastime, as the Mufti's rulings are not legally binding.

Musa Bin Thaily, President of the Saudi Chess Association, confirmed the fatwa had been issued in a statement on Twitter, and commented that the Mufti "being an old man in his 80s" probably did not know that players did not frequently bet on games, Middle East Eye reported.

Invented in India, the game became popular in the Islamic world following the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century before being exported to Europe.

The game was banned in public in Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution, and declared 'haram' by Islamic scholars. However the judgement was lifted by the country's then spiritual leader the Ayatollah Khomenei in 1988, and Iranian players now take part in international competitions.

A previous fatwa banning chess by a Saudi Islamic scholar in 1976 was not enforced.