Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad says chess ‘waste of time’ and haram, religious affairs ministry responds, ‘we’ll be a laughing stock’ 

Ustad Abdul Somad Photo: @ustadzabdulsomad_official / Instagram
Ustad Abdul Somad Photo: @ustadzabdulsomad_official / Instagram

Celebrity preacher Abdul Somad is arguably the most popular cleric in Indonesia at the moment, but he has been in the news with increasing frequency for making some very controversial statements in his sermons.

Recently, a video of his sermon uploaded to Youtube in 2017 resurfaced and went viral, in which a participant asked Somad if playing dominoes is permissible in Islam. Somad responded, “The Hanafi madhhab (Islamic school of thought) says chess and dice games are haram (forbidden for Muslims) for two reasons: one, they could make one forget prayer, and two, they make people lose track of time for days.”

Somad then took another aim at chess and put in his two cents on the perennial debate of whether or not it should be called a sport.

“How is it a sport if you’re absent-minded for three hours? If the chess association gets mad at me, so be it.”

Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi — a former military general who has not shied away from making controversial statements of his own against religious radicalism —  disagreed with Somad. 

“Don’t pay things like this any mind. This will make us ashamed, we’ll be a laughing stock,” Fachrul told reporters today, as quoted by Detik.

“Now, people can find references anywhere. I’ve always said, now no one can claim that they know everything, that they’re the greatest.”

Inevitably, the Indonesian Chess Association (Percasi) did not agree with the notion that chess is an absent-minded game.

“Abdul Somad might not be aware of the real situation. He thinks chess is only played by villagers until they lose track of time,” Percasi talent development head Kristianus Liem told Suara yesterday.

“We should be talking about achievements instead. It’s strange that things like this are still being discussed.”

Rulings forbidding chess is actually not unheard of in the Islamic world. Iran, for one, banned chess after the Islamic revolution because the game was associated with gambling, only for then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to lift the ban in 1988 under the condition that it was not played as a means of gambling. Since then, Iran regularly sends chess players to international competitions.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia’s Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh ruled that chess is forbidden as it encourages gambling and was “a waste of time and money and a cause for hatred and enmity between players.”

As for Somad, this latest controversy may turn out to be mild in comparison to some of his previous statements. 

In August, numerous parties reported the cleric to the police for blasphemy for saying that the Christian cross contained “infidel genies” but investigation into that case appears to have stalled. Despite the outrage triggered by Somad’s statement, the Communion of Churches in Indonesia called on the government to repeal Indonesia’s highly contentious blasphemy laws, arguing that “the faith of Christians will not fade away just because of the statements of [Somad].”

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