Syed Khomeinī, Chess and Musical Instruments

Syed Khomeinī is a figure widely remembered as the pioneer in bringing about the Islamic Revolution in 1979 yet what is often overlooked is his unique contribution to Shi’ī jurisprudence in his position as a jurisconsult. One of the many distinctions in his jurisprudential outlook was his endeavour to realign jurisprudence from being individually focused to one that caters to the needs of a modern society and takes into consideration the benefits (masālih) and harms (mafāsid). He would often stress on the need in considering the role of time and place in deducing rulings [1] and on many occasions he would advise that the common form of ijtihād taught within the seminaries is not sufficient to run a society [2].

One instance which brings these novel ideas to the fore is Syed Khomeinī’s response to a question on his rulings regarding musical instruments and chess. The legal discussion on music has been a historically contentious and polarising one between the jurists, with some opting for its absolute prohibition and others arguing for its limited prohibition [3]. Chess, on the other hand, was always considered absolutely forbidden irrespective of whether it involved gambling or not [4], to the extent that some jurists even considered looking at it being played to be forbidden.[5]

On these two topics, Syed Khomeinī’s ruling of permissibility in playing chess and buying musical instruments popularised opinions hitherto considered outside of the mainstream, and in the process generated widespread controversy within the seminaries. Agha Qadīrī was a well-known student of Syed Khomeinī who also used to work in his office. When he heard about these rulings he sent a letter to Syed Khomeinī requesting clarification from him on his position given it contradicted clear cut traditions from the Prophet and the Ahlulbayt. Syed Khomeinī’s remarkable response highlights the various factors a person needs to keep in mind when interpreting the traditions and considering a ruling.

Content of the rulings

Question: From the perspective of being used in a permissible manner, for example playing anthems, is it allowed to buy musical instruments?

Answer: Buying musical instruments has no problem if used for permissible reasons.

Question: If chess is no longer considered an instrument of gambling and is played merely as a form of mental exercise as is done today, is playing it permissible?

Answer: In the hypothetical scenario mentioned where gambling is not involved there is no issue.

Source: Sahīfeh ye Nῡr, v. 21, p. 129 (

Agha Qadīrī’s letter to Syed Khomeinī

Recently two responses have been published, the first was in relation to buying and selling musical instruments where the answer given was that if there is a permissible intention behind it then there is no problem. In the second the question was posed that in today’s age chess is no longer a tool for gambling and is now considered to be exclusively a form of mental exercise. The response given to this question was that in such a scenario and with no bets placed on winning or losing there exists no issue in playing chess. This has been narrated via reliable means and has been reported in a number of newspapers with the phrase “in such a scenario” included.

There are few questions here to be raised:

  1. The buying and selling of instruments that possess both permissible and forbidden usage has no issue except in the case where there is (only) the use of it for forbidden purposes present. So for what reason has the condition of having a “permissible purpose” been mentioned in response to the first question (instead of basing the answer on the potential forbidden use)?
  2. In the second question, the respected questioner has assumed that chess is no longer a gambling tool and is merely a tool for mental exercise. Where has he come to this conclusion from?
  3. We have two reliable traditions from Sukῡni from Imām Sādiq on this topic:
    1. The Prophet has said: “Stay away from dancing (zafan) and musical instruments (mazmār)…” [6]
    2. Imām said: “The Prophet forbid people from playing with chess…” [7]

The term zafan used in the tradition refers to dancing and mazmār includes all forms of musical instruments. The prohibition of the Prophet is proof of its impermissibility except when we can prove the opposite through evidence. These two traditions are also absolute (itlāq) and on this basis we deduce that all musical instruments are forbidden, irrespective of whether the instrument is used specifically for music or it has other permissible purposes also. Similarly, playing chess is forbidden regardless of whether or not it is used as a tool of gambling, and challenging this ruling on the basis of a few non-compliant instances is not correct. Although I did refer to the discussions in your jurisprudential books I was unable to find any evidence to go against this absolute prohibition.

Applying the general evidence against gambling and vain entertainment on these tools is not problematic, and in addition, we have no explicit textual evidence detailing the cause for its prohibition. In my opinion, it would have been better for your respected self to have refrained from this subject and there is no real compelling need (for such rulings) to be released. I shall leave it to as you see worthy. I apologise for any rudeness and seek God’s protection.

Syed Khomeinī’s Response

After sending my greetings and before responding to the two questions asked I would like to take a moment to express my sorrow at your interpretation of the traditions and Divine Law. According to the understanding you have taken the alms-tax (zakāt) should only be spent on the poor and the hundreds of other needs that have arisen for it to be spent on should be cast aside, or that the traditions which speak about preparing an army for war should be limited to preparing only bows, arrows and horses as that is what is specifically mentioned in the traditions and that is how wars were previously fought. Also, the spoils of war (anfāl) that have been made permissible for the Shi’a should allow everyone today to go and remove the forests, destroy that which is useful and a source of protection for the environment and put the lives of millions of people in danger and no one has the right to prevent them from doing so. Or houses and mosques that have been built on roads and are causing traffic and problems and endangering the lives of thousands should be left there untouched. On the basis of your interpretation, the idea of a modern civilisation should be abandoned and people should go back to living in wooden houses or living forever in the desert.

In respect to your question on chess no longer being a tool of gambling, I would advise you to look at Jāmi’ al-Madārik, the jurisprudential work of Ayatollāh Syed Ahmad Khwansārī [8], who considered it permissible to play chess without any money involved and he has refuted all evidence against this, and this is while Syed Khwansāri’s tendency of giving rulings based on caution (ihtiyāt) and his piety are very well established. As for your remark on where the questioner understood that chess is no longer a tool of gambling, this is something very strange coming from you. The question and the answer are hypothetical and I responded merely on the basis of this hypothetical scenario. If this hypothetical scenario does not actualise then it is not permissible to play chess.

What’s even more strange is you ask why I restricted (the response to the question) with “permissible intention” instead of saying it should not be done with an impermissible intention. As if the act of an attentive individual can take place without an intention, in which case the intention of permissible use is equal with the absence of an intention for its forbidden use. In relation to the buying of musical instruments (that have both permissible and forbidden usage) for a permissible purpose, you have made a big mistake as you have equated its permissible benefits to its forbidden use. I did not expect such an interpretation to be attributed to Islām coming from a well educated and hard working person like yourself. You know very well that I am fond of you and my fatherly advice to you would be to only keep God in mind and avoid falling under the influence of the illiterate and sanctimonious scholars. If spreading the ruling of God upsets these false and insincere scholars then for all I care, let them get upset! I beseech God to grant you ever greater ability to keep serving Islām and the Muslims.

Source: Sahīfeh ye Nῡr, v. 21, p. 149-150 (


1 – Naqsh Zamān wa Makān az Dīdgāh Imām Khomeinī by Ali Ridhā Ansārī

2 – Refer to Sahīfeh ye Nῡr, v. 21, p. 177 and 292.

3 – For a brief look at the different views on music refer to Shaykh Sāna’ī’s work al-Mῡsīqī wa al-Ghinā here. For a contemporary understanding of permissible music refer to the translation of Syed Khamenei’s discussions on this here.

4 – “And there is no doubt that playing with chess is forbidden even without gambling involved” – Jāmi’ al-Maqāsid, Muhaqqiq Karkī, v. 4, p. 24

5 –

6 – Tradition referred to is from Wasā’il al-Shī’a: أنهاكم عن الزفن و المزمار

7 – Tradition referred to is from Wasā’il al-Shī’a: نهی رسول الله(ص) عن اللعب بالشطرنج

8 – Syed Ahmad Khwansārī (d. 1985) was a leading marja’ famous for his asceticism and cautiousness (ihtiyāt) in religious matters. Following the death of Syed Burujerdī in 1961 Syed Ahmad was invited by the seminary of Qom to be Burujerdī’s successor yet for reasons hitherto unknown he declined the invitation. His most important work was his 6 volume demonstrative jurisprudence known as Jāmi’ al-Madārik.

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