According to legend, the game of chess arose out of a family squabble. Two brothers were warring for the throne of an Indian kingdom. After one brother killed the other in battle, he invented chess to show his mother how he had brought about his sibling’s demise. Another story has an Indian philosopher inventing the game as a way of instructing young princes in the art of war. Regardless, authorities agree that chess was first played in India in the fifth century A.D. From there it migrated to Persia, where it was eventually picked up by the Arabs. The game emerged as an issue in medieval Islamic jurisprudence, which leads naturally to the discussion of church callings.
In Islamic law any act can be fitted into one of five categories: forbidden, discouraged, indifferent, encouraged, or required. Because many jurists, including al-Shafi, one of the earliest and most influential shar’ia scholars, thought that chess was a form of gambling, it generally got classified in the “discouraged” category and some ulumas went so far as to claim that it was forbidden. Despite legal disfavor, however, chess was quite popular among medieval Islamic lawyers. Some of them became incredible players, battling several opponents simultaneously while blind folded. The first books on chess tactics and strategy were written in Arabic, some of them by lawyers. (In contrast, Europeans played chess more or less randomly for centuries before looking at the game theoretically.)
Perhaps there is something about the analytical nature of chess that appeals to the lawyer’s mind, but there is a more mundane explanation for its popularity among medieval Islamic jurists: They wanted to avoid becoming judges. According to an old Arabic proverb for every three judges, two are in the fire. The reason for this dire view of judicial soteriological prospects flows from the Islamic conception of office, namely there isn’t one. What this means is that Muslim judges are personally responsible to God for the correctness of their legal rulings. Applying the wrong rule of law to a case can land a judge in hot water (or worse) at the Final Judgment. The kicker is that some rules of divine law are unavoidably ambiguous and the ambiguity is not a theological defense in the case of error. In other words, a judge can be punished by God for screwing up the divine law even when it is not at all clear what the proper rule is. Hence, the desire to avoid being made a judge. It could be the short road to Hell, literally.
This is where chess comes in. Because it was a discouraged pass-time, addiction to the game evidenced the kind of moral weakness that could disqualify a legal scholar from becoming a judge. This meant that the chess playing lawyer could confine his analysis of the divine law to the safe realm of hypotheticals, which did not carry with it the risk of damnation and the other inconveniences of judicial appointment.
I wonder to what extent the petty iconoclasm of the Mormon intelligensia flows from a similar set of motives. Does the fact that I have a beard and drink Diet Coke insulate me from becoming young men’s president? Might a subscription to Sunstone or Dialogue be motivated at some conscious or unconscious level by a desire to avoid burdensome callings. All of these things – beards, Diet Coke, Sunstone, etc. – are fun, and no doubt therein lies the bulk of their appeal. Nevertheless, their (arguable) status in the shadowy realm of the LDS discouraged (but not forbidden) may point toward a simpler motive: The desire to avoid church work.
[Note on the picture: This painting appears in the 12th-century church located in the palace of the Norman kings in Palermo, Sicily. The artist was Muslim, although his patron was Christian. At the time Sicily, which had been conquered by the Arabs at one point, was a multi-religious kingdom. This is the earliest know depiction of the game of chess. We don’t know if the players are lawyers, although they are well dressed.]