The Grand Mufti, Satan, and my Grandmother

To me, playing chess always felt like a harmless way to have fun. But how could I have known that chess, just like many other seemingly innocent pastimes, is the work of SATAN. In fact, according to a recent TV proclamation by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh, it appears that having fun is, just by itself, an invitation to the Evil One to come and carry you off to hell.
Ah, but with all the Grand Muftis–of every religion–swarming around us, who needs hell?
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Most of you probably knew this already, but I just found out that playing chess is the work of Satan. Even though I haven’t played chess in quite a while, I think I should be granted a retroactive pardon for any sin I may have committed. How was I to know that, by simply moving a pawn, I was promoting the agenda of the EVIL ONE? I’m pretty clear on the other ways that I’ve done the devil’s work, but I have to admit this new one comes as an unpleasant surprise.

The game always seemed harmless to me. Unfortunately—and this is the story of my life in more ways than playing chess—I could never see more than one move ahead, so I rarely won a game; But knowing that I was probably going to lose, and just playing the game for the sake of playing—with a friend or with my son—I had fun. And that right there, according Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh, is part of the problem… Just by having some innocent fun, I was already being recruited by the Devil’s legions.

The Grand Mufti, (when he and I are hanging out, I usually just call him “the Muf” or just “Muf”), who was responding to a caller to a TV show, said that playing chess was a waste of time and likened it to drinking alcohol (which is technically forbidden in Saudi Arabia) and gambling.
Well, we all know—some of us from hard personal experience— that drinking and gambling too much can ruin your life, but I have to say I never figured playing chess could lead to a similar result. On the other hand, brothers and sisters, is there any human occupation or state of being that can’t become a dangerous addiction—not just the classically negative ones like drugs, alcohol, and gambling, but what about work, sex, play, even prayer? Anything that humans are capable of can be carried to damaging extremes; including, perhaps, the habit of appearing on national television shows and pointing out a thousand reasons why people are going to hell.

The Muf’s Fatwa (religious legal opinion) is remarkably (or un-remarkably) like the old Christian adage, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground”.
Now I understand the truth of that saying. It may have originated a couple of hundred years back and used to condemn anyone who wasn’t doing hard work 24 hours a day (or maybe using their hands for something nasty). But as people who have been thrown into a place of sustained idleness know very well, it can have some very bad effects. If it goes on too long, you can become disconnected from yourself and other people, adrift and prey to all sorts of imaginary fears…  Bob Dylan had (as usual) something apt to say about it.
…But, just your common every day idleness… Having a drink once in a while, playing a friendly game of chess, hanging around and talking to someone (provided you keep your idle hands to yourself!) or just sitting on a park bench and taking in the passing scene— I’m gonna take a guess and say that probably isn’t going to send you to hell…

In the end, I really don’t know what internal engine drives the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. When the Muf and I, and some of the other guys are having a few brews and indulging in a friendly game of seven card draw, it’s just the usual gab about the weather, or politics, or the latest beheading—you know…  But clearly, the man belongs to that class of religious practitioners that envision God as a big, tough dude who will not hesitate to smack you around if you break one of his innumerable rules.

If you grew up in a culture or a family where the concept of sin, judgement and punishment is something you were fed since infancy, then everything—your feelings, your thoughts, your words, even your simplest behavior can bring down the Wrath of the Lord; either in the person of your father or mother or the religious establishment.
And when you get older, no external judgement and punishment is required—you handle all that on your own; you’ve internalized all the harsh, unbending judgements of your upbringing and have a super-ego like Ted Cruz (or the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia). What happens then with a lot of people (and cultures)—they wind up projecting this self-condemnation, sin and punishment onto the rest of humanity; they see “weakness”, bad intentions and transgressions everywhere they look.

I didn’t get any sin and hell-fire from my religious upbringing. But in my family, we definitely had a Grand Mufti—my grandmother (my mother’s mother). She was a tough old lady—came over to the USA in steerage in 1889—then settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in one of the poorest slums that ever existed in this country. My grandmother had a perpetual frown on her face and could make you feel like a sinner with just one frigid glance. I think she probably had a good heart, but because of the incredibly hard life she’d led, it was buried way too deep for her to find it.
She liked me better than anyone else in the family and what little sympathy and guidance I got in my family was mostly from her. But still it was a pale fire from which to gather any real warmth.
And, as is ever the way in families, my grandmother passed her judgements on to her children—who, their turn, passed their harsh criticism of human nature and frailty on to their children.

In my family, the pattern of self-doubt and criticism was carried to extremes, but really, I think this phenomenon is not so uncommon…
The other night, in my meditation sitting (meeting), the leader did what he usually does. He read a contemplative quote from some spiritual tradition, then led us into silent meditation. This lasted for a while, then, just before calling us out of the meditative state, he said, as he usually does (and this sounds sappier on the page than it is in real practice), “Please join me in a blessing… May our practice bring good health, peace and well-being… first to ourselves, then to the people we make our lives with, then to everyone in this room, then to the whole world…”

Afterwards, he asked if anyone had any comments or questions. One woman said that, near the end of the sitting, she felt like crying. He asked her when that was and she told him it was when he said that “we wish good health, peace and well-being, first to ourselves.”
He pointed to a box of tissues behind him and told the woman that sometimes people will cry at just that point. Apparently, he said, it’s easier for a lot of us to wish the best for other people, but not so easy to ask for peace and well-being for ourselves.

Why should that be so hard? Plenty of reasons I guess—and we all probably have our own explanation for it. But there’s one thing for sure: If we live in a world where “exalted” religious leaders (who are in a position to influence the beliefs and actions of millions of susceptible people) can condemn even the playing of a game of chess as the work of Satan, then God (Allah) help us all.

There is obviously no limit to the damage people can inflict on each other and on themselves, but I think, if there is a Satan, his real work is being done by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and every other self-righteous, self-appointed moralist in the world— even in the ones in our own heads…  Ah, if we could only step into the light and stop listening to their counsel of self-doubt and judgment, then “Satan” (and his all his “works”) would disappear—like the made-up monsters in a children’s book when you close the cover and kiss your kid goodnight.

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