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Ramadan In Mosul: IS Bans Backgammon, Dominoes -- And Prayers

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

Mosul residents will not be allowed to play the world's oldest board game during the holy month of Ramadan. (file photo)

Mosul residents will not be allowed to play the world's oldest board game during the holy month of Ramadan. (file photo)

Life for the residents of Mosul has been hard enough since Islamic State (IS) gunmen overran the northern Iraqi city a year ago.

But life just got even tougher after the extremist Sunni group introduced a fresh set of hard-line decrees for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

IS's religious scholars have outlawed a whole host of traditional Ramadan activities, deeming them not in line with the extremist group's extremist stance on Islam.

On IS's ban list are dominoes and backgammon, according to the Iraqi news website Hamrin News.

IS has also banned mahibs, a game traditionally played in Iraq after the fast ends at sunset. Mahibs players form two teams, who take turns hiding rings in their fists while the opposing team tries to guess which hand is holding the ring. At the end of the game, players get together for sweets and soft drinks.

With dominoes, backgammon, and mahibs off the menu, Islamic State is trying to introduce new ways for Mosul residents to have fun that are in line with its extreme hard-line interpretation of Sunni Islam. The gunmen have reportedly organized wrestling matches and races in the city, Hamrin News said.

The militant group has also cracked down even more on women's freedoms, forbidding Mosul's women from leaving their homes before the iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast at sunset.

And IS has ordered food stores in Mosul to remain closed all day until after the iftar, according to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent in Nineveh.

Revising Islam

IS's shop closures, prohibitions on games, and crackdowns on women appear on the surface to be another form of social control.

But IS's Ramadan decrees in Mosul are more an attempt to impose an extremist, highly revisionist version of Islam on those under its rule, in order to recreate what the militant group believes is the form of Islam practiced by the first Muslims.

The first sign that IS intended to depart from Ramadan traditions followed by mainstream Sunni Muslims came at the very start of the holy month last week. IS announced that areas under its control would be starting Ramadan on June 19, as opposed to other Sunnis who began their first day of fasting at dawn on June 18.

And yet another of IS's Ramadan edicts will dramatically alter the way that pious Muslims in Mosul pray during the holy month.

IS has banned Mosul residents from practicing the Taraweeh prayers, a special set of evening prayers performed by Sunni Muslims during the month of Ramadan.

The Taraweeh prayers are considered optional and Muslims who perform them do so after the Salat al-Isha, the final mandatory prayer of the day.

Though the prayers are not mandatory, they are considered an expression of piety and are recommended by many Sunni scholars, including in Saudi Arabia.

But IS has decreed that the Taraweeh prayers are "Bid'ah," an Islamic term meaning a religious innovation or novelty. IS scholars have reportedly criticized the prayers as a "fad" invented by clerics in Saudi Arabia.

"That IS has stopped the Taraweeh is another indication of how narrow-minded and literal the group is," says Carool Kersten, an expert on Islam at Kings College London.

Anyone in Mosul found performing the Taraweeh prayers will be punished by lashes, according to some reports.

A group of eight sheikhs in Mosul who allegedly conducted Taraweeh prayers in secret with some of their followers were publicly punished on June 21, Radio Free Iraq's Nineveh correspondent reported.

IS's strict interpretations of Sunni Islam "fall off the spectrum," says Kersten.

"IS are unprecedented in their arrogance and confidence over theology," he added.

Ironically, Shi'a (whom IS considers heretics) do not perform the Taraweeh prayers on Ramadan because -- like IS -- they believe the practice to be a religious innovation.

IS's attempt to be ultrastrict during Ramadan could backfire.

The Taraweeh prayers are performed by pious Muslims, including those from the Salafist school, of which IS can be seen as an offshoot.

IS's banning of the prayers could alienate devout Muslims in Mosul and elsewhere, who could see the prohibition as curbing their traditional expressions of piety during Ramadan.

And there will likely be a "flurry of fatwas" from Sunni scholars condemning IS's move to ban the Taraweeh, says Kersten.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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