Abu Bakr bin Yahya al-Suli

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Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā ibn al-‘Abbās al-Ṣūli
أبو بكر محمد بن يحيى بن العباس الصولي
Bornc. 870
Diedbetween 941/948
Other namesAbu Bakr,
Ibn Yahya,
OccupationAbbasid courtier
Years active908 – 941
EraIslamic Golden Age
(Middle Abbasid era)
Known forCourt companion of three Abbasid caliphs: al-Muktafi, al-Muqtadir, and al-Radi and tutored of caliph al-Radi
Notable workKitāb Al-Awrāq
Kitāb al-Shiṭranj
  • Yaḥyā ibn al-‘Abbās (father)

Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā ibn al-‘Abbās al-Ṣūlī (Arabic: أبو بكر محمد بن يحيى بن العباس الصولي) (born c. 870 Gorgan – died between 941 and 948 Basra) was a Turkic scholar and a court companion of three Abbāsid caliphs: al-Muktafī, his successor al-Muqtadir, and later, al-Rāḍī, whom he also tutored. He was a bibliophile, wrote letters, editor-poet, chronicler, and a shatranj player.[1] His contemporary biographer Isḥāq al-Nadīm tells us he was “of manly bearing.”[2] [3][4][5][6] He wrote many books, the most famous of which are Kitāb Al-Awrāq and Kitāb al-Shiṭranj.


Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī was born into an illustrious family of Turkic origin, his great-grandfather was the Turkic prince Sul-takin and his uncle was the poet Ibrahim ibn al-'Abbas as-Suli.[7] Al-Marzubānī, a principal pupil of al-Ṣūlī, who admired him and copied him in the art of compilation, borrowed much of al-Ṣūlī's material for his Kitāb al-Muwashshaḥ. Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣbahānī made extensive use of his material in his Kitāb al-Aghānī.[8] On Caliph al-Rāḍī's death in 940, al-Ṣūlī fell into disfavour with the new ruler due to his Shi'a sympathies and he died hiding at al-Baṣrah,[2] for having quoted a passage about ‘Alī , which caused a public scandal. [9]


Al-Ṣūlī was among a group of tenth-century chess players who wrote books about the game of shaṭranj, i.e. “chess”. [n 1][10]

Al-Ṣūlī's books were:

  • Kitāb al-Shiṭranj al-Nisḥa al-Awala (كتاب الشطرنج النسحة الاولة) ‘Chess, the first manuscript’;
  • Kitāb al-Shiṭranj al-Nisḥa ath-Thānīa (كتاب الشطرنج النسحة الثانية) Chess, the second manuscript; Book on chess strategy, common chess openings, standard problems in middle game, annotated end games and the first known description of the knight's tour problem.

Sometime between 902 and 908 al-Ṣūlī played and beat the reigning shaṭranj champion, al-Mawardī, at the court of Caliph al-Muktafī, and the Caliph of Baghdad. Al-Mawardī's loss of royal favour was al-Ṣūlī's gain. When al-Muktafī's died, al-Ṣūlī retained the favour of the succeeding rulers, Caliph al-Muqtadir and in turn Caliph al-Radi. His biographer Ibn Khallikan, (d. 1282), relates that even in his lifetime the phrase "to play like al-Ṣūlī" was to show great skill at shaṭranj. His endgame strategies are still studied. Contemporary biographer mention his skill in blindfold chess. Al-Ṣūlī also taught shaṭranj. Many later European writers[who?] based their work on modern chess on al-Suli's work.

Other Chess players/authors in the Group[10][edit]

 – Kitāb al-Shiṭranj (كتاب الشطرنج) ‘Chess’, the first book on chess,[n 2] and;  – Al-Nard, wa Isbābha wa-al-La’ab bīha (كتاب النرد واسبابها واللعب بها). 'Al-Nard Its Elements and Play'.[n 3]

  • Al-Rāzī (الرازى) was a chess rival of al-‘Adlī and the caliph Al-Mutawakkil attended their matches. He wrote:

 – Kitāb latīf fī al- Shiṭranj (كتاب لطيف في الشطرنج) ‘A Delightful Book about Chess.’

  • Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn ‘Ubayd Allāh al-Lajlāj ("the stammerer") (ابو الفرج محمد بن عبيد الله اللَجْلاج), whom Isḥāq al-Nadīm had met, was his best known pupil. He excelled at chess at the Būyid court of king ‘Aḍud al-Dawlah in Shīrāz, where he died sometime after 970/71 [360 AH]. He wrote:

 – Manṣūbāt al-Shiṭranj (منصوبات الشطرنج) ‘The Stratagems of Chess.’

  • Ibn al-Uqlīdasī Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm ibn Muḥammad ibn Ṣāliḥ, one of the most skilful chess players, who wrote A Collection of the Stratagems of Chess.[12]

Al-Suli's Diamond[edit]

a b c d e f g h
8 a8 b8 c8 d8 e8 f8 g8 h8 8
7 a7 b7 c7 d7 e7 f7 g7 h7 7
6 a6 b6 c6 d6 e6 f6 g6 h6 6
5 a5 b5 c5 d5 e5 f5 g5 h5 5
4 a4 b4 c4 d4 e4 f4 g4 h4 4
3 a3 b3 c3 d3 e3 f3 g3 h3 3
2 a2 b2 c2 d2 e2 f2 g2 h2 2
1 a1 b1 c1 d1 e1 f1 g1 h1 1
a b c d e f g h
White to move, White wins

Al-Ṣūlī's shaṭranj problem, called "Al-Ṣūlī's Diamond", went unsolved for over a thousand years.[13] As this is shaṭranj, the "queen" (counsellor) is a very weak piece, able to move only a single square diagonally. It is possible to win in shaṭranj by capturing all pieces except the king, unless the opponent is able to do the same on the next move.

This ancient position is so difficult that there is no one in the world who would be able to solve it, except those I have taught to do so. I doubt whether anyone did this before me. This was said by al-Suli.

— 12th-century manuscript from the library of Sultan Abdul Hamid[14]

David Hooper and Ken Whyld studied this problem in the mid-1980s but were unable to crack it. It was finally solved by Russian Grandmaster Yuri Averbakh.[14][15] The solution, starting with 1. Kb4, is given in Hans Ree's "The Human Comedy of Chess", and on the web.[16][17]


Kitāb Al-Awrāq[edit]

  • Kitāb Al-Awrāq (كتاب الاوراق) ‘Leaves’ or ‘Folios’; unfinished work on the traditions of the caliphs and the poets; the poems and chronicles of the sons of the caliphs, from al-Saffāḥ to Ibn al-Mu‘tazz (750 -908) and poems of other members of the Banū al-‘Abbās who were neither caliphs nor sons of caliphs in rank. This included the poetry of ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Alī (عبد الله بن على), the poetry of Abū Aḥmad Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Ismā’īl ibn Ibrāhīm ibn ‘Īsā ibn al-Manṣūr (ابو احمد محمد بن احمد بن اسمعيل بن ابراهيم بن عيسى بن المنصور), the poems of members of the family of Abū Ṭālib the descendants of al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn, the descendants of al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī, the descendants of ‘Umar ibn ‘Alī, and the descendants of Ja‘far ibn Abī Ṭālib;[n 4] poems of the descendants of al-Ḥārith ibn ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib; traditions about, and selected poems by, Ibn Harmah; traditions about al-Sayyid al-Ḥimyarī (السيد الحميرى),[n 5] with a selection of his poetry; traditions about, and selected poems by, Aḥmad ibn Yūsuf (احمد بن يوسف); traditions about Sudayf[n 6] with a selection of his poetry. Ishaq al-Nadīm speculates that al-Ṣūlī plagiarized al-Marthadī's book on poetry and the poets, as he had seen a copy of his book that had come from al-Ṣūlī's library.
    • Kitāb Al-Awrāq published in three parts (1934-6, London):[20]

 – i) Kitāb al-Awrāķ (Section on Contemporary Poets): contains anthologies of poets of the Muḥadathūn (modern poets) and their diwans. Al-Ṣūlī was interested in the lesser known poets. Al-Mas'ūdī highly esteemed him for his unique recording of people and events. Of the fourteen poets al-Ṣūlī cites, Abān ibn ‘Abdal-Ḥamīd al-Lāḥiķī and Ashja ibn ‘Amr al-Sulamī are the best known. Part of Abān's versification of the Kalīla wa Dimna written for Yaḥyā ibn Khālid al-Barmakī is preserved and published in the edited Arabic edition by James Heyworth-Dunne (1934).[21]

 – ii) Akhbar al-Rāḍī wa'l-Muttaqī; chronicle covering a thirteen-year period of the reigns of the caliphs al-Rāḍī—whom al-Ṣūlī had tutored and been a close companion of—and al-Muttaqī. It contains many fresh details of their reigns and the literary activities of the court.[22] Although less famous than the histories of al-Mas'ūdī and Miskawayh, al-Ṣūlī's is an eyewitness-account of the transition to Buyid rule. The position of amir al-umara was created in 936 during al-Radi's caliphate, which devolved some caliphal executive powers to amirs (princes). The Buyid amirs later exerted these powers to establish their independent dynasty within the Caliphate and the Abbāsid's never regained their full power. However, al-Ṣūlī's account makes clear the limits of the devolved powers to the amirs.

 – iii) Ash’ār Awlād al-Khulafā’ wa-Akhbāruhum; chronicle of the House of al-'Abbās who were poets.[22]

Other Works[9][edit]

  • Kitāb al-Wazrā (كتاب الوزرآء) The Viziers;
  • Kitāb al-'Abādah (كتاب العبادة) Worship;
  • Kitāb Adb al-Kātib 'alā al-Haqīqa (كتاب ادب الكاتب على الحقيقة) Training of the Secretary, according to Standard;[n 7]
  • Kitāb tafdhīl al-Sinān (كتاب تفضيل السنان) ‘Superiority of the Aged,’ written for ‘Alī ibn al-Furāt [23] (855 – 924) surnamed Abū al-Ḥasan; [n 8]
  • Kitāb al-Shāb (كتاب الشاب) Youths; [n 9]
  • Kitāb al-Anwā’ (كتاب الانواع) Varieties (unfinished);
  • Kitāb suwāl wa-jawāb Ramaḍān li Ibn al-Munajjim (كتاب سوال وجواب رمضان لابى النجم) Questions about Answers of Ramaḍān of Ibn al-Munajjim; [n 10]
  • Kitāb Ramaḍān (كتاب رمضان) Ramaḍān;[n 11]
  • Kitāb al-Shāmal fī ‘Alam al-Qur’ān (كتاب الشامل فى علم القران) The Compendium, about knowledge of the Qur’ān (unfinished),[n 12]
  • Kitāb Munāqub ‘alā ibn al-Furāt (كتاب مناقب على بن الفرات) The Virtues of ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn al-Furāt;
  • Kitāb akhbār Abū Tammām (كتاب اخبار ابى تمام) Traditions about Abū Tammām;
  • Kitāb akhbār al-Jubbā’ī Abū Sa’īd (كتاب اخبار الجُبّاءى ابى سعيد) Traditions about al-Jubbā’ī Abū Sa’īd;
  • Kitāb al-‘Abbās ibn Aḥnaf (كتاب العباس بن الاحنف ومختار شعره) Al-‘Abbās ibn Aḥnaf and selected poems;
  • Epistle of Al-‘Abbās ibn Aḥnaf about collecting taxes; [n 13]
  • Kitāb akhbār Abā ‘Amru Ibn al-‘Alā’ (كتاب اخبار ابآ عمرو ابن العلاء) Traditions about Abū ‘Amr ibn al-‘Alā’;
  • Kitāb Al-Gharar (كتاب الغرر امالى) Al-Gharar[n 14]

Dīwāns of Contemporary Poets edited by al-Ṣūlī [n 15][23][edit]


Others who made use of content from al-Ṣūlī’s works:[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The word shiṭranj, often written shaṭranj, is a corrupted form of the Indian word chaturanga, which was originally a military term. The word “chess” derives from shāh or shaykh.
  2. ^ Al-Nadīm tells us that al-‘Adlī wrote the first book on the game of chess.[12]
  3. ^ Al-nardashīr, board games like backgammon or checkers. See “Shaṭrandj,” Enc. Islām, IV, 338; Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register, V (June, 1818), 121.
  4. ^ The Arabic word walad may mean either “descendant” or “son.” For the members of the family of Abū Ṭālib.[18]
  5. ^ “Al-Ḥimyarī” given by Flügel and Yāqūt ,[19] but omitted in Beatty and Tonk MSS of Al-Fihrist,
  6. ^ Before “traditions about Sudayf” the Beatty MS has “traditions of Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm [al-Mawṣilī], with a selection of his poetry.”
  7. ^ The Beatty and Tonk MSS have “secretaries”, whereas Khallikān, III, 69, has “secretary.”
  8. ^ Omitted in Beatty and Tonk MSS of Al-Fihrist.
  9. ^ Omitted in Flügel edition.
  10. ^ Uncertain which ‘Ibn’ of the Munajjim family.
  11. ^ Beatty MS of Al-Fihrist suggests “Ramaḍān” erroneously duplicated.
  12. ^ Al-Fihrist adds that it contained rare forms for the scholars (وللعلمآء في ذلك نوادر ليس هذا موضعها).
  13. ^ Omitted in Flügel.
  14. ^ Al-gharar, “peril,” may be a poet’s nickname. Yāqūt, Irshād, VI (7), 137, gives a separate title. Flügel gives the word but doubts its accuracy. Omitted in Beatty and Tonk MSS.
  15. ^ Compiled alphabetically by al-Ṣūlī
  16. ^ Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Ṣanawbarī surnamed Abū Bakr, poet of Antioch of the Abbāsid Period. Al-Ṣūlī edited and alphabetically arranged (two hundred leaves of) of his poetry.
  17. ^ Flügel repeats Ibn al-Rūmī and misplaces al-Ṣūlī in the third-to-last name. Only Flügel gives Sufyān ibn ‘Uyaynah and Sawwār ibn Abī Sharā‘ah.


  1. ^ Khallikān (Ibn) 1868, p. 70, III.
  2. ^ a b Nadīm (al-) 1970, p. 329.
  3. ^ Yāqūt 1993, p. 136, VI (7).
  4. ^ Mas'ūdī (al-) 1861, p. 161, I.
  5. ^ Yāqūt 1907, p. 2677, Irshād, 1134.
  6. ^ Nadīm (al-) 1970, p. 1105.
  7. ^ Osaulai, Muohammad Ibn Yaohyaa (2015). The Life and Times of Abu Tammam. Library of Arabic Literature. ISBN 9780814760406.
  8. ^ a b Ṣūlī (al-) 1936, p. 10.
  9. ^ a b Nadīm (al-) 1970, p. 330.
  10. ^ a b c Nadīm (al-) 1970, p. 341.
  11. ^ Nadīm (al-) 1872, p. 566.
  12. ^ a b Nadīm (al-) 1970, p. 342.
  13. ^ Shenk, David, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess
  14. ^ a b Damsky, Yakov (2005), The Book of Chess Records, Batsford, pp. 166–167, ISBN 0-7134-8946-4
  15. ^ Ree, Hans (2000), The Human Comedy of Chess, Access Publishers Network
  16. ^ DrDave (2013). "Exeter Chess Club blog".
  17. ^ John Tromp (2013). "John's Chess Playground".
  18. ^ Mas'ūdī (al-) 1869, p. 148.
  19. ^ Yāqūt 1913, p. 137, Irshād, VI (7).
  20. ^ Ṣūlī (al-) 1936, pp. 5–11.
  21. ^ Ṣūlī (al-) 1934.
  22. ^ a b Ṣūlī (al-) 1936, p. 6.
  23. ^ a b Nadīm (al-) 1970, p. 331.
  24. ^ Nadīm (al-) 1970, p. 372.