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The Carnival is Coming to Town

By Kamil Uddin

The carnival is a fun family event for most Americans. There are games, rides, food, and enticements for people to come and have a good time. But as Muslims, we must take into consideration the Islamic perspective regarding the games played at these carnivals. Do carnival games involve betting or gambling? Do participants play for fun or for prizes? These and other questions come to the Muslim mind when addressing carnival games.

One must know first the Islamic stance on gambling and other prohibited gaming. The most basic definition of gambling in the Shariah is a transaction in which both sides assume an equal risk of mutual loss or gain. By mutual we mean that one party’s loss is the other party’s gain.

The Arabic word for gambling is maysir, a nominal form meaning “distribution.” One who distributes is called a yasir. Some scholars have stated that maysir is derived from yusr ‘ease’, and thus gambling is so called because one may easily take possession of what belongs to another. Skilled gamblers have a knack for doing this.

During the pre-Islamic Days of Ignorance, or Jahiliyyah, several chance games were common in Arabia. In one of them, the participants would slaughter a camel, then bet to determine how to distribute the shares of meat, some getting one or more shares, others deprived of any at all. The one with no shares at the end of the game had to pay for the whole camel. What was interesting about this game is that the meat in the end was distributed among the poor, the gamblers taking nothing for themselves. The whole affair was thus considered a matter of pride. Therefore, one not particularly given to gambling, for fear of being chided as a miser, was pressured into participating in this chivalrous show of Arab generosity.

Gambling is prohibited conclusively in multiple sources. Above all, the Quran states, “O you who believe! Intoxicants (all kinds of alcoholic drinks), gambling, and Al-Ansab, and Al Azlam (arrows for seeking luck or decision) are an abomination of Shaitan’s (Satan) handiwork. So avoid (strictly all) that (abomination) in order that you may be successful” (Surat al-Ma’idah, 5: 90).

Ibn Kathir, in his Tafsir, and Jassas, in Ahkam al-Quran, report that the blessed Companions Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas, Ibn ‘Umar. Qatadah, Mu’awiyah ibn Salih, ‘Ata and Tawus said: “Betting [of all kinds] is maysir, even the games of children with dices and walnuts.” Purchasing walnuts (or any other similar food) for the purpose of gaming with and then eating is permissible as long as no betting takes place. There is a narration of Ibn ‘Umar in which it is mentioned that he  would purchase walnuts for children to play with, after which he would eat them.

There is another concept, mukhatarah, which means to put something at stake. Mukhatarah is a deal which revolves between profit and loss that is, there may be a chance that one gets a lot, and also, that one gets nothing. Ibn ‘Abbas stated, “To put something at stake falls under qimar [betting].”

All forms of gambling, whether the object at stake is of great or little value, are prohibited in Islam. Games in which participants are charged a fee, such as prize-awarding carnival games or even prize-awarding crossword puzzles, all fall under the category of gambling. However, if the prize is offered by only one side to anyone who performs a certain feat, and no fee is paid by the participants, it will be permissible. The reason is that the possible outcomes here are not benefit or harm, but benefit or no benefit. There are some games at carnivals or fairs that are played just for the thrill and not for a prize. These are permissible because they involve no loss to either side.

Let us take a look at some popular types of carnival games and how they are played. We can then look for ways to make permissible whichever of these are impermissible.

There are four main types of games:

1. Hanky panks
2. Alibi
3. Chance
4. Flat Stores

1. Hanky panks are games that involve some level of skill. If one has knowledge and skill of the game, he or she has a good opportunity to win. An example is Crossbow, a game in which an arrow must be shot in the middle of a star without touching any surrounding lines. The prize for success might be, say, a stuffed animal for every shot on target.

Note that this game, like many other carnival games, requires one to pay up front and chance coming away with nothing. Such games are impermissible. Making them permissible requires one slight change. One can just play for fun and decline any prize if he or she wins. Haskafi offers a similar example in his great legal work, al-Durr al-Mukhtar, “Racing [or other sports] without stipulation of any prize is permissible in all cases.”

2. Alibis are games that require a greater level of skill or knowhow. They are sort of like hanky panks with an excuse, or alibi, if you will, explaining why participants didn’t win. The signs in the game will indicate whether the game is an alibi or a hanky pank. Alibis will always have NO THIS or NO THAT written on their signs. An example is 3 Pin (or 5 Pin, depending on the carnival). In this game, the player must roll a softball-size ball down a table and knock over either three or five pins. The prize might be something more substantial, such as a mini-oven or other appliance. This game is very close to another, called Flat Store, which we’ll see a little later. Alibis are also impermissible, unless the participant declines the prize.

3. Chance games are ones in which the outcome has almost everything to do with luck and almost nothing to do with technique. One example is Pitch Till U Win, in which the carnie gives rings to the player, who must toss them onto a configuration of wooden pegs and rectangular blocks. If a ring lands on a wooden peg the player receives a slum prize (that is, a prize worth less than the price to play); if it lands on a wooden block he receives a watch, necklace, or other choice prize. The way the targets are positioned makes the blocks exceedingly difficult to hit, effectively eliminating skill as an asset to the player. This game is different from the others in that participants will receive some prize for playing, no matter the outcome. The player just doesn’t know what sort the prize will be. Making this game permissible is a little different from the others. The player can ask the carnie to give him a slum prize even if he lands the ring on a rectangular block. This way the player is not in any doubt about what he will receive. If one does not do this, the game falls into the general category of qimar and maysir; because there is no certainty about the result, the player may get a good prize or get a raw deal for the money he paid to play the game.

4. Flat stores are rip-off games in which players have no chance in winning. Most of these games are illegal now on the midway. An example is called Ping Pong Blower, wherein a bunch of numbered ping-pong balls are kept hovered above a certain area by an air blower. The players attempt to catch as many balls as they can, and the scores on the caught balls are tallied at the end. If the total is, say, 100, the player wins a valued prize like a television. This is the sort of game everyone should stay away from. Most games offering expensive prizes are designed so that players have hardly any chance of winning. Muslims may play for the fun of it, but otherwise they would be wise to steer clear.

There are some other aspects of carnivals and funfairs that don’t promote an Islamic environment, such as music, immodest dress, and free mixing. But Muslims can choose to go on certain days and at certain times when these undesirable circumstances may be avoided. Also, by playing the games in an Islamic fashion, we can ensure that we will not be cheated out of our money or be guilty of anything classifiable as gambling. In doing so, what we are really doing is establishing an Islamic identity, which will set a powerful moral example for those around us, a deed that will, we hope, earn no little reward from Allah in the life to come.


Al-Durr al-Mukhtar Sharh Tanwin al-Absar. ‘Ala’ al-Din al-Haskafi. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Al- Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 2000.

Fath Bab al-‘Inayah. Nur al-Din Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Sultan Muhammad al-Qari. Beirut, Lebonan: Shirkah Dar al-Arkam. 1997.

al-Mawsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah al-Muyassirah. Muhammad Rawwas Qal‘aji. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar an-Nafa’is, 2005.

Ma‘ariful Quran. Muhammad Shafi. Karachi, Pakistan: Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, 2005.

Matthew Gryczan, Carnival Secrets. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Piccadilly Books, 1988.

Interview with a Carnie member from Carnival Secrets

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