'Electronic Mufti' May Issue Machine Fatwas

An Electronic Mufti is currently under development that will use artificial intelligence techniques to issue opinions on contemporary Muslim affairs.


(Programmable humanoid robots by Al-Jazari)

Dr. Anas Fawzi, an Egyptian engineer, is the only Arab in a group of French computer scientists working on the project. He says Scientists who have invented this device [electronic mufti] hail from various different nations. I am honoured to be part of this unprecedented scientific achievement. Through my work and residence in France for many long years, I am proud to be working with an exemplary large team where dozens of specializations abound."

Dr. Fawzi consulted with Islamic scholars before undertaking his role in the project. He says that they assured him that "such a device is not 'haram' [prohibited by Islam]. But there are fears and scepticism regarding misuse and causing any misrepresentation or defamation to the figure of the Prophet. There are also fears in terms of Arab and Islamic public opinion and their acceptance of a machine such as this."

The electronic mufti has support among traditional Muslim clerics. The Egyptian Awqaf [Religious Endowments] Ministry's First Undersecretary for Preaching Affairs, Dr. Shawqi Abdel Latif, has said this with regard to the concept of 'simulating' the figure of the Prophet of Islam to serve the Islamic religion in accordance with special conditions:

"The idea is a noble one if indeed it calls for Muslim unity in matters of religion in light of the satellite [channel] wars that the Muslim endure, in addition to the incapability of the relevant bodies of formulating and setting forth ideas in the interest of Muslims.

However, Dr. Abdel cautions that machines cannot truly simulate the figure of the Prophet regardless of advanced technological capability.

Not all authorities are happy with the device. Dr. Mustafa al Swahili, professor at Al-Azhar University rejects the concept behind this machine.

"I am in complete agreement that Islam is a glorious science and that it invites interpretation so long as it does not violate the religion. I believe a device such as this will create confusion among the people since no matter how advanced science is; it will still have limitations because simulation is limited and does not yield full answers."

The idea that a machine could issue a fatwa is incredible to me. As far as I know, a fatwa is a ruling on Islamic law issued by a credentialed scholar of that faith. There are many variations; fatawa are not binding for everyone, there are differences based on sects and national groups.

This is not as much of a departure as you might think for Islamic scholars. In the 12th century, the Arab Muslim inventor Al-Jazari created a variety of automatic machines including what amounted to a programmable humanoid robot in 1206. The "robot" was a boat with four automatic musicians; it had a mechanism with a programmable drum with pegs that activated levers to operate percussion instruments. Moving the pegs ("programming" it) would result in different compositions.

Science fiction writers have had their share of fun with the idea of robotic religious authorities. Read about the philosopical robass from Anthony Boucher's 1951 story The Quest for Saint Aquin. Many readers will recall the robot pope from Good News From the Vatican, a 1971 story by Robert Silverberg.

Rabbi Mueller removes his sunglasses... "I can tell you that his Eminency is tall and distinguished, with a fine voice and a gentle smile..."

"But he's mounted on wheels, isn't he?" Kenneth persists.

"On treads," replies the rabbi, giving Kenneth a fiery, devastating look. "Treads, like a tractor has. But I don't think treads are spiritually inferior to feet, or, for that matter, to wheels..."
(Read more about the robot pope)

And don't forget Philip K. Dick's padre booth from his 1969 novel Galactic Pot-Healer. This device was more generalized; it allowed the user to dial any religious preference.

Getting to his feet he crossed the waiting room to the Padre booth; inside he put a dime into the slot and dialed at random. The marker came to rest at Zen.

"Tell me your torments," the Padre said, in an elderly voice marked with compassion. And slowly; it spoke as if there were no rush, no pressures. All was timeless.
(Read more about Dick's padre booth)

Read more about religion and technology:

Religion In Space
The question arises: How do Muslims pray in space?

Robot 'Minister' Performs Wedding Ceremony
It is believed that this is the first time that a robot has acted as master of ceremonies for a wedding.

Via Can a Machine Issue Islamic Fatwas?.

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