Azizi Khalid

October 28, 2021

Fiqh in the Age of AI


There were multiple times in history when the Companions of Prophet Muhammad wanted to kill Abdullah ibn Ubay, the leader of the hypocrites, due to his crimes. Yet, in all those instances, the Prophet forbade the killing of Ibn Ubay. "I don't want people to say that Muhammad killed his Companion," said the Prophet.

Here Prophet Muhammad was showing us one of the foundations of Fatwa — that a mufti should not only be looking at the present, but one should also be mindful of the future effects of the ruling that is issued. This is called Fiqh Ma'alat (Consequences of Actions) and Fiqh at-Tawaqqu' (Forecasting). This is not to say that the ends justify the means — yet the mufti should always be aware of the big picture impact that will come out of the rulings he makes.

In the past, ulama' were generally polymaths. An expert in Islamic law is also an expert in Philosophy (which was considered natural science and the most respected form of knowledge), speaks multiple languages (or at least the main languages of knowledge such as Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin etc.) and a master in mathematics and astronomy. A fatwa is issued based on the principles of the Sharia; at the same time, the other sciences help ground it to the reality of the world.

However, as life becomes more complex, it may be hard for a scholar to keep pace with everything happening. It is impossible to be a polymath today — in the real sense of the word. One is either a specialist in one or two fields or a jack of all trade and a master of none. Many scholars have mastered the Arabic language, but not English, which is the language of knowledge today.

As a result, we see the public seeing the role of a scholar detached from reality — a group of bearded men in their imamah and thobe deciding the fate of the ummah from their ivory minaret. They can make fatwas however they wish while life goes on for everyone else. A fatwa that doesn't consider the current reality and its effects in the future will be ignored by many as impractical at the very least and can be outright dangerous and cost the loss of lives, at worst.

Take the recent fatwas against the closure of mosques, social distancing, and vaccination made by some scholars in some countries. We see a high number of fatalities from among the Muslims, and we have lost many senior clerics to Covid-19. Such scholars hold on strong to tradition and were unable to see the bigger picture and the effects of their fatwas on the community.

Enter Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.

We are now at the early stages of the AI revolution. AI is definitely not as intelligent as many people seem to think (sorry to disappoint, but Skynet is still a far distance into the future). But it is good at one thing — analysing massive amounts of data and making prediction models. AI is not smart enough to tell you what it knows — you'll need to ask the right questions to get the answer you want. But imagine having AI as one of the tools of fatwa making. A scholar can put in a fatwa that he intends to issue, and AI will predict how that is going to affect the world. If a scholar knows that by giving a fatwa against all the protective measures of Covid-19, he will cause tens of thousand people in his community to die, would he issue the same fatwa?

Yes, all those tools are available today. It is being used to guide many major policymaking processes today. From governments to insurance companies to car design, AI is being used to help make more informed decisions. Why not fatwas?

AI should not be the decision-maker. At the end of the day, we need a human to pull the trigger. But AI can be a powerful tool to help us make informed choices.

Azizi Khalid
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