The term artificial intelligence, to an average mind, evokes images of robots and gigantic machines causing havoc and taking over the world – as portrayed in the science fiction genre. In reality, though, artificial intelligence (AI) is simply the replication of human intelligence in machines. It is a branch of computer science that involves building machines and applications that perceive their environment and take action accordingly. From smart digital assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, to the emerging self-driving cars, AI is increasingly becoming a part of daily life in the twenty-first century. The AI industry is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and contribute USD 13 trillion to the global economy by 2030.

Benefits and Risks of Artificial Intelligence

AI applications have greatly enhanced information access and benefitted various types of industries. In manufacturing, sophisticated machines and robots perform error-free tasks around the clock, do “boring” and repetitive jobs, and can be entrusted with tasks considered too risky or dangerous for humans. AI mapping and prediction tools are increasingly being used to track the spread of diseases. AI-based technologies also help in predicting medical conditions and diseases such as breast cancer. In business and finance, AI is being adopted to detect fraud, streamline stock trading, and facilitate marketing and customer care. Social media platforms are now using AI to identify fake news and dangerous content.   

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However, there are various risks associated with artificial intelligence. AI features in smart devices tend to make people lazy and addicted to their screens. The cost of developing AI is typically very high, requiring plenty of resources. Moreover, unemployment is rising due to machines replacing humans in various industrial jobs. Machines lack emotions and the ability to empathize and can be used to hack into people’s privacy. There is also the fear – though often exaggerated – that advanced robots could become too difficult to control. Another concern is the potentially dangerous flaws in some AI products. For example, the self-driving cars being tested in the USA have caused traffic accidents, killing several people.

Islamic Stance on Artificial Intelligence

The stance of Islam on artificial intelligence is governed by a general principle followed by the scholars: that all new things, other than in matters of ibadah, are permissible unless there is specific evidence of their prohibition. Ibn Taymiyah, a renowned classical scholar and reformer,  says: “It should be understood that in principle all things, of various types and categories, are generally halal for human beings, and that they are tahir (pure) and it is not forbidden for people to handle them and touch them. This is a comprehensive rule that is general in application, and it is an important ruling that is of immense benefit and brings much blessing, and the scholars turned to it when issuing rulings on innumerable actions and issues faced by people.” (Majmu Al-Fataawa)

There is no evidence to suggest that Islam prohibits or discourages AI, which has many benefits for people. Moreover, Allah states in the Quran, “And He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth – all from Him. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.” (45:13) In this ayah, Allah encourages the people to make use of the resources of the earth for their benefit. Elsewhere in the Quran, human-made objects and inventions, such as ships and coats of mail, have also been described as Allah’s blessings and signs. In the same way, AI applications and other products of human intellect can be considered favors from Allah to facilitate us in the various aspects of our life.

However, artificial intelligence should only be used in a way that is beneficial for people in general, as Allah states in the Quran: “And spend in the way of Allah and do not throw [yourselves] with your [own] hands into destruction.” (2:195) While the subject matter of this ayah is specifically charity, the command not to throw ourselves into destruction is generic. Hence, developing potentially harmful technology goes against the spirit of Islam.  

The Way Forward for Muslims

Islam lays great emphasis on learning and progress – something well embodied by our Muslim predecessors in the early centuries of Islam. From Al-Razi’s innovative laboratory apparatus of the 9th century (CE) to the water-raising machine Al-Jazari developed in the 13th century, Muslims were at the helm of scientific and technological advancements. In fact, the word algorithm, which is central to the structure of artificial intelligence, is derived from the name of Al-Khwarizmi, the 9th-century Muslim scientist and mathematician who first introduced the concept of algorithms. However, in later centuries, and particularly since the colonization era, the intellectual decline of the Muslims has been all too obvious. In recent times, the contribution of Muslims to the field of science and technology has been almost negligible.

Today, Muslim countries need to invest in AI, which can greatly uplift their economies and help overcome many of the challenges they face. The governments in Muslim countries need to proactively promote scientific learning by establishing specialist institutions, providing scholarships to STEM students, and introducing incentives for small entrepreneurs in the scientific domain. At the same time, aspiring students should look beyond the traditional fields of learning to the more innovative branches of science. Universities also need to implement a culture of authentic research rather than mere book learning.    

Lastly, it is worth emphasizing that there is much potential for Muslims to excel in the AI field. There are many examples of young Muslims developing impressive prototypes and inventing new products despite the lack of available funding. For example, a Pakistani graduate, Aqsa Ajmal, was recently recognized for developing a sewing machine for the visually impaired, while another student, Shanza Munir, has developed smart shoes to assist the visually impaired. During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, police robots, known as PGuards, were seen patrolling the streets of Tunis to enforce the lockdown. Enova Robotics, the Tunisia-based firm that developed these security robots, can serve as an inspiration for many Muslim scientists and entrepreneurs seeking to make their mark in the field of artificial intelligence.