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Iran’s clerics look to harness AI to issue fatwas more efficiently 

September 25, 2023 at 1:40 pm

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attends a meeting in Qom via video conference, from Tehran, Iran on January 09, 2021. [Iranian Leader Press Office – Anadolu Agency]

In an effort to modernise while maintaining its Islamic character, Iran is exploring the use of artificial intelligence to assist its religious seminaries. The initiative is centred in the holy city of Qom, home to half of its 200,000 Shia clerics and Iran’s foremost hub of Islamic learning.

The clerical establishment sees AI as a way to be more responsive to calls for progress while holding onto traditional values. Qom’s seminaries hope advanced technology can help parse Islamic texts faster and allow religious rulings, known as fatwas, to keep pace with Iran’s rapidly evolving society.

“Robots can’t replace senior clerics, but they can be a trusted assistant that can help them issue a fatwa faster,” Mohammad Ghotbi, who heads a tech group in Qom, is reported saying in the Financial Times.

The interest in AI reflects clashes between tradition and modernity in Iran. While Qom’s clerics have protected traditional values, Iranians increasingly demand technological progress, Ghotbi said. “Today’s society favours acceleration and progress,” Ghotbi added, explaining that the clergy should not oppose the desire of Iranians to share in global technological advances.

The push is said to be just the beginning and has support from the top. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the clergy to explore AI, while Qom’s seminary head welcomed using technology to “promote Islamic civilisation.”

“The seminary must get involved in using modern, progressive technology and artificial intelligence,” Ayatollah Alireza Arafi said in July. “We have to enter into this field to promote Islamic civilisation.”

Yet adopting AI may prove challenging for Islam’s intricate legal system. Other faiths like Judaism have debated whether AI can properly interpret religious law. Some warn AI cannot grasp nuance needed for complex rulings.

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According to Ghotbi, AI can aid clerics in swiftly addressing public concerns and adapting Islam to modern life. But some fear it may also further erode the clergy’s singular role as interpreters of Islamic law. Ongoing protest against the wearing of hijab has undermined the clerics power and authority.

As with any revolutionary technology, AI presents both opportunities and challenges. Traditional societies are likely to face greater challenges in harnessing AI. According to the Brookings Institution, one of the significant challenges of integrating AI into traditional societies is the potential for cultural and moral erosion. AIs, primarily if designed without considering local values, can inadvertently promote a worldview or moral perspective at odds with local customs and beliefs.

Efforts to utilise AI for interpreting religious texts can be controversial. An analysis by the Oxford Islamic Studies suggests that interpretations of religious teachings require not just linguistic knowledge but also historical, sociological and theological understanding. There’s a concern that AI might oversimplify or misinterpret nuanced religious teachings.

AI also poses a threat to traditional learning methods. The Islamic educational system, known as Madrasah, places a strong emphasis on teacher-student relationships. The Journal of Islamic Studies points out that replacing or even supplementing these relationships with AI-driven platforms might erode the essential human element in religious teachings.