January 6, 2020
“Can I fight off someone trying to ruin my prayer?” “Is it permissible for a woman to wear perfume?” In years past, a Muslim would ask a religious scholar (or mufti) for a ruling (or fatwa). In Dubai today, a Muslim can ask these questions to a computer. Using natural-language understanding techniques based on artificial intelligence (AI), the chatbot seeks to provide fatwas online in Arabic and English.
In October 2019, the Dubai government launched the world’s first AI service dedicated to religious issues. While the service is able only to answer simple questions about prayer right now, the Dubai government says it plans to expand coverage to other issues. As part of an initiative called “10X,” which seeks to keep Dubai ten years ahead of other cities in innovation, planners hope the initiative will allow Dubai to scale up its efforts to counter religious radicalization.
Reactions so far are mixed. Some government officials claim a positive public response and promise that accuracy will increase even further as usage increases. To some supporters, the computer-based system is the logical next step in religious authority. What began with face-to-face meetings over centuries migrated to letters and pamphlets in the nineteenth century, to radio, video, and internet recordings in the second half of the twentieth century, and now to AI.
Some scholars are more critical. They argue that the AI service misses the key issues fundamental to heading off radicalization: questions of sin, religious violence, and spirituality. Some also argue that a computer-based system will never have a human understanding of the context of the question and the questioner. Others question a religious chatbot created by the government instead of by a religious organization. One mufti simply expressed his shock saying, “the end times are near.”
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.