Digitalisation from an Islamic Perspective

A key purpose of AI&F is to identify AI ethics and values issues of particular importance to the faith traditions of members in our AI&F expert community.  We asked our Advisor Yaqub Chaudhary (AI, cognitive science and ethics) to provide an overview of such issues from an Islamic perspective, drawing from his article Initial Considerations for Islamic Digital Ethics in the December 2020 issue of Philosophy and Technology (Springer).  

Values and ideology are inscribed at every level of abstraction of digital technologies from programming languages, to information structures and protocols, algorithms, device forms, and user interfaces. This is also the case for artificial intelligence and machine learning, which concretise specific conceptions about human intelligence and human nature. In short, any domain that succumbs to digitalisation entails the submission of that domain to a form of ideological domination that is much more severe than earlier forms of colonialism and imperialism and the disruptive pace of digitalisation leaves little time for individuals and societies to adjust to or counteract the new conditions of digital life.

There is therefore a significant need for Muslim scholars to understand the impacts of digitalisation on the human condition and on our environment, to provide guidance to developers, businesses, public and private institutions, and individuals on building beneficial technologies and avoiding unanticipated material or spiritual harms.

Briefly, according to Islamic teachings, there is no separation between the moral and the lawful. God commands the good and forbids the evil. In secular society, on the other hand, it is possible to act in a way that would be deemed unethical or immoral by most people and civilisations throughout history yet remain on the right side of the law. This effectively nullifies the value of any corporate gesture toward ethical principles, which can be jettisoned the moment profits or market share are at stake and weakens the effectiveness of regulation as companies find malicious ways to bypass them. Whilst ethics may be an empty gesture for corporations, Muslims, as individuals and collectively, are still obliged to act within the scope of religious guidelines.

According to Islamic teachings, humanity is distinguished from the rest of creation by virtue of divinely bestowed intellectual faculties. Islamic teachings accordingly provide guidance to properly direct the powers of the human intellect and constrain its capacity to dominate and subjugate the natural world. Qur’an 55:7-9 mentions the establishment of the mizān – the cosmological balance between nature, man and ultimate reality – and the injunction not to transgress the balance established by God. Human beings are designated as vicegerents or stewards (khalifa, pl. khulafa) of God on earth, who have ethical, moral and spiritual duties to work toward the improvement of the quality of all life on earth in fulfilment of the sacred trust bestowed on humanity.

The sources of Islamic guidance are the Qur’an, hadith (prophetic narrations), scholarly consensus (ijma), and analogical reasoning (qiyas). There are two religious sciences that are concerned with the outward and inward aspects of actions, namely fiqh and ‘ilm-ul-akhlaq’.  Fiqh is concerned with human conduct and provides rules for the obligatory, permissible, impermissible and recommended acts of adults with sound intellect. Ilm al-akhlaq, is known by many names and is described as ‘the science of character’ and is aimed at the study of the inward aspects (i.e. the dispositions or virtues) that underlie the full range of human actions that manifest on the limbs, in the mind through the senses, or in the heart. It is through this science that individuals may render their actions with higher degrees of goodness and perfection (ihsan), since it is the quality of good action and intention rather than the quantity of action that God is concerned with, as stated in Qur’an 67:2 that it is “He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed.”

The scope of these teachings can also pertain to inculcating virtuous ethical standards that go beyond legal and regulatory requirements in deploying technology. In one prophetic statement, it is mentioned that the honest and trustworthy merchant will be raised with the prophets, the truthful and the martyrs in the afterlife.

Muslim jurists abstracted general principles of Islamic law leading to the legal genres of legal maxims (al-Qawa’id al-Fiqhiyyah) and legal objectives (maqasid al-Sharia). Islamic legal maxims aim to abstract the foundational principles that underlie questions of Islamic law, while the objectives are aimed at justifying the foundational principles of Islamic law and investigating the wisdom behind them. Islamic scholars since Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111) in the early 12th century identified five objectives of the Sharia for the well-being of society known as the “maqasid al-Sharia”. These five objectives are protection of religion, life, human dignity, property/wealth, and the intellect.

Digital transformation is exerting pressure that is changing the very meaning and context of each of the areas the objectives seek to protect and is producing unanticipated higher order effects. For example, wealth and property have obtained new meaning in the form of digital currencies, digital assets and based on the digitalisation of objects and services. The digital mediation of assets entails “a future where the most controversial aspects of intellectual property (i.e. digital rights management systems, real-time customer surveillance, and intricate price discrimination) have spilled over the former boundary between virtual and physical”, which opens the way for pricing and rent seeking behaviour with indeterminate levels of granularity in every sphere of life.

This situation has paved the way for new forms of digital market manipulation, which target the consumer intellect through “vast asymmetries of information coupled with the unilateral power to design the legal and visual terms of the transaction,” and alters the consumer landscape to favour the logic of “dispossession” operative in surveillance capitalism. Coupled with this is a severe disregard for human dignity, as privacy is routinely infringed through digital intrusion into the private sphere (often by design) and clandestine data collection practices. These are all areas that Muslim technology developers and users should be conscious of.

Digital transformation also leads to unanticipated secondary and tertiary effects in areas of life that become digitalised. Islamic teachings place significant emphasis on considering the long-range effects of one’s actions in the world and the footprints one leaves behind, the good and bad of which ultimately accrue to the individual in the afterlife (based on their original intention to do good or evil).

In contrast to the Islamic approach of human flourishing, the digital life, as it exists today, favours regimes of power that seek to control human behaviour whereby “control is exerted by inducing action rather than restricting it” that is, “by ‘curating’ a networked terrain within which action is nurtured”.

As informational selves navigating through this informational terrain, we become assimilated into vast networks of computation, which affect personal and spiritual development, either subtly through the gradual influence of personalisation algorithms or more explicitly as part of the apparatus of digital authoritarianism.

Both of these modalities stand in contrast to the Islamic vision of the fulfilment of human potential as rational, spiritual and autonomous beings and it is therefore necessary to consider whether the digital can be reimagined in a way that is more consistent with the Islamic vision for human, societal and environmental flourishing.

In relation to the environment, the universal teachings of Islam serve as a supercultural system that has historically supported the development of culture, in contrast to the digital, which serves as a system that establishes control over increasing aspects of reality and accelerates the process of formatting over local cultures with a global monoculture. In relation to ourselves, Islamic teachings aim to bring the inward and outward into a harmonious balance that enhances the virtues and the moral constitution of the individual by gaining mastery over the self, whereas the digital is being used to induce action, form habits, and reframe personal choices to make the individual servant to narrow ideological interests.

References

  1. Dal Yong Jin. Digital Platforms, Imperialism and Political Culture. (Routledge, 2017).
  2. Kızılkaya, N. Legal Maxims – Oxford Islamic Studies Online. The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics (2019).
  3. Shabana, A. Custom in Islamic Law and Legal Theory: the Development of the Concepts of ’Urf and ’Adah in the Islamic Legal Tradition. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  4. Söderberg, J. The Coming of Augmented Property: A Constructivist Lesson for the Critics of Intellectual Property. in Digital Labour and Prosumer Capitalism: The US Matrix (eds. Frayssé, O. & O’Neil, M.) 166–186 (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015). doi:10.1057/9781137473905_10.
  5. Calo, M. R. Digital Market Manipulation. SSRN Journal (2013) doi:10.2139/ssrn.2309703.
  6. Zuboff, S. The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for the future at the new frontier of power. (2019).
  7. Krivý, M. Towards a critique of cybernetic urbanism: The smart city and the society of control. Planning Theory 17, 8–30 (2018).
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