An 'Electronic Mufti' is currently under development that will use artificial intelligence techniques to issue opinions on contemporary Muslim affairs. A mufti is an Islamic scholar who offers interpretations of Sharia, Islamic law. A fatwa is a ruling on Islamic law issued by a credentialed scholar of that faith. There are many variations; fatawa are not binding for everyone, there are differences based on sects and national groups.

Dr. Anas Fawzi, an Egyptian engineer, is the only Arab in a group of French computer scientists working on the artificial intelligence computer project. Dr. Fawzi consulted with Islamic scholars before undertaking his role in the project. He says that they assured him that "such a device is not 'haram' [prohibited by Islam]. But there are fears and scepticism regarding misuse and causing any misrepresentation or defamation to the figure of the Prophet. There are also fears in terms of Arab and Islamic public opinion and their acceptance of a machine such as this."

The electronic mufti has support among traditional Muslim clerics. The Egyptian Awqaf [Religious Endowments] Ministry's First Undersecretary for Preaching Affairs, Dr. Shawqi Abdel Latif, has said this with regard to the concept of 'simulating' the figure of the Prophet of Islam to serve the Islamic religion in accordance with special conditions:

"The idea is a noble one if indeed it calls for Muslim unity in matters of religion in light of the satellite [channel] wars that the Muslim endure, in addition to the incapability of the relevant bodies of formulating and setting forth ideas in the interest of Muslims.

However, Dr. Abdel cautions that machines cannot truly simulate the figure of the Prophet regardless of advanced technological capability.

Not all authorities are happy with the device. Dr. Mustafa al Swahili, professor at Al-Azhar University rejects the concept behind this machine.

"I am in complete agreement that Islam is a glorious science and that it invites interpretation – so long as it does not violate the religion. I believe a device such as this will create confusion among the people since no matter how advanced science is; it will still have limitations because simulation is limited and does not yield full answers."

This is not as much of a departure as you might think for Islamic scholars. In the 12th century, the Arab Muslim inventor Al-Jazari created a variety of automatic machines including what amounted to the first programmable humanoid robot in 1206. The "robot" was a boat with four automatic musicians; it had a mechanism with a programmable drum with pegs that activated levers to operate percussion instruments. Moving the pegs ("programming" it) would result in different compositions.

Science fiction writers have had their share of fun with the idea of robotic religious authorities. Many readers will recall the robot pope from Good News From the Vatican, a 1971 story by Robert Silverberg.

Rabbi Mueller removes his sunglasses... "I can tell you that his Eminency is tall and distinguished, with a fine voice and a gentle smile..."
"But he's mounted on wheels, isn't he?" Kenneth persists.
"On treads," replies the rabbi, giving Kenneth a fiery, devastating look. "Treads, like a tractor has. But I don't think treads are spiritually inferior to feet, or, for that matter, to wheels..."
(Read more about Silverberg's robot pope)

And don't forget Philip K. Dick's Padre booth from his 1969 novel Galactic Pot-Healer. This device was more generalized; it allowed the user to dial any religious preference.

Joe said "I haven't worked for seven months and now I've got a job that takes me out of the Sol system entirely, and I'm afraid. What if I can't do it? What if I've lost my skill?"
The Padre's weightless voice floated back reassuringly to him. "You have worked and not worked. Not working is the hardest work of all."
That's what I get for dialing zen, Joe said to himself. Before the Padre could intone further he switched to Puritan Ethic.
"Without work," the Padre said in a somewhat more forceful voice, "A man is nothing. He ceases to exist."
(Read more about Dick's padre booth)

Read more about religion and technology:

Religion In Space
The question arises: How do Muslims pray in space?

Robot 'Minister' Performs Wedding Ceremony
It is believed that this is the first time that a robot has acted as master of ceremonies for a wedding.

Via Can a Machine Issue Islamic Fatwas?.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction