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:
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.
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.
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.
Read more about religion and technology:
(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction)