Ever since Kubric’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the 1983 film War Games, or the desperate attempts to stop Skynet going live in the Terminator franchise, we’ve grown more and more accustomed to machines having the commanding edge when it comes to making logical decisions about space flight or warfare. But for the past few years, scientists in the United States, upping the anti in this steadily evolving field, are working on teaching artificial intelligence how to make moral and ethical decisions too. That is immensely mind-blowing as it is scary.
But what does it mean to make ethical decisions or reason morally? Moral reasoning can be thought of as the ability to learn, reason with, and act on the laws and societal norms on which humans tend to agree. What these programers and scientists hope to do is to get machines; artificial intelligence, to emulate these abilities. Not everyone is keen to create machines to match or surpass human abilities. Stephen Hawking, for instance, warns that doing so could spell the end of humanity. He fears that at some point of complexity, artificial intelligence would take off on its own, redesigning itself at an ever-inreasing rate. In contrast, humans, who are constrained by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would swiftly be superseded.
While we may be a long way from teaching robots to process Kant’s moral imperative, or to feel compassion, let’s turn to a moral issue closer to home; the question of law & morality and the changing tides of time:
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ told us about the following: ‘From the signs of the Hour is that the virtuous shall be demeaned and the wicked elevated.’1
The above prophecy alerts us to a highly disturbing phenomenon. It is difficult to see how virtuous people could be devalued, unless you first demote and demean morality and virtue itself. And yet this is precisely what has happened. For ours is an age (and it has been so for quite some time now) where the old certainties, and the morality that flowed from them, have been dealt a crushing blow. Although long in the making, the liberal revolution of the 1960s was the beginning of the end of England as a Christian country in terms of Christian ethics being reflected in law and Christian morals being the glue that bound society. Against the backdrop of the swinging sixties, the country witnessed a series of liberalising laws that would usher in the start of a Post-Christian milieu: suicide ceased to be a crime in 1961; and in 1967, abortion was legalised, as was homosexuality.
Hereinafter, within Britain, there would be a parting of the ways for law and morality: the law would now intervene only to prevent individuals from harming each other. As for morality, it could no longer be thought of as the code for society. Instead, it would be relegated to an individual choice, and people would be free to indulge in whatever experiments in living they desired. Rights would soon replace responsibilities, desires would eventually trump duties and, by the 1990s, society would begin to significantly fray at the seams. There is no other choice for believers, driven as they must be by the healing lights of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism, than to seek society’s redemption and moral restoration.
How much morality should be translated into law, and how much is to be left to the individual conscience, is a question which all civilised societies must grapple with. In Islam’s Sacred Law, ‘sins which involve injustice to others and injury to them, be it in the religious or worldly sense, are more severely punished in this world than those not entailing harm to others; despite the fact that the punishment for the latter may be greater in the Hereafter.’2 This is why, despite disobedience to parents being more morally wrong than, for instance, fornication, the shari‘ah has no fixed penalty for the former, but it does for the latter. Again, arrogance is a far greater sin than consuming alcohol; and yet there is no prescribed worldly punishment for the first, but there is for the second. ‘The reason is clear: such punishments are there to safeguard religious and worldly interests from the wrongdoing of wrongdoers, whereas the punishment of those who wrong only themselves is left to their Lord.’3
As the assault on traditional morality and virtue continues to intensify from, among other quarters, the media, movies and trash TV; and as more and more of the world is exposed to the mediocrity and moral bankruptcy of the monoculture and is gradually ‘normalised’ into it; we Muslims should be clear that ours is a religion of meritocracy. That is to say, in Islam people are valued, respected and held in high esteem according to their piety, virtue and merits. People of corrupt morals, or who lack basic adab and decency, or who wallow in self-inflicted ignorance of even the basic teachings of the faith – they may be looked upon with the eye of pity, tolerance and charity; but never with honour, distinction or approbation.
Those who have even a slight insight into the gravity of the Quranic message, or who recognise that the Sunnah came to elevate humankind and restore us to our Adamic dignity will, in all likelihood, find today’s crass (and oftentimes, vulgar and irreverent) celebrity culture more than a trifle troublesome. Surely ones ease with, or acceptance of, it simply reflects how much souls have become desensitised to virtue or how much hearts have cozied up to vice; doesn’t it?
This is why Islam puts great weight on al-amr bi’l-ma‘ruf wa’l-nahi ‘ani’l-munkar – the duty of “commanding good and forbiding wrong.” Allah, exalted is He, declares in the Qur’an: The believers, men and women, are allies one to another; they enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil. [9:71] If we are to continue to recognise and honour people of virtue and piety, so as to be inspired by their conduct and be guided by their example, then we must collectively ensure that the lines between halal and haram, virtue and vice, and morality and immorality, are not blurred or made fuzzy. For if knowledge of what constitutes virtue and vice is lost to us; if Islamic morality is made subjective to the tastes and fashions of the times, and is no longer a rock firmly planted, we shall have brought about our rack and ruin in both worlds. Immense pressure is now being brought to bear upon Muslims to do precisely this. Ibn Mas‘ud, one of Islam’s earliest converts and one of its most illustrious scholars, once heard a person say: ‘Whoever doesn’t enjoin the good or forbid evil has perished.’ To which Ibn Mas‘ud responded: ‘Rather, one whose heart doesn’t recognises good from evil has perished.’4
These words become even more significant or consequential if we recall the following hadith: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; if he is unable to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’5 If the heart no longer recognise evil, let alone detests it or seeks to change it, then what type of faith is there? For let us not forget, in all this it is faith that is at stake.
As highly complex algorithms are currently being formulated, written and tested so as to give machines the gift of moral reasoning; if successful, it’s hoped that this robotic morality won’t be as open to abuse as it was in I, Robot.
1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:554. Its narrators are all those of the Sahih, as stated by al-Haythami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 7:326.
2. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:181.
3. ibid., 28:182.
4. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8564. Its chain is sahih, as Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut said in his crititical edition of Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:245.
5. Muslim, no.49.