The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “technology & social change”

Intelligent and Informed Faith is Our Only Option

THE LATE GAI EATON PUT his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he wrote three or four decades ago:

‘I think it must have been easy enough in earlier ages in the Christian world, and is still easy in those parts of the Muslim world which remain traditional, to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual content. I do not believe this is any longer possible in the modern world, for the spirit of our times asks questions – questions for the most part hostile to faith – which demands answers, and those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith, from study and meditation.’1

He then went on to note: ‘Whatever our religion, we can no longer be sure of holding onto it out of habit or by an act of will. We have to be, if not theologians, then at the very least people who study their religion and who think about it.’2

For quite some time now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying orthodoxies, assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims (particularly those parts of the globe still referred to as “the Muslim world”), even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on.

These assumptions – that Man has now come of age and is the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material and consumer progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have severed us from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that has been the setting for normative human life throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of doubts and disbelief.

If commitment to religious faith and practice is to survive such a deluge, firm knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! However, while less than half a century earlier one could be a decent Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of al-Ghazali, al-Razi or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who does not possess at least some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the faith of Islam is grounded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in some impenetrable bubble of naivety or simplicity.

Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or hell-bent society. If it were possible for those who see the monoculture for what it truly is to withdraw from society and to go their own way in peace, this would probably be a decent course of action (not forgetting that the core of Islam’s call is very much urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows ever more invasive and totalising, suffocating any meaningful dissent; assimilating any significant diversity; and erasing any significant divergence. So driven into a tight corner, religion has little option but to turn and fight. Hence an urgent need to raise the dust of polemics against the ensnaring assumptions of modernity.

1. Reflections (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2012), 85.

2. ibid., 85.

The End of Man: Homo Sapiens & Spooky Science

deathNext year it will be two hundred years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first put into print: if not the first science fiction novel to ever be written, it is certainly one of the first. Ever since, we as a society have not only been fascinated with the monsters that the science fiction genre has imagined into being, but have also understood (or at least intuited) that guidelines would have to be placed on technological advances: not to limit or stifle scientific inquiry, but to avoid the monsters that can be created from it. Indeed, the subtitle to Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, which is very revealing. For like Prometheus in Greek mythology, who gave mankind the gift of fire – which gives light and warmth, but can also burn or destroy – the applications of science can also be a double-edged sword. Ethical responsibility and caution, then, must be the watchwords when pushing the boundaries of science and developing new technologies off its back. Or has the genie already escaped from the bottle? …

His genius in theoretical physics aside, Stephen Hawking is on record for saying that Artificial intelligence or AI: ‘will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.’ His is not the only voice of concern. No less than Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk have expressed their reservation about where this rapidly evolving robotics and AI technology is heading – Hawking’s vision being the most apocalyptic of them. As science fiction gradually becomes science fact, it seems that AI is destined to play an increasing role in our day-to-day lives over the next few decades. Alongside the prospects of leading to the eradication of poverty and diseases and even give us control over climate change, Hawking warns us: ‘AI will also bring dangers like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many, It will bring great disruption to our economy; and in the future, AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours.’

In his disquieting book Our Final Century, Martin Rees tells us that not only is modern science the genie which long ago broke free of our control, it’s also far too clever to be tricked back into its bottle. Nuclear ‘megaterrorism’ is a major concern, he writes. But threats posed by biotechnology or nanotechnology are far greater. Entire populations could be erased by engineered airborne viruses. Self-replicating nanobots may swiftly spiral out of control and devour the biosphere, reducing it to dust in a matter of days. We are in an age, writes Rees, ‘when a single person can, by one clandestine act, cause millions of deaths or render a city uninhabitable for years, and when a malfunction in cyberspace can cause havoc globally … Indeed, disaster could be caused by someone who is merely incompetent rather than malign.’ Now whether it is down to bioterror or bioerror, or to atom-smashing particle accelerators that produce concentrations of energy intense enough to create a black hole that sucks in our entire planet, Rees, one of the world’s leading astrophysicists and space scientists, asserts with a straight face: ‘[T]he odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.’

At the end of his bold book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari concludes his grand sweep of history with some spooky stuff. Currently in labs across the world, he says, genetic engineering is allowing scientists to transcend the laws of nature, replacing them with the laws of intelligent human design. Science is not only cloning sheep, manipulating organic tissue to grow a human ear on the backs of mice, or redesigning a white rabbit at the cellular level to make it fluorescent green. It’s also looking to implant reconstructed DNA of a mammoth into the womb of an elephant, or DNA of a Neanderthal into a woman’s womb; thus producing the first mammoth to be born in the last 5000 years, and the first Neanderthal child in the last 30,000! But it’s not only biological and technical change. Science, especially genetic computer programming, is gearing to alter human consciousness and identity too. It is devising ways in which computers and human brains could fully interface with one another, each being able to retrieve and send data to the other. There are also attempts afoot to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer, with electronic circuits in the computer emulating neural networks of the brain. Such transformations could be so fundamental, they will call into question the very notion of human memory, human consciousness and human identity; or what it would even mean to be human. Science and technology are turning things upside down and inside out like never before. And many of these developments are happening at breakneck speeds. Little wonder, then, that Hariri called this last chapter in which he explores all these projects, ‘The End of Homo Sapiens’.

I spent all of my teen years growing up on a council estate in East London, constantly surrounded by the sounds of ‘conscious lyrics’: in this case, reggae music that spoke of the tribulations, injustices and desperations of life in a ‘concrete jungle’. So when rap and hip-hop came along at the end of the 70s, it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Early hip-hop was anything but conscious. Women, wild parties, boasting, lusting and craving material things were its usual concerns. But in mid 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message broke this material mould. It caught my attention because of its conscious lyrics; its social commentary about the hardships and anxieties of the then urban life. But it’s another set of verses from the Furious Five which first set me thinking about where we could be heading with all this (then) new public accessibility to computer technology. In 1984, Beat Street voiced these edgy vexations:

‘Peoples in terror, the leaders made an error
And now they can’t even look in the mirror.
Cause we gotta suffer, while things get rougher
And that’s the reason why we got to get tougher.
So learn from the past and work for the future
And don’t be a slave to no computer.
Cause the children of Man inherit the land
And the future of the world is in your hands.’

Between this and Hazel O’Conner’s earlier haunting Eighth Day, computers have both delighted me and disturbed me. Of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator didn’t exactly help endear the notion of completely autonomous AI to my generation. Indeed, the prophets of doom have long envisioned a harrowing future for mankind, where AI systems become super intelligent and threaten the very survival or normalcy of humanity. The Prophets of God, by contrast, foretell of an ultimately better, more humane future – either due in significant part to science and technology, or inspite of them. The monotheistic teachings of God’s Prophets reveal that this future will come about as we work for immediate and sincere human welfare, under a compassionate God. That entails putting ethical imperatives before all else, and objectively weighing-up risks; especially in terms of experiments in science with a conceivable ‘Doomsday downside’. Never before in the long history of our planet have these words been quite so alarmingly literal: the future of the world is in our hands.

Our Need to Connect, Anxious When We Don’t!

20160828_140005‘The more we’re connected, the more we seem to be disconnected’ pretty much sums up our growing modern dilemma.

Our globalised social media age is one in which selling ourselves, sharing ourselves, expressing ourselves and defending ourselves are now part and parcel of everyday life for millions of people across the world. In such an age, writes Os Guinness, it’s a case of: ‘I post, therefore I am.’

Not to deny the positive aspects of social media, an ever-increasing volume of mental health studies have, nonetheless, begun to show a more damaging and dangerous side to this culture. Cyber-bullying, sleep deprivation, or distraction from more important matters are undoubtedly some of the more apparent downsides. But there are darker, more tragic dimensions to our engagement with social media. There’s what many call the ‘compare & despair’ syndrome. As people compare their own mundane lives to the endless Instagram, Facebook or Twitter pictures of friends on a perfect vacation, with a perfect partner, or part of a perfect family; or as they devour doctored images of the day-to-day glamorised lives of celebrities; or as they notice how many more hits, likes or shares others are getting than they are, instead of inspiring people, is causing them to despair or be unhappy. The timely wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, echoed by more recent findings in neuroscience, of comparing downwards (with those less well to do than ourselves), instead of upwards (with those better off), continues to be ignored by our destructive consume-and-be-consumed culture.

There is also the FOMO (fear of missing-out) phenomenon. More common with the under-30s, it’s the anxiety caused by not being in-the-know about, or missing out on, experiences (parties, gigs, concerts, or other social events and interactions) that others might be having. Once afflicted, one cannot be at ease for the thought that something important might happen whilst one isn’t connected. The result: angst, addiction and an obsessive need to keep checking one’s phone or social media device.

As with compare and despair, the FOMO affliction has also been around long before social media ever made its mark. But there can be little doubt that social media – with its endless status updates and photos of friends sharing their (seemingly) happier and more exciting lives, and that everybody else is (supposedly) having fun and somehow you’re being left out – has made such paranoia, depression and trauma far more acute and widespread in society.

So as can be seen, and unbeknown to many who are part of a more ‘older’ crowd, the problems with our social media culture isn’t just about selfie-taking narcissists. If we are to retain our sanity; our emotional stability, we need to urgently (re)learn the lost art of JOMO (joy of missing-out): learning to take pleasure in being disconnected for a time, by not feeling one has to be everywhere, or with everyone, at once. So let’s just switch off, be calm and have a cuppa.

A final thought. As a Muslim, and as someone part of that ‘older’ crowd, it’s painful to see how so many people, especially young people, are now in the grip of social media anxiety and addiction. Social media addiction is real, and it’s a far larger problem than most of us care to realise. Its harms are real, too. It degrades life, damages careers and even harms relationships. Most major social network sites, as well as content creators, work hard everyday to make their networks as addictive as possible, using algorithmic filters to tweak their content and target our personal desires, needs and tantrums. In the meantime, our social ability to resist this addiction hasn’t quite evolved.

Islam teaches that Man, being a social creature, has a deep need for connectivity. But more than the need for friendship, intimacy or socialising with others, Islam insists that the greatest need for human hearts – their ultimate yearning – is to be connected to God; and in the absence of that connection there is only an unfulfilled restlessness within us. In the Qur’an, one of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Kafi – ‘The Sufficer’ or ‘He who satisfies all needs’. It follows, then, that if we turn our hearts away from the Sufficer, we shall continue to remain unsatisfied, anxious and unfulfilled. For human hearts can only find true peace, fulfilment and meaning in their Creator: Indeed in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Qur’an, 13:28]

As social media sites are tweaked to get more and more addictive, and as social media companies are in a war for survival where only the most addictive sites will survive, most people will be … well, little more than lab rats in a massive, global experiment. If we don’t learn to cultivate inner restraint or a sense of balance, most will continue to be manipulated by social media sites and content creators to waste far too much time in a way that benefits them, not us – unless we remember that we were created for a higher, more exalted Connectivity and a profounder friendship with the Content Creator of all creation. The choice, therefore, is ours; and where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Law & Morality: Swinging Sixties to Artificial Intelligence

robots_8Ever 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.

Here’s hoping.

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.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: