Saudi Arabia has recently devised a plan to launch robots that will be stationed at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The role of the robots will be to recite the Holy Quran and deliver sermons to the millions of Muslims that visit the holy site.
The launch is a component of a wider “strategic plan” for carrying out the presidency’s “Smart Haramain Project,” which aims to enhance visitor services. Although improving user-friendliness and providing world-class services to pilgrims is the goal, questions of the implications on spirituality arise.
There have been positive contributions of artificial intelligence to Islamic practice. For instance, AI Quran Apps like “Tarteel,” assist users in learning and reciting the Quran at their own pace. However, the common denominator between all such applications is that they are for individual secluded worship – for personal progress and learning. They do not have communal implications, and the community is held in high regard in the Islamic faith.
When it comes to the grand mosque in Makkah, it is a communal space of worship. A place of connection and nourishment of faith. If elements of it are to be digitized, it may lose its personal touch.
For example, the reason we attend in-person lectures rather than online lectures is because of the human connection to the lecturer, following their tone of voice and body language, we are actively present in that moment. Being in close proximity to other people enables us to focus on the experience.
The loss of the human element is nothing short of tragic, as it is not only a loss of one individual but a loss of the human contributions and all that come with it. This would also be the case with robotic sermons and recitations – the question of why Khateebs and reciters even make the effort to attend in person when one could easily hit play arises.
Human interaction would be eliminated, and the complete spiritual experience would be altered. We are well aware that “ilm travels from heart to heart,” and that’s not possible with AI robots. Therefore, it would be unlikely that the khutbahs would have the desired effect.
AI in the Haram would also “automate” worship, which is a grey area as this could also lead to potentially “automating” other areas of worship, which by default removes the hard work that worship requires. There will also be implications concerning adab. A robot does not demand the same respect a human being does.
If the robot is the vessel through which we will receive our Islamic knowledge should we respect and listen to them? I highly doubt they will command the same respect as an Imam for example, as Allah (SWT) has said that human beings are the best of creation, and by default, robots don’t come close to the same level of decorum.
Additionally, Covid-19 taught us that people’s mental health suffered immensely due to the isolating nature of the pandemic. It can be argued that videos, recordings, etc., all still existed yet were still unfulfilling.
People crave human connection in various forms. The physical presence of reciters in the Haram plays an important role in people’s connection to the Haram and to their faith, and automated versions are unable to compete. A large part of our tradition is the transmission of adab through tarbiyah.
I am reminded of the words of Imam Malik Rahimullah’s mother:
Al-Qadi ‘Iyad reported: “Malik, may Allah (SWT) have mercy on him, said, ‘My mother would dress me up and say to me: Go to Shaykh Rabi’ah and learn from his manners before his knowledge.’
The adab and the teachings we receive from teachers in person is something that cannot be substituted with robots. Recep Senturk has an interesting discussion on what makes a human, post-modern vs Islamic and the multiplexity involved as Islam recognizes the soul, the post-modern, less so if at all.
There is also a very interesting discussion on prayer and AI by Yaqub Chaudhry where he discusses that in Islamic theology, intentions hold more weight than actions themselves, and thus even if an action falls short or is interrupted before actualization, an individual is still rewarded based on their intention. Hence, the issue of prayer bots and religious worship becomes one of tracing the intentional agent, or agents, in the system.
Furthering on the idea of intentions, AI could also very much disrupt intentions. We are well aware that actions are by intention, but it may be harder to “intend” if we have a robot doing the work on our behalf. Our intention may be limited to, “get the robot to deliver khutbah so I can spend my time doing something else.” That idea would suggest favoring speed and comfort as opposed to genuinely dealing with the nit and grit that comes with scholarship and transmission of scholarship.
Personally, I believe that AI should be restricted to simply facilitate worship for people. It should not be used to perform acts of worship. Allowing AIs to perform acts of worship in place of actual people is not “service of visitors” (which would be a form of khidmah) as the project claims, but instead, it very much makes the role of worshippers redundant, as AI is taking on the role instead. The idea of data mining also comes to mind as that amount of regulation and automation does not come without repercussions and may well become a means of control and censorship.