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Irony of Ironies: Iranian Imams embrace modernity of AI to churn out fatwas quickly

Iranian authorities are embracing artificial intelligence (AI) to expedite the issuance of Islamic law rulings, known as fatwas, by religious clerics. This move is seen as an attempt to present a more modern image after the first anniversary of protests ignited by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in police custody, allegedly for wearing her headscarf incorrectly.

According to a report from the Financial Times, officials in the holy city of Qom, closely linked to the state, are encouraging clerics to experiment with AI technology. Mohammad Ghotbi, the leader of a state-affiliated tech incubator in Qom, explained that while AI can’t replace senior clerics, it can act as a reliable assistant, drastically reducing the time it takes to issue a fatwa from 50 days to just five hours.

Traditionally, Shia clerics dedicate weeks or months to studying Islamic texts before delivering fatwas, covering a wide range of topics, from patriotism to personal hygiene. Over the years, some fatwas have been issued in response to Western cultural matters, such as the famous one against novelist Salman Rushdie.

In July, Ayatollah Alireza Arafi, a member of Iran’s influential Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts, stated, “The seminary must get involved in using modern, progressive technology and artificial intelligence to promote Islamic civilization.”

The Noor Computer Centre for Islamic Sciences Research, Qom’s leading AI research institution, is affiliated with the city’s century-old seminary and has access to ancient religious texts, which can be integrated into AI algorithms.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supports this AI initiative, expressing his desire for Iran to be a global leader in artificial intelligence. However, he emphasizes that it should align with the country’s interpretation of Islam.

Ghotbi shares a similar sentiment, emphasizing the need to adapt technology to align with Iran’s cultural values, which differ from Western secular views.

While the West has responded with humor on platforms like X, with jokes about “cleric robots” and how it might be the next big thing since AI-generated clergy fashion, referring to the AI-generated images of Pope Francis, the concept of AI assisting religious clerics in their study of sacred texts is undoubtedly intriguing, even though it is tied to political motivations that some view as regressive, mirroring the country’s leadership’s stance.

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