September 15, 2016
Solomon’s Horses: What are the legal and moral implications for creating Strong AI in Sharia?

Islamic Values


5 min read

A few days ago, Yonatan Zunger released “Artificial Intelligence, Talmud, and Sharia.” After reading this very interesting piece, I decided I’d attempt to add to the conversation specifically in the area of Sharia/Islamic thought.

Before we talk about the problem of creating Strong AI, let’s talk about how Islamic law categorizes rulings. While Yonatan  presents this as an issue of encouragement vs. prohibition, Islamic Law offers a few other choices. Laws falls under one of five categories: Obligatory, Encouraged, Unrestricted, Discouraged, and Forbidden. Creating strong AI may fall under any of these five.

Yonatan  is correct that statues (tamāthīl) appears in the Quran two times. One during the story of Abraham with his people, the other in during the building of Solomon’s temple. An interesting caveat to the story of Abraham is paring the term statues with the terms idols (aṣnām). “What are these statues (tamāthīl) to which you pay devotion?” and after their answer he replies “By God I will plot against these idols (aṣnām) of yours after you turn and leave.”

The question is then: Why did Abraham swear to plot against these idols? The answer is found in the function they fulfilled for his people “We found our forefathers worshiping them” (21:53) In other verses Abraham questions them saying “He asked: So you worship other than God that which can neither benefit you or harm you? Uff to you and what you worship other than God; Have you no intellect?! They reacted: Burn him! Give victory to your gods! If you will do anything!” (21:66)

Note that these verses highlight the folly of idolatry: the inability of corporeal, created matter to benefit or harm, making them unworthy of worship being directed to them. In another verse (26:97) polytheists lament their having taken idols on the Day of Judgment saying “By God we swear, we were in clear misguidance, when we equated you to the Lord of the Worlds.” In 39:3 God states “Should not sincere faith be for God? Those who take less than him as protectors say: we only worship them to approximate us in closeness to him…” In the story of Moses, his people are said to have passed by a group of idolaters and said “Give us a god like they have gods. Moses responded: You are an ignorant people; those people’s situation is in pieces and their actions are invalid.” (7:138-139)

And since I feel so much more can be said about this, I’ll sum up what I understand here: that the taking of objects as equals to God or as intermediaries to him, is forbidden. These verses add another layer to the discussion, namely allowing these man-made objects to occupy a place in the human psyche above man, either as an intermediary to or as an equal to God.

Now let’s juxtapose this to the verses mentioning Solomon, as well as a pertinent hadith to Solomon’s court. Bukhari records a hadith in which a toy is found with Aishah. The Prophet asks her “What is this?” She replies: “This is a horse.” He “And what are these?” pointing to two straps of leather hanging from its sides. She replies “These are its wings.” He says “A horse with wings?!” She replies: “Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings?” So the Prophet laughed so hard you could see his molars.

The point here being, as elucidated by most exegetes of Bukhari, is that 1) toys are not the same as idols/statues and that 2) the power of imagination can at times take shape in the real world, representing things that but for the power of imagination would never have existed.

Perhaps what this tells us is that if and when objects of human creation, while similar to objects of God’s creation, if and when they fulfill as cognitive function, educational or recreational, they are wholly different than those that fulfill emotional functions, spiritual or devotional, which seek to supplant, parallel, or challenge the divine creative process. This speaks directly to the derogative use of the phrase “challenging God” in several hadith directed to those that create statues or images of God’s creation. If all such creations were included in this prohibition, then even those that were products of the human imagination (like “Solomon’s horses”) would be as well.

This would take care of the problem presented by Yonatan  when he referred to the creation of Golems in Jewish thought. So while one does not and should never worship anything he has the ability to create himself, he must also treat with care those things that, while products of the human imagination, are symbols or tools for the recreation or education of man.

So does this mean that Islamic thought would permit the creation of a Strong AI? I think the better question is: Can man create something that is equal to human intelligence? Is true AI even possible? Perhaps the story of Adam alludes to this, when it refers to God “teaching Adam the names of everything…” essentially imparting to him the ability to intelligently discern his surroundings in a manner more optimal than all other creation.

So while Angels are described as not “disobeying God in what they were ordered and doing what they are commanded” and when challenged to apprise the nature of things presented to them respond to God saying: “Glory to You, we have no knowledge but what You have taught us”. Adam on the other hand (and thus man) is described as having “informed them of all their names” with God then proclaiming that only he knows the hidden in heavens and earth, and what “you present openly and that which you conceal.” (2:30-33)

Walking on thin ice here, I’ll say perhaps the difference between these two intelligent beings is – ala Searle – the difference between being able to syntactically process information versus the ability to semantically process it.

So would Islamic thought allow for the creation of a Strong AI? I don’t believe that it would allow the possibility of a true AI to exist, given that the power of creation is of God’s dominion alone. To claim ascendancy to human intellect I believe would be violation of Islamic beliefs (kufr). Worse even would be to claim ascendancy to divine intellect and power (shirk).

But if an AI were created, the assumption here would be that this AI would never truly possess an intellectual capability that is functionally equal to a human’s, but may serve a purpose that is recreational or educational in the service of mankind. Being a part of creation, it would be at the service of mankind (2:29) and would be due the dignity of stewardship (2:30).

So back to where we started: how would these five categories of law apply here? The building of an AI would be unrestricted, yet given its purpose would transition to the other rulings mentioned. The Islamic legal principle being that “Means take the ruling of their objective.” So what is the objective of attempting a Strong AI? If to build systems that can better serve the safety and health of humanity as a whole, this may be obligatory or at least highly encouraged. If to challenge God’s power and promote disbelief, subjugate others, or harm them individuals or the public, this would be prohibited. But for any of these things, building an AI would seem to remain unrestricted, with the caveat that Islamic thought would challenge the impossibility of a true AI ever existing.

Whether or not that AI would it be a person? Well that’s another lengthy discussion.


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