A person who goes in search of knowledge, he is in the path of Allah, and he remains so until he returns – Tirmidhi
Islam gave early Muslims the motivation to seek knowledge, and not just in the Islamic sciences, but in all areas of the world. Because of this motivation, Muslims made strides in science and technology that signaled the dawn of the modern era. Now, more than 14 centuries later, we’ve entered a new age of innovation, and whether you feel it or not, technology is changing at a furiously rapid pace.
A fraction of that change happens right in front of our eyes: PC users get mandatory updates on shut down; the apps on your phone keep getting updates that require the latest software, making your phone obsolete after a year or two; gaming looks and feels more and more like social media, and big name video games are practically unplayable without downloading regular updates. Microsoft is even giving away its latest operating system for free, encouraging everyone to move on to this ‘brave new world’ of technology. This continuous stream of live updating–on gadgets and software that I like to call the “indefinite betas”–is a sign of how fast innovations in tech are making a turnaround in our time.
The laws around regulating this technology is always trying to catch up and changes at a snail-like pace in comparison. Take a look at drones, for instance. The modern drone has been around since at least the Cold War era. The US Government created new military and police/surveillance drones and increased its stock of drones by forty-fold in the wake of 9/11, using them in ways that have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent victims who were not the targets of these international drone strikes. But Amazon also uses drones to make deliveries, law enforcement uses them for surveillance, while kids of all ages play with drones in their neighborhoods–albeit, sometimes using them to take pictures or make videos of others without permission. That being said, the discussion around the regulation of drones has only really started to gain momentum in the past five years or so. The DISCUSSION. As of Christmas of 2015, only a few months ago, did it become mandatory to register all recreational drones. We’re all still waiting for international human rights lawmakers to enact some sort of legislation defining when it is and isn’t okay to use lethal force via drone.
Part of the reason regulation is so slow is the lack of vision. The potential uses for any technology, good or bad, cannot be foretold, and once seen, it cannot be known if and how they will catch on with other users. Another reason is the dilemma of getting groups of people to agree on what the laws around regulating any technology would look like.
It is no different for scholars of Islam.
After taking a live weekend course with Mishkah University on Contemporary Fiqh two years ago, I was first struck by how oddly non-contemporary the topics were. Life insurance, health insurance, and warranties. Zakaat on a salaried income. DNA and paternity testing. All of them were important issues, yes, relevant even. Especially to the average Muslim. I gained an appreciation for differences of opinion in fiqh, especially when it comes to issues that were never heard of in the time of the prophet Muhammad (SAW). However, the class didn’t cover what I or others would consider contemporary for the current decade. This is not by any means a criticism on the part of the instructors, the institution, or Islamic scholarship, but a testament to the pace at which the law moves, even (and especially) in the Islamic tradition.
When I used to be on Twitter and The Walking Dead came on, a group of two or three people I followed–including a popular Imam–would live tweet a comical, yet intriguing, thought experiment on Shariah compliancy in a post-Zombie Apocalyptic world. They posed questions along the lines of, would your wudu still be intact after a zombie bite or would you have to make ghusl? Can you combine prayers if you’re running from a zombie horde? As silly as these questions are, when you think about it, thought exercises like these might be a great solution to figuring out how to handle fiqh dilemmas in an era of increased technological growth.
There are Muslims out there wondering if you should respond to the adhaan on an app or alarm. Does cash-back on your credit card count as interest. If you can read Quran on your tablet even if you don’t have wudoo or even if you are menstruating. Is Facebook haram. Can you use an AI love doll for pleasure if you have a hard time finding a bride. If you commit a sin in a video game like stealing, fornication, drinking alcohol, eating pork, are you really sinning, etc. A lot of the questions mentioned above are answered on websites run by respected traditional institutions, websites like askimam.org. Some of the answers to these questions are pretty clear, but others have the Ulema divided, even among those with the most traditional background in scholarship. For example, most scholar will tell you that Facebook should be avoided at all costs due to the haram relationships that are forged and the use of images of faces, even if the intention to have one is as innocent as giving dawah or keeping family ties. Some from the newer generation of Ulema have said Facebook is as benign as being part of an online village, themselves having an account for various purposes, but especially to act as an extension of their community leadership, making themselves (and their knowledge) more accessible.
So while Islam has the tools to answer questions about the pressing issues that come with the growing pace of post-modern technology, it will be interesting to see what the responses to these questions will look like as we become more plugged in and interconnected.