Is A.I. the Antichrist?

And other questions religions like Islam pose about emerging technology

Image: imaginima/E+/Getty Images

ItIt may seem that old religious principles would have little to say about new technology, but in the Islamic community, the intersection of technology and religion is a common topic of discussion. Biotech, environmental conservation, smartphone use, and artificial intelligence are all relevant concerns to practicing Muslims. For example, as religious scholar Abdal Hakim Murad recently asked in a lecture: How would a person genetically engineered to have gills navigate the rulings around fasting in the month of Ramadan, where even drinking water is not allowed in daylight hours?

Recently, I was forwarded text messages on WhatsApp introducing an intriguing idea: What if A.I. was the Antichrist? I’m a Muslim, but I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I questioned the logic. I went down the rabbit hole, watching videos explaining the connection. The idea is part of a wider conversation about the concern that technology might be gaining importance over religion among Muslims.

In each generation, there are people who believe we’re living in the end of times — or pretty close to it. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), the founder of Islam, thought that the end of the world would happen in their lifetimes, 1,400 years ago. People in every generation after that, Muslim or not, also thought they’d be the last on earth.

But in Islamic belief, the Antichrist — known to Muslims as Dajjaal — will appear before the world ends. The prophecy says he will bring tyranny and misguidance to the world, use trickery to proclaim himself a prophet, and ultimately be defeated by the Prophet Eesa — the Muslim name for Christ.

It is believed that some of Dajjaal’s identifying characteristics were passed down from the Prophet Muhammad so we can recognize him when he comes. One translation of these descriptions reads: “He will be a young man” who is “blind or defective” in his right eye. This eye will be “neither prominent nor sunken, and will look like a floating grape.” He will also be “sterile, with no children born to him,” and will deceive people, using special abilities, to bring rain.

As a society, are we walking a dangerous line toward worshipping A.I.?

Various people in history were rumored to be Dajjaal, including Adolf Hitler and Michael Jackson (who, at the height of his fame, had what some thought was a Dajjaal-like influence over his fans and used related symbolism in his music videos). Now there is a branch of Muslims who believe that A.I. could be Dajjaal, or at least a part of him. In these discussions, A.I. refers to not only artificial intelligence but also all the technologies that use it.

Islamic scholars in eschatology, the branch of theology relating to the end of the world, use examples of current technology to link A.I. to Dajjaal. One example is Sheikh Imran Hosein, who has used scripture to theorize that Dajjaal will have a human form but will lack a soul and a self. He could be a robot — human-looking but soulless. The “eye like a floating grape” could be a computer or camera lens. Cloud seeding by A.I. could be the means through which he brings rain.

It’s important to consider these abstract ideas because it’s healthy to question our relationship to technology. The broader concern at the root of these conversations is that Dajjaal’s control over the human race might have already begun with our growing addiction to technology. First comes fascination, then worship. My iPhone obsession has led me to ponder whether I am fulfilling my religious duty to worship God and no one else. As a society, are we walking a dangerous line toward worshipping A.I.?

In scholarly settings, as well as on local radio stations, in mosques, or in informal gatherings, Muslims often discuss how prophecies from 1,400 years ago apply today, and whether the words of the Prophet Muhammad are to be taken literally in certain contexts, as in the case of Dajjaal and technology. The sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are often broad enough to allow for this type of interpretation, so these ideas are not seen as particularly controversial, especially because most Muslims already accept the basic notion that Dajjaal will exist in some form.

The most serious of these discussions live in scholarly circles, special lectures on the end of time, and conspiracy theory message boards. For most people, however, they occur in occasional conversations with friends and are perhaps not taken as earnestly as discussions relating to practical rulings on contemporary daily life, since there’s no telling when these prophesied events may occur.

Islamic teachings may be unresolved on the topic of A.I. and Dajjaal, but in other aspects of the intersection of life and technology, they are quite clear. For example, even though Muslims believe that the world will someday end on God’s command, we still have no right to destroy the planet: Conservation and the imperative not to waste are encoded into Islamic practice.

Other aspects require more thought and perhaps new religious rulings, like questions around biotech. Are genetically modified foods halal — permissible for Muslims to consume? What can we do with our bodies and organs, according to Islamic law, and what are the limits? Medical intervention is accepted and even encouraged in Islam, but trying to improve on human creation by genetic engineering is more complicated. Whether it’s permissible to use your smartphone as a Quran, however, remains up for debate.

Nevertheless, though it often seems that there is a disconnect between science and religion, the two are surprisingly complementary.

Most ethical debates around technology are framed in a humanist, atheist, or at least agnostic way. But it is useful to consider how beliefs around technology may be shaped by something deeper than consumerism and secular values. There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world, and apart from Muslims, billions more people of other faiths who also must consider these issues in relation to their beliefs. A significant portion of the world may hold widely different views on tech than the usual Silicon Valley crew. Exploring their ideas may bring to light new ways of looking at our relationship to technology and allow for a wider, more all-encompassing conversation — regardless of whether you believe we should be watching technology for signs of Dajjaal.

Writer. Flat shoes and pencils. Hijabi in need of coffee.I’ve written for NYT, LennyLetter (RIP), Quartz, Racked and more. Sometimes a lawyer.

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