Iran is embarking on a transformative journey to modernize its religious seminaries while preserving their Islamic identity by getting into AI. This pioneering effort is concentrated in Qom, the sacred city that houses half of Iran’s 200,000 Shia clerics and stands as the country’s premier center for Islamic scholarship.
The Iranian clerical establishment views AI as a means to harmonize tradition and progress. In Qom’s seminaries, there is an aspiration for advanced technology to expedite the analysis of Islamic texts and enable the issuance of religious rulings, known as fatwas, to align with the swiftly evolving Iranian society.
While AI cannot replace senior clerics, it can serve as a dependable assistant to facilitate the expeditious issuance of fatwas. Mohammad Ghotbi, who leads a technology group in Qom, emphasized this by stating, “Robots can’t replace senior clerics, but they can be a trusted assistant that can help them issue a fatwa faster,” as reported in the Financial Times.
This fascination with AI mirrors the clash between tradition and modernity in Iran. While Qom’s clerics have safeguarded traditional values, the populace increasingly demands technological advancement. Ghotbi noted, “Today’s society favors acceleration and progress,” highlighting the need for the clergy to align with Iranians’ desire to partake in global technological advancements.
This AI initiative is just the beginning and has received support from the highest authorities. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has encouraged the clergy to explore AI, and the head of Qom’s seminary, Ayatollah Alireza Arafi, has welcomed the use of technology to “promote Islamic civilization.” Arafi stated, “The seminary must get involved in using modern, progressive technology and artificial intelligence.”
Nevertheless, integrating AI into the intricate legal system of Islam poses challenges. Other faiths, such as Judaism, have grappled with the question of whether AI can adequately interpret religious law. Some express concerns that AI may lack the nuanced understanding required for complex religious rulings.
AI’s potential benefits, according to Ghotbi, include the ability to address public concerns promptly and adapt Islamic teachings to modern life. However, there are fears that it might further diminish the clergy’s exclusive role as interpreters of Islamic law. Ongoing protests against the mandatory wearing of the hijab have already challenged the clergy’s authority.
Like any revolutionary technology, AI presents both opportunities and challenges. Traditional societies may encounter greater hurdles when embracing AI, with potential cultural and moral erosion being a significant concern. AI, if not designed with consideration for local values, could inadvertently promote worldviews at odds with local customs and beliefs.
The use of AI for interpreting religious texts is not without controversy. Scholars suggest that understanding and interpreting religious teachings requires not only linguistic knowledge but also historical, sociological, and theological insights. There is a genuine apprehension that AI might oversimplify or misinterpret nuanced religious doctrines.
AI also poses a threat to traditional educational methods. The Islamic educational system, known as Madrasah, places strong emphasis on teacher-student relationships. Replacing or supplementing these relationships with AI-driven platforms could risk erasing the vital human element in religious instruction, as the Journal of Islamic Studies noted.
Iran’s exploration of AI for its religious seminaries marks a compelling intersection of technology and tradition. While it offers potential benefits, it also presents profound challenges, reflecting the broader global conversation about the role of AI in preserving cultural and religious identities in an era of rapid technological change.