LONDON: Iran’s clerics are embracing artificial intelligence to assist with the dissemination of religious teachings, months after the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared it “satanic” but then subsequently made a dramatic about-turn.
The initiative comes from the holy city of Qom, a center of Islamic learning and pilgrimage which is home to half of Iran’s 200,000 Shia clerics, the Financial Times reported on Sunday.
The push to adopt AI has support from the top, with Khamenei now urging the clergy to explore the technology, and the head of Qom’s seminary welcoming its use to “promote Islamic civilization.”
However, the government’s recent move to explore the use of AI in religious seminaries is a stark contrast to its previous position.
In April, in a first against a non-human entity, Khamenei issued a fatwa against AI, calling it “satanic.”
Religious leaders have argued that the country’s people are demanding that society be modernized, and AI was a way to respond to these calls while holding onto traditional values.
They hope that advanced technology can help them disseminate Islamic texts faster and allow religious rulings, known as fatwas, to keep pace with Iran’s rapidly evolving society.
“Robots can’t replace senior clerics, but they can be a trusted assistant that can help them issue a fatwa in five hours instead of 50 days,” said Mohammad Ghotbi, who heads the Eshragh Creativity and Innovation House in Qom.
“Today’s society favors acceleration and progress,” Ghotbi argued, adding that the religious establishment should not oppose the desire of Iranians to share in global technological advances.
However, skeptics highlighted how adopting AI may prove challenging for Islam’s intricate legal system.
Some people have expressed concern that AI cannot comprehend the complexity of religious rulings or the values imparted by traditional learning methods.
Despite these challenges, Ghotbi argued that the initiative in Qom is a sign that Iran’s religious establishment is willing to embrace new technologies to stay relevant in the modern world.
He argued that while the tools change the goals remain the same, insisting that AI would not necessarily result in Iran becoming more aligned with the secular views of the West.
“We’re working on localizing the use of technology because our cultural values differ,” he said.