Virtual fatwas delivered in Dubai to better guide the faithful
Service harnesses machine learning to provide instant answers to queries
Dubai authorities are using artificial intelligence to deliver online fatwas in an instant – part of a drive to increase efficiency.
The Virtual Ifta Programme, launched by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department, aims to provide swift and precise fatwas – Islamic rulings – for Muslims seeking guidance on issues such as acts of charity and loans.
Muftis are jurists qualified to issue non-binding opinion on points of Islamic law. The virtual mufti will provide answers to thousands of queries loaded on a database.
While several authorities already provide such online services, the technology used previously allowed only for hundreds of possible answers to be displayed for each question posed.
The new system, harnessing rapidly developing artificial intelligence, is able to analyse each query and offer a specific answer.
“For [observant] Muslims the most important thing for them is to know the Islamic opinion about anything that faces them,” said Mohamad Al Kubaisi, grand mufti at Iacad.
“And sometimes those things cannot wait, so they need a quick answer.”
Before the launch of the initiative, people could only request rulings in person or send in a question online, with a three-day waiting period.
“This programme is available 24/7, so if a person has an urgent question after working hours he can have the answer right away,” Mr Al Kubaisi said.
Initially, the system will answer various questions about the act of prayer, with 4,000 possible inquiries already in the digital database.
“It covers everything from praying while travelling to praying in space,” Mr Al Kubaisi said.
“As a first phase we are answering questions to do with prayers.
“Then gradually, we will add fatwas on all acts of worship like zakat [the charitable distribution of wealth], Hajj and so on. Then we will add fatwas on day-to-day transactions and financial issues.”
Examples of fatwas to be provided include issues involving zakat calculation, shares and the stock market, debt and loans, distribution of wills, banking, interest and trade.
The virtual mufti is expected to take some of the load off the authority’s 16 flesh-and-blood muftis, who issue about 130,000 fatwas a year. “The previous methods required the presence of a mufti, but the virtual mufti analyses the questions and provides the answers itself,” Mr Al Kubaisi said.
The accuracy of the programme was tested thousands of times before its launch yesterday, said Mohammed Al Kamali, head of fatwa archiving at Iacad.
“It is important to keep assessing how suitable the answers are to the queries to maintain credibility. It is very important that fatwas be accurate because it has to do with the person’s relationship with God,” he said.
The virtual mufti is equipped with a machine-learning feature, which means if it fails to answer a question it is trained to answer it the next time.
“Machine learning is the ability to analyse and recognise the question, and if it couldn’t answer the question today it could answer it tomorrow,” Mr Al Kamali said.
“The programme’s confidence in analysing the question and giving the right answer is very important.
“So when it receives a query, it tells the user: ‘this is what I understood from your question’, and it provides how confident it is out of 100 per cent, then it provides the answer to the query.”
The virtual mufti is allowed to give answers only if it is 75 per cent confident, or above.
But the programme will not be answering wider questions on sensitive topics, Mr Al Kubaisi said.
The UAE has sought to tighten regulations surrounding fatwas in an attempt to counter controversial and hardline judgments spread on the internet by unauthorised sources.
In June of last year, the UAE’s fatwa council was created.
The Emirates Fatwa Council is the official reference for fatwas and will oversee all work related to fatwas.
The newly launched Virtual Ifta Programme can be accessed through the authority’s website, www.iacad.gov.ae, on its mobile app and via WhatsApp on 8003336.
Updated: October 30, 2019 08:31 AM