Living in a Revolution

I spoke to you about the Industrial Revolution and how it was far more than the invention of the assembly line. It profoundly changed our values, culture, and behavior. It changed how we saw ourselves, how we measured our effort, what we gave significance to, what we ignored, how we taught and learnt – including how we taught and learnt Islam – how we assessed and valued one another and the basis on which we measured success and failure. The Industrial Revolution changed the very basis of self-esteem.   

Today as I speak, we have entered another far more pervasive, persuasive, and even more transformational revolution, that of Artificial Intelligence in all its forms. We must remember that ever more subtly and for that reason powerfully, technology is not only about its mechanics but even more about the psychological, even ideological changes it creates. Atheism seems to move hand in hand with technological development. The reason is that it gives mankind the illusion of being all powerful and invincible. Of being immortal even in terms of the things we create, if not our own bodies. Even our bodies, we are moving to believing that with stem cell technology and gene manipulation we can grow what we like in our bodies to cure disease and prolong life, maybe even indefinitely. Granted, much of this is today still in the realm of science fiction, like aeroplanes once were. But like aeroplanes, very soon it will become mundane and normal before we know it.

Let me read the menu for you. How about memorizing the Qur’an and learning Arabic in 5 minutes, and that too if you have a bad internet connection? How about traveling to Russia – you are asking why you would do that – or China – same question – or name your country, which is rich in sights to see but where you don’t know the language? But here’s the twist – how would it be if you knew the language as soon as you land? To quote Prof. Michio Kaku, the author of Hyperspace, which you should read, “As soon as you blink, your contact lenses will connect you to the internet and if you are not feeling well, Robodoc will tell you what’s wrong, prescribe medicines which will be delivered to you. If you are in an accident in a foreign country, you will speak to Robolaw on your watch which knows all the laws of all countries and will advise you what to do.” He said much more but I will leave it to your imagination and assure you that what is ahead is more than what you can imagine. That is not difficult to understand because imagination is a function of experience. So, get prepared for a world which will turn our society on its head. Final point, I am not talking about the remote future. I am talking about things that already exist and others which will build on them. We already have Robodoc, Watson, GPS, Siri, self-driving cars and so on. Much more will happen and very fast.

In this scenario, it is ever more essential to get connected to Allah and to remember that we will meet Him. Reality doesn’t depend on belief for its existence. Wisdom is to prepare for that reality, the meeting with Allah.

كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَآئِقَةُ ٱلْمَوْتِ وَإِنَّمَا تُوَفَّوْنَ أُجُورَكُمْ يَوْمَ ٱلْقِيَـٰمَةِ فَمَن زُحْزِحَ عَنِ ٱلنَّارِ وَأُدْخِلَ ٱلْجَنَّةَ فَقَدْ فَازَ وَمَا ٱلْحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنْيَآ إِلَّا مَتَـٰعُ ٱلْغُرُورِ

A’al Imraan 3: 185        Everyone shall taste death. And only on the Day of Resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full. And whoever is removed away from the Fire and admitted to Jannah, (only) he is successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception (a deceiving thing).

In 1998 I watched a 3D movie in San Francisco. It was about sharks. As I sat in the theatre wearing my 3D glasses, enveloped in Surround Sound, I could see the shark coming at me. Believe me, if you could have measured my pulse, heartbeat, and electrical activity in my brain, you would’ve had some interesting results. I can assure you that during that movie, I didn’t have any thought apart from what I was seeing nor did I feel anything other than what the 3D experience was doing to me. Yet that was deception. The world outside the theatre was real. But if someone had taken off my glasses and reminded me about it, I would have punched him in the face and grabbed my glasses. Do you realize what I am talking about? This is our situation today and this is what AI will enhance and make ever more real. That is the reason we need the Qur’an more than we ever did. To remind us about reality – the Aakhira. Islam doesn’t stop us from science and technology, from research, from learning about the universe. It helps to put it in perspective. We have simply become consumers, manipulated for others.

Allah sent us to introduce to the world the most powerful idea, the reality that we have a Creator who is interested in us and to Whom is our return. A Creator who sent us a format of existence to give us success in the world as well as reward in the Aakhira. As long as we did this, we had influence. When we stopped this and became consumers instead of contributors, we lost our leadership. The way to get it back is to reverse the way we lost it.

إِنَّ فِى خَلْقِ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ وَٱخْتِلَـٰفِ ٱلَّيْلِ وَٱلنَّهَارِ لَـَٔايَـٰتٍ لِّأُو۟لِى ٱلْأَلْبَـٰبِ

ٱلَّذِينَ يَذْكُرُونَ ٱللَّهَ قِيَـٰمًا وَقُعُودًا وَعَلَىٰ جُنُوبِهِمْ وَيَتَفَكَّرُونَ فِى خَلْقِ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقْتَ هَـٰذَا بَـٰطِلًا سُبْحَـٰنَكَ فَقِنَا عَذَابَ ٱلنَّارِ

A’al Imraan 3: 190-191    Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for people of understanding. Those who remember Allah standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): Our Rabb! You have not created (all) this without purpose, glory to You! Give us salvation from the torment of the Fire.

There are two critical things to understand in these Ayaat. One, Allah used the preposition – AND not OR when He referred to the connection between remembering Him (i.e., obeying Him) and scientific research. It is not one or the other. It is both together. But in the sequence that Allah mentioned. First to recognize Allah. Then to research in His creation. That leads to the result where the scientist recognizes his Rabb and remembers his Aakhira and seeks Allah’s protection from the Fire. What we have done is to go against both these things. We have fractured and separated the Qur’an and Sunnah from our lives and relegated them to ceremonial purposes. We teach the Qur’an as if there is no creation and we teach science as if there is no Creator. And we started learning and teaching about the creation without recognizing and knowing Allah. That is how speculative theories took on the force of doctrine and were called ‘ism’. Like ‘Darwinism’. Is it a theory or a religion? How is it taught? What is the tone of the language when we talk about evolution? How tolerant are we to those who question it? Why?

Remember that everything comes at a price. Be it automation, augmented reality, or Metaverse, it is creating a world that is increasingly further away from reality, human contact, and relationships. Social media is the tool to enhance the illusion of action, popularity, and influence and take away the real power from action, so that the manipulators can have a free hand once the forwarder and tweeter have forwarded and tweeted and gone back to sleep. The illusion of action takes away edge from the need to act and no result ensues. After all, which tweet put bread on the table or relieved anyone from oppression? People believe in conspiracy theories today, more than in scientific research or the Word of Allah and trust is the most devastating casualty. The result of spreading distrust is not that people distrust one source, they distrust everyone. That is what we are seeing today. Nobody is trusted. Neither government, nor clergy, nor scientists, nor academics. Not even parents and community elders. That makes people even more vulnerable to manipulation and is the reason why we see a new theory of world control every week, each more outlandish than its predecessor but hard facts about climate change and global warming are scoffed at and denied, even by our so-called global leaders.

We are social beings with a strong affiliation drive and need company, affirmation, and friendship. No matter how convenient the gadget or technology, if there is no human contact, it leads to loneliness, depression, and increasingly serious mental illnesses. In addition, not having to deal with people daily will take away our skills to do so. This will have a seriously negative impact on team working, marriage, raising children, influencing, politics, and just plain human relations. We started seeing signs of this from the 80’s with the advent of computer programming which gave a programmer the ability to write code and earn a very good living without meeting people face to face daily, as say for example, someone in a machine shop would be forced to do. The poorly developed social skills of the programmer didn’t matter, until he got promoted to lead a team, in which he failed miserably. Paradoxically someone from the hotel industry did very well as a team leader of a software development team, though he had only sketchy knowledge about software development and couldn’t write a single line of code. We are human and we need humans. That’s why John D. Rockefeller is reported to have said, “I will pay more for the ability to get along with people more than I will pay for any other ability.” I want to say to you that AI will never replace the human except in a mechanical, transactional way, nor take away our psychological need for human contact.

Let me pause and remind you that I am not anti-AI. That would be like being anti-cholesterol. It is there. It is nice. It is what makes Biryani worth dying for. What we need to do is to learn how to deal with it so that we can mitigate and minimize its negative effects. AI is hugely beneficial as it will automate all kinds of routine work and enable massive intuitive data mining. But it will also influence how we think and what we value in ourselves and others. And that will affect how we deal with one another i.e., our lives. We can neither reject nor run away from AI. We don’t need to, and we mustn’t. We must however prepare for the changes it will create which will have little to do with the technology but everything to do with our humanness.

I remind myself and you that the world ahead is more and more complex and complicated, and our life experience is of little value to our children unless we can conceptualize it into lessons that they can apply. Many of your children have said to me, ‘Our parents tell us stories about how they had no electricity in their homes and studied under a streetlamp and many such things. What am I supposed to do with these stories? They don’t apply to me. But if I say that, it will hurt them.’ What’s the answer to that? I know the answer. But do you know it? The need for parents to spend more time with children, to understand their world, to upgrade their own knowledge and understanding of the new world is critical if they want to retain connection with their children. Simply paying bills is not sufficient. Remember that once kids get disconnected from you, to get them back is progressively more difficult. If they don’t see you as role models, they will find others that you will not even know about, and those others will teach them things that would make your hair go white overnight if you knew what it was. Don’t let it come to that.

The solution is to get connected to the masjid. And accompany your children to all sessions of learning that the masjid does. You need to learn as well as they and if you do it together, that will create a bond. The masjid must not only be a place of entertainment and socialization. Its primary purpose is to keep us connected with Allah and His Messenger and to help us to apply Islam in our lives. Support all such activities, not just by donating money but by donating your time, company, talent, and interest. Remember that you are not donating anything to anyone else. You are donating it to yourself and your children. Ask yourself if you and your children are worthy of your time and resources. Finally, let me reiterate; this is not about others. It is about us. What do we want to do with our lives? Allow others to use us as commodities for their personal benefit? Or take charge of our lives and live in a way that is positive, dignified, powerful and leave a legacy of honor?  

The need to be connected to Allah is even more urgent and critical but our lifestyles and technology cover the Aakhira with an ever-thicker curtain. That won’t change the fact that the Aakhira is real. But those who deny it will meet it unprepared and pay for that very dearly. That is why it is critical that we break out of the intoxication we call life and look at the reality called Aakhira and remind ourselves that it is not merely a concept but something that we will face, whether we like it or not. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. We must wake up and act. To lie in bed awake is as useless as being asleep and more painful. It is wise to prepare for the inevitable. The alternative doesn’t bear contemplation, let alone experiencing.