Increasingly commonplace among the internet community, the term “metaverse” evokes mixed reactions as it is subjected to varied interpretations. At one extreme, Muslims are particularly averse to the idea of a fiction-like world that is dominated by a single corporation that wants to own and control the servers and databases, where they could alter any information about anyone or anything, change the rules of the world, and can create infinite amount of money. Though it remains largely like a scene from science fictions or highly popular digital games, some visionaries have predicted that this metaverse is going to be far more pervasive and powerful than anything else. If one central company gains control of this, they will become more powerful than any government, and be a god on Earth. This should be a dreadful scenario for most of the 1.8 billion Muslims on Planet Earth. Islam as a religion abhors any attempt by any actor to monopolize resources of this Earth.
At the other extreme, there is a possibility. This is an open decentralized metaverse, a virtual world (example: Decentraland) powered by blockchain technology where no single party controls anything. Consensus rules. This metaverse has its own economy and native currency, where one may earn, spend, lend, borrow or invest value interchangeably in both a physical or virtual sense and most importantly without the need for a trust-inducing intermediary or a government. How acceptable is this idea to the Muslims of this world? Islam as a religion also abhors the idea of statelessness, anarchy and a regulatory vacuum.
Islam as a religion abhors any attempt by any actor to monopolize resources of this Earth. Islam as a religion also abhors the idea of statelessness, anarchy and a regulatory vacuum.
The original idea of metaverse has been about blurring the distinction between the physical and the digital worlds and experiencing VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality). VR is fully immersive that tricks one’s senses into thinking that one is in in a different world. AR overlays digital information on real-world elements, keeping the real world central but enhancing it with other digital details. MR on the other hand brings together both the real world and digital elements. One interacts with and manipulates both the physical and virtual environments. The most hyped case for the Islamic world has been the recent Saudi Arabian initiative that will allow Muslims all around the world to touch the Black Stone at the Kaaba in Makkah virtually through Virtual Reality (VR) technology. Muslims believe the famous Black Stone descended directly from heaven and was given to the Prophet Abraham by the angel Gabriel. Earlier initiatives in this regard have been less vocal and visible about the value they bring in. A handful of apps offer VR views of the holy city of Makkah without suggesting any equivalence with an online “pilgrimage”. A case in point is Muslim 3D developed by Bilal Chbib of Bigitec Studio, which offers a virtual journey around the holy mosque. A few other apps seek to create virtual Hajj experiences as well such as, Experience Makkah from Vhorus (Egypt), Manasik VR (Saudi Arabia), and Miradj 360 VR (Tatarstan).
Recreating the experience of visiting Makkah with digital simulations of several rituals that are part of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages may be welcome ideas during the pandemic-related measures that prevent large sections of global Muslims to perform the real pilgrimages. The desire to experience these holy places virtually is addressed by such apps that explains their growing popularity. At the same time, neither the scholars, nor the creators and users of such apps see any equivalence between the real pilgrimage and the gamified experiences and VR walkthroughs. Some see the latter as ideal for educational purposes or for serving as a rehearsal for a future visit.
A recent social media post by celebrated designer and artist Peter Gould of Gould Studios drew huge response – both bouquets and brickbats – from the users. Gould promised an NFT-based community project with Muslims in the Metaverse throwing up some ideas, such as, space mosque, holo calligraphy, buraq travel in VR and what-have-you. If there was any consensus observed in the multitude of responses, it was on the possible beneficial use of such experiences for educational purposes and on the impossibility of any substitution of virtual experiences for the real one. The verdict was clear. Neither virtual prayers in space mosques nor virtual pilgrimage in Makkah can remotely be seen as a substitute for the real acts of worship (ibadah). Also underlined is the fact that Islamic traditions generally abhor any attempt to draw pictures of its prophets or recreate objects and characters from the “unknown” and relating to after-life, such as, angels, heaven, and hell.
In matters relating to Shariah or Islamic law, scholars differentiate between matters pertaining to acts of worship (ibadah) reflecting relationship between human and God and matters relating to transactions between humans (muamalat). The economic relationships clearly fall within the latter. In matters of ibadah, there is little room for any change or modification and therefore, for innovation. For instance, all Muslims are enjoined to perform prayer (salah), pilgrimage (hajj), fast during month of Ramadhan and perform other acts of worship in a prescribed manner. In matters of muamalat however, the rules of any game may need revisit in the light of changing realities. New games are expected to appear on the scene. Scholars are expected to exert themselves (perform ijtihad) to find and prescribe the rules of the game in the light of the Quran and Sunnah. Every game is acceptable in Shariah, as long as there is no violation of specific prohibitions relating to riba (profits from selling money/debt), gharar (inadequate information creating uncertainty about the payoffs and inaccurate information leading to fraud and deceit) and other forms of unjust enrichment. Every innovation, therefore, demands fresh research and scrutiny by scholars before being considered acceptable or not. This applies to the idea of Islamic metaverse as well.
In the world of muamalat however, the idea of an Islamic metaverse or meta economy is pregnant with enormous possibilities.
To sum up, the idea of Islamic metaverse should exclude any possibility of fulfilling religious obligations in the virtual world. A virtual implementation of an act of prayer (salah) is not considered valid. Similarly in case of pilgrimage, the physical location (Makkah) is a condition that can never be diluted. The virtual replication of such acts in the Islamic metaverse may be deemed desirable for learning and education purposes only. In the world of muamalat however, the idea of an Islamic meta economy is pregnant with enormous possibilities.
The idea of metaverse now is understood in multiple ways. There are attempts at creating virtual worlds where the transfer of value for the users is bi-directional, from digital to physical and physical to digital. There are platforms with purely virtual goods and services being transacted against fiat money. There are platforms with physical goods and services being transacted against crypto money. There are platforms that facilitate exchange of cryptos for fiat and vice versa. In addition to these three possibilities involving flow of value from physical to virtual and vice versa, one may also think in terms of flow of value within the virtual world involving exchange of virtual goods and services against cryptos. An Islamic meta economy should theoretically admit all possibilities but without violating the fundamental prohibitions as stated above. Indeed, such an economy can even perform better in terms of addressing the Shariah norms in some cases. A case in point is an ecommerce platform where VR technology enables the buyer to better assess the value contained in the object of purchase, and thus, reduce the level of gharar or uncertainty. How one defines the bounds of Shariah and configures the meta economy, should therefore, be an interesting line of enquiry.
(To be continued)