Privacy, Muadhdhins, and Drone Operators

I would like to take a deeper look at using drones and privacy in Muslim lands. One of the concerns I have with drones and low flying vehicles in Muslim populations is that their usage places their operators in a position where they have an opportunity to look into areas which the Shariʿah considers private, and whose occupants have a right to privacy or into semi-private areas whose occupants have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The concern I mentioned earlier today is related to the possible consequence of denying observant Muslim women private or semi-private open-air areas. These areas include private areas within villas and farms, as well as semi-private areas like parks, beaches, and women-only pools. Here in the UAE, failure to provide women with acceptable opportunities for exposure to the sun is one factor contributing to vitamin D deficiency. (Enjoy some reading material.)

While there are many shariʿah-relevant reasons for being worried about drones and there may be many justifications for banning or regulating their usage in Muslim populations, my hunch is that the most obvious objection is that it violates the objectives of protecting lineage and dignity. I do not think that these reasons are sufficient. Here’s why I don’t find this type of objectives-based objection sufficient:

Our classical Islamic law texts already mention a job that requires an individual to ascend to an elevation where he could easily look in on to private houses – including the gardens and quarters reserved for women. The job was performed several times each day during the daytime while people are up and about, able to actively safeguard themselves from unwelcome observation. It was also performed several times during the night, when there is an increased need for and expectation of privacy – and, once asleep, there is also an increased vulnerability to prying eyes. This job was not banned. Indeed, it was encouraged.

The job I described above is that of making the call to prayer which is performed by the muʾadhdhin a minimum of five times each day. While today this is often done using a microphone and speakers, many places still do it the old fashioned way with the muʾadhdhin ascending to the rooftop or minaret where his voice will carry to a larger distance and audience. In response to this possibility of seeing what should be kept private, legal scholars considered it offensive (not unlawful) for the muʾadhdhin to be morally corrupt due to the risk that he would make the call to prayer at the wrong time or would look at things that are intended to be kept private.1

Something to note is that the legal scholars did not consider the mere possibility of the muʾadhdhin seeing what he should not as sufficient justification to ban making the call from roofs or minarets. Rather, they considered the muʾadhdhin‘s moral character – or at least not being morally corrupt – enough to mitigate the risks.

However, there are obvious differences between the call to prayer and flying drones. One difference is the existence of textual evidence specific to making the call to prayer and it being done from an elevated location, whereas there is nothing specific to drones. A second difference is that the call to prayer is a religiously sanction public benefit, while that is not necessarily the case for drones. In spite of these differences, the muʾadhdhin does give us a reason to think deeper than an immediately declaration of unlawfulness justified by the mere possibility that operators could see something private. If the moral character of muʾadhdhins mitigates their risk, perhaps the same could be said for drone operators.2

There are still lots of other fiqh issues relevant to drones and low flying vehicles, like who owns the airspace above a piece of property. There also also other possible solutions, like only allowing female drone operators – which is fine in so far as the concern for female privacy in open spaces goes. But I don’t see that this would be the only or even the primary concern.

None of the above should be considered decisive or taken seriously. Here now I’m just carrying out the stated purpose of the blog: musing and reflecting on how classic knowledge applies to our own contemporary issues.

One takeaway from this is that there is a pressing need to gather and develop what the Shariʿah says about privacy – not just as it relates to drones, but also as it relates to CCTVs, personal images, written and electronic communications, electronic surveillance, and spying in general.

Although privacy comes up in classic books and it is something I have thought of many times, I haven’t gathered everything in one spot so I can take a deeper look at how it applies to the contemporary context.

  1. Zakariyā al-Anṣārī, Asnā al-Maṭālib, u.k., n.d., 1:129. The Arabic text reads: (ويكره أذان… فاسق) لأنه لا يؤمن أن يؤذن في غير الوقت ولا أن ينظر إلى العورات
  2. Another difference of note is that drones are not analogous to planes in that planes follow a known flight path while drones – especially delivery and surveillance drones – would go everywhere.