Real-world actions vs virtual or simulated actions in fiqh

This morning’s online reading material included a message from the producers of the “Happy British Muslims” video, apparently posted on behalf of Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad. In the message, Sheikh Abdul-Hakim explains the value of this type of video, and his own participation. The content of the message mentions many contemporary issues; it should be read regardless of one’s feelings or interest in the video itself. The sheikh does not mention just social issues, but also issues that are of an ethical and legal nature. One of the issues falling within the latter category is the use of synthesized music:

Regarding the music, I personally do not use instrumental music; but I would like to see a fully-reasoned fatwa about musical sounds produced digitally by synthesisers: do they count as the ma’azif which are surely forbidden in the sound hadiths? If so, are doorbells, or harmonised ringtones, ma’azif? What about a voice which is trained to sound exactly like a trombone? Personally I don’t know. Once we have some sort of consensus on synthesisers then the ijtihad discussion about this clip can begin. It will be interesting. [source]

I briefly touched on this issue when writing about the ethics of virtual worlds, which include things like Second Life and ultra-realistic video games. Synthesized music is just one of many ways that synthesized or virtual objects and actions enter our lives. As the role of digital technologies in our daily lives is increases, so does the need to answer these issues for Muslims who wish to live their lives in ways pleasing to Allah Most High. The following excerpt from my piece gives a hint of some of the issues.

Real-world vs virtual world

While virtual worlds must resemble the real-world and may do so to a high degree of verisimilitude, they clearly are not identical and it is not sound to presume that virtual-world objects and actions carry the same legal status as their real-world counterparts.

The legal status and consequences of non-physical behavior is not a new question for the Sacred Law. The Muṣṣannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Ṣan‘ānī includes a report attributed to ‘Alī (may Allah be pleased with him) wherein a man complains about someone having erotic dreams about his mother. ‘Alī (may Allah be pleased with him) responds: “Go to him, stand him under the sun, and beat his shadow”, thus imposing a non-physical punishment upon a non-physical crime.1 The behavior in this report differs from virtual world behavior in that an individual in a dream is a non-participating observer, whereas in a virtual world he is an active participant.

Classic books have discussed issues involving fantasy and the imagination. An early example of this is found in Imām al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn where the author states that imagining a woman based on what one has heard about her has the same legal status as looking at her in real life. When it is unlawful to look at her, it is unlawful to imagine her; when it is lawful to look at her, it is lawful to imagine her. Imām al-Ghazālī explains that imagining a woman who is unlawful to look at brings one to think about things that are themselves unlawful and incline one to seek what is not lawful to obtain.2

The Shāfi‘ī scholar Qāḍī Ḥusayn formulated this as a legal maxim: Just as it is unlawful to look at what is unlawful, it is unlawful to think about what is unlawful, because of the verse “And desire not the thing in which Allah hath made some of you excel others” (Q4:32), the import of which has been seen to have applications to cases such as coveting what someone else has (e.g. that he be married to his neighbor’s wife), or desiring what is itself unlawful (e.g. intimacy with an unlawful partner).3

Later scholars also mention the case of a husband thinking about another woman during intercourse with his wife. The predominant opinion in the school is that this is not reprehensible provided that it is not combined with a desire to engage in actual fornication, since he is forgetting the true attributes he considers unappealing by imagining attributes he finds appealing. This is not unlawful since it only involves imagining something contrary to what it is in reality. It would, however, be unlawful if he planned to commit sin with the object of his imagination if given the opportunity. Although this is the predominant opinion within the Shāfi‘ī school, the other schools and a minority of Shāfi‘ī scholars consider it unlawful or offensive.4

The Shāfi‘ī school presents an interesting issue related to an object and its representation. The predominant opinion in the school is that it is permissible to look at the reflection of a woman who is not permissible to look at directly provided that the observer does so without fear of temptation or lust. Looking at her reflection is permissible because it is the reflection that is seen, not the woman herself.5

These examples show that the previous generations of scholars were aware of non-physical (virtual) actions, and that they distinguished active participation from mere observation. The examples also show that reflection and mental fantasy are treated as different than what they represent in the real-world, and that there are limits to lawful usage of the imagination.

One might argue that classical Islamic law has been dealing with virtual worlds since the earliest centuries of Islamic scholarship since early legal scholars proposed answers to scenarios that seemed far fetched or impossible in their time. Shāfi‘ī scholars considered the incredibly remote possibility of gold and silver ceasing to circulate or be dominant as currencies; authors often use the words ḥattā and laww (which indicate that what follows is an extreme limit or an impossibility, respectively) to give rulings for scenarios that are preposterously improbable or counterfactual.

With all of the preceding in mind:

  • Does a virtual object take the same ruling as the real-world object it represents? Does a computer-generated object representing a pig take the same ruling as a real-world pig?

While we might find it difficult to consider the reflection or photograph of a real pig to be filthy, what about computer generated tones resembling a flute: Would music played with these tones take the same ruling as the music played on a real flute? Would it be permissible to create, possess, buy, or sell a virtual pig?
Questions such as these require determining whether the underlying apparent cause returns to the form, substance, effect, or a predominant aspect of the real-world object. For example:

  • A naked body excites sexual arousal which can lead to illicit intimate contact. Paintings, reflections, photographs, or other media depicting nudity elicit the same effect.
  • A pig’s body is filthy; this quality does not exist in depictions of pigs.
  • Wine is an intoxicant; this quality does not exist in virtual wine.
  • In the time of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace), musical instruments were predominantly associated with drinking. Today the association between musical instruments and drinking is weak, with it being even weaker for virtual instruments.

Some of these differences will change the ruling of the virtual object.

  • How do actions that take place only within a virtual world differ from actions that cross between the real-world and the virtual?

The ruling of a virtual action may not even be determined by the same apparent cause as its real-world counterpart. In the real-world, sex with a stranger is unlawful because it is expressly forbidden by textual evidence and undermines chastity and the preservation of lineage which are among the major objectives of religion. But in the case of virtual sex with a stranger, physical chastity and lineage are not at risk, although the virtual action does contradict the general prohibition against engaging in any action that leads to illicit sex and which is understood to include sexual advances whether it be through direct touch or indirect communication (Q17:32).

  • What is the status of a virtual action that in the real-world would be unlawful to perform, observe, or be in the proximity of? For example: the consumption of alcohol or pork, performance of magic, illicit sex acts, public nudity, rape, murder, theft, worshiping an idol, slander, backbiting.
  • Electronic communication within virtual worlds can be pure text, audio, and even video. What is the status of these various means of communication with respect to finance (e.g. sales, rentals, partnerships, prizes) and personal status (e.g. marriage, divorce, accusations of adultery) issues?
    It seems safe to consider speech and writing communicated through avatars as real-world acts of communication since communicating speech through an avatar is the same as communicating speech through a phone, and likewise communicating text through an instant message or email is the same as communicating through a letter. It follows that lying, slander, backbiting, accusations of adultery or infidelity or illegitimate lineage, and apostasy performed by one’s avatar are in fact acts of real-world communication bearing their known consequences.
  • Islamic law includes prescribed punishments (Ar. ḥadd, the singular of ḥuddūd) for homicide, bodily harm, fornication, unfounded accusations of fornication, drinking alcohol, theft, highway robbery, and apostasy. It also includes provisions for discretionary punishment of unlawful behavior for which there is no prescribed punishment (Ar. ta‘zīr) or for cases where a judicial doubt (Ar. shubhah) prevents the application of a prescribed punishment.

Are actions performed within a virtual world punishable?

Most of the prescribed punishments mentioned above cannot apply to their virtual-world counterparts. The punishments for homicide, bodily harm, fornication, drinking alcohol, and highway robbery all require a physical element that is lacking in their virtual forms, so the prescribed legal punishments would not apply to their virtual counterparts.

Although a virtual object’s utility is confined to the virtual world to which it belongs, it does have a market value and it does represent a quantity of real-world currency. It follows that theft of a virtual object is in fact real-world theft. An accusation of fornication or a declaration of apostasy (may Allah protect us) performed through an avatar is no different than its performance through a phone or written on paper. Theft, accusations of fornication, and declarations of apostasy performed in the virtual world are, in fact, real-world actions and their respective prescribed punishments apply. It may be difficult, however, to prove one’s case in front of the judge.

  • Finding that one’s spouse has engaged in a virtual affair would be a cause for feeling distress and betrayal. Would it be grounds for pronouncing or requesting a divorce?

The piece mentions many other issues in need of contemporary Sharīʿah reflection. I have not returned to the issues mentioned in the piece since writing it in 2009. The need to find answers for these and similar issues is now ever greater and more pressing given the ever-increasing presence of digital technology in our daily lives. See the complete piece for more details.

UPDATE The three paragraphs concerning a spouse’s imagination while being intimate has its own blog entry.

UPDATE 2 There are two links to my paper on Tabah’s website. The first link was broken. It is now fixed.

  1. ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Ṣan‘ānī, ed. Ḥabīb al-Raḥmān al-‘Aẓamī, Al-Muṣṣanaf, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1403 AH) 6:411–2 #11426. 
  2. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, (Cairo: Maṭba‘ah al-Istiqāmah, n.d.), 2:279. 
  3. Ibn Ḥajar al-Ḥaythamī and Yaḥyā bin Sharaf al-Nawawī, Tuḥfat al-Muḥtāj bi Sharḥ al-Minhāj, (Beirut: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, n.d.), 7:262. 
  4. ‘Abd al-Raḥīm bin al-Ḥusayn al-‘Irāqī, Tarḥ al-Tathrīb, 1:390; Muḥammad al-Zarkashī, Al-Manthūr fi al-Qawā‘id, ed. Taysīr Fā’iq Aḥmad Maḥmūd and ‘Abd al-Sattār Abū Ghuddah, (Kuweit: Wizārat al-Awqāf wa al-Shu’ūn al-Islāmiyyah, 1985), 1:466. 
  5. Al-Dumyāṭī and al-Milibārī, ‘Iyānat al-Ṭālibīn, (Cairo: Maktabah wa Maṭba‘ah Muṣṭafā al-Bābī al-Ḥalabī, n.d.), 3:301; Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Ramlī and Yaḥyā bin Sharaf al-Nawawī, Nihāyat al-Muḥtāj ilā Sharḥ al-Minhāj, (Cairo: Maktabah wa Maṭba‘ah Muṣṭafā al-Bābī al-Ḥalabī, 1967), 6:187; al-Ḥaythamī and al-Nawawī, Tuḥfat al-Muḥtāj bi Sharḥ al-Minhāj, 7:245. 

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