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Egyptians react to new app bringing dead to life

A new application that allows the animation of pictures of the deceased caused controversy among religious institutions in Egypt.
A man walks past tombstones in the poor neighborhood of the City of the Dead, which houses more than half a million people living inside the graveyard, Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 13, 2016.

Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta issued a statement March 13 commenting on the newly launched mobile application My Heritage, which animates photos of deceased persons.

“The Islamic Sharia has allowed the use of entertainment and recreation means since they are necessary for destressing and relief of tension, which is necessary for the people's well-being, provided that such means do not entail sarcasm or bad manners,” the statement said.

“There was no objection, in terms of Sharia, to using modern programs to animate images, provided that this is not done in such a way that is disrespectful or ill-mannered in relation to the dead or causing harm to others. Users must not provide edited photos but the original ones,” the statement added.

My Heritage, an Israeli genealogy and DNA testing company, recently launched a new feature based on deep learning technology on its mobile application and website enabling animation of still photos.

The platform allows its users to build their own family tree and search for family members and biological relatives around the world, using the DNA of applicants.

The platform also announced a new feature dubbed Deep Nostalgia to revive or animate the photos of old or deceased relatives.

The app sparked widespread controversy on social media in Egypt, as many users used the app to animate the photos of their relatives and those of prominent political figures and artists.

The platform users has created some 4.4 billion genealogical trees, with some 5 million users conducting DNA tests, according to My Heritage statistics.

The platform requires users to enter the complete data of their families in order to reconnect with relatives around the world.

Over 10 million videos of deceased people were created and shared on social media, shortly after the introduction of the Deep Nostalgia feature in February, which raised questions about the psychological impact this technology could have on the families of the deceased.

The site's users are charged between $129 and $319 per year, and $59 for the DNA test.

Ahmad Karima, a professor of Sharia law at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor, “Animating the photos of dead people is forbidden according to Sharia because it leads to evils, and we must ward off evil. Dead people cannot defend themselves and animating their photos is generally a violation of the sanctity of the dead.”

He added, “The application shows dead people moving their eyes or lips, and some words or actions may be attributed to the deceased, which they have never made or said. The deceased cannot give their permission for this, which is seen as a violation of their privacy."

Muhammad Salem Abu Asi, a professor at Al-Azhar and former dean of the Faculty of Postgraduate Studies at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor, “Issuing fatwas on what is permissible and what is not must be based on conclusive and correct evidence from the Islamic teachings. In this case, we are talking about photos and the dead themselves. Making fun of the dead and the living is forbidden. But there are some people who find everything to be haram [forbidden].”

Ahmad Nabil, a mental health consultant, told Al-Monitor, “Nostalgia can be a good thing for the purpose of strengthening social ties and enhancing one’s sense of the meaning of life. But this does not mean to exaggerate things and use artificial intelligence to dig deep into memories and the past. This could lead to difficulties in coping with the present and the need to remain in the past and create some kind of state of schizophrenia and detachment from the present moment, as well as an escape to the past to be able to relive memories with our deceased loved ones.”

Iman Saad, a consultant psychiatrist, told Al-Monitor, “The animation of the images of dead people by making them move their eyes or lips needs further studies to gauge the impact on the users’ psyche. Not everyone reacts the same way. Some people might find this a humorous experience or might try it out of curiosity. But others might take it seriously, which could affect their psychological health.”

She concluded, “Visiting the graves and praying for the dead is a better way to reconnect with the dead. Many families still have videos of their deceased loved ones. They can view these. I believe this would be a better way than animating their photos."

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