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Ants, birds, infants and humans:
Notes on Islam and non-killing politics


Chaiwat Satha-Anand, TFF Associate*

August 4, 2008

Violence in Southern Thailand has hitherto claimed more than 3,000 lives of Buddhists and Muslims, ordinary people and government officials since early 2004. General Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, who was in charge of security affairs during the previous Thaksin government that governed Thailand in the early part of this decade, remarked on this violence that: “Our Muslim brothers (sisters) always greet one another with ‘peace be with you’, but at the same time killings have occurred among themselves which is evident of deviant (Islamic) teachings.” (1)

In 2003, the PEW Research Center in Washington DC reported its attitude survey of Muslim respondents in Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan about suicide bombings. It was found that 74 and 86 per cent of respondents in Morocco and Jordan supported the use of suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israelis. (2) But does this mean that most Muslims would support killings? What do Muslims think about killings?

Though these are difficult questions in the absence of a Muslim worldwide survey, if one chooses to believe in survey results despite all kinds of shortcomings, perhaps an answer could be found indirectly by raising the question of the Muslims’ attitude towards the place of war in dealing with conflict. In conducting such a survey with more than 6,300 Muslim respondents in 7 countries: Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Kazakhstan, Riaz Hassan found that while figures for those in support of war have been high in the three Middle Eastern countries and Pakistan (from 66-58 %), they are much lower in three other countries: Malaysia – 37%, Indonesia – 33% and Kazakhstan – 11%. (3)

Could it mean that in these Muslim countries, at least some 60% disagree with the use of killing as a way to deal with conflicts in the world?  Based on Hassan’s empirical study of more than a decade using massive cross-cultural, cross-national surveys and interviews, I would argue that Muslim attitudes towards killing as a vehicle for solving international conflicts vary significantly in Muslim countries, and that only a small fraction of Muslims actively support killing and killing organizations. (4)

Why such is indeed the case is of profound importance for any attempt to understand the Muslims and their proclivity towards nonkilling politics.  If religious belief is to be analyzed as conviction politics and not merely as expediency, then there is a need to understand why most Muslims do not support killings by looking at conventional Islamic teachings on the value of lives, animals and human, and the ways in which killing is delimited or prohibited through those teachings. For the purpose of this brief paper, I would call attention to how conventional Islamic texts, the Qur’an and the Hadith (Prophetic Traditions) deal with lives of ants, birds, infants, all human beings.



Allah's Apostle said, "Once while a prophet amongst the prophets was taking a rest underneath a tree, an ant bit him. He, therefore, ordered that his luggage be taken away from underneath that tree and then ordered that the dwelling place of the ants should be set on fire. Allah sent him a revelation:  'Wouldn't it have been sufficient to burn a single ant? (that bit you)' "
Hadith Bukhari, 4536: Abu Huraira narrated


We were with the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) during a journey. He went to ease himself. We saw a bird with her two young ones and we captured her young ones. The bird came and began to spread its wings. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) came and said: Who grieved this for its young ones? Return its young ones to it. He also saw an ant village that we had burnt. He asked: Who has burnt this? We replied: We. He said: It is not proper to punish with fire except the Lord of fire.
Hadith Abu Dawood,  2669: Abdullah ibn Mas’ud narrated



“Kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you: verily the killing of them is a great sin.”
Al-Qur’an 17:31



“On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our apostles with clear Signs yet even after that many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.”
Al-Qur’an 5: 32

Beyond the obvious theme of linking the humans with the animals in the world where all creatures are created by God, I would argue that there are four other issues raised by these teachings which are conducive to the value of nonkiling, and therefore make it possible to understand why killings in general is viewed negatively by most Muslims.

First, the story of the ants while giving permission to kill, especially when the human was attacked first, importantly prohibited the notion of overkill. This is of utmost importance in an age when advanced weapon technology has obliterated the idea of proportionality in the use of violence. Overkill can be made to feel comfortable due to the technologized ability to shield the perpetrators, or societies that support them, from its devastating effects on the victims.

Second, the story of the birds explicitly prohibits the Muslims from killing the young ones. If the notion of young ones is seen from a temporal perspective, then it is clear that they should not be killed because the future(s) can not be killed, but needs to be protected.

Third, the injunction against female infanticide in the first Qur’anic verse cited here, is a clear indication of an Islamic critique of cultural violence which had legitimized such practice in Arab cultures for so long. Killing infants in the name of culture is not acceptable, not only in terms of protecting the future(s) stated above, but also because the infants are God’s gifts to the humanity and the world. At their weakest existence, they are the strongest link between parents and children, and more importantly mirroring God’s miracle of creation seen through a child’s birth. In this profound sense, such a culture cannot be tolerated by Muslims since it was the legacy of the age of ignorance and therefore an anathema to the belief in God’s Mercy, perhaps the most important Islamic belief. (5)

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Fourth, though the famous Qur’anic verse prohibiting killing because taking even one’s life is equal to killing the whole humanity does have an exceptional clause and therefore is not categorical, it is extremely important to understand that by equating one life to the whole of humanity, this teaching denies killing its most common ground of justification in terms of numbers, understood as collateral damage or “peace dividend” as promoted by General “El Gaucho” Cisneros , a former Peruvian minister and a coup-maker who once said that : “if it were necessary to kill twenty civilians in order to eliminate two or three terrorists, then that action was justified.” (6) This Qur’anic verse has made it impossible to justify the means of killing with ends through the number, whether in terms of destroying the few for the good of the many or taking the lives of the many for the sake of a greater good. 

But then in what ways have these four issues discussed above contributed to nonkilling politics?

In her study of the politics of jihad by the “Islamists”, Roxanne Euben underlines the importance of those who see death and killing as a legitimate and necessary part of the remaking of politics. They believe that violence is a legitimate expression of political action and an end in itself when guided and justified by a divinely authorized plan. She points out that this is in sharp contrast to Hannah Arendt’s idea expounded in her On Violence, that the phenomenon of killing must transpire outside the public realm because such violence is antithetical to the preconditions for political actions. (7) She then suggests that while many political theorists may be skeptical of Arendt’s understanding of politics, quite a few share her conclusion regarding killing, namely “politics is said to end where violence begins because killing for politics entails, in essence, killing politics itself." (8)

Following the Islamic teachings on the ants, birds, infants and human life discussed above, the emerging politics underscores the significance of protecting the future(s), delegitimizing cultural violence, strengthening the human-Divine relationship, prohibiting killings by refusing to accept the morbid justification of turning human life into number game, while the existence of killing, if any, is delimited with the notion of proportionality. In this sense, nonkilling politics, legitimized by Islamic teachings, could be seen as the alternative remaking of politics for Muslims in the fast changing public sphere.


1. Matichon  (June 3, 2004), p. 1, 15 (In Thai)

2. Cited in Riaz Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds (Carlton, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008), pp. 122-123.

3. Ibid., p. 124 and Table 3.2 on p. 125

4. Ibid., pp. 126-127. In Hassan’s words: “…only a very small fraction of Muslims actively support jihadi organizations and their activities.” (p. 126)

5. See a discussion along this line in Chaiwat Satha-Anand, “The Jahiliyya Factor: Fighting Muslims’ Cultural Resistance to Nonviolence,” in Ralph Summy and Senthil Ram (eds.) Nonviolence: An Alternative for Defeating Global Terror(ism) (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2008). 

6. Cited in  “Interview with Salomon Lerner,” International Review of the Red Cross Vol. 88 No.862 (June 2006), pp. 229-230.

7. Roxanne L. Euben, “Killing (for) Politics: Jihad, Martyrdom and Political Action,” Political Theory Vol.30 No. 1 (February 2002), pp. 4-35.

8. Ibid., p. 26. (my italics)


* Chaiwat Satha-Anand
Director, Peace Information Center
Foundation for Democracy and Development Studies
Thammasat University, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Senior Research Scholar, Thailand Research Fund


This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the Global Forum on Nonkilling, Center for Global Nonviolence, Honolulu, November 2007.




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