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History of the Moro

Few can deny the importance of Islamic culture throughout the history of the world. Their far-reaching expansion even reached as far as the Philippine Islands of South East Asia. Muslims have had an important impact in Filipino culture and continue to influence the islands even to this day. Being a Filipino myself, I feel it is important to learn about every aspect of the culture from which I am from.

Islam s entrance into the Philippines was from Philippine participation in the international trade, which extended from Morocco to China, a trade practically controlled by Muslim merchants of diverse nationalities but mainly Arabs. However, Muslims came before Islamization.

The process of the Islamization of Moroland (Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan, also presently known as Southern Philippines which is about 33 percent of the total land territories of the Philippines) first started in Sulu Archipelago towards the end of 13th century, estimated to be in 1280 CE, through the missionary effort of a certain Tuan Mashaikha who married there and established the first Islamic community.

Thereafter, it was reported that Tuan Mashaikha was followed by a Muslim missionary named Karim-ul- Makhdum around the second half of the 14th century. Through Rajah Baguinda who came at the beginning of the 15th century, the political element in the Islamization process was introduced.

It was his son-in-law, Abu Bakar, whom he had designated as his successor, who started the Sulu Sultanate. In mainland Mindanao, Islam was first introduced into Maguindanao areas by a certain Sharif Awliya from Johor around 1450. Like the preachers of Islam in Sulu, he was also said to have married to a local lady, who gave him a daughter. When Sharif Awliya left, a certain Sharif Maraja, also from Johor, came and stayed in Slangan area and married the daughter of Sharif Awliya.

Later, around 1515, Sharif Kabungsuwan, also from Johor with Arab descent, arrived with many men at the Slangan area, roughly where is Malabang now. He augmented the missionary activities of his predecessors, and was credited the founder of the Maguindanao Sultanate. Through intermarriages and political alliances with the neighboring ruling families, Islam spread from Maguindanao through along the coast to the Gulf of Davao and inland to Lake Lanao and Bukidnon.

Though no specific date is known for the Islamization of the people of Lake Lanao, the Maranao tarsila trace their Islamic ancestry as well as royal lineage back to the same Sharif Kabungsuwan. In this manner, Islam became the majority religion in the island. By the mid-Sixteenth century, the Moroland was in the process of becoming part of the wider Muslim world of South East Asia. Commercial relations and political alliances linked the Moro Sultanates of the Mindanao-Sulu region with other neighboring Muslim states.

The coming of Islam brought about important and dramatic transformations among the groups in the Philippines that adopted it. Islamization introduced new laws, novel ethical standards, and a new outlook in the meaning and direction of life. The Arabic script was adopted for writing local languages, and the Arabic language itself was used for ritual and theological matters. The Philippine Muslims cherished the glories of Islam in Asia and Africa, and they felt affected by the variation and agony of Islam in other parts of the world. It was this sense of participation that progressively made the Muslims of the Philippines develop a sense of history and promoted their self-image as an historic people.

By the time of Spain s fourth expedition into the Philippines, there were already at least three Muslim principalities in the southern region of the country. The politically and ideologically cohesive character of the Philippine Muslim principalities is the main reason why, unlike other parts of the Philippines, the Spaniards found it very difficult to conquer Mindanao and Sulu.

When Islam came to Malay lands, it did not transform any of them into colonies subject to foreign rule. All the principalities or kingdoms that became Muslim were ruled by local families and dynasties. But the coming of Western powers to Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century brought a new factor the introduction of Christianity and transformation of some areas into colonies subject to nations in Europe. Islam thus emerged as an ideology, which, with patriotism, served as a force against Christianity and colonialism.

It is evident that Spain came to the Philippines to extend the domain of the Spanish King as well as to introduce Christianity. The Muslims in the Philippines, realizing that this meant they would become vassals of a foreign king and eventually lose both their faith and their freedom as an independent people, responded to the threat by greater loyalty to their sultans and datus, a greater respect for the panditas, a strengthening of their Islamic awareness, and determined efforts to resist the military invasion of the enemy in the lands. Thus was patriotism and Islam welded into a force to preserve a long enjoyed freedom.

The confrontation between the Spaniards and the Muslims in the Philippines flamed into the so-called Moro Wars a series of bitter wars that continued for more than three centuries. These bitter wars have made the Philippine Muslim what he is today. They helped to define his attitudes and relations to all non-Muslim foreigners as well as to non-Muslim Filipinos. The premise on which Spanish historians believed were that the so-called Moro Wars were wars waged primarily by the Spaniards to restrain the invasions of Muslim sultans and their followers. Though this seems too easy of an explanation of the facts, it is actually a rationalization for the conquest, colonization and Christianization of the Muslims.

The Muslims in the Philippines are historical. Them being Muslims gives them a sense of belonging to a wider community beyond regional, racial, and linguistic barriers. But it should be noted that present-day Muslims see themselves as a people apart, as an historical people whose history is older than the other peoples with whom they are now cast as members of the Philippine nation. Islam is the main factor that gives them this sense of identity as a people apart. They see Islam as a major part of their history. Whereas the adoption of Christianity tended to make its Christian converts in the Philippine s somewhat content to be subservient to Spain, the strengthening of Islamic consciousness and institutions among the Muslims served as a force inspiring opposition to Spain. If the Christianized inhabitants were not outright allies of Spain in efforts to subject the Muslims, they were at least tools of Spanish officials in that effort. Thus it is understandable why Muslims for centuries have looked at the Christianized Filipinos as their enemies.

In recent years there have been extensive studies, reports and articles about Muslim Filipinos by both Filipino and foreign scholars. If these are carefully studied and the findings made more widely known, the Muslim Problem, can be better understood. It is only by sympathetic attempt at full understanding that workable solutions can be formulated. There are seemingly few Muslims or Christians who have taken the time and trouble necessary to understand the Muslim Filipino. There are adequate materials available for those who really want to understand and help to find solutions.

A careful analysis of the history of the Muslims in the Philippines will reveal that the character and attitudes of present-day Muslims are not only the result of what they have made out of themselves but also of what others have forced them to become. Thus it is important to know how Islam was introduced and how it expanded in the Philippines. We need to know also those forces which came into conflict with Islam, forces which helped to shape the character of the present day Muslim Filipino.


Peter G. Gowing, Understanding Islam and Muslims in the Philippines . GOWING MEMORIAL RESEARCH CENTER and NEW DAY PUBLISHERS. Quezon City, 1988.

Peter G. Gowing, Mosque and Moro: A Study Of Muslims in the Philippines . Philippine Federation of Christian Churches. Manila, 1964.

Thomas M. Kiefer, The Tausug: Violence and Law in a Philippine Moslem Society . Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. San Francisco, 1972.

Cesar A. Majul, The Role of Islam in the History of the Filipino People . Asian Studies, Volume IV, No. 2, August 1966.

Cesar A. Majul, Muslims In The Philippines . Cesar A. Majul. Quezon City, 1973.

Cesar A. Majul, The Contemporary Movement in the Philippines . Mizan Press. Berkeley, 1985.

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