Origins of Islam in the Philippines

By January 9, 2017 No Comments

The following is the first of a six-part series written by Victor Taylor, a Philippine national and permanent resident of Canada. His writing is largely informed by his field work and personal experience in being involved in the Muslim areas of the Philippines for the last 50 years. His work provides an insightful first-hand perspective of the development of Islam in the Philippines and the rise of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

The Philippines, the 12th largest country in the world with a population of 100 million, is a predominantly Christian country. Approximately 90 per cent of Filipinos are Christian, and 80 per cent are specifically Roman Catholic.  This is the result of 333 years of Spanish colonial rule followed by 42 years of American rule.

Nevertheless, there is a significant Muslim population in the Philippines, which is estimated to make up 5.5 per cent of the total population of the country (or approximately 5.5 million Filipinos). This, however, has been disputed by the government agency tasked to oversee the welfare of Muslims, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), which claims that the proportion is closer to 11 per cent.

Whatever the precise numbers are, it is indisputable that Islam has played a significant role in shaping Philippine history and continues to influence the Philippine agenda today.  In fact, some historians have observed that if it were not for the “interlude” of 375 years of Spanish and American colonial rule, the Philippines would likely be a Muslim country today.

Origins of Islam in the Philippines

Historians ascribe the introduction of Islam to the Philippines to Tuan Masha’ika, supposedly an Arab religious leader or missionary, who landed on the island of Jolo in what is today the Province of Sulu in the southern Philippines, in the mid to late-13th century.  One particular writer however, points out that it is likely that Islam was actually introduced much earlier, perhaps as early as the 10th century, through Arab traders who subsequently settled down and married local inhabitants and spread their religion in that manner.

By the 15th century, most inhabitants of the Jolo/Sulu area had accepted Islam as their religion, which then led to the establishment of an Islamic State, referred to as the Sultanate of Sulu, around 1450.  The first Sultan of Sulu was Sayyid Al-Hashim Abu Bakr, supposedly an Arab religious leader born in Mecca, who married into the family of the ruling family in Jolo at that time, Rajah Baguinda.  The Sultanate was then established as a political organization with Abu Bakr adopting the formal title of Paduka Mahasari Maulana Al-Sultan Sharif-ul-Hashim.  All subsequent Sultans of Sulu claim descent from Sultan Sharif-ul-Hashim.  At its height, during the early part of the 18th century, the Sultanate of Sulu held sway over what are now the provinces of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, the western portion of the Zamboanga Peninsula, the southern portion of Palawan—all in the southwestern portion of present-day Philippines—and North Borneo or what is now Sabah in Malaysia.

What is now known as the Republic of the Philippines—into which the Province of Sulu is incorporated—did not have its beginnings until the second half of the 16th century, in 1565 to be exact, when the Spanish navigator Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, landed in the islands and began his colonization.  The Philippines is named after King Philip II of Spain.  It took about a half-century for Spain to conquer the rest of the islands and therefore the nation-state known as the Philippines today did not come into existence until the end of the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries.

Hence, the Sultanate of Sulu as a political entity and sovereign State ante-dated the establishment of the Philippines by more than a century and certainly Islam had its roots in what is now the Philippines much longer than that.

A second Muslim Sultanate was established in central Mindanao, the main island in the southern Philippines, independent of the Sultanate of Sulu, around 1515 by Sharif Muhammad Kabungsuan, who originated from Johor in present-day Malaysia.  Sharif Kabungsuan was a son of Sharif Ali Zainal Abidin who originated from Arabia, traveled to Johor and married a member of the royal family there.  This was the Sultanate of Maguindanao.  At its peak during the late 17th century, the Sultanate of Maguindanao covered the breadth of the island of Mindanao, from what is now the Davao Gulf in the east to the Zamboanga Peninsula in the west, from the area of Butuan in the north to Sarangani in the south, and even extended to what is now North Sulawesi in present-day Indonesia.

Colonial Inroads into Muslim Territory

Over time, the Spanish colonizers made inroads into the territories of both Sultanates.  It is a fact, however, that the Spaniards were not able to exert effective control over the Muslim areas, inhabited by “Moros,” as the Spaniards called them after the Moors who had invaded the Iberian Peninsula beginning the 8th century.  It was left to the Americans, who defeated Spain in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 and acquired the Philippines under the Treaty of Paris executed that same year to effectively take control of the Muslim areas in the Philippines.  But even then it took the Americans 17 years, up to 1915, to be able to forge a lasting agreement with the Sultan of Sulu, the Carpenter Agreement, wherein the Sultanate recognized the sovereignty of the United States in exchange for the guarantee of their right to follow their religion.  But even then, occasional uprisings by individual groups continued from time to time, which can be seen as precursors to the uprisings in the Muslim south of the Philippines even today.

Moro Attitudes towards the Philippines and Filipinos

It took the US close to two decades to overcome the resistance of the Moros to American colonial rule.  This was accomplished both through the force of arms as well as a policy of attraction.  Although there continued to be skirmishes afterwards, the last major battle fought by the Americans in Sulu was the Battle of Bud Bagsak (Mt. Bagsak) in 1913, which resulted in the death of practically the entire contingent of 500 Moros who had taken up arms against the Americans, and 14 soldiers on the part of the US forces.

In 1916 the Jones Law was passed by the US Congress, which declared the US government’s commitment to grant independence to the Philippines “as soon as a stable government can be established.”[1] While the law was hailed as a victory by nationalists in the Philippines, Filipino Muslims viewed it with trepidation.  The reasons for this are not difficult to understand.

One clear objective of the 333 years of colonial rule of the Spaniards in the Philippines was the conversion of the natives to Christianity—specifically Catholicism—and in spreading its authority to the southern reaches of the archipelago the Spaniards pitted Christian Filipinos against the “heathen” Muslims. Hence over three centuries the view of Muslims as “the enemy” was ingrained into the psyche of Christian Filipinos in the same manner that Christian Filipinos were viewed by Muslims as kafirs, or infidels, wanting to subjugate and convert them.  The situation was aggravated by the migration of Christian Filipinos to Mindanao, a program that was intensified by the subsequent American colonialists and even continued into the early years of the current Philippine Republic.

As a result, even as the Moros finally accepted the reality of American colonial rule, they objected to their incorporation into what was planned to subsequently be an independent Philippine nation, which would be run by and dominated by Christians.

Thus, for example, in June of 1921, a group of 57 influential leaders from Sulu issued a lengthy petition addressed to the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding, asking that the Sulu Archipelago not be incorporated into an independent Philippine nation but instead be made a permanent territory of the United States. A few excerpts from this petition are instructive as to the thinking of the Moros at that time:

“…the territory now inhabited by the Sulu people was never under the control of Spain, or a part of its dominion, and only upon the advent of the American Army in Sulu did the people of Sulu recognize any sovereignty, — that of the United States of America…”

 “…the Filipino people in the northern provinces of the Philippine Islands has no right to force their government upon the inhabitants of these parts, inhabited from time immemorial by our own people, and to include our territory in theirs…”

 “…it would be an act of great injustice to cast our people aside, turn our country over to the Filipino people in the North to be governed by them, without our consent, and thrust upon us a government not of our own people, nor by our own people, nor for our own people…”[2]

In like manner, another group of Muslim leaders claiming to represent nearly half a million Muslim residents of Mindanao and Sulu issued a Declaration of Rights and Purposes addressed to the US Congress in 1924. This Declaration asked that Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan be made an unorganized territory of the United States rather than be made part of an independent Philippine nation.  Following are some excerpts from this Declaration:

“…we propose that the Islands of Mindanao and Sulu, and the Island of Palawan be made an unorganized territory of the United States of America.”

 “… we, in representation of nearly half a million Mohammedan residents of Mindanao and Sulu, do solemnly affirm and declare –

That we are loyal unto death to the United States.

That in proof of this loyalty we have pledged ourselves by the most solemn oath known to the Mohammedans, to die rather than submit to domination by Christian Filipinos from the north, and, if necessary, to die in order that the United States Congress, which heretofore has lent a deaf ear to our petitions, may now hear us.

 “That in the event that the United States grants independence to the Philippine Islands without provision for our retention under the American flag, it is our firm intention and resolve to declare ourselves an independent constitutional sultanate to be known to the world as the Moro Nation…”[3]

In March of 1935, some 120 leaders from Lanao Province signed a petition addressed to the US President asking that the Muslim areas not be included in the proposed independent Philippine nation.  Again some excerpts:

“…we want to tell you that the Philippines as it is known to the American people are populated by two different peoples, with different religions, practices and traditions.  The Christian Filipinos occupy the Islands of Luzon and the Visayas.  The Moros predominate in the islands of Mindanao and Sulu.  With regard to the forthcoming Philippine Independence if granted to these islands, this condition will be characterized by unrest, suffering and misery and because of this we do not desire to become independent.”

“…we do not want to be included in the Philippine independence [because] once an Independent Philippines is launched [there will be] troubles between us and the Christian Filipinos because from time immemorial these two people have not lived harmoniously….It is not then proper to have antagonistic people live together under one flag, under the Philippines independence.”[4]

There were many other similar statements, letters and petitions issued by various individuals and groups addressed to US authorities at all levels, all expressing the same sentiments of not wanting to be included in an independent Philippine nation but instead preferring to continue to be governed by the United States or to be granted independence as a separate nation.

Even after the Philippines gained its independence from the US in 1946, the sentiments continued to be expressed.  In 1961, for example, Congressman Omar Amilbangsa representing the Province of Sulu filed a bill in Congress, House Bill No. 5682, asking for the Province of Sulu to be declared independent of the Republic of the Philippines.

In 1968 a group calling itself the Mindanao Independence Movement issued a manifesto.  The Preamble of the manifesto reads as follows:

“The MUSLIM inhabitants of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan, invoking the Grace of the Almighty Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, on whom all Praise is due and whom all creation depends for sustenance, make manifestation to the whole world its desire to secede from the Republic of the Philippines, in order to establish an ISLAMIC STATE that shall embody their ideals and aspirations, conserve and develop their patrimony, their Islamic heritage, under the blessings of Islamic Universal Brotherhood and the regime of law of nations, do promulgate and make known the declaration of its independence from the mother country, the Republic of the Philippines.”[5]

This was followed by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which started a war of secession against the Philippine Government in 1972 until the signing of a Final Peace Agreement with the Government in 1996.  The MNLF issued a manifesto in 1974 declaring the establishment of a Bangsamoro Republik:

“We, the five million oppressed Bangsamoro people, wishing to free ourselves from the terror, oppression and tyranny of Filipino colonialism which has caused us untold sufferings and miseries by criminally usurping our land, by threatening Islam through wholesale destruction and desecration of its places of worship and its Holy Book, and murdering our innocent brothers, sisters and folks in a genocidal campaign of terrifying magnitude…hereby declare:

“That henceforth the Bangsamoro people and Revolution having established their Bangsamoro Republik, are throwing off all their political, economic and other bonds with the oppressive government of the Philippines under the dictatorial regime of President Ferdinand E. Marcos to secure a free and independent state for the Bangsamoro people….”[6]

A common thread runs through all these expressed sentiments:  a sense of Muslims being different from Christian Filipinos, of actually belonging to a different nation; a sense of injustice, of oppression, of suffering at the hands of the majority Christian Filipinos; and the desire to continue being governed by what was perceived (during the American colonial period) as being the benevolent US system of government or being given the opportunity to be the masters of their own destiny.

Filipino Attitudes towards Muslims

While significant progress has been achieved in overcoming prejudices between Christian and Muslim Filipinos, a significant degree of bias still exists among Christian Filipinos relative to Muslims.  There are all sorts of anecdotal accounts of Muslims living outside of their traditional areas, such as those who have migrated to the Metropolitan Manila area, who experience difficulty in finding work once it is discovered that they are Muslims or being accepted as a tenant when looking for a residence to rent or to be picked up by a taxi if they are wearing traditional Muslim garb. The anecdotes appear to reflect an underlying reality.

In 2005, the Human Development Network, a project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), undertook a survey to determine to what extent biases existed among Filipinos relative to Muslims in the country.  The results indicated that a significant degree of prejudice continued to exist at that time among Christian Filipinos.  In brief, the survey found the following:

  1. Although only 14 per cent of respondents admitted to having had direct dealings with Muslims, more than a third (33-39 per cent) exhibited a bias toward Muslims based on their responses to various survey questions;
  2. A very large percentage (47 per cent) expressed the belief that Muslims are likely to be terrorists or extremists;
  3. A majority (55 per cent) expressed the stereotypical view of Muslims being prone to run amok;
  4. Significant portions (over 40 per cent) would outright choose a person with a Christian name rather than a Muslim name when choosing a worker or employee, and a boarder or tenant.
  5. A significant portion (40 per cent) would choose to reside in an area distant from a Muslim community even if the rent were higher rather than live in a cheaper area that would be close to a Muslim community.

It should be pointed out, though, that the survey also showed that to many people the matter of religious beliefs was not a factor in choosing a place of residence, an employee or a tenant.  Nevertheless, the survey did reveal that a significant portion of the population continued to exhibit signs of bias when it came to Muslim Filipinos.

The Minoritization of Muslims in Mindanao

One result of the 375 years of Spanish and American colonial experience of the Philippines— many Muslims would say that the colonial experience extends even to the present day with the predominantly Christian Government of the Republic of the Philippines—is that Muslims (and Lumads, the non-Muslim indigenous peoples) have become minorities in their own homeland of Mindanao.  This has been the result of three factors.  First was the adoption by the Spanish colonial administration and the continuation into the American colonial period and the current Philippine Republic of the Regalian doctrine covering the land property system.  Under the Regalian doctrine all land and natural resources belong to the State, which had the exclusive right to determine policies affecting the disposition of these resources.[7] In one fell swoop and without the prior knowledge of the inhabitants of the islands constituting present-day Philippines, the whole system of ownership over land and other natural resources was radically changed and people found themselves essentially dispossessed of what, up to that time, they understood to be theirs.  If their prior rights were to be recognized, it would only be if those rights accorded with rules unilaterally set by the State.  In the case of the Muslims and Lumads, whose possessory and dispositive rights were essentially communal and subject to traditional processes understood and accepted by the communities concerned over countless generations, the impact of this sea change was devastating.

The second factor that led to the minoritization of Muslims and Lumads consisted of explicit policies of migration of successive administrations that brought Christians from the northern and central parts of the Philippines to Mindanao to develop and exploit the vast land and other natural resources of the area.  These migration programs were started by the Spaniards which carried the additional imperative of converting the “heathens” to Christianity, were intensified by the Americans and were continued by the Philippine Republic, which was inaugurated in 1946.

A third factor contributing to the minoritization of Muslims and Lumads in Mindanao was the encouragement of large-scale land development programs by the colonial and independent Philippine governments.  Large-scale land pasture leases, crop plantations, large-scale mining permits and logging concessions were awarded to foreign and Philippine business interests, which led to the displacement of entire indigenous communities.  American companies including BF Goodrich, Del Monte, Goodyear and Weyerhauser acquired large tracts of land in Mindanao for plantation development.  These were followed subsequently by firms such as the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Dole and Boise-Cascade.

One result of these developments was that the Muslims and Lumads, who constituted the majority of the population in Mindanao and Sulu at the turn of the 20th century, found themselves minorities in their homeland, overwhelmed by the inflow of Christian settlers.  A census undertaken in 1903 showed that Muslims and Lumads constituted 63 per cent of the total population of Mindanao and Sulu.[8]  However, by 1970 Muslims and Lumads made up only 24 per cent of the total population of the area (specifically, Muslims accounted for 20 per cent and Lumads accounted for 4 per cent).[9]  The sheer numbers, coupled with the new system of land ownership with which the Christian settlers were more familiar and of which many of the Muslims and Lumads knew little about, led to the dispossession of ancestral lands, which became a major factor for the secessionist fighting that subsequently broke out in the Philippine south.

Social Conditions of Muslim Communities

An important question to consider is how Muslims in the Philippines fare socially and economically compared to other Filipinos.  The Philippine Human Development Report of 2005 (PHDR), which was part of a global analysis undertaken by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), provides some indicators.  While the report is over a decade old, it is not expected that there would have been any drastic changes in the comparative data compiled.

There are five provinces in the Philippines where the majority of the population is Muslim.  These are the provinces of Sulu (98 per cent Muslim), Tawi-Tawi (97 per cent), Lanao del Sur (94 per cent), Maguindanao (82 per cent) and Basilan (80 per cent).  These five provinces form the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao established by law in 1989.

The PHDR reported on a number of factors reflecting the level of human development in the 77 provinces that make up the Philippines and compared how each province stood relative to the others.  On an overall basis, combining the various factors and creating an index, Sulu was at the bottom of the heap at rank 77, followed by Maguindanao at rank 76, Tawi-tawi at 75, Basilan at 74 and Lanao del Sur at rank 68.

One of the factors reported on was poverty incidence, which is the percentage of the population in each province falling below the poverty line, describing the minimum level of income needed to meet living requirements.  As the table below indicates, the level of poverty in the Muslim provinces is overwhelming, as these provinces ranked lowest among all provinces in the Philippines.


Percentage Ranking Among All Provinces
Philippines 26%
Maguindanao 56% 72
Basilan 66% 75
Tawi-Tawi 70% 76
Sulu 89% 77

Another factor reported on was life expectancy, indicating the average number of years a person living in each province could expect to live.  As the table below demonstrates, the residents in the Muslim provinces have the shortest life expectancies, 10 to 20 years less than the average life expectancy of Filipinos as a whole.


Years Ranking Among All Provinces
Philippines 70
Basilan 61 73
Lanao del Sur 58 74
Tawi-Tawi 51 75
Maguindanao 52 76
Sulu 53 77

While poverty levels relate to economic conditions and life expectancy reflects health conditions, the PHDR also attempted to measure the area of knowledge, which would impact one’s ability to improve his or her lot.  One measure examined by the PHDR was the ratio of persons 18 years and older who had completed a high school education.  The table below indicates how some of the Muslim provinces compared with the Philippines as a whole.  Again, these provinces are at the bottom of the heap.


Percentage Ranking Among All Provinces
Philippines 52%
Basilan 32% 71
Maguindanao 29% 73
Sulu 21% 77

Among many other factors examined, these initial indicators clearly show that for varying reasons, Muslims in the Philippines are disadvantaged relative to their countrymen.

Summing Up

An awareness of this historical and social background is essential to understanding the roots of the problems in the Philippine South.

  1. Islam has a deep and rich history in the Philippines, antedating the establishment of the Philippines itself as a State;
  2. The colonial experience in the Philippines, which pitted Christian Filipinos against Muslims, resulted in enmity being built up between the two peoples over three centuries, the vestiges of which are still seen today in Philippine society today.
  3. Muslims have experienced becoming a minority in what they have historically considered their homeland and continue to see themselves disadvantaged socially and economically vis-à-vis Filipino Christians.

We will see these factors reflected as we delve deeper into an examination of the Abu Sayyaf.