How Islam Got to the Philippines

And what the Sultan of Sulu has to do with it.

By Brendan I. Koerner
Posted Friday, Jan. 28, 2005, at 2:47 PM PT

The Philippine military has stepped up its campaign against the nation's Muslim separatist movement, bombing a suspected hideout on the southern island of Mindanao. The primary targets of the raid were members of Abu Sayyaf, which is seeking to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state on Mindanao. How did Islam originally get to the predominately Catholic Philippines?

The faith was first brought over by Arab traders in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, at least 200 years before Spanish explorers first introduced Christianity to the 7,107-island archipelago. These Muslim merchants came from present-day Malaysia and Indonesia to the southernmost points in the Philippines, namely the Sulu islands and Mindanao. At the time, the inhabitants there were animists who lived in small, autonomous communities. The Arab newcomers quickly converted the indigenous population to Islam, building the Philippines' first mosque in the town of Simunul in the mid-14th century.

The Muslim settlers didn't just bring their religion and architecture, however—they also brought their political system, establishing a series of sultanates in the southern Philippines. The most celebrated of these rulers was the Sultan of Sulu, whose capital was Jolo. The first official Sultan of Sulu was an Arab from Sumatra named Abu Bakr, who crowned himself around 1450. (He gained power in part by marrying the daughter of a Malaysian trader named Rajah Baguinda, who held sway over Sulu although he never gave himself the title of sultan.) Like many other Arab rulers, he established his dynasty's legitimacy by claiming to be a direct descendent of Muhammad.

A similarly influential sultanate was established on the island of Mindanao about 50 years later, and Muslim influence rapidly ascended northward up the archipelago, reaching as far as the current capital of Manila on the island of Luzon. In fact, when the Spanish first arrived in the mid-1500s, they were dismayed to encounter such a strong Muslim presence; they had, after all, only recently expelled the Moors from Spain, after nearly 800 years of conflict. The Spanish nicknamed the Philippines' Muslim inhabitants the Moros, a corruption of the word Moors.

The Spanish quickly converted much of the Philippines to Christianity, using the sword quite liberally. But the colonialists had a difficult time extending both their rule and their religion to the country's south; the Moros fiercely resisted many Spanish attempts to establish dominance over Mindanao and Sulu. The Muslims, in turn, terrorized the Spanish by conducting frequent slave-taking raids on Luzon and in other Christianized parts of the Philippines.

It was not until the mid-1800s that advancing military technology, such as the steam-powered gunboat, began to tip the scales in favor of Spain. In 1878, the Sultan of Sulu finally signed a peace treaty with Spain, and his domain officially became an autonomous protectorate of the European power. However, localized resistance still flared up on occasion.

The United States took control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Moros viewed the new colonialists as no less objectionable than the Spanish, and they fiercely resisted attempts to westernize Mindanao in particular. The U.S. military even had to invent a new, more powerful handgun, the Colt M1911, in order to stop the Moro insurgents; they tended to keep on coming at the American soldiers, daggers in hand, despite having been shot.

The latest wave of Muslim separatism in the nation's south began in the 1970s. Since the country became independent, the Filipino government has encouraged non-Muslims to move to Mindanao and other impoverished locations in the south. The Moros view this policy as designed to de-Islamize the region and believe that the Christians treat them like second-class citizens. Years of bloody struggle have resulted.

Bonus Explainer: There is still a Sultan of Sulu, although he's mostly a ceremonial figure. Rodinood Julaspi Kiram was crowned the 29th sultan last year and has vowed to reclaim North Borneo for the sultanate. The territory, known as Sabah, was given to the Sultan of Sulu by the Sultan of Brunei in 1658, as a "thank you" for military aid. The Sultan of Sulu, in turn, leased the territory to a pair of European businessmen in 1878, in exchange for guns and an annual rent of around $1,300. The British North Borneo Co. ended up controlling Sabah, and it eventually became a British colony that was transferred to Malaysia in 1963. The Sultan of Sulu claims that Sabah still belongs to him; Malaysia refuses to budge, though it continues to pay the rent every year to the sultan's family.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a fellow at the New America Foundation.


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