The legacy of Islam in the Philippines

(Speech delivered by Former Senator SANTANINA T. RASUL during the "Sister of Peace Ceremony, Women Breaking Barriers for Peace" sponsored by the Women's Federation for World Peace at the Manila Hotel on February 12, 1999.) 

FOR the past six years, we have staged the International Eidul Fitri Festival after the fast of Ramadan as a vehicle to educate our fellow Filipinos on the culture of the Muslims.

We would like to take this opportunity to invite those of you who have time to visit the Cultural Exhibit and Bazaar which opens on Feb. 15 and ends with a gala presentation on Feb. 21, 1999 in the evening at the Glorietta, Ayala Center, Makati City. The festival will showcase the art, artifacts, culture of the five major Filipino Muslim groups the Sama, Tausug, Yakan, Maranaw, and Maguindanaon and that of the Muslim Countries. 

When the government embarked on its peace efforts to bring to the negotiating table the MNLF to ensure a real and lasting peace in Mindanao, we felt that there was a need for a complementary effort to promote better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in a more pleasurable manner: by presenting the culture, history and artifacts of Filipino Muslims as well as those from across the seas as a step towards better understanding of Muslim culture and thereby help accelerate the promotion of peace and national unity.


Negative image

While there has been a slight improvement in the image of Muslims, it is a fact that the general impression of Muslims remains negative: that of terrorists, kidnappers, juramentados, smugglers, etc. Very little was known about their rich culture and history which have become part of the cultural heritage of the Filipinos. In fact, not much has changed by way of impression of Muslims since my college days. 

Media has perpetuated that negative image whenever they refer to criminals as Muslims although they never refer to Christian criminals as Christians. 

We believe that we cannot wait for the system to correct itself for the future. A writer once said: 

"You can choose to be blind to what transpires in your midst and see only the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome; or you can choose to stare it in the face and help carve the glory of your place and the grandeur of your time" 


The Muslim culture

We have chosen to stare the problem in the eye and this is the reason why for the past six years and up to now we have staged the International Eidul Fitri Festival as a vehicle for removing the cobwebs of prejudice born out of ignorance of Islam and the Muslim Culture. 

This is also the reason why for the fast 31 years we have engaged in literacy promotion especially among the cultural minority and Muslim areas through the Magbassa Kita Literacy project. Illiteracy breeds ignorance and ignorance breeds anti-social tendencies. 

Those who do not know any better constitute a factor in a culture of conflict and violence which breed social instability. We launched "Magbassa Kita" not just for literacy learning but also to demolish the psychological barriers to the attainment of mutual understanding, national unity and peace. 


Brief history

To be able to understand, the Muslims of the Philippines and their culture one has to understand their history. This I will do briefly. 

Islam came to the Philippines around the 13th century, about two hundred years before the advent of Christianity in this country in 1521. The early centuries of Islam in the Philippines were marked by the gradual spread of the faith in the southern region especially in the areas represented today by Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, Maguindanao, Cotabato and Lanao. 

The phenomenal growth of the faith had become quite evident by the 16th century when a Muslim kingdom emerged in what is now Manila as the focus of political power in Luzon. 

But more important to note is the historical fact that the Islamic process in these early centuries saw the development of dynamic interaction between inhabitants and communities in the archipelago especially in matters of trade and commerce. 

The economic activities of the period had become so encouraging that foreign trade between the southern island and the outside world, including the west, was also stimulated. 


300 years of Islam

Unfortunately for the Archipelago, the positive role of Islam was somehow affected by the intrusion of colonialism in the 16th century. This period saw the coming of Spanish expeditions for colonization and Christianization. 

Thus, the next three centuries of Islam, during the period of Spanish colonialism, were no longer marked by the earlier enriching activities of the Muslims in the archipelago but rather the fearsome and tragic confrontation which took place between the Spaniards and the Muslims subsequently involving the christianized Filipinos who were used by the Spaniards against the Muslims. 

This long period of colonial confrontation and struggle would have radical effects on the character of Islamic development in the archipelago and would give a distinct color to what the Bangsa Moro armed struggle is today. It is also partly responsible for what the Muslim Filipinos have become. 


Moro wars

The Moro wars of the Spanish colonial period although failing to eradicate Islam in Southern Mindanao left its indelible imprint in the stunted development of the Muslim region, its people and its resources. While the rest of the country concentrated on economic activities, tending to their farms, establishing factories, etc., the Muslims spent their time sharpening their kris, fighting to preserve their way of life. 

The coming of American rule and inevitably American civilization somehow provided a neutralizing influence on the otherwise negative impact of Spanish colonialism on the Muslim South. 

While the Muslim struggle for justice, progress and well-being continued, American policies and programs had given them some reason for compromise thus providing a significant respite in the collective violence that generally marked the era of colonialism in Muslim history. 


Future of Islam 

Even the future of Islam in the archipelago was somehow guaranteed by the policy of religious tolerance which allowed the exercise of religious freedom in the country without fear of state suppression. 

It was not until the withdrawal of American political rule in 1946 that government policy towards Muslims began to crystallize. 

The declared policies and programs of the government have been commendable. But the implementation of policies and the programs declared had created a lot of doubt, misgivings and resentment over the sincerity and ability of the government to fulfill its commitment. 

In other words, Muslims perceived a wide gap between theory and practice of government as far as they are concerned. The threat to the future of Islam has created fear of identity loss because of perceived effects of unabated and near monopolistic use of power for the benefit of interests not sympathetic to Islam/Muslims. 


Remarkable capacity

From the centuries of Islamic revolution we see the remarkable capacity of Islam and the Muslim people to survive the tremendous changes that had come from colonial conquests and pacification. We see this ability to survive as being attributed to both the nature of Islam and the variety of responses generated to outside forces. It is in these responses that the legacy of Islam can be seen and therefore identified. 

There are 3 contributions that may be said to constitute the historical legacy of Islam to the Philippines and the Filipino people. 


1. Sense of national unity 

We learn from our history that long before Filipinism was developed as a basis of national unity the Muslims had already developed a national consciousness based on the Islamic concept of ummah. It was unity based on the total integration of all aspects of society. It transcended the barriers of ethnic, social, economic or other personal differences. 

Unfortunately, this sense of nationality Islam brought about was somehow distorted by colonialism. 


2. A sense of continuing struggle against injustice. 

The four centuries of bloody confrontation with colonialism illustrate the Muslims' persistent struggle against injustice. The discriminatory policies of Spanish colonialism were responsible for keeping the Muslims in continuous resistance. It was Islam that enabled the Muslims to resist with continuing persistence. Islam instilled values that abhorred injustice against individuals as well as society. In fact "fik sabilillah" best expresses the Muslim struggle against all kinds of injustice. 


3. A sense of just peace. 

Contrary to the stereotyped perception that Muslims are violent, Islam teaches peace. In fact, Islam means submission to the will of God who is the author of real and lasting peace. But history tells us that the Islamic concept of peace is one that is not imposed through coercion but rather comes from the fulfillment of justice. This explains why treaties entered into between Spain and the Muslims could not have brought the peace the Muslims desired because it was based on injustice and coercion. 

If we are to accept the pattern of history, Islam must be recognized as a positive factor or force in the pursuit of peace and unity by the State. The sooner the nation and the government recognize this fact the better is it for the future of the country as a whole. We must continue to destroy the prejudices of the past and begin to remake the history of the Filipino people without the social barriers that tend to divide us.




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