The coming of Islam in the archipelago is an epic tale. And it is a tale we must unfold to better understand the Moro struggle in Mindanao. While Filipinos today take pride that the Philippines remain to be the only Christian nation in Asia, such fact could not have been true had the colonizers arrived a little late. Were it not for the quirks of history, majority of the people today would be worshipping in mosques instead of Catholic cathedrals.
It is undeniable that the advent of Islam antedated the arrival of the Spaniards by two centuries. And so when the great Magellan thrust his Cross in Cebu in 1521, many of the islands had long been under the Crescent. It was only a matter of time before the rest did. But the conquistadors came right on the dot. What could have been a simple expedition in search of spices and lowly peppers became Spain’s iron grip on the spread of the Islamic faith throughout the archipelago.
The coming of Islam
Islam first landed on the shores of Sulu in the early part of the 13th century. Located in the most nearly central position of any island in eastern Malaysia, Sulu stood to gain immense commercial advantages more than any of the scattered islands in the archipelago. Travelling from the Middle East to the Orient, Arab traders from Malacca brought the religion to the area as part of their mission to propagate Islam and to find a new home.
Historians are one in saying that the first Arab missionary to visit the Philippines was Karim Al-Makhdum. Coming from Malacca in 1380, Makhdum established the first Islamic mosque in Simunul, the tiny island in Sulu. From there, Islam began to send branches towards the outskirts of Sulu and beyond. Later on, in 1540, with Islam firmly in place, the Muslim communities in Sulu established the first Sultanate in the archipelago with the messianic Shariful Hashim Abubakar as its progenitor.
The arrival of Islam had indeed brought tremendous changes in the life of the people, especially in their culture. With Islam as the foundation for the establishment of a new superstructure, the scattered datuships or barangays were consolidated into one political entity—the sultanate.
Along with the Islamic schools and the introduction of the Shariah, Islam also enabled the people to feel that they were members of a community larger than their barangays—the Muslim Ummah. Instantly, the new religion blended with pre-Islamic socio-cultural practices of the local population, which even strengthen their ties as a community. By this time, the native Muslims began to see the world differently. Islam did not only give the Muslims a sense of purpose but also a unique identity that would spur fierce resistance against Spanish attempts to subjugate them.
The first quarter of the 16th century saw the spread of Islam in mainland Mindanao. From the mouth of the Pulangi River, the historic Shariff Kabungsuan arrived and founded the Sultanate of Maguindanao. A century later, Islam reached the Lanao areas and had moved further towards north of Luzon. As a result, progressive Muslim settlements sprung in Manila under Rajah Soliman’s tutelage. But his reign was merely an ephemeral episode. Shortly before Islam began to take roots in the region, the colonizers arrived and crushed them.
The bygone period
The winds of change were now blowing all over the archipelago, shaking if not shattering the peaceful coexistence of the people. Except for occasional wars between feuding factions, relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities were generally peaceful. This was the situation when the Spaniards took “possession” of the islands in the 16th century.
The historian O.D. Corpus in his magnum opus, “Roots of the Filipino Nation,” observes that when the Spaniards came, they brought with them such version of Christianity “with the fire of the fanatic Hispanic branch.” The coming of Islam two centuries ago, however, spells the difference. “Christianity came to the islands as part of an aggressive mission of conquest,” write Corpus. “Islam was brought by the individual efforts of men who came looking for a new home and, because they could not live well without their religion…” Spain’s campaign against Islam has historical and traditional origins. Fresh from the war to recover Granada from the Moors (Muslims of North America) in 1492, they crossed the Pacific Ocean only to meet, once again, their ancient nemesis “halfway around the world from the arena of their earlier conflict.”
When the volley of cannon from the fleet led by the flagship Concepcion reverberated to announce that Christianity had indeed set foot in the archipelago, the message was loud and clear: the Spaniards came not to proselytize “love” and “peace” among the Moors or heathens, but to introduce Christianity through massive military campaign. Like a wolf clothed in sheep’s fur, the thrusting of the Cross, pierced itself onto the once peaceful Mindanao terrain, symbolically ripping its virgin crust and unadulterated layers and forcing out native blood from its wounded limbs. War has ensued.
Note: Part 2 will discuss the Moro wars against Spain and the coming of the Americans.
O.D. Corpus, The Roots of the Filipino Nation, Vol. I, Quezon City: UP Press, 2010