The Coming of Islam in the Philippines

Islam was referred to as mohammedanism when I was growing up in the Philippines. There were several religious sects in the country and one of them was mohammedanism, not Islam. Mohammedans (Muslims) practiced mohammedanism. Most of the muslims lived in Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago. Spaniards called them moros because of their perceived resemblance to the Moors of North Africa.

The first Arab merchants to reach the Philippines were non-Muslims, but it’s believed that foreign Muslims had established a trading settlement on Jolo before 1300. Muslim missionaries had come from Arabia to Southeast Asia during the 13th century and were then aided by converted traders and adventurers.

Unlike the Chinese settlers who exercised substantial commercial power but little political influence, the traders that came from the south 200 years later introduced Islam, an influence that swept through the Sulu Archipelago.

By the mid-14th century, Islam had spread from Sumatra to the Malay Peninsula, with the powerful sultanate of Malacca at its heart. A scholar from Mecca known as the Makdum (Arabic for “Master” or “Father”) crossed from Malacca to Sulu, where conversion to Islam began before his death around 1380.

The Makdum’s work was continued by Raja Baguinda, who sailed from Sumatra’s Minangkabau region to land at Buansa in 1390. His daughter married Abu Bakr, an Arab missionary-adventurer who arrived in Sulu from Malacca around 1450, declared himself sultan, and ruled with wisdom and strength in accordance with Koranic law. The Sulu sultanate became a powerful independent Islamic state.

During the pre-Hispanic times and through the Spanish era, Cotabato was sparsely settled by highland tribes, Muslims, and some Chinese traders, all coexisting more or less peacefully. The Cotabato Valley was the first area of Mindanao to be converted to Islam. During the first quarter of the 16th century, Sharif Mohammed Kabungsuwan of Johore was forced by strong winds to anchor at the mouth of the river, where he was received by pagan inhabitants. He converted the tribes of Cotabato Valley, married a local princess and established the Maguindanao Sultanate and laid the foundations of Islam, to which various tribes were converted. Islam gave the people of Sulu and Mindanao, who were already skilled sailors and traders, a political and religious structure that in turn provided the impetus for expansion.

By MarkoDalisay – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Cotabato, is situated in Cotabato City and is the largest mosque in the Philippines. The mosque is located in Barangay Kalanganan II in Cotabato City, and was funded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei at a reported cost of US$48 million. It is also the second largest mosque in Southeast Asia after the Istiqlal Mosque of Indonesia. The Sultan Of Brunei funded the construction of this mosque with his own personal money to help the emerging Muslim population in the Southern Philippines. Designed by architect Felino Palafox. 

The Maguindanao became the regions’s dominant group, and Cotabato an Islamic stronghold, with the sultanate remaining, for practical purposes, an independent political state until about 1850. Its influence extended from the Zamboanga peninsula to Sarangani Bay and Davao. There were, in fact, several sultanates among the Maguindanao.

The lower valley formed the heartland of the Sultanate of Maguindanao, which was centered near the present Cotabato City. The upper valley was loosely controlled by the Sultanate of Buayan, based near what’s now Datu Piang. For a time, a third state, Kabuntalan (Bagumbayan), located between the larger two, existed. The fortune of these sultanates rose and fell through the centuries.

Islam subsequently spread to other parts of Mindanao, especially the Lake Lanao region, but it hadn’t had time to take hold in northern and eastern Mindanao before the Spaniards began encouraging colonization of the coast by Christianized Filipinos from the Visayas and Luzon.

As the Muslims fought to preserve their sovereignty, Mindanao became effectively isolated, enabling them to solidify and maintain their culture. The first Spanish expeditions to Mindanao and Sulu took place in the 1570s. Following the burning of Jolo in 1578, the Moro Wars continued intermittently right up until a campaign in the Lake Lanao area in 1895. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the only areas where Spain had much influence were along the northern coastal plain and in individual spots such as Zamboanga, Dapitan and Canaga.

Muslim immigrants introduced the concept of territorial states ruled by rajahs or sultans who exercised suzerainty over the datus. Marriage alliances were forged between the ruling families of Cotabato, Sulu and Ternate in the Moluccas. Muslim rulers introduced firearms into the region, and their descendants propagated Islam in other parts of Mindanao, while fortune-seekers from Borneo spread the word northward to Mindoro, southern Luzon, and Manila. Only the Spanish arrival prevented the entire archipelago from becoming an Islamic nation. The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia.



Reference: Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes

Reference: Traveler’s Philippines Companion by Kirsten Ellis

Reference: Insight Guide Philippines by Discovery Channel.









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