Islam and Muslims in the Southern Territories of the Philippine Islands during the American Colonial Period (1898 to 1946)

By Federspiel, Howard M. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Islam and Muslims in the Southern Territories of the Philippine Islands during the American Colonial Period (1898 to 1946)


Federspiel, Howard M., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


The United States gained authority over the Philippine Islands as a result of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Treaty of Paris (1899), which recognized American wartime territorial gains. Prior to that time the Spanish had general authority over the northern region of the Islands down to the Visayas, which they had ruled from their capital at Manila on Luzon for nearly three hundred years. The population in that Spanish zone was Christianized as a product of deliberate Spanish policy during that time frame. The area to the south, encompassing much of the island of Mindanao and all of the Sulu Archipelago, was under Spanish military control at the time of the Spanish American War (1898), having been taken over in the previous fifteen years by a protracted military campaign. This southern territory was held by the presence of Spanish military units in a series of strong forts located throughout the settled areas, but clear control over the society was quite weak and, in fact, collapsed after the American naval victory at Manila Bay. The United States did not establish its own presence in much of the southern region until 1902. It based its claim over the region on the treaty with the Spanish, and other colonial powers recognized that claim as legitimate.(1)

The southern region was inhabited by related ethnic groups, of the same Malay stock as those in the northern region, but they had escaped the direct political control and Christianization policies of the Spanish. They exhibited a culture that was generally common to their region, which was heavily Malay in societal characteristics and language affinity and Islamic in religion. The Spanish referred to all these peoples who were Muslim as "Moros" after the Moors, that is, the Arab and Berber Muslims who were driven out of Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth century after a stay of some eight centuries. The term connoted cultural, political and religious competition and enmity. Americans quickly adopted the tenn Moros without all the meaning the Spanish gave the term, although there soon arose some similar understandings as Americans came to deal with the resistance Muslims put forward to thwart American attempts to exercise control over the populations and territory of Mindanao and Sulu. Local peoples in the region used ethnic designators, such Tausug, Maranao and Magindanao, to label themselves and identified themselves also as Muslims. There was no ethnic or geographically-related term among these people that could serve as a common identifier; only their common adherence to Islam gave them a common name.(2) Accordingly, we refer to this region as the Muslim zone in this article and the people in it as Muslims.

Relations between the Spanish and the Muslim peoples of the South were unpleasant throughout most of the history of their relationship, some three hundred years, that is, 1571 to 1898. When the Spanish first arrived in Asia in the sixteenth century, they intruded on an area in the northern and central Philippines that was a frontier of the Muslim cultural zone to the south, and a place where active religious conversion, economic activity and political organization were tending toward eventual Muslim control. The Spanish settlement of and ultimate political control over that frontier area curtailed Muslim conversion and political activity there, and in its place a society developed which was responsive to Spanish ideas of culture and civilization, as noted above. The Spanish initially wanted to incorporate all territory southward to Borneo and to the Moluccas in the eastern Indonesian islands. Consequently they tried to add the Mindanao-Sulu region to their new zone of authority in the northern Philippine Islands until about 1650. While successful in establishing some points of control in the South, they had insufficient resources to inflict a decisive defeat on the local rulers, and the populations were not at all docile in accepting the overlordship that Spain attempted to impose on them. …

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