Starting tonight, until tomorrow night, we join our Filipino Muslim brothers and sisters in celebrating Eid al-Fitr or the Feast of Breaking the Fast. This feast, an important religious day observed by Muslims worldwide, and which we mark with a national holiday tomorrow, marks the end of Ramadan fasting for Muslims.
Ramadan, of course, is the Islamic holy month of fasting, which is 29 or 30 days of dawn-to-sunset fasting by Muslims. And, like the Chinese lunar calendar, Islam also follows a lunar calendar that is determined by the observation of the phases of the moon by religious authorities. As such, actual feast dates vary from country to country.
In a country said to be predominantly Roman Catholic, one cannot help but wonder why the national government chooses to observe Eid al-Fitr, or the Chinese New Year for that matter, with the declaration of a national holiday. In my opinion, however, the declaration is fitting, as Eid al-Fitr and the Chinese New Year are both just as Filipino as Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, or Philippine Independence Day.
Catholicism didn’t arrive until the Spaniards first came in 1521, and the first Spanish settlement didn’t start until 1565 in Cebu. On the other hand, the Chinese first arrived on our shores sometime in the 9th century. But the first Chinese settlement came in 1594 in Binondo, which is known as the world’s first Chinatown overseas. The Chinese pirate Limahong’s attack on Manila was in 1574.
Available literature on Islam in the Philippines indicate that it, in fact, has an even longer or earlier history in the Philippines than Christianity itself – by 200 years, I believe. It is said that Islam first came to our shores in Mindanao in the 13th century, making it the oldest recorded monotheistic religion in the Philippines. Islam was reportedly brought by Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf, Southern India, and from several sultanate governments in the Malay Archipelago.
Muslim traders were followed by Muslim missionaries in the late 14th and early 15th. Sultanates began to form in Mindanao and Sulu, as well as Manila. Thus, names like Sultan Kudarat and Rajah Lakandula and Rajah Suleyman and Rajah Matanda became part of Philippine history and its quest for independence.
For some reason, I don’t recall having taken up any part of Islamic history in the Philippines while I was in school in the 1970s to the 1980s. Even History 1, Philippine history, as taught as a General Education subject at the State University during my freshman year didn’t seem to tackle any part of Islam’s history in our country.
I find this curious considering the long history of the Sultanates, and how the Mindanao Muslim territory question has permeated Philippine political history in the last 50 years. Perhaps there should be a retelling of Islamic history in the country, particularly in schools, to help put things in perspective, and in recognition of the contributions of Islam.
As early as 1380, an Arabian trader by the name of Karim Al Makhdum reportedly reached the Sulu Archipelago and later established Islam in the country. He established the first Muslim mosque in the Philippines in Barangay Tubig Indangan on Simunul Island in Tawi-Tawi. To date, after more than 600 years, a mosque still stands in the area. And, I believe two wooden posts of the reconstruction of the mosque in the 17th century still remains on site today.
Makhdum, in fact, was buried on Simunul Island. I was told he has a tomb there, near the mosque that he had built, and that Muslims visit the area to pay homage to the man who first brought Islam to the country. Unfortunately, that a 638-year-old mosque, or at least its remains, can be seen on an island in Mindanao — and the remains of the man who started Islam in the country is there as well — remains unknown to most of us.
Makhdum’s tomb or grave, as well as the six centuries-old mosque, are precisely the kind of historical sites that should be restored and promoted. They are not simple places of interest but actual cradles of Philippine history, particularly of the pre-Hispanic period. A lot of Spanish-era Catholic churches nationwide have been categorized as heritage sites. We should do the same particularly for structures that preceded the Spaniards.
It also in this line that I support the call to restore or rebuild the Royal Palace of the Sultanate of Sulu in Maimbung, Sulu. Maimbung is the seat of the Sultanate, which was founded in 1405.
The Daru Jambangan (Palace of Flowers) in Maimbung was the royal palace of the Sultan of Sulu since historical times. But it was destroyed in 1932 by a huge storm. Only a few arches and posts now remain. I believe the Palace, with the help of the government, should be rebuilt.
While the actual Sultanate of Sulu no longer exists, it also played a significant role in Philippine and Mindanao history. And, if restoring the Palace can help people learn the Sultanate’s history, and its role particularly in foreign relations in the past as well as our linkages to Sabah, then this should be a worthwhile endeavor. A well-rebuilt Palace will also be a major tourist attraction.
The Spaniards never managed to completely suppress the Muslims in Mindanao. The Americans, during the colonial period, did not have much success either.
In this sense, Muslim Mindanao is the biggest cultural group that can be considered not completely “conquered” among Philippine ethnic groups. This, in my opinion, should be a source of pride, and should be heralded as a sterling example of a people defending their freedom and independence from foreign invaders.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council