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Volume 16, Number 4July/August 1965

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Kris and Crescent

Written by Peter G. Gowing

When reports of savage skirmishing between American soldiers and Filipino warriors drifted back to the United States intermittently during the 15 years prior to World War I, the American public would have been hard put to explain what the fighting was all about. All most people knew was that the United States had just acquired the islands from Spain, that a captain named Pershing was doing a fine job and that a hand gun called the Colt .45 had been developed to bring down certain fanatical warriors who were terrifying the troops with wild suicide charges. They also knew, vaguely, that the warriors were called "Moros."

Considering that those same Moros today constitute a body of Muslims more numerous than the populations of either Kuwait or Libya and that they occupy an area larger than Denmark, this vague memory scarcely did them justice. Yet there has always been something unforgettable about the fierce courage of the Moros. In frail praus they ranged over the southern seas in quest of plunder and wrote a savage page in history as pirates and raiders. Armed with little more than the kris—a long, serpentine dagger that is as much symbol as weapon—the Moros went out to win tribal honors by killing wild elephants. With the same simple but deadly weapon they fended off Spanish conquistadors for more than three centuries, fought American doughboys to a standstill for 15 years and harrassed the imperial troops of Japan throughout the period of occupation in World War II.

To remember the Moro only as a fierce warrior, however, is not entirely fair. For the kris is not his only symbol; indeed it is not even his most important symbol. Of much greater significance is the crescent of Islam, the mark of the Muslim faith. The very name "Moro," in fact, comes from Spain's identification of the Muslims they found in the Philippines with the Moors of North Africa who conquered much of Spain in the name of Islam and planted the crescent in Spanish soil for eight centuries. And it is the crescent, adorning the domes and pinnacles of Moro mosques in the Philippines and embedded deep in the hearts of believers, that has shaped, inspired and preserved Moro unity, and is today having a strong impact not only on the future of the Moro peoples, but on the entire Philippine nation.

Islam, curiously enough, came to the Philippines not on an Arab dhow, but on a Chinese junk. That was about 1380, when, according to tradition, one Sharif Aulia Karim al-Makhdum, an Arab missionary, who probably sailed to the Philippines via the Arab trading center in Canton, stepped ashore at Bwansa on Jolo Island in the Sulu Archipelago and began to spread the teachings of Muhammad. Ten years later Raja Baguinda, a Muslim prince from Sumatra, appeared off Jolo and—since he commanded a fleet of praus and a company of armed adventurers—easily persuaded the islanders to accept him as their leader. Fifty years later still a third Muslim came. He was Sayyid Abu Bakr of Mecca, an authority on Islamic theology and jurisprudence and—he claimed—a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr married the young daughter of the aging Raja Baguinda, inherited his rule, assumed the authority of a Caliph, crowned himself Sultan of Sulu and claimed all of Jolo for his own. When this did not entirely suit the local datus (chieftains) the new Sultan proposed a compromise.

"I will take all the land within the sound of my great gong, as well as the coast, the coastal waters and all that is in them," he told the chieftains. "And the rest of the island shall be yours."

Forgetting, apparently, that the island's rich deposits of who are generally a blend of southern Mongoloid, Indonesian and Malay stocks, with the Malay strain predominating. The Moros, furthermore, are split into ten ethnolinguistic groups which differ from each other almost as markedly as the Moros collectively differ from Philippine society as a whole. Even their dialects are not always mutually understandable.

Among these groups are the colorful Yakan, who are thought to be of Polynesian origin, the Badjao—"sea gypsies"—who live in communities of houseboats like the sampan colonies of Hong Kong, and other seafaring Moros who live in bamboo-frame houses perched on stilts above the water and connected to each other and to the land by narrow catwalks. And although most Moros—92 per cent —belong to the four major groups—the Maranao of Lanao, the Maguindanao of Cotabato, the Tau Sug of Sulu and the Sarnals of South Sulu and Zamboanga—there are still great differences among them. The Tau Sug, for example, wear tight puttees while the Samals wear loose, baggy trousers and the Maranao and Maguindanao wear large oblong cloths that wrap around the waist and hang to their ankles like skirts. Some Moros are farmers who live inland and cultivate rice, coconuts and hemp. Others are fishermen riding their bright winged vintas far out to sea in search of fish. And many are artisans. The Maranao and Maguindanao, for instance, are renowned for fashioning splendid brass trays, urns and betel nut boxes. The people of Sulu are famous for their exquisite carving of boat prows, grave markers, wall panels, furniture and the handles of weapon and tools. Moros are famous too in making fine-bladed weapons—particularly the kris—and have won a measure of fame for rattan mats and such musical instruments as the gabbang, a bamboo xylophone, the suling, a six-hole flute and the kulintangan, a scale of brass gongs.

For all their internal differences, however, the Moros, 1,600,000 strong, still form a distinct united religious minority. This is apparent in the domes, mosaics, richly-tiled flooring and ornately carved pulpits of the mosques. It is also apparent in the existence of special laws passed by the Republic of the Philippines permitting the Moros to practice polygamy and divorce—in accordance with Islamic teachings. It is equally evident in the political structure which is only now beginning to change. At the top of this structure are the sultans and those of royal blood. Below them are the datus and below these, the freemen. There are traces too of the days when the Sultan's chief adviser was an official called a kadi, a man well versed in Islamic jurisprudence, who exercised general supervision over religious courts and over the preachers and teachers. Although not recognized by the Philippine government, these courts continue to function, adjudicating both civil and criminal cases, particularly divorce and property settlement, according to a blend of Islamic law and local custom.

This isolation from Philippine society as a whole is a serious problem in the Philippines and it goes back a long way—to 1565 when Spain, at the apex of its power, established its rule in the islands and began to impose Christianity on all Filipinos. In general the Spanish were quite successful; most Filipinos swapped their vague paganism for Christianity with little protest. With the Moros, however, there was trouble. Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the captain-general of the first wave of conquistadors, ran into strong opposition from Raja Soliman, the Muslim prince who governed what was then a small town called Manila. In 1571 war broke out, Soliman was killed and his followers were driven from the northern and central islands forever. In the southern islands, however, the Moros dug in deep and not only held out against the Spanish for the next 300 years, but continued, during that period, to expand into the interior of Mindanao and other southern islands and to unite the new converts with the older sultanates in a war against the invaders and the newly converted Filipinos.

It was a bloody, savage war, with no quarter given on either side. The Moros waged what is now a familiar kind of warfare—fast, mobile guerrilla attacks out of jungle and mountain and sporadic, swift raids from the sea. Cruelty and reckless slaughter were not the monopoly of either side, but to this day the image of the Moros as a merciless foe remains sharp in the non-Muslim Filipino mind, and is the most difficult barrier to understanding between the Moros and other Filipinos. This image developed partly because of the particular ferocity exhibited by the Moros against the Filipinos who accepted Christianity—thus becoming "infidels"—and partly because of juramentados.

With the possible exception of Japan's kamikaze pilots in the closing days of World War II, warfare has rarely known a more frightening phenomenon than the juramentados. Known as sabers by the Maranao and sabils by the Tau Sug, juramentados were fanatics who, believing that they would enter Paradise if killed in battle against infidels, would whip themselves into obsessed states of self-hypnosis and, kris in hand, charge blindly into the ranks of the enemy, be he Spaniard, American, Japanese or Filipino. In this semimystical trance the juramentados often raced directly into heavy volleys of rifle fire, shrugged off incredible wounds, and had to be killed on their feet literally, before their attack ended. These slashing attacks kept the Spanish in a constant state of terror until, it is said, the Spanish military governor of Jolo stumbled on a harsh but effective solution. The governor had complained to the Sultan of Sulu that juramentados had made repeated attacks against Spanish troops in Jolo town. The Sultan who lived in nearby Maimbung apologized but explained that he could not control suicidal fanatics. Soon after, a Spanish gunboat appeared off Maimbung and began to shell the town, killing many Moros and destroying a large part of the town. The horrified Sultan immediately reported this to the Spanish governor who apologized but replied that there was nothing he could do. The captain of the gunboat, he said, had obviously gone juramentado and as the Sultan well knew there was no controlling fanatics. After that, according to the story, Jolo was not troubled by juramentados for a long time.

In the 1860's, with the introduction of steam-driven gunboats, the Spanish broke the back of Moro sea power and drove the Moros into the countryside. It was as much of a victory as they ever achieved. They controlled the towns but the Moros controlled the countryside and so matters stood when, in 1898, Spain ceded the islands to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War.

The Moros were no more ready to obey Americans than they were the Spaniards and so it wasn't long before American troops took up where the Spanish had left off. In the process they developed the Krag rifle and Colt—both weapons having tremendous hitting—power—specifically to stop the juramentados. They also took part in some of the most savage campaigns American troops had ever faced. On Jolo, for example, 800 soldiers were ordered to take a mountain top called Bud Daho which was held by 1,000 Moros. Although armed with only krises, spears and a few rifles, the Moros refused to surrender and American soldiers had to call up artillery before launching their charge. When it was over only six Moros had survived.

Faced with that kind of unyielding courage, the United States had to adopt a new policy. In 1914 the Moro areas were transferred to civilian control. Under the influence of progressive programs of education, medical care and road construction, and a guarantee of religious freedom, the Moros gradually accepted the new American rule. So effective was that policy that when the Philippine Commonwealth was inaugurated—the first step toward independence—the Moros pleaded that they be permitted to remain under American control or at least form their own government. Neither request was granted and before further steps could be taken Japan had swept over the Philippines and the Moros had once again picked up their krises and gone back to war.

In view of this history, it is remarkable that the Moros are not even further apart from Philippine society as a whole. It is even more remarkable since Islam, as a driving force in the life of the Moros, has had an unparalleled resurgence in the Philippines since the end of World War II. Responding to the influence of Muslim missionaries and visitors from the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, and to the flood of tracts and other publications pouring in from the Ahmadiyya Movement in Pakistan, Moro communities have begun to construct mosques at a surprising rate, to attend services and to observe other religious obligations. Attendance is at an all-time high. Two Muslim schools of higher learning have been founded: Kamilol Islam Colleges in Marawi City and the Philippine Muslim College in Jolo. Muslim organizations like the Muslim Association of the Philippines, the Knights of Muhammad and the Sulu Islamic Congress have been formed. The number of Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca annually is now in the hundreds and religious practices have been reformed along orthodox lines. Moros have even launched a strenuous campaign to shed the name "Moro"; they want to be called "Muslims."

Among the non-Muslims of the Philippines there is some concern about this resurgence of Islam, a concern lest the Filipino Muslims link up too closely with Muslims in Indonesia, a country with which the Philippine Republic has had difficulties.

Actually this concern has little basis. Indeed it is already becoming clear that the resurgence of Islam has helped unite the Moros with their fellow Filipino citizens. Due to the revival of Islam, the Moros have a new self-confidence as a religious minority and have achieved a heretofore rare organizational cohesiveness, as a result of which they have begun to seek their rights peacefully rather than, belligerently, and with a good measure of success. In Jolo recently, for example, an imam requested use of public school facilities for religious instruction of Muslim children. His request was readily granted.

In other ways, too, the separateness of the Moros is being overcome. They are increasing in numbers and, consequently, are able to exert more political power. As possessors of vast acres of rich agricultural land desperately needed by the rest of the Philippines, they have an additional power. More youngsters are taking advantage of education opportunities and the lower classes in Moro society have already discovered that schooling is a social and economic escalator. Many Moros have studied in the United States on Fulbright and other scholarships. Transistor radios carry news, information, opinions and ideas deep into the most remote areas of "Moroland." Marawi City has a Rotary Club, Cotabato City has a Junior Chamber of Commerce and one of the most active organizations in Jolo is the Bud Daho Masonic Lodge. More and more Christian Filipinos are moving into the Moro areas, bringing with them ideas and opinions that, despite inevitable clashes, have already begun to break down the isolation that has surrounded the Moros and to cross the barriers that time and history have erected.

The changes are not taking place painlessly, of course, but they are inescapable and most leaders of the Moros know it and have begun to prepare for it. Some datus, for example, have sought elective office so that their influence as tribal chieftains can be brought up to bear on the central government. Others have been appointed ambassadors, judges, commissioners and even cabinet officers. Still others work with such groups as the Commission on National Integration which concerns itself with rinding ways of uniting the Moros more closely to the rest of the Philippines.

These leaders know that the change will be slow. To transform a free, dauntless people, proud of their traditions and independence, into settled, sedentary citizens requires time and evolution. But they also know that if the Moros are to play a significant role in the future of their country the crescent, not the kris, must be their symbol.

Dr. Peter G. Gowing is associate professor of Christian History and World Religion at Silliman University in the Philippines, and editor of the Silliman Journal, a scholarly quarterly. He is the author of the book Mosque and Moro.

This article appeared on pages 1-11 of the July/August 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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