Preserving Muslim tribe customs in the Philippines through the Council of Elders

Noel T. Tarrazona

Published: Updated:

Strong Western media influence and rapid urbanization in Southern Philippines, from where Islam spread across the country, could adversely affect the preservation of some traditional Muslim customs particularly among the youth.

Yet there are at least five indigenous Muslim people still existing in the Southern Philippines, particularly in the Zamboanga region. These are Sama Bangigi, Badjao, Sama, Yakan and Kalibugan.

These tribes have been in existence for more than 600 years and continue to practice the traditional tribal customs. However, with industrialization reaching the countryside, and pressures of modern living, some traditional Muslim practices are no longer observed.

Islam was introduced to the Philippines in 1380 through Arabian trader Sheik Makdum Karim in the village called Tubig Indangan, in the municipality of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi province. The first mosque built in the same village in the same year remain a sacred site for the followers of the faith.

While some of the indigenous Muslim people underwent and completed formal education and are now working as professionals and entrepreneurs, some Muslim natives in impoverished villages prefer to be unschooled and end up as beggars in the streets.

These mendicants continue to be a social problem of the government where young indigenous people beg around the busy streets. Poverty is the reason why Muslim children refuse to go to schools while for some prefer to help their fathers catch fish in the ocean for a living.

Preserving culture

A member of the Indigenous People Council of Elders, Amilpasa Bandaying, told Al Arabiya that the council was formed to support the government uplift the quality of life of Indigenous people in the region and for preserving the Muslim and tribal cultures of these people through the traditional songs, sports and dance.

A former regional director of the Office on Muslim Affairs, Bandaying, also worked as Executive Assistant for Muslim Affairs at the City Mayor’s Office. He was an adviser to the Mayor’s Office on Islamic customs and religious practices.

The Philippine’s population has reached 105 million and there are about 6 million Muslims in the country. Among them, around five million reside in the Southern Philippines popularly known as Mindanao.

To preserve their customs, the Philippine government supported the creation of Indigenous People Council of Elders in the City of Zamboanga. This was done to try and protect the sanctity of customary laws and traditions as stipulated in the national law called the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act.

Aside from the five Muslim tribes in the Zamboanga region, this law also covers a sixth non-Muslim Indigenous People, called the Subanen. Some members of the Subanen community prefer to stay in the hinterland to work as farmers while some of the five Muslim tribes prefer to be fishermen and fish traders as their source of living.

Indigenous Peoples Day

In Zamboanga city, Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar issued a law declaring August 9 of every year as the Indigenous Peoples Day. This is the occasion for public agencies and non-government organizations to participate in IP-related activities such as classroom events as a token of appreciation for the IP community.

The United Nations General Assembly on December 23, 1994, passed Resolution 49/214 welcoming the recommendation of the working group on indigenous people for the prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities.

While modernization and industrialization is inevitable, Bandaying says they are finding ways to preserve old customs even in the absence of financial support. They continue to seek the help of the national government to support and fund their activities but more often the government has little funds to sustain the IP council of elders’ programs and projects.

The traditional customs of IP remain to be a significant part not only of Philippine history but also to the history of Southeast Asian countries.

“While the preservation, of the traditional tribal customs of the IPs are challenging, what is more important, we have already prepared a few steps at preparing the next generation of young people to preserve our customs,” Bandaying said.