PEACETALK: Understanding the typology of Filipino Muslim religious leaders

(Author’s note: The aim of this article is to give a birds eye view on the different types of Muslim religious leaders in the Philippines and to avoid confusion on their typology. )

Understanding Muslim religious leaders requires that one be familiar with the evolution of Muslim religious history in the Philippines and the cultural implications that the evolution of how its leaders were treated, recognized and given authority in the community. This will then define how we understand them.

Islam came to the Philippines in the early 11th century, brought in by travelling missionaries, learned scholars who were also businessmen who eventually settled and intermarried with the local community, this then defined the political demarcation of the different “Sultanates and kingdoms in Mindanao.”

Islam came in several waves in the Philippines, the Sufis, the classical Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaah (which became the official state religion of the Sulu and Maguindanao Sultanates), Shiism (which came through the keysaniya, Alawi, Ismaili and Ithna Ashari forms and became merged with the local indigenous customs). These three earlier schools of thought in Islam arrived and eventually merged and became what is known as Ilmu Kamaasan, pagtuhan, Ilmu sa Matoah/Minatoah.

Other schools of thought such as the Jamaah Tabligh, the Salafi Manhaj and later-day Shiism came in the later second part of the 1900’s together with the creation of the pertrodollar economies of the Middle east.

The preponderance of support from Gulf cooperating countries who were predominatly supporting the Salafi Manhaj gradually changed the orientation of Muslim religious leaders, athough Filipino Muslims didn’t notice this gradual shift of perspective, viewing local indigenous practices as unacceptable to Islam (although originally Filipino Muslims followed a very tolerant culturally sensitive form of Islam). This gradual shift wasn’t noticed until the phenomenon of religious violent extremism where certain individuals, organizations and schools were propagating a very intolerant understanding of Islam.

It is important to understand that there are several categories of religious leaders among Filipino Muslims.

In order to clarify and lessen confusion, this article aims to shed light on this topic which is commonly not discussed.

Generally there are two categories of Muslim religious leaders in the Philippines, the first are the Indigenous religious leaders, those who are recognized as traditional religious leaders and practice both indigenous cultural and religious practices and the second, are the religious scholars who are either trained locally or abroad and are recognized as religious leaders due to their educational background.

The first category of Muslim religious leaders are recognized due to the cultural significance of these leaders in preserving Islam for several centuries being the traditional and cultural repository of religious knowledge of Filipino Muslims among them are as follows:

  1. Pandita and Guru, although both terms are originally Hindu terms meaning a Sanskrit Master, this has been assimilated and indigenized to imply traditional Muslim shamans who possess both indigenized Islamized cultural practices that form everyday activities of Filipino Muslims, as well as traditional healing practices that provide for the Physical and spiritual well-being of Filipino Muslims. These practices still are being done today. They perform basic things that Muslims take for granted, aqiqah (cutting of hair of firstborn) pag-tawal (ruqqiyah), pag aruwaah (supplications for thanks and blessings), Pagpaygu (ritual bath) sin Batah (children) Mayat (dead) and other cultural and Muslim rituals.

2.Hatib– originally taken from the Arabic word Khatib (one who delivers the Friday sermon), these individuals were formally deputized by the Sultans of Sulu and Maguindanao to deliver sermons that were recognized and authorized by these sovereigns. Their authority comes from these Sultans who in traditional Moro Culture are both the temporal and spiritual symbols of leadership in their communities.

  1. Salip and Habib– taken from the Arabic words Shariff and Habib both implying they are descendants of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) , generally these are descendants of the early Muslim missionaries who came into the Philippines, some of which have traditional and esoteric knowledge passed on to them from their ancestors.
  2. Imam – traditionally meaning prayer leader, this implies in traditional Moro societies, a Muslim religious leader who heads the community Masjid, leads prayers and a senior religious leader in the community.
  3. Pakil– originally taken from the Arabic word “Faqir” (a destitute man, another word for Sufi), they perform similar functions as the Pandita and is most commonly associated in Tausug areas.
  4. Hadji/Kadji/Kaggi traditionally referring to one who has performed the Hajj, in traditional Moro culture, persons who have performed the Hajj who also have brought home knowledge coming from the Hijaz (pre-modern Saudi Arabia) where originally traditional Sufi Masters (among them Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Makki) originally resided in the Cities of the Haramain (Medina and Makkah) prior to leaving the kingdom.

In the contemporary period, the following are the terms used to call Muslim religious leaders who were educated in the new religious educational system that was instituted in the Middle east and around the world.

  1. Ustadz (plural Asatidz), refers originally to a university professor (in the Middle East) but eventually refers to any religious scholar who has studied Islam and teaches in the Madrasah in the Philippines.
  2. Aleem (plural Ulama), a learned or educated Muslim, it is taken from the root word Uloom (knowledge), and because in the perspective of Islam, all knowledge is property of the Muslim, and that in traditional Islamic scholasticism, all knowledge was considered as part of Islamic civilization, scholars where called Ulama/Aleem. Today, this would refer to individuals who have studied Islamic studies and knowledge.
  3. Mufti, a Muslim legal expert who is empowered to give rulings on religious matters. normally selected from a group of Muslim scholars, in the Philippines, this is represented by the Darul Ifta which is present through the office of the Darul Ifta of Zamboanga Basilan, Sulu Tawi Tawi and Palawan headed by Sheikh AbdulBaqi Abubakar al-Azhari, a Sunni scholar and religious adviser to the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), and the Regional Darul Ifta-Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a predominantly Salafi religious institution under DEPED-ARMM.

There are however other terms, honorifics and names used to identify religious leaders and scholars among them:

  1. Sheikh- a traditional Arabic term denoting an Arab elder. This has become the term that denotes or identifies traditional Islamic scholarship. This may also refer to those who bring pilgrims (hajis) to Saudi Arabia for Hajj.
  2. Maulana – in Arabic means Master, an original term used to refer to the Prophet Muhammad (Salawatullahi Alayhi), his Companions (RTA) and his descendants (AS), but now is used to refer to Muslim scholars, particularly those who have sufi background.
  3. Sayyid – taken from Arabic implying they are descendants of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) , this is normally used by traditional Sunni and Shiah scholars to denote their lineage to the Prophet Muhammad (Salawatullahi Alayhi).
  4. Datu is an originally indigenous term for Muslim chiefs but later evolved to denote Muslim leaders who are nobility (possessing royal or shariff lineage)
  5. Sultan is a term denoting Muslim political leaders who have descended from the two original sultanates in Mindanao – Sulu and Maguindanao (all other sultanates in Mindanao emanate from these two).

There maybe other terms that may be overlooked by the author, but so far these are the major ones being used.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wishes to share his/her thoughts on peace in Mindanao. Yusuf Roque Morales is currently Commissioner representing Muslim Minorities (Sama Tribe) at the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos and a member of the Board of Advisers of Al-Qalam Institute for Muslim Identities, Ateneo de Davao University, a Consultant for Muslim and IP concerns of the Social Development Council, Ateneo De Zamboanga University and adviser to the Indigenous Peoples Council of Leaders of Zamboanga city and of Salaam Ateneo de Manila University.  He is currently a visiting lecture to several service academies and schools in the uniformed services of the Philippines)