PEACETALK: The need to consolidate a Council of Religious Elders of Muslims in the Philippines

(Yusuf Roque Morales is a Commissioner at the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos)

The Philippines is a multicultural country, primarily bound by ties of language, tribe and culture. As a young nation beset by conflict and internecine violence, these are the primary sources of unity among communities and after the Marcos era, where an attempt to create a national ideology was erased due to the EDSA revolution. The country was beset by disunity by the lack of this.

The creation of such a national ideology can prevent the possible dismemberment of the country due to some adventurist separationist movements and individuals entertaining the idea.

The Muslims in the Philippines

The Muslims in the Philippines are a cultural mosaic, as they consist of thirteen entholinguistic groups plus the Muslim Converts (Balik Islam), each ethnolinguistic group having its own culture and traditions. Their understanding and practice of Islam is dependent on their historical Islamization and recent influence of Islamic propagators in their areas as well as access to media where Islamic propagation is broadcast.

Evolution of Islam in the Philippines

The evolution of Islam in the Philippines like in other countries, was gradual through the arrival of travelling merchants, intermarrying into the local royalties, later to be visited by Muslim missionaries from different countries and evolving to become the court religion by the sultanates.

As such Islam is a mosaic and not a single monolithic interpretation in the Philippines just like in other places in Southeast Asia like Malaysia and Indonesia. The first to arrive were the travelling Seyyeds and Shariffs (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace be Upon him) who were either following orthodox Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaah, Sufism and early Shiism (Keysaniya, Ismailiyah and Ithna Ashari). They then intermarried into the local royalties of the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao around the early 10th-11th century.

In the 11th-12th century, Sufi Missionaries coming from Tarim Yemen and other parts of the Arab and Southeast Asian world came and settled in these Muslim kingdoms in the Philippines which then sent their own missionaries to the other tribes which were also later Islamized. The Sama and the Iranun were responsible for the entry of the Arabs and missionaries to Mindanao as they ferried them across borders and islands.

The practice of Islam was then assimilated and indigenized into local culture. Our Islam then was primarily sustained by Imams trained through either Malaysian or Indonesian pesantrens. This practice of Islam remained until the 1900’s when we started sending students to the Middle East and this gradually changed in the 1970’s when we  started sending students to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt among others.

The different schools of thought of Islam in the Philippines

Just like in Christianity there are different schools of thought in Islam. The only difference is that despite their differences in many areas these Muslims can pray together in one worship service. They also have a common source of all of their teachings- the Holy Quran and the Hadith (traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and their interpretation by their scholars through their books of theology, jurisprudence, creed .These different groups of Muslims are as follows:

  1. Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaah (also known as ASWJ). They follow either Aashairah or Maturidi in Aqeedah, their madhab in southeast Asia in Shafii (After Imam Shafii). This is the school of thought stipulated in PD 1083 or the Code of Muslim Personal law. This is represented by the practice of Islam in most parts of the world such as Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Africa and Southeast Asia. Their primary basis of text for aqeedah (creed) is aqeedah tahawiyah. Adherents are required to follow one school of law (madhab) as a guidance in their legal and daily affairs. Generally, in Southeast Asia, most adherents of ASWJ follow the Shafii school of law. Examples are the Sabeil al-Muhtadien and Darul Makhdumin Madrassahs located in Zamboanga, Basilan Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
  2. Normally ASWJ are Sufis and Sufis are ASWJ, they practice deep spirituality of Islam, and arrived during the early stages of Islam in Southeast Asia. Brought by travelling merchants, this was often interspersed with classical ASWJ. Representative of this was the makhdumins (the first missionaries of Islam in the Philippines.) Examples are the Darul Abdulqadir Jilani Dergah in Talon Talon and the Maharlika Blue Mosque community.
  3. Shiism- another school of thought which also came through the same route as the two others. Today this is represented by Iran as the leading representation.
  4. Indigenous Islam. Also referred to as Ilmu kamaasan /Ilmu kamatoahan/Ilmu sa Matoah Ilmu Minatoah (knowledge of the elders,) it is an indigenized amalgamation of Islam from the preceding schools of thought and local cultural customs. This is actually contextualized and simplified according to how the elders have understood Islam and the process of Islamization of the communities. These are normally communities that are located in far rural areas.
  5. Salafi Manhaj. The Salafi Manhaj owes to the term Salaf-as-saleh, originally a school of thought coming from the Hanbali Madhab. Its methodology was further developed by Muhammad ibn Abdulwahab and by later scholars in Saudi Arabia. This school of thought (manhaj) presupposes that they are following the early followers of Islam (Salaaf as-Saleh). This is the current predominant school of thought in the Gulf cooperating countries (GCC). They are also considered to be part of the Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaah community. The difference is that classical ASWJ can be Sufis and Sufis can be classical ASWJ, while Salafis cannot be Sufis and vice versa. There are other notable characteristics that can be found in other articles. This school of thought is notable for active propagation and conversion of people to Islam (Balik Islam phenomenon), marked intolerance for interfaith and intrafaith engagements, and intolerance for Muslims following other schools of thought. Examples of these groups are the Mahad Moro, Mahad Salamat and Mahad Quran wal hadith (all in Zamboanga city), Mercy Foundation (in manila and Davao) Al-Maarif Educational Center in Baguio. Due to widespread support from Saudi Arabia as well as returning overseas contract workers, this is slowly overtaking the ASWJ community in terms of numbers and communities influenced, including the Regional Darul Ifta of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
  6. Jamaat tabligh. The Jamaat tabligh is a movement that started in South Asia aiming to revitalize Muslims’ practice of Islam. More like a revivalist movement, politically neutral and tolerant, they are characterized by Khuruj (regular traveling from one mosque to another) to call people back to the mosque and pray. The most moderate, apolitical and pacifist among the different Muslim groups, they are found in many mosques. Most prominent is the Jamaat of Ustad Mahdi Batua of Quiapo Golden Mosque and in Echague. They are well known for their practice of Khuruj (going from one mosque to another to call people to pray) and the Juhur Ijtimah, an annual gathering of members worldwide.
  7. Nurculuk or the Resale Noor Movement. This is a Islamic Movement that calls people back to Islam. The basis of unity of this group is the multi-volume compilation of articles and books called Resale Noor (epistle of light) which is a voluminous commentary on the Quran and Hadith by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th Said Nursi’s main theme in his works is answering modern man’s major crisis – the absence of certainty of Faith. The Resale Noor is a monumental work that aims to address this. Said Nursi says that all suffering in the world is because of three things — ignorance, poverty and misunderstanding. In his opinion this can be healed by knowledge, service and understanding others. This is elucidated in his magnum opus as a guide to Muslims. This group is active in many parts of the country and has trained many educators. Notable among them is the Risale Nur Institute in Cagayan de Oro City and their dershanes in different cities in the Philippines. They are also responsible for publishing many Islamic books for use in elementary, high schools and college subjects and has been tested in ARMM during the term of ARMM CHED Regional Secretary Norma Sharief.
  8. Hizmet or the Fethullah Gullen Movement, founded by Turkish scholar Fethulah Gullen. Their principles actually come from the Resale Noor, except that in the present political context, the Hizmet movement has been listed as a terrorist organization by the Turkish Government. However, it is important to note that the Hizmet movement focuses on the principles of service to Humanity (Hizmet) and Dialogue and Cooperation as a mechanism of understanding others. They are well known to have established several schools in the Philippines that is considered world standard in Science and mathematics education.
  9. The Ahmadiyah. Considered by most Muslim groups as heretics and non-Muslims, Ahmadis (as they call themselves) believe in the major tenets of Islam with the exception that they believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani is the last prophet and the promised Mahdi/messiah, with which majority of Muslim sects disagree due to the concept of the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). This community consists of expatriates and predominantly Badjaos who are normally in the lowest social strata in Moro society.

It is important to note that with the exception of the Shia and the Ahmadiyyah community, all other groups consider themselves Sunni with relative minor differences in approaching their understanding of Islam. With the exception of the Ahmadiyyah, all of the other groups are recognized by the Amman Message as Muslims due to the proximity of their major tenets of belief. Both Shiahs and Ahmadiyyahs have experienced harassment, persecution and acts of violence at times resulting to death from Salafi adherents in several instances.

Presidential Decree 1083 also known as the Code of Muslim Personal Law in the Philippines promulgated by President Marcos in 1972 recognizes the Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaah (ASWJ) and the madhab practiced by Muslims in the Philippines,  the Shafii Madhab which is the predominant school of thought and madhab practiced in Southeast Asia.

With this in mind as a context, it is not possible to have a singular council of Muftis as each group follows a particular different set of jurisprudence and elders and the Darul Ifta can not be used as the basis of unity of Muslims in the Philippines.

Organizational models of councils

It is important to highlight that the evolution of leadership councils for Muslims differ from one country to another depending on the historical context.

In Malaysia, the Muftis fall under the purview of the sultans who are tasked to protect Islam in Malaysia, and the Muftis who are predominantly tasked to protect the ASWJ aqeedah and strong rhetoric against wahabization and salafization have been seen in Malaysia.

In Indonesia, there are two major groups of Ulama, the Nahdatul Ulama which represent the traditional Ulama which are ASWJ, and the Muhamadiyyah (that have both ASWJ, Sufi, Salafi groups). Both have their own Fiqh (jurisprudence councils) which interpret Islam for the Muslims in Indonesia.

In Singapore there is the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapore (MUIS) which consists of similar nature such as the Muhammadiyah where ASWJ, Sufi, Salafi scholars are present and provide policy for Muslims in Singapore as defined by the national policy of that country.

In the United Kingdom, each religious group has their own governance system as long as they comply with national standards and with the standards set by the Home Ministry.

In the Philippines, the charter of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos provides for a council of elders to be taken from the different religious, cultural and ethnic groups to serve as advisers in policy formulation for the benefit of Muslims in the Philippines. This legal basis is the best case scenario as Muslims in the Philippines, other than having different schools of thought, also have cultural and ethnic leadership structures that must be included in the policy making process not simply the religious leaders.

Moving ahead

The best way ahead are the following:

Reconstitution of the Commission en banc of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos following the expiry of the terms of the four commissioners as there are five vacant slots for Commissioners on March 2018, and the appointment of a full secretary by that time as well.

Convening of a national council of elders taken from the following: (1) different religious leaders from the different Muslim schools of thought in the Philippines (2) cultural leaders and icons among the Filipino Muslims (3) key Muslim leaders of known credibility and honor.

Both should be vetted by the National Security Council and the intelligence community to ensure that both sets of leaderships agree and follow the national security policy 2017-2022 as set forth by the President.

Only then can these bodies fully serve the President and the Filipino people.


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