The Coming of Islam to Sulu

Condensed from the book “Muslims in the Philippines by Dr. Cesar Adib Majul


The written history of Sulu is based mainly on tarsilas. Tarsilas are lineal or multilineal written accounts of genealogy. Sometimes they are accomplished by an introductory legendary or traditional account.

The best-publicized Sulu tarsila is the one reported by Najeeb Saleeby, which was made available to him by Haji Buto Abdul Baqi, one time prime minister to Jamal ul-Kiram II, the last sultan who wielded political power in Sulu. Saleeby published his work on the histories of Maguindanao and Sulu in 1905 and 1908 respectively. The collection of tarsilas on the history of Sulu was collectively designated by Saleeby as the “Genealogy of Sulu”.

The first clue of Islam in Sulu is the information of the coming of a Tuan Masha’ika. Although the Sulu Genealogy did not explicitly states that Tuan Masha’ika was a Muslim, it could be inferred that because his reported children, Tuan Hakim and Aisha, and of his grandchildren are Muslims, Tuan Masha’ika must have been a Muslim. Furthermore, the title “Tuan” in Sulu has been generally associated with Muslims. Although Tuan Masha’ika first appeared to have stayed in the area of Maimbung, his descendants were later on to be found near Mt. Patikul and Mt. Sinumaan in the Lati district on the other side of Jolo Island. All of these, nevertheless, do not signify the Islamization of Sulu. They only suggest the existence of a Muslim family in Sulu, or at most, a Muslim settlement.

Sometime after the arrival of Tuan Masha’ika, there came Karimul Makhdum who settled at Buansa. The term “makhdum” which in Arab lands usually meant “master” in the sense of “one who is served,” was later used in India and Malaysia in the sense of teacher or learned man, for so was he served by those who respected and learned from him. Although the tarsila did not say that Karimul Makdum introduced Islam for the first time, it did say that people from different parts flocked to him and that he built a mosque. Based on some narration, it is probable that there were already some Muslims in Buansa when he arrived. What the makhdum did was therefore to consolidate or reinforce Islam among them and, according to tradition, make some conversions. That he was called later “Tuan Sharif Aulia” suggests that he was a missionary and preacher, since the term “aulia” sometimes carried this connotation in Malaysia. From Buansa, Karimul Makhdum was believed to have traveled to the South of Sulu, passed by Tapul where some people claimed to be his descendants, proceeded to Simunul Island and built a mosque at Tubig Indangan, proceeded to Sibutu, died there and his tomb can still be found at Tandu Banak. The mosque at Tubig Indangan is still existing at present and has been reconstructed at various times.

Another makhdum was also reported who lies buried in Bud Agad in Jolo island and whose proper name was Amin-ullah and entitled Sayyid un-Nikab. It is to this latter makhdum that stories about Chinese companions and trading activities with them properly belong. He probably came by way of the second route mentioned earlier. Near his grave is that of a Chinese, called by the present caretakers as “Hoy-Hoy”, clearly a local version of “Hue-Hue”, the Chinese term for Muslim and used to refer to Chinese Muslims, who constituted one of the five principal groups of peoples in the Celestial Empire. Whereas trading is associated with Amin-ullah in traditional accounts, the Sulu Genealogy says nothing about such activities regarding the makhdum Karim.

According to the Sulu Genealogy, ten years after the arrival of Karimul Makhdum, Rajah Baguinda arrived from Menangkabaw, Sumatra, after stopping at Zamboanga and Basilan. It is believed that on his arrival, negotiations took place between him and the Muslim chiefs at Buansa. Rajah Baguinda was accompanied by orangkayas or men of means, among others. His arrival represents the establishment of a dynasty, and the Sulu Historical Notes say that he married in Buansa. Dr. Majul estimates, that because there were already Muslim chiefs during the arrival of Rajah Baguinda and that some of these chiefs were grandchildren of Tuan Masha’ika, the coming of Rajah Baguinda took place roughly about fifty years after Tuan Masha’ika’s arrival.

“Baguinda” is a Menangkabaw honorific for prince. In Sulu, it was used in the sense of ruler. The fact that Rajah Baguinda is known by this title suggest that he had exercise political power in Buansa. What is significant about his arrival and stay is that, being a Muslim coming to stay among Muslims, he could have served to stimulate the strengthening of Islamic consciousness. It was after the Rajah consolidated his position in Buansa that another important event happened in Sulu. According to the Sulu Genealogy:

After that time came Sayid Abu Bakr from Palembang to Bruney and from there to Sulu. When he arrived near the latter place he met some people and asked them: “Where is your town and where is your place of worship?” They said, “At Bwansa.” He then came to Bwansa and lived with Rajah Baginda. The people respected him, and he established a religion for Sulu. They accepted the new religion and declared their faith in it. After that Sayid Abu Bakr married Paramisuli, the daughter of Rajah Baginda, and he received the title of Sultan Sharif.

What is odd about this narration is the impression given that Abu Bakr introduced Islam when he had been preceded by Karim ul-Makhdum and Rajah Baguinda and more than half a dozen of Sulu chiefs who were definitely Muslims at the time of the arrival of Rajah Baguinda. What is probably meant here is that he had introduced Islamic political institutions or at least that he had further consolidated Islam at Buansa, not that he originally introduced it. However, it is to Abu Bakr that the conversion of the people of the interior of the islands of Sulu is attributed.

The Sulu Genealogy clearly states that Abu Bakr was made a sultan. This implies that the people of Buansa or their chiefs, at least, must have been Islamized to the extent that they would be willing to accept such an Islamic political institution. Therefore what Abu Bakr introduced was not Islam as such but Islam as a form of                     state religion with its attendant political and social institutions. Abu Bakr is said to have lived for about thirty years in Buansa where he had left descendants. One of his sons Kamal ud-Din, succeeded to the sultanate. All the royal datus, and naturally all the sultans who have come from their ranks, have claimed descent from Abu Bakr.

All tarsilas which deal with the first Sultan agree that his title was Sharif ul-Hashim; but not all state that his proper name was Abu Bakr as entered in the Sulu Genealogy. Some traditions maintain that the proper name was Zein ul-Abidin; others mention no proper name. The existing tomb of the first Sultan carries only his titles and was probably made during his lifetime. This might explain why no date of his death was recorded on the tombstone. Traditions are mostly agreed that the first Sultan was an Arab. He is supposed to have gone first to Basilan where he was met by people of Buansa, who, out of admiration and respect for him, extended to him the invitation to go to Buansa. Another tarsila, quite credible one, says that the Sharif ul-Hashim was originally from Arabia, passed through Baghdad, went to Palembang, and then to Borneo. And that when he arrived at Buansa, the Muslims in Sulu were concentrated in this settlement and its immediate area while most Sulus were still infidels. On the strength of tarsilas and traditions, it can therefore, be concluded that the concrete beginnings of Islam in Sulu were first realized at the Buansa area.

Although the Sulu Genealogy does not give any date, a vital archeological datum is available to help in the periodization of the stages of the Islamization process in Sulu. On the slopes of Bud Dato, a few miles from Jolo, there stood a tombstone, which had been relatively well preserved up to only a few years ago when it was suddenly broken, for some unknown reason, into more than a dozen fragments. The tombstone had an inscription only on one side and the Arabic calligraphy was beautiful and clear. According to tradition, it was around the site of this tomb that many Sulu sultans had been crowned – thus the name Bud Dato, the hill of rulers. In times of emergency when Jolo was endangered by invaders, sultans fled to this hill. The translation of the inscription is as follows:

Said the Prophet, peace be upon him:

“Whoever dies far away [from his home] dies a martyr.”

Allah has taken away the late blessed martyr

Tuhan Maqbalu on the date: The sacred, holy month

Of Rajab. May Allah increase its holiness.

The year ten and seven hundred.


According to the inscription Tuhan Maqbalu died sometime in November or December of 1310 C.E. (Rajab 710 A.H.) and that he was a Muslim. He bore the title Tuhan which implies that he was a chief in Sulu. The title Tuhan was sometimes used in the past in the sense “lord” by persons of high authority in Malaysian lands.

Dr. Majul profounded the following stages in the early part of the Islamization of Sulu:


  1. There existed during the last quarter of the thirteenth century if not earlier a Muslim settlement or community in Sulu. This probably consisted of foreign traders, some of whom might have married members of the ruling families or even played some political role. Tuan Masha’ika or Tuhan Maqbalu belong to this stage. Men like them brought the first elements of Islam and raised Muslim families.
  1. The existence of such a settlement, the memory of their leading personages, and a rise to social and political prominence of the descendants of some such personages, as in the case of the descendants of Tuan Masha’ika, demonstrate that the native population was not only antagonistic to Islam but was receptive to it. Such a receptivity explains conversion to Islam with the arrival of the missionaries in Sulu, an event contemporaneous with the work of other missionaries in Java. This is the stage of the makhdumin. It can be estimated to have taken place about the second half of the fourteenth century.
  1. The coming of Muslim Malays from Sumatra at the beginning of the fifteenth century with political implications. This is the stage represented by the coming of Rajah Baguinda with a veritable group of courtiers, some of whom were believed to have been learned, possibly, in religious matters. The existence of a Muslim ruler guarantees the preservation of the work of the missionaries and the prestige of the older Muslims.
  1. The establishment of Muslim political institutions, more specifically the sultanate under the Sharif-ul-Hashim by the middle if the fifteenth century. At this time Islam spread from the coastal areas to the mountain areas in the interior of the island of Sulu. The acceptance of the sultanate institution by the coastal chiefs suggest that Islamic consciousness must have been quite widespread among them. Organized religious instruction became common.
  1. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, increased contacts, both political and commercial, with other Islamized parts of Malaysia, transformed Sulu into an integral part of an expanding dar ul-Islam in Malaysia.
  1. Around the end of the sixteenth century and in the first decades of the seventeenth century, political alliances with neighboring Muslim principalities against the increasing dangers of Western colonization and Christianization as well as the consistent arrivals of itinerant teachers or missionaries like Alawi Balpaki further guarantee the preservation of Islam in Sulu.


As can be seen, Dr. Majul adds, the early stages of the Islamization of Sulu followed a pattern similar to those elsewhere in Malaysia: the initial existense of a foreign Muslim settlement, members of this colony exercising some political power or the rulers of the principality becoming Muslims, the coming of missionaries strengthening Islam among the older Muslims and effecting some conversions, the introduction of additional Muslim institutions, and increasing contacts with other Muslim kingdoms and principalities, thereby heightening Islamic consciousness at home. As it were, Sulu presents in miniature what had generally happened in Malaysia as a whole regarding Islamization.


Reposted from: