Bangsamoro: Many cultures united under Islam

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(CNN Philippines) — On paper, it's easy to classify the Moros of southern Mindanao as a single nation.

Bangsamoro – which describes the proposed self-governing political entity that replaces the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – bears a greater nationalistic tone than its would be predecessor.

Even the phrasing of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law points to that effect, describing the Bangsamoro people as the original inhabitants of Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago, and its adjacent islands, including Palawan.

Actually, the Bangsamoro is composed of several ethnic groups.

Though they all profess the Islamic faith, they each have their own unique languages, cultures, and identities.

It's a scenario akin to that of the Philippines in general: The country's ethnic groups – such as the Tagalogs, Cebuanos, and Kapampangans – see themselves a distinct communities that nevertheless make up a common Filipino identity.

The differences in culture have also manifested in the division of the two preeminent Moro groups.

According to Ungoverned Territories, a study published by the RAND think tank: "The bulk of MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) membership comes from the Maguindanao tribe, but Maranaos and Ilanun are also represented."

The group's current chairman, Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim, comes from the province of Maguindanao.

On the other hand: "[T]he MNLF [Moro National Liberation Front] is predominantly Tausug."

The MNLF's founder, Nur Misuari, hails from Sulu.

Just like conventional Philippine ethnic groups, the communities of Muslim Mindanao share a common history of their own. Theirs, however, is a history distinct from the general Philippine narrative: Islam over Christianity, resistance over colonization, and autonomy over dependence.

Here are some of the major ethnic groups in Muslim Mindanao:


The original inhabitants of what are now the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur are called the Maranao. The group's name is in reference to Lake Lanao, the second largest lake in the Philippines, which feeds the famous Maria Cristina falls in Iligan City.

The singkil, a popular folk dance using bamboo poles, comes from Maranao culture.

Mainstream Filipino culture has also adopted another symbol of Maranao – the Sarimanok. The bird's motif appears in the coat of arms of Far Eastern University. It was also used as a station ID by some TV networks during the 90s.


To the east of the Moro Gulf are the Maguindanao people. Although only a single Philippine province is named after them, they once held claim to the Sultanate of Maguindanao – an Islamic kingdom founded by Shariff Kabungsuan in the early 1500s.

At its peak, the sultanate's influence covered nearly the entire lower half of Mindanao. That's quite large, given the fact that Mindanao island is larger than scores of modern-day countries such as Austira, Hungary, and the Netherlands.


The Tausug are an ethnic group who inhabit the Sulu Archipelago, Tawi-Tawi, and parts of Palawan and Basilan.

In his book, The Filipino Nation, Jim Haskins explains that the term Tausug roughly translates to "people of the current."

The Tausugs formed what was once the Sultanate of Sulu. At its peak, the sultanate's influence expanded from the lower islands of Palawan to the eastern half Sabah.

It was also in Sulu that Islam was first symbolically brought to the Philippines. The country's first mosque is said to have been built on the island in 1380 by a trader from what is know the Malaysian state of Jahore.


The Yakan are those who originally inhabit Basilan.

The term Yakan is a mispronunciation of the word yakal by the Spaniards. In the ancient time Basilan was thickly covered by the yakal trees, according to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

The Yakans are known for the art of weaving.

According to the University of Vienna's Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Yakan weavers use herbal extracts from leave, roots, and barks to dye their fabrics.

It adds that almost every Yakan fabric can be described as unique since the finished materials are not exactly identical.


The Muslim Mindanao arm of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) explains that the Sama are a highly dispersed group of people living in the Sulu Archipelago.

The community is divided into five subgroups, which include the nomadic Badjao. AIJC says that they are considered boat people, spending most of their time in constant movement throughout the islands or living on water.

The NCCA says  the social structure of the Badjao is egalitarian: "Rich people or elitism is completely absent in Badjao society. All of them belong to the poor strata."

"Family structure is the only factor that makes the Badjao society possible. Roles and duties are allocated to every member from the parents down to their children, from the adult to the young ones... (T)he whole Badjao family constitutes also the economic unit, which means, all of them have to work together (sama-sama) for their survival," the NCCA adds.


The Iranun are a group of people who trace their tradition to the sea.

The NCCA says that the group was excellent in maritime activity, having plied the route connecting the Sulu Sea, Moro Gulf, and Celebes Sea.

On land, they inhabited the area bordering the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao.

Although the Iranuns did not form a sultanate comparable to that of the Maguindanao, the NCCA says that the languages of the Maranao and the Maguindanao is strongly rooted in the Iranun tongue.


The AIJC says that the Sangil are found in parts of Sarangani, South Cotabato, and Davao del Sur.

It adds that the group is known for its skills in boat making.

According to the NCCA, the Sangil come from Sangihe – an archipelago sprawling the Celebes Sea. During the age of Sultanate of Maguindanao, the Sangil contributed boats, fighters, and arms in raids against Spanish territories.