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A Look at Philippine Mosques

October 06, 2003


In the Philippines, it can be assumed that the coming of Muslim foreign traders  also marked the establishment of mosques in the country.

During the last quarter of the 13th century, if not earlier, there existed already a Muslim community in Sulu. This probably consisted of foreign traders some of whom might have married members of the ruling families and even played some political role, among them Tuan Mashaika and Tuhan Maqbalu, leading figures in the islamization of Sulu.

In Sulu, the oldest mosque is in Tubig, Indangan, Simunul islands. The original mosque is attributed to Makhdum Karim (*14th century). It has been reconstructed at various times.

In Maguindanao, most of the Maguindanao tarsila (chain of descent line) and traditions give the impression that the work of conversion was mainly due to the work of one man, Sharif Mohammad Kabungsuwan (who lived around 1515 or much earlier, according to some historians). It is maintained that the process of conversion in these areas was brought about by a system of political alliances and plural marriages on the part of the Kabungsuwan after he had been able to establish himself initially as a ruler in Maguindanao.

Among the Maranaos, tradition mentions the coming of another Sharif Alawi to what is now known as Misamis Oriental and how his preaching there in time spread to Lanao and Bukidnon. By all indications, Islam was brought to Lake Lanao by the datus there who were introduced to the faith by means of marriage alliances with Muslim Iranuns and Maguindanao datus, principally with the former.

In Lake Lanao, the earliest mosque is found in Taraka, on the eastern side of the lake. It is called Babo Rahman which is said to have been constructed by one of the earliest ancestors of the Maranaos, Apo Balindong. Babo comes from the Arabic word baab (door) and Rahma symbolically signifies the “door of mercy” in the sense that it is the first mosque erected symbolizing the adoption of the people of a new faith–Islam.The mosque has been reconstructed for several times and little information is known regarding its architectural design.   

By all indications, it is safe to assume that the construction of a mosque is always attributed to the sultan who has now accepted the faith. In the first place, it is an indication that he has adopted the new faith and the construction of a mosque is a manifestation of his acceptance.

Along these lines, Majul states that one of the attributes of the Sultan which no one ever contested was his set of eccesiastical rights. As head of the Muslim community, he appointed the chief Qadi (sometimes called locally as Tuan Kali), the Imam, the Bilal, and Khatib of the chief mosques. He had a hand in the choice of the Imams in other chief centers.

As a religious leader, the Sultan appointed all religious functionaries in the realm, from the most important to the most minor officials attached to a mosque. The Sultan, too, had the right to have his name included in thekhutba with an invocation for Allah’s blessings on him and his kingdom.

In Lanao, as practiced generally, the choice for the Imam is based on adat; igma and taritib (customary practice, common consensus and the social order). That is, the title Imam is usually handed down by descent and in like manner, any claim to a title is always based on one’s descent. Such a claim is recorded and validated in the salsila or tarsila.

It can also be argued that the Sultan can be considered both as a temporal (political) and a religious leader (this is true in the case of the prophet Muhammad in the early days of his preaching of the faith). The spread of Islam in the region is principally due to marriage alliances between a foreigner (probably of Arab, Chinese or even of Malaysian descent) with the native ruler –the datu. From this union is traced (by descent) all titles whether political or religious.

Architectural types of mosques in the Philippines

Very little is known about the architectural designs of mosque types in the Philippines. This is due to several factors: 1) much of the earliest types of mosques constructed by early missionaries were made of temporary materials like wood, bamboo, and cogon which do not last for years; 2) the remaining earlier types were either demolished, destroyed during earthquakes, or reconstructed/remodelled to suit modern architectural types based on the middle-east designs; 3) the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca radically changed all earliest types; and 4) very little has been written about the subject.

However, if it is true that the Maranaos were the last group to embrace the faith and that if it is true that some of those who introduced Islam in Sulu came to Maguindanao and that Islam came to the Lake region by way of Maguindanao, it is possible that a sampling of the mosque types in Lanao might represent the “typical” mosques in the Philippines.

One of the earliest types of mosques in Lanao is a five-tiered building resembling a Chinese pagoda. A variation of this type is a three-tiered  or seven-tiered edifice.

The earliest mosque in Sulu found in Tubig, Indangan, Simunul islands resembles one of the types found in Lanao.

The other building looks like a Buddhist temple, especially the upper part. Constructed in 1941, it is decorated with some of the earlier genre of Maranao okir motifs. The mosque is called Masgit sa Buadi Sakayo (Mosque of the Descendants of Sakayo). This is found in Bangon, a suburb of the city of Marawi. It is now dilapidated and abandoned but is utilized as a madraza (sectarian school) during Saturdays and Sundays.

The other earliest types are mostly concentrated on the eastern side of the lake. Some of these mosques constructed along the Taraka river show okir motifs including depictions of the burak (centaur) with some mirrors engraved on the panels of the mosque.

What is interesting to note about some of these mosques is the presence of an inverted jar (probably of the Sung or Ming dynasty) placed at the apex of the dome (known locally as obor-obor). This jar is considered aposaka (heirloom) by the Maranaos. The mosque found in Pantar, on the left side of the road right after crossing the bridge to Iligan City, has one.

As of the moment, there is no exact explanation why the earliest types of mosques in Lanao look like a Chinese pagoda, What is certain is that some Maranaos are proud to possess Chinese jars as posaka. This is evidence of the strong Chinese influence among the Maranaos, some of whom are proud to trace their descent to Chinese ancestors.

Most of the mosques (at least in Lanao) have the basic features: minaret, dome and prayer-niche.

Some mosques in the Philippines have minarets that are not functional unlike those of the mosques in the Middle East or India. In most areas, the bilal (one who calls the prayer), stands in the prayer-niche and calls the azan there.

In Lanao, a huge drum called tabo is suspended horizontally inside the mosque and is beaten to call the believers to the mosque. Among the Yakan, a bamboo drum is used for calling people to worship. This practice is discouraged by the Ulama (religious leaders) because it is a practice traced to the Jews.

Nowadays, a microphone is placed right inside the mosque where the Imam stands. This is where the Bilal calls the azan.

Inside the mosque, one does not find a pulpit (mimbar) but an elevated platform, a chair or a structure, where the khatib delivers his sermon.

Some mosques have separate entrances for the males and the females, while others have common entrances for both sexes. Inside, the mosque is a white cloth hung to segregate the males from the females. Some mosques have a sort of mezzanine where women pray. Usually women stay at the back of the men during worship.

Since ablution is required before one prays, most mosques are found along rivers and lakes. Where water is not available, a tank is built near the mosque where the devout can perform ablution.

Philippine mosques do not have a sahn (courtyard) like those of Middle East mosques. Instead, they have benches outside where people sit and talk while waiting for the next prayer. According to Filipino Muslims, it is not permitted to discuss unIslamic matter inside the mosques.

Muslims from all social strata worship in the mosque five times a day in perfect equality.

The believer (while in the mosque) feels around him the sovereignty of God, and is in a state of spiritual discipline. The faithful in all parts of the world turn their faces towards the same focal point–Kaaba, house of God in Mecca–symbolic of the unity of the world community of Muslims without distinction of class, race, or religion.

Earlier in the history of Islam, the mosque played an important role in the educational life of the Muslims. It functioned not only as a prayer-house but also as a school and sometimes even as a hostel.

In the Philippines, the mosque is constructed with funds from the yearly contributions and other religious financial obligations collected from the people. It is designed and built by them and symbolizes their acceptance of the faith.

In pre-martial law, the mosque was utilized as a venue for political rallies. This is usually done after the Friday service or before the main prayer. However, the speeches are short if done in the mosque.

In brief, as in the early days of Islam, the mosque is the center of the political, religious, and social life of its followers.

*The National Museum has ascertained the age of the said mosque as dating only to 17th century.