In Kutawato, Unveiling the Iranun Tarsila

I had the unexpected good fortune to join a team doing a Focus Group Discussion on “Understanding the Iranun Tarsila as a Tool in Conflict Resolution in Mindanao”. This was organized by the Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia (Ateneo de Davao University) in Cotabato City last Sunday, 20 January 2013. Unexpected because I never thought that it would be both a provocative meeting and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be around the descendants of the proud Sultanates in Mindanao, who shared their life stories, their ancestors’ struggles and the technicalities of genealogical recording. It was also my first time to visit Cotabato City and there were a lot of prejudices that I brought with me like an invisible extra satchel over my shoulders. But already upon entering the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) I contentedly ticked away my biases and found communities thriving, proud of their heritage and trying to pick themselves up after bloody years of conflict.

For the first timer, one still feels a palpable air of unease and an apprehension on what the new Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro might bring to their communities and their lives, yet there is also a pervading hope that life will be normal, time to go back to their farms and time to fight the age-old battle of taming the unpredictable moods of the Pulangi River. I felt that Cotabato is a city with deep wounds that go as deep as the history of our country and even deeper – going back to pre-Hispanic Mindanao, the Sri Vijayan and Majapahit empires in Indonesia. Its scars can be seen running deep in worried eyes, in forehead furrows, the scurry and hurry of getting home after dark, the military (or otherwise) checkpoints that dot the city, or in a stranger’s friendly advice to the tourist to go home after 3 in the afternoon.

Our group stayed at the Hotel Rio in Magallanes Street, where the FGD also took place. My first shock was that the name of the street was a Spanish conquistador right in the city center of Moroland, in the center of colonial resistance in Mindanao. Or maybe I read it differently. It may perhaps stand as an unwitting trophy in the sense that Magellan was fallen, supposedly, by a Moro-Tausug in the name of Lapu-Lapu/Maas Iliji/Maas Pulun as the Tausugs in Basilan and Sulu would proudly tell you. But more scholarly works are needed to prove this, even if it exists only in oral narratives, intellectual propriety insists that it must not be assumed fictitious. Indeed the street’s name was a fitting welcome to my first Cotabato experience!

The FGD team was composed of Prof. Yusuf Morales (as moderator), Michelle David (documenter), Nikki Ayubo (photographer), myself as documenter and headed by Al Qalam’s director, Datu Mussolini Lidasan. It was attended by Mohammad Lidasan, Amerul Umbra Nasser Lidasan, Bajunaid Saban, Abbas Addulkair and Datu Alamada.

The FGD aimed at probing the links, bloodlines and interconnectedness of the people through the use of the tarsila and further focused on the tarsila as a tool in conflict resolution. The following were the general questions that the FGD tried to answer:

  1. Who are the people knowledgeable in the Iranun Tarsila? What are their characteristics, traits and other qualifications?
  2. Aside from the mentioned uses of tarsila, what are its purposes and significance in the people today?
  3. How does tarsila help in resolving conflict?
  4. What are the indigenous modes of conflict resolution? How are they applied in the community?
  5. How significant is the tarsila in the lives of the Iranun people?

The study focused on the Iranun people whose traditional domain are the coastal towns of Datu Blah Sinsuat, Sultan Mastura, Sultan Kudarat, Parang, Matanog (municipalities under the province of Maguindanao), and the towns of Malabang, Balabagan, Sultan Gumander (municipalities under Lanao del Sur). These coastal-living people are generally called Iragaten. The Idalemen, on the other hand, or the upland people traditionally reside in the present towns of Buldon and Barira (parts of Maguindanao), Pigcawayan, Alamada, Banisilan (parts of Cotabato), and Wao, Bumbaran, and Butig (parts of Lanao del Sur).

The Iranun gained infamy because of their maritime raiding and assaults on villages and coastal dwellers as explicated by James Warren in his book “Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity”. Warren described the Iranun as having “a fearsome reputation in an era of extensive world commerce and economic growth between the West and China” and that the name Lanun “struck fear into the hearts and minds of riverine and coastal populations across Southeast Asia two centuries ago.”

One of the participants asserted that the Iranun were the ancestors of the Maguindanao and other Islamized groups in Mindanao and that their tarsila proves that the royal houses of the Maguindanao is a direct line of the Iranun sultans and chieftains. He claimed that the primogenitors of both the Islamized ethnolinguistic groups and the non-Islamized Manobo, Tiruray, etc. named Mamalu and Tabunaway were in fact Iranun. There are still contentions on the Mamalu and Tabunaway story as there are discrepancies in the oral narratives of different groups. Some claim that Shariff Kabunsuan married Tabunaway, while others claim that Mamalu and Tabunaway were Manobo brothers before Tabunaway was Islamized, and other variants. What is important is the assertion of the pre-Islamic roots of these groups and their interconnected histories. In fact, the tarsila of the Iranun points to the house of Maharaja Tabunaway as the earliest line of the sultans of Maguindanao, while the Dulangan Manobo, in particular, traces their descent to Mamalu.

The tarsila is a genealogical record/narration of the Iranun. Other Islamized groups have their own tarsilas but the FGD focused on the Iranun tarsila. Amerul Nasser Lidasan shared that it has two kinds: the Tisa and the Sitta. The Tisa is the genealogical record of the nine shariffs, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, who came out of Meccah in Saudi Arabia to spread Islam and its tenets. The Tisa tarsila points all the way up to the Prophet Muhammed and his ascendants all the way to Adam. The Sitta tarsila on the other hand recounts the ancestors and descendants of Shariff Kabunsuan who himself is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed. The Sitta Tarsila is the basis of all genealogical lines of the Sultanates of Maguindanao and Sulu. An alternative name to the tarsila is silsilah which is Arabic for ‘chain’ or ‘link’.

The Iranun uses the tarsila not only as a simple record of ascendants, descendants and kinship, but also as a tool to identify the line of the sultans and to take records of his bloodline. In Iranun society there is a council of elders called the ‘Pat – a Polaos’ or the ‘Four Pillars’ who uses the tarsila to trace candidates for the Sultan of Maguindanao and enthrone in a special ceremony, the rightful Sultan that they deem fits into the 4 attributes of a Sultan, namely:

  • antawan (wealth)
  • nunawan (lineage)
  • bangsawan (bloodline)
  • rupawan (charisma)
  • and in the case of a tie, ilmawan (intelligence).

Aside from identifying the Sultan’s bloodline, the tarsila is also the story of the Iranun people – of how the Datuship of Manila and Tondo were once connected to their own political and genealogical system. The Sultanates of Brunei, Makassar and Sulawesi can also find common ancestors in the Maguindanao houses most probably from intermarriages resulting from strategic alliances.

The FGD also proved that the tarsila is a tool used by the Iranun in conflict resolution. In cases of rido or clan wars, for example, they resort to the tarsila in finding a common kin who will serve as the mediator for the feuding families. They will then recite the tarsila in a religious ritual that involves the chanting (dhikr/dikil) of Quranic verses.

The following may be a rough guide to how conflicts are resolved:

  • A conflict arises
  • Elders investigate the conflict
  • Identification of the reason for the conflict
  • Families get a mediator, usually an elder datu who is a common kin
  • The Mediator then resolves the conflict.

The tarsila is also used in funerals and weddings to establish lineage. Often in funerals, an elder will recite the tarsila of the deceased to reconnect him/her to the ancient lines of heroes, sultans, and the Prophet Muhammed himself. The participants shared that the tarsila can be considered as a sacred document that contains the names of the deceased and that prayers are said before opening a tarsila, also as respect to the lineage of the Prophet. In weddings, the tarsila of the bride and the groom are recited from the bride all the way to the common ancestors and down to the groom’s ancestors to form a link, symbolic of a singular family that binds the ties of the wedded couple.

More than a genealogical record, the tarsila, as shared by the participants, is also a map of the extent of Islamic influence in the world from Saudi Arabia, to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, proving the linkages of different peoples and the unity of the human race through a religion that teaches surrender to one God, and compassion to mankind, among others.

In the middle of the FGD, we were showed a tarsila and some documents signed by the Pat-a Polaos validating the enthronement of a Sultan. The tarsila was written in a long parchment paper with the different houses signified by different colors. The tarsila included the royal lines of the Kingdoms of Manila, Tondo, and Brunei, and the early Sultanates of the Maharaja Tabunaway, Silungan, Buayan and Maguindanao – all following a direct line from the Prophet Muhammed. I was surprised to find out that succeeding sultans were not necessarily the sons of the previous sultan. They told us that the Pat-a Polaos consults the tarsila and looks for possible candidates in all the branches of the other houses. They then look for the 5 attributes of a sultan from each candidate. This was, they said, to ensure that despotism does not happen and that power is not contained in a single family. Technically they are still one big family with a common ancestor, but the distance from this common ancestor makes each family a single house. There are several technical notes in choosing the sultan and I deem that it must be elucidated on a separate paper to give it its due detail.

It is both sad and disappointing, as the participants shared, that the tarsilas of the Iranuns are now a rarity because of the past “revolutions” in Mindanao. The elders were either killed or too pre-occupied with surviving the Moro wars that the tarsila were either forgotten, lost, or failed to be transmitted to the next generation. The original tarsilas were committed to writing in barks of wood or animal skin and later on to scrolls of paper that were easily damaged. The participants also shared that the tarsila keepers of ancient time were given certain privileges, one of them is residence in the torogan or the Sultan’s house, implying the importance of the records keeper. They jealously kept the tarsila in secrecy, fearing forgery from people who desired to claim the sultanate or to con their way to the royal houses.

At the end of the FGD, someone told me that the Luzon and Visayan people lost something when they gained their Spanish surnames. While listening to those people who could recount their ancestors up to Adam himself, I felt like something was indeed missing, and that the oldest ancestor I could name was only my great-great grandmother on my mother’s side.

How wonderful it would be if we could only pick up the pieces of our lost histories, draw the lines of my mother and my father, connected to your great grandfather, discover a common ancestor, and see them grow in a giant World Tree rooted in a consciousness of brotherly and sisterly love for one and all.

Our trip to the ancient city of Kutawato, bastion of pirates, slave raiders, missionaries and warriors, was an invitation to a deeper understanding of Muslims in Mindanao, the pervading conflict in the area and a reflexive journey towards a people’s identity and my own.

Unveiling the tarsila, we discover that we are all cousins dancing under the watchful eye of God.

[This article is not the official document of the Focus Group Discussion conducted by the Al Qalam Institute. Result of the FGD will be made public after completion of the research.]

3 thoughts on “In Kutawato, Unveiling the Iranun Tarsila

  1. Most of the Iranuns call it SALSILA, a term use by Meranaos. Those Iranuns in Sultan Kudarat only use the term TARSILA because of the influence of Maguindanao from Pikit. Most of Iranuns in Sabah claim that their ancestors were from Malabang.

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