Tarsila, Maratabat and Sabah: Chain, Honor and Common Humanity

[Article written by Datu Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan of the Ateneo de Davao University – Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue]

On February 11, 2013, a group calling themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” arrived in Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia. They were led by Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Jamalul Kiram III one of the claimants to the Sulu Sultanate, and laid claim to Sabah in an act to subvert Malaysia’s sovereignty over Sabah. The group asserted that their objective was to claim eastern Sabah (formerly North Borneo) by virtue of their historical control over the territory which they claim is a gift from the Sultan Muhyiddin of Brunei for helping the latter in the Bruneian Civil War of 1660-1673.

As of the writing of this article, the standoff has not yet been resolved. With 74 reported casualties on both sides including non-combatants and reports of human rights violations, the situation has worsened to proportions that can only be regarded as “determined irrationality”. A day after the initial attacks in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Ateneo de Davao University – Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue issued a statement calling for an end to the violence in Sabah “in the name of sobriety, dialogue and peaceful resolution” which it deems is the only way out of this standoff and the bloodbath that would only result from this conflict.

This paper aims to explain the Sabah Standoff and territorial claims in the eyes of  Al Qalam Insititute of the Ateneo de Davao University. This paper has two central points of discussion, the tarsila (genealogical records) and maratabat (honor).

Before proceeding, it is important to first understand the sultanate.

A sultanate is a socio-cultural and political institution influenced by the Arabs to the pre-colonial Southeast Asian communities. This is a federation of clans and communities or balangays that recognized the power of the sultan. Thomas McKenna writes: “They were loose confederations of local overlords, or dates. Datus formed a tribute-taking aristocracy with hereditary claims to allegiance from followers.” The first sultan of Sulu was a Johore-born Arab and religious scholar Sayyid Abu Bakr Abirin who settle in Banua Buansa Ummah in Sulu. After his marriage to a local dayang-dayang (princess) Paramisuli he founded the sultanate and assumed the title Paduka Mahasari Maulana al Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim – the title showing clear Hindu roots.

Can a federation of clans, communities/balangay exercise sovereignty? As a general rule, no, a federation of clans, communities/balangay cannot exercise sovereignty. However, in the case of the Sultanate of Sulu, it has a historical basis of exercising its right to determination as a people separate and distinct from the Filipino people. We can add here that Sulu has sovereignty over parts of Sabah even before the cessation by Spain of the Philippines to the USA precisely because Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and parts of Mindanao have never been colonized by Spain. The 1742 Treaty of Alliance between Spain and Sulu Sultan Azim Ud-Din further proves that the sultanate was independent of Spain and had, in fact, sovereign control over the Sulu archipelago.

How did the concept of sultanate begin? What is the basis for this claim? The answer to this question may be summarized and greatly understood by studying the “tarsila”, its history and function. Many of us do not realize the importance of claiming right lineage in the datu system or the sultanate. The key point in knowing the the status of a person and the legitimacy of his authority and rule is through the tarsila, essential to the datu or sultanate system.

The Datu System and the Tarsila Connection

The Datu system is one of the oldest, and most powerful institutions in Southern Philippines. Families and clans in Maguindanao, Lanao, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi, and in traditional domains of non-Islamized indigenous groups are centered in recognizing the power and influence of the datus. With the introduction of Islam, these datus have confederated themselves in establishing the Sultanate.

Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu have this distinct strong attachment to the datu and sultanate systems because of the existence of the tarsila. Tarsila is defined as the genealogical lineage with particular reference to the succession of hierarchy and exercise of power.[1] The transmission of the tarsila has always been through oral means like songs and chants or dhikir. Only few ruling families were able to record their tarsilas; in these cases, they were written down on goat’s skin and engraved on brass gongs.

Tarsila is not only a cultural practice but also a religious recognition that a person and his/her family and clan, has a direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The founding fathers of Islam in Sulu and Maguindanao were Shariff Makdum and Shariff Kabungsuan, respectively. They were from Sumatra and Borneo of Arab descent related to the prophet of Islam as recorded in the tarsilas. Therefore, a datu or a sultan is believed to be a descendant of the Prophet and because of this, he is a political and a religious leader, thus the official title of sultan is both Batara (lord) and Maulana (religious scholar).

The term tarsila comes from the Arabic silsilah, which means a chain or a link. It is used in the Muslim south as in other parts of the Indonesian and Malay world to refer to written genealogical accounts.[2]

Muslims in Mindanao believe that the primary function of the tarsila is to trace the ancestry of an individual or family. The ancestry may be an important political figure or religious leader or a shariff.

Taking this into consideration, the tarsilas were not meant to remain purely historical documents or remembrances of the past, but also as a warrant for the “legitimate the claim of individuals or families to hold political power or to enjoy certain traditional prerogatives or at least some prestige in their respective communities”. [3]

Most present-day traditional and political leaders in the Muslim areas have their respective tarsilas supporting the legitimacy of the power and rule over the people.

To this date, most of the tarsilas are kept by the different clans and political and traditional ruling clans have their own keepers of the tarsila.[4] However, according to Hadji Nasser Ayunan, “proper institutionalizing of the legitimacy of the tarsila is needed to avoid any conflict of claims by the present generation is needed.” Thus, the language or the lingua franca of the tarsila contributes to the legitimacy of the claimants.

According to Cesar Abdul Majul, “it is commonly accepted that the use of this criteria is quite reasonable.” In the case of Sulu, trade relations spanned the Malay peninsula and Indonesian archipelago as far back in the 13th century, or even earlier.

Early documentation of the tarsila was done by Dr. Najeeb Saleeby especially of the Sulu and Maguindanao tarsila or “selesilah”. Professor Majul further reiterates that, “we are all greatly indebted to Dr. Najeeb Saleeby for the collection, translation and publication of many tarsilas from Sulu and Mindanao… considering that many of these documents had been burnt or lost during the last days of the Japanese Occupation in 1945.”

Importantly, we must add that the datu system and sultanate existed exclusively of one another as two separate political structures before they finally converged with the advent of Islam in the Southern Philippines. The old datu system of local overlords merged with the Islamic and Arabic sultanate system in which the sultan “commanded the allegiance of other datus”. Since alliances were formed by marriages (the sultans’ daughter being married to a local datu or his marriage to a daughter of another datu) the tarsila made sure that the precious bloodline of the Prophet remained intact and the sultan’s legitimacy (owing to his direct lineage with the Prophet) was unquestioned by his Muslim constituents or followers.

Mindanao Context

Mindanao is the ancestral homeland of the more than 30 ethno-linguistic groups. Thirteen of these indigenous groups were Islamized and count themselves as Muslim Filipinos. The others are popularly known as the Lumad, Visayan word for ‘native’ or the ‘un-Islamized/un-Christianized’ tribes of Mindanao.[5]

The thirteen major  Islamized ethno-linguistic groups are:

1.     Badjao

2.     Iranun (also known as Ilanun)

3.     Jama-mapun

4.     Kalagan

5.     Kalibugan

6.     Maguindanao

7.     Maranao

8.     Molbog (Melebugnon)

9.     Palawani

10.  Samal

11.  Sangil

12.  Tausug

13.  Yakan

These indigenous peoples of Mindanao who embraced Islam established their own sultanates and set of datus. Thus, we have the Sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao, and pockets of sultanates of Iranuns, and Maranaws. All claiming their legitimacy and moral ascendancy from their direct lineage  to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him).


The kinship system of the Maguindanaons, Tausugs, and Iranuns is bilateral. This is not unique in their culture. It is common throughout the country. Bilateral descent is a system of family lineage in which the relatives on the mother’s side and father’s side are equally important for emotive, filial ties or for transfer of property or wealth. It is a family arrangement where descent and inheritance are passed equally through both parents.[6] Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans, one through the father (a patri-clan) and the other through the mother (a matri-clan).

Among the Muslim ethno-linguistic groups in Mindanao it is unusual. It is modified by a system of social rank, certain rules of descent, and distinctive marriage patterns related to bilateral kinship.[7] Social rank is determined by one’s maratabat, or social status. For those belonging in higher rank, “maratabat” is based on real or imputed descent from the Sharifs (first Arab missionaries that brought Islam in the region). Families belonging to the royalties maintain elaborate genealogies/tarsilas to validate their claims to his/her line of descent.

In simple definition, maratabat means the dignity and honor of the person. It has a distinct characteristic of social significance because the individual who possesses the greatest maratabat are those persons who are most directly descended from Sharif Kabunsuan (among the Maguindanaons) and Sharif Makdum (among the Tausugs).[8]

Maratabat is central to the social and political organization because it gives the datus/sultans special claim to power and privilege. Therefore, the maratabat’s legitimacy and moral ascendancy has a direct connection to Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him). 

Connecting the Dots to Sabah

The recent Sabah standoff brought local and international attention as it also happened in the same of month of the Bud Daho (1906) and Jabidah (1963) massacres opening up old wounds for the Bangsa Moro, most especially the Tausugs of Sulu. The objective of the Sulu “Royal Security Forces” to re-claim eastern Sabah also sparked different opinions from the Philippines and Malaysia, causing some to point dirty fingers at conspiracies that aim to topple governments, derail peace talks or destabilize elections in both countries. Dr. Farish A. Noor writes of the standoff: “[W]hat has happened is that a group of non-state actors, namely those who claim to be the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu, have unilaterally and without the consent of the government of the Philippines, entered into the territory of another state – Malaysia – bearing arms and demanding their right to settle there.”

Yet this article digs deeper at possibly the fundamental reason for the ongoing acts of the Tausugs – their wounded maratabat.  Also on closer inspection, the shared history and bloodlines of the Sulu sultanate with the  sultanates of Brunei, Melaka and Makassar-Gowa are closely interlinked that fundamentally, these sultanates are no less than cousins, but more importantly, brothers and sisters in the faith that calls for compassion.

The wounded maratabat of the Tausugs urged them to re-claim the portions of Sabah but it only resulted to great loss of lives on both sides, almost a losing battle the moment it begun. Here, the 18th century writer on the Napoleonic art of war may give important points for reflection for us and the Tausugs in Sabah:

When a state has claims upon another, it may not always be best to enforce them by arms. The public interest must be consulted before action.

 The most just war is one which is founded upon undoubted rights, and which, in addition, promises to the state advantages commensurate with the sacrifices required and the hazards incurred. Unfortunately, in our times there are so many doubtful and contested rights that most wars, though apparently based upon bequests, or wills, or marriages, are in reality but wars of expediency. (Article I: Offensive Wars to Reclaim Rights, Art of War, Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini)

Since the influence of Islam is embedded deeply in the social, cultural, and political systems of the Muslims in Mindanao, like the sultanate system of Sulu and Maguindanao, where does this lead the Tausugs, Iranuns, Maranaws, and Maguindanaos? How does the concept of maratabat remain significant? Is this still important in the lives of the Tausugs and the followers of the Sultanate of Sulu?

The tarsila, evidencing as a “chain” of families descended from the Prophet, must be a chain that frees, rather not restrains our relations to the larger family of humankind. The tarsila “chain” must not shackle or tether us in recognizing the complex diversity of the human family in shared dignity and honor and need to work with sober realism for lasting human improvement and peace.

The Holy Quran speaks about identities and recognizes the diversity of people. This is explicitly discussed in Surah Al-Hujurat (The Inner Apartments):

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). Qur’an 49:13  

This verse talks about mankind in general. The most honored person in the sight of Allah is the one who is righteous.

Islam also talks about ummatan wassatan (middle nation or people of moderation). This is described in the verse:

And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that

[with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind. Qur’an 2: 143

Intimaz Yusuf  describes this further by saying that, “the expression ummatan wasatan can be translated into English as a “community of the middle way,”[9] as a “justly balanced”[10] community or “middle nation.”[11] Basically it means that the Muslims should not be a community of extreme right or extreme left but follow the middle path or the straight way, i.e. the way of God’s guidance which is characterized by moderation.[12]

If we claim that we belong to the sultanate or to the lineage of a datu, then one of our roles is to protect our people and embrace the principles of Islam.

Moreover, a descendant of the royalties traces back his/her lineage back to the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him). For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) is the example par excellence of a moderate person who is worthy of emulation through imitatio Muhammadi.[13]

The future of Islam in Mindanao and even in Southeast Asia depends on how the Muslims in this part of the world really see Islam. Muslims have to know and value the real essence of the principles and teaching of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

All the current challenges pertaining to political, economic, cultural and social imbalance and inequality are not because of Islam itself, but rather the way Muslims interpret the context of the sacred texts in the Holy Quran.

An institution like the sultanate, is a valid manifestation of the cultural identities of the people. But the pursuit of claiming tarsila or maratabat by an individual for his or her self-interest cannot prosper in the recent context. Opposition, and violence, even among the Muslim communities may occur. We must aspire that the future of the tarsila be one that seeks to ground us in our common heritage, one that includes everyone, rather than perpetuate the misguided concept of exclusivity – of a select group of families, clans and individuals – that will ultimately, as it is already happening now, lead to more irrational violence. We must therefore apply maratabat with moderation and with a concern for others. Maratabat itself must help us look towards the common good not only of our Muslims but also peoples coming from different faiths within a common humanity.

Sources Cited:

[1] Mckenna, Thomas, Muslim Rebels and Rulers, 2006.

[2] Majul, Cesar Abdul, Muslim History and Culture, October 20, 1977.

[3] Ibid;

[4] Ayunan, Hadji Nasser, Amerol of Maguindanao. Interviewed by the research last December 30, 2012.

[5] Rex T. Linao, The Peace Paradigm of Development, An Agenda for Mindanaons, Cortess Printing Press, 2001

[6] Shepard, John; Robert W. Greene (2003).Sociology and You. Ohio: Glencoe McGraw-Hill. pp. A–22

[7] Encyclopedia of Southeast Asian Ethnography, Edited by N.S. Bisht; T.S. Bankoti, 2004.

[8] Encyclopedia of Southeast Asian Ethnography, Edited by N.S. Bisht; T.S. Bankoti, 2004.

[9] Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’┐n (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1984), 30.

[10] Abdull┐h Y┴suf ‘Al┘, The Holy Qur’┐nText, Translation and Commentary, New Revised Edition (Brendwood, MD: Amana Corp., 1409/1989), 58.

[11] Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an (Lahore: Taj Co. n.d.), 23.

[12] Yusuf, Intimaz, Dialogue Between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasa═an (The Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (The Middle Way).

[13] Yusuf, Intimaz, Dialogue Between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasa═an (The Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (The Middle Way).


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