No Island Is an Island, Not Even Simunul in Tawi-Tawi

Tawi-Tawi lies in the southwesternmost corner of the Philippines, only miles from Sabah, Malaysia. Over three hundred islands are located in this province, most of them small and uninhabited. The island of Tawi-Tawi is the largest of these islands. The Sama are the predominant ethnic group of Tawi-Tawi Province and live along the coast of Tawi-Tawi Island and on the shores of the many small islands that surround it. The island of Bongao (pronounced “Bunggau”), located on the western tip of Tawi-Tawi Island, is the provincial capital and regional center of trade.

Simunul Island is seven miles south of Bongao. The island is only fifteen square miles in size, but it contains fifteen barangay (communities) and is home to over 25,000 people. With its swaying palm trees and turquoise-colored sea, Simunul is picture perfect. There were moments during my fieldwork there when, watching the sun set over the sea and listening to the call to prayer, I believed that Simunul was a timeless, distant place. As a coup was attempted in Manila, as Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War ensued, and as the Soviet Union collapsed, life went on as usual in Simunul.

Or, I should say, life went on as usual for me. People of Simunul were aware of these world events and understood that they would soon experience the ripples of their effects. After the coup attempt in Manila, more people planted cassava because they realized that political instability in the capital would result in inflated food prices. Likewise, the situation in the Middle East caused the price of gasoline to rise, requiring people to pay another five pesos to travel to Bongao.

The Sama of Simunul, concerned about their kin who work in Middle East, closely followed the events of the war announced over the radio. One man was convinced that if a world war ensued, Simunul would be one of the first places to be bombed, as a result of its strategic importance. This conviction is less absurd when one considers that the Japanese invaded Simunul during the Second World War, that Simunul was the training ground for President Marcos’ covert Operation Merdeka [an attempt to "liberate" Sabah] in 1967, that the people of West Simunul participated in the Moro National Liberation Front from 1972 to 1974, and that the Philippine Navy shelled West Simunul because of this MNLF activity. The people of Simunul do not “go off to war” in foreign lands. Unfortunately, national and international violence has a way of coming to their small island.

While I could thus pretend to be on a remote and isolated island, the Sama with whom I lived could not afford the luxury of such an illusion. The seas I perceived as clear, tranquil, and little-trafficked were actually swirling ocean currents that for centuries have been drawing the Sama into contact with a succession of outside powers. Simunul is not and has never been an isolated enclave.

For centuries the Sama of Simunul Island were subjects of the Sulu Sultanate. This sultanate emerged in the fourteenth century and was dominated by the Tausug people of the island of Jolo (pronounced “holo”). The Sultan of Sulu administered the Tausug, Sama, and Bajau people of the Sulu Archipelago by assigning datu, traditional regional leaders, to specific regions. These datu were usually Tausug men who were subordinate, loyal, and accountable to the sultan.

The Sama also have ties to the Malays of Sabah, Malaysia, with whom they have a lively and profitable trading relationship. This relationship continues today in spite of the national boundaries that separate Malaysia and the Philippines, and the laws that define their trade as smuggling. Currently, almost half of the Simunul population lives and works in Sabah, where they easily find jobs in lumber mills, restaurants, and shops. The wages are quite high in Sabah, and consumer goods are much cheaper than in Tawi-Tawi. When the Malaysian government cracks down on illegal aliens, the Sama are shipped back to Tawi-Tawi, only to return days later aboard the boats of traders/smugglers. There is thus a steady traffic of people and goods between Sabah and Simunul.

The Sama are also oriented toward Mecca. Mecca is the ponsot dunia, or navel of the world, for these Muslims. People pray toward Mecca, sacrifice to travel to Mecca as pilgrims, and, when they die, are buried with their bodies facing Mecca. The Middle East is not only a center of Islam, however. It is also a center of employment. The Sama began sending people abroad in 1975. In 1990 about 14 percent of women from Simunul between the ages of twenty and forty worked in the Middle East as domestic helpers, midwives, and nurses. Seven percent of men of the same age group worked in the Middle East as laborers.

The people of Simunul are oriented toward the United States as well. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States took possession of the Philippines. After many violent military acts, the Americans “subdued” the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu, a feat the Spanish had failed to accomplish during their three-hundred-year reign in the Philippines. Employing a policy of attraction, the American government instituted public schools throughout the Philippines. In 1918 the United States built an elementary school in Simunul. Shortly thereafter, children continued their studies in a high school located in Jolo. By the 1930s the Sama themselves were becoming teachers and replacing the Americans and Christian Filipinos who taught them. Today, about 30 percent of the adult population of Simunul has had some college education, and half of this number are college graduates. Their ability to speak English fosters an awareness of and participation in world events and discourses.

These seas of strong currents carried Tausug datu to Simunul and brought American teachers and administrators to Bongao. These seas carried furtive traders and workers to Malaysia and brought pilgrims to the Persian Gulf. These seas also brought foreign Muslims, carrying the Word of Islam, to the people of Simunul.

One of the first of these foreign Muslims was a man the sarsila (local histories) identify as Sheik Makhdum. According to the sarsila, Sheik Makhdum arrived in Simunul aboard an iron ship but, once in sight of the island, walked the remaining distance on the water. He taught the people of Simunul about Islam and impressed them with his supernatural abilities. Sheik Makhdum built a mosque for his followers, carrying tree trunks from the jungle to the seashore as if they weighed no more than matchsticks. The pillars of this mosque still stand today, serving as a testament to the presence and the power of Sheik Makhdum. These pillars have been dated to the fourteenth century and support the claim that this is the oldest known mosque in the Philippines.

Many Muslim traders and missionaries followed Sheik Makhdum to Simunul, some of them spending their lives on the island. The descendants of these missionaries have a special status in the community and are believed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

After the Second World War, many Muslim Filipinos were educated in madrasah (schools of Islamic learning) in Jolo and Basilan. These learned men became missionaries and traveled throughout Mindanao and Sulu to teach people about Islam. Four of these missionaries found their way to Simunul and spent years living with and teaching the Sama.

SOURCE: “The Ahmadiyya Movement in Simunul: Islamic Reform in One Remote and Unlikely Place,” by Patricia Horvatich, in Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 184-187

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Filed under Islam, Malaysia, Philippines

One response to “No Island Is an Island, Not Even Simunul in Tawi-Tawi

  1. Pingback: Suppression of Piracy in the Philippines After 1848 « Far Outliers

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