The third Ming Emperor, Yong Le, received with full honors a chieftain from Sulu, whose name is recorded as Paduka Pahala or Battara (a Sanskrit-derivative name) in Beijing. Likely Sama-Tausug or Sama, the Sulu leader brought to China a retinue that notably included his sons, many of his clan, and related leaders; and with tributes, as the Chinese ruler expected of all visitors from political entities regarded as sources of raw materials in China’s increasing foreign trade. Battara died in Dezhou in Shandung Province, the same year he arrived, already en route to the coast for the voyage back to Sulu. His family chose to stay in China and was adopted by Muslim Chinese families in Dezhou, where their descendants, bearing the names An and Wen, continue to live. Battara’s tomb, constructed at state expense under Yong Le in the 13th C, remains and is kept tidy by these families and the state today.

1450 to 1480

The Sulu tarsila records a Sayid Abu Bakr whose life in the Sulu Archipelago coincided with that of the Minangkabau-originated Rajah Baguinda, who arrived in the previous century. An Arabic origin is assumed for Abu Bakr, although he may have been a second-generation Arab from Malacca. From Pangutaran, he is said to have come to what are now Basilan and Zamboanga; but then returned to Sulu — specifically to Bwansa — upon the invitation of one Orangkaya Su’il. Abu Bakr was an adept of Islamic law and theology, and followed the doctrines of the Islamic Abu Ishaq Shami, regarded as the founder of the mystical Sufi tradition. The tarsila maintains that he arrived in Sulu in 1450 from Brunei and Palembang. Marrying the daughter of Rajah Baguinda, Paramisuli, he was absorbed into local culture enough — and as a person, compelling enough — to persuade the local Sama and Tausug peoples to practice a new religion. Styling himself with the trappings of an Arabic caliph, he assumed the name Paduka Mahasari Maulana alSultan Sharif­ul­Hāshim and title of Sultan in 1457. The name aligns him with the Hashemite lineage of Arabia. He is regarded as the Philippines’ first sultan. Abu Bakr died in 1480, after he had spatially redefined Sulu and its environs in accordance with Islamic politico-religious concepts.

1498 to early 1500s

By the 15th C, Islamization had proceeded with considerable momentum in the Sulu Archipelago and nearby areas, notably, in what is now Brunei, immediately south of the Sulu Sea. A sultanate was a growing entity in Brunei by this period — already a century removed from earlier times when Sulu raiders could descend on it. By the late 15th C, Brunei leaders conducted a series of raids against communities in Palawan (Taytay) and Mindoro, and succeeded in establishing Islamic footholds in areas of these islands. Islamization also proceeded incipiently in the Tagalog-speaking settlements at the mouth of the Pasig River. In 1500, a Brunei leader named Bulkiah impinged upon the Tunduk or Tondo community of a man named Sukwu, who held the Sanskrit honorific rajah. The Brunei force appears to have established a Muslim stronghold outside Tondo, south of the Pasig River, named it Selurong, and supported its government by a Muslim relative. The Bruneian Bulkiah also married daughters of Sulu Sama- and Tausug-speaking leaders.

15th Century

Islamization was also proceeding in Central Mindanao, with unknown Arab missionaries initially accommodating to the indigenous social order of Maguindanao- and Iranun-speaking peoples in the upstream region of the Pulangi River. The place eventually came into the historical record as the political entity named Buayan. The first local leader to be recorded was a man named Mamu, who was accorded the vernacular honorific datu. His grandson Pulwa was to marry the daughter of the most pre-eminent of the Muslim missionaries, Kabungsuwan, in the early 16th. It was during Mamu’s time that alliances with Muslim travelers — by marriage, conversion, and political engagement — would result in greater strength for local chieftains. As the historical record emerged, two Maguindanao chieftains named Tabunawa and Mamalu are mentioned. Myth still shrouds these two figures and their children, although there is agreement that they were real individuals.

1515 to 1543

The well-born son of an Arab transplant in Johore (at the southern tip of what eventually became Malaysia in the 20th C) and a daughter of its ruling family, came into the Philippine historical record in the early 16th C. Muhammad Kabungsuwan is understood to have descended from the Prophet, because the Arabic honorific he and his father before him carried, sharif or sayyid, is traditionally reserved for the lineage. Of the early Islamic missionaries in Mindanao (there are dimly recalled pioneers), it is Sharif Kabungsuwan who predominates the narratives of Islamic emergence in the Philippines. He came with a group of Sama-speaking navigators, and from his landfall in Bongo Island off the coast of Cotabato, and then set off for the interior of Central Mindanao towards the headwaters of the Pulangi River.  His missionary activities covered both downstream and upstream areas of Cotabato, among Maguindanao speakers who gravitated to these two pre-existing indigenous power centers — a tarsila mentions “Slangan, Matampay, Lusud, Katittwan, and Simway,” all place names recognizable today — as well as into the area of Malabang in what is now Lanao, to also proselytize among the Maranao- and Iranun-speaking communities. The stories memorialized a strategic network-builder, marrying several times into local leadership families. The sharif became the Islamic leader of previously animist peoples who absorbed Islamic teaching into their earlier blending of Hinduism and Buddhism into the local belief system.

1543 to 1597
(late 16th C and early 17th C)

It is widely believed, among the Muslims of the Philippines, that Sharif Kabungsuwan’s marriages into formerly animist Maranao-, Iranun-, and Maguindanao-speaking families produced ruling lineages in these communities for the next centuries. His marriage to Putri Tunina, the sister of the Islam-welcoming local leader Tabunaway, is said to have commenced the descent line of leaders of the interior, upper reaches of the Pulangi River: the area of Buayan. Putri Tunina comes into the historical record as vaguely mythical, as she is said to have emerged from a bamboo stalk. Kabungsuwan has also married the Iranun woman Angintabu, daughter of the Idatu Maka-Apun of the Malabang area of what is now Lanao. Another marriage, to the daughter of one Tomoai Aliwya of Sulu, allowed Kabungsuwan to assume the status of sultan, after his father-in-law who wore the title. At the start of this tripartite dynastic momentum, the immediate descendants faced the challenge of Spanish incursions. Each heir had a different response to these challenges. After Kabungsuwan’s death in 1543, his descendants kept both the Islamic faith and the momentum of political ascendance over Central Mindanao, as well as their familial and politico-economic ties with other sultanates in island Southeast Asia.

16th Century

When Islam was being proselytized by missionaries in Central Mindanao, there already existed at least two power centers for the peoples speaking the language Maguindanao. The tau sa ilud (people of the lower valley) of the delta of the Pulangi River opening up to Illana Bay were politically distinct from the tau sa laya (people of the upper valley) of the upstream reaches. The wet rice agricultural settlements of the tau sa ilud was also distinct from the older form of agriculture — swidden — of the tau sa laya.

Mid-16th C to 1570s

Soliman (also spelled Sulayman or Suleyman depending on the chronicler) was emergent leader of the Maynila community, which was no longer called Selurong but was keeping faith with Islam and its close relationship with the Sultanate of Brunei. Soliman was a descendant of Brunei’s Sultan Sulayman Bulkiah of the 16th C. But he was more directly the nephew of two men who both carried local versions of Sanskrit honorifics: Bunao or Banaw Lakandola, which name carries the status marker lakan; and a leader known in the historical record as Ache, the old “matanda” rajah of the community of Tunduk (present Tondo) that kept to its animist moorings. Like Matanda, Soliman was recorded with the Hindu honorific rajah, in a clear amalgamation of Hindu into newly-arrived Islamic and ancient local beliefs. Soliman inherited the political communities of Maynila: the areas held by Lakandola; Rajah Matanda’s Tunduk; and Namayan (present Santa Ana). At the time of arrival of the Spanish conquering expedition in 1571 into this part of the Philippines, Soliman was still a young man called rajah muda, young leader.

Mid- to end of the 16th C

Kabungsuwan’s complex descent line is well-documented in Maguindanao tarsila, a genealogy written in jawi, the Arabic script in which Malay and other local languages were inscribed. Particular dates notably include son Sharif Maka-Alang, hence saripada, from as early as 1543, by the Iranun woman Angintabu. Maka-Alang’s known wife was Biili, a B’laan woman who was, like her mother-in-law Putri Tunina, vaguely mythical: she is said to have been found in a crow’s egg. Maka-Alang’s and Biili’s son, Datu Bangkaya, leader as early as 1574; and Datu Bangkaya’s son, Datu Dimasangkay Adil, leader from 1578, from whom the leading datus of the Iranun and Maranao communities all claim descent. Dimansangkay had a half-brother, Datu Gugu Salikula, who married a woman from the Sulu leading family of the period. This Salikula was leader of the Buayan Maguindanao from 1585 to 1597. And Sharif Laut Buisan, another half-brother of both Dimansankay and Salikula, took over leadership, which he held from 1597 to 1619. This Buayan genealogical line is regarded as that of the Sultanate of Maguindanao, even if many in the sequence of heirs are named with the local honorific, datu, or the family status marker, sharif, instead of sultan. Buisan, also called Datu Katchil, was mentor to the rajah muda, Dimasangkay’s son. Together with his protégé, Buisan fought and lost to Spanish forces in an event that was recorded as the Battle of Buayan.


Spanish Governor-General Francisco de Sande instructed Captain Estevan Rodriguez de Figueroa to “subdue the Sulu Islands” and to initiate conversion into Christianity and into farming life instead of sea-oriented trafficking. The expedition was launched from Borneo, which had been annexed by Sande to the Crown; and its purposes were many, aside from conversion. The pioneering historian of Muslim Philippines, Najeeb Saleeby, summarizes these aims: “…first, to reduce Sulu to a vassal state; second, to exact tribute in pearls; third, to secure the trade of Sulu for the Spaniards; fourth, to punish the Sultan of Sulu for the help he rendered the Sultan of Bruney against the Spanish forces; fifth, to rescue the Christian slaves in Sulu; sixth, to deprive the Sulus of their artillery and ammunition and of all vessels except fishing vessels, in order to stop their piracy; seventh, to compel the Sulus to become peaceful agriculturists; eighth, to uproot the “accursed doctrine” of Mohammed and to convert the Sulus to the Christian religion.” Sande’s was the first major military expedition to Muslim enclaves in Mindanao and it succeeded. The success was however short-lived, from the perspective of Mindanao in general. The strikes and counter-strikes were to persist for centuries.


Batara Shah Tangah became Sultan of Sulu. Scholars think he is the “Paquian or Paguian Tindig” the Spanish wrote of. During this period, politico-military prominence in the Sulu Seas was a contest between the Tausug ascendants in Sulu. The leader of the Sama Yakan of Basilan, Tangah’s cousin, Abdasaolan of Basilan, also claimed sultanship; and indeed, assaulted Jolo. While he held out during this attack, Tangah was made to feel vulnerable enough to appeal to the Spanish Governor-General Sande for assistance. Tangah went to Manila and returned to Sulu with two armed vessels. Despite this support, Abdasaolan cut off the Sultan’s boat in a skirmish and in the aftermath, Tangah was killed. The Spanish took the opportunity to attack Jolo. Basilan also started a decline in power, as the Central Mindanao Muslim polities gained traction. As for Sulu, the local men who commanded Spain’s gift vessels formed a consensus around Raja Bungsu, who was wounded in the fight, and elected him sultan to succeed Tangah.


King Philip II of Spain wrote to conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi: “We have also been petitioned in your behalf concerning the Moro Islands in that land, and how those men come to trade and carry on commerce, hindering the preaching of the holy gospel and disturbing you. We give you permission to make such Moros slaves and to seize their property. You are warned that you can make them slaves only if the said Moros are such by birth and choice, and if they come to preach their Mohammedan doctrine or to make war against you or against the Indians, who are our subjects and in our royal service.” In a similar vein, the first Catholic Bishop of the Philippines, Antonio de Salazar, wrote to his King on June 27, 1588: “…in the Island of Mindanao, which is subject to your Majesty, and for many years has paid you tribute, the law of Mohammed has been publicly proclaimed… by preachers from Bruney and Ternate who have come there — some of them even, it is believed, having come from Mecca. They have erected and are now building mosques, and the boys are being circumcised, and there is a school where they are taught the Quran…thus the hatred of Christianity is there…”


Captain Rodriguez de Figueroa’s substantial force for the conquest of Central Mindanao included nearly a hundred vessels and thousands of men, including Visayan conscripts. The Spanish managed to move 30 kilometers upstream of the Pulangi River into Buayan territory (actually about 50 kilometers upstream). Rodriguez de Figueroa was killed by Datu Makaubal, brother of Rajah Sirongan during what was to be called the Battle of Tampakan. Makaubal or Ubal had sworn to kill a Spanish military leader, two days ahead of their encounter. The chronicler Argensola, quoted by Jose Rizal centuries later, wrote that in April of 1596, Ubal gave a speech, saying, “… and you witness, my solemn vow to dare and do in defense of our native land. We are here in our own country, and have neither offended nor declared war upon the Castilians. Yet a Spaniard who calls himself governor of Mindanaw says that he has bought, from his king over the seas, the right to conquer us and to rule in our land for generations, during his own lifetime and that of another who shall succeed him. A self-confessed hireling, he has brought his fellow mercenaries and has been fighting along the Rio Grande against the soldiers of Salalila Longa, our leader on sea and land. Should our Buhahayen patriots dignify with honorable warfare those who fight only for plunder and pay? In what way do they differ from pirates…? Such are not deserving of being met steel to steel, shield against shield. Their leader deserves death … I myself will shorten his purchased governorship by one life, his own. Hear now my vow. May a thunderbolt strike me on land, a cayman devour me in the sea, and may never a woman look with favor on Ubal if I rid not the land of Buhahayanes of this mercenary invader.”


The “Salalila Longa” mentioned by Ubal was his brother, better known in history as Rajah Sirongan or Silungan, who came into the historical record firstly, for his defense of his polity, Buayan, in 1599 from a Spanish strike for conquest. In retaliation, he staged attacks on Panay, Negros, and Cebu in the Visayas; and in 1600, another on Panay. The Spanish retaliated with punitive raids to Jolo and Central Mindanao in 1602. As the century ended, Sirongan was perceived by the Spanish colonial administrators to have been the strongest of the Muslim leaders. The perception was reinforced by what was already known to the foreigners of the interior zone of the Pulangi River: an extensive floodplain hospitable to rice cultivation and hence settled agriculture, punctuated by forests and drained out into the sea by a number of rivers.