Datu Piang (third from right) controlled much of the sa laya realm during the American colonial era.
The Maguindanaon people—the largest ethnolinguistic group in Central Mindanao—occupy the basin of the Pulangi River (Rio Grande de Mindanao in Spanish accounts), which spills down the southern slopes of the Bukidnon massif in north-central Mindanao, snaking south and west across a low-lying marshy plain to Illana Bay[i]. About twenty miles before reaching the sea the Pulangi splits into two branches. The narrower southern fork is known as the Tamontaka River. Near the mouth of the river, stands Timako Hill, and offshore, the dark crescent of Bongo Island. The wider north fork of the Pulangi flows past Cotabato City, which is located on its south bank about four miles above the river mouth[ii].
In the past, the Maguindanaon settled along riverbanks and in the valley regions of the Pulangi River where periodic flooding was experienced. It is due to this inundation that the people occupying the area came to be called maguindanaon –“people of the flood plains.” Today, they are found in several provinces. Maguindanao province accounts for 76 percent of the total Maguindanaon population. In Cotabato province, they are concentrated mainly in Pikit, Kabacan, and the interior villages of Midsayap. In Sultan Kudarat province, they live in Lutayan, as well as the coastal towns of Lebak, Kalamansig, and Palembang. They are also found in Malapatan, in Sarangani province, and Dinas and Labangan in Zamboanga Sibugay.
The Maguindanaon people descended from the waves of Proto- and Deutro Malays migrants from mainland Asia in 3,000 B.C. Exhibiting a higher stage of social development, they formed settlements or communities with political organizations along family or blood lines. Like most descendants of Proto- and Deutro Malays in Southeast Asia, they were animists believing that the rivers, trees, jungles, and mountains were inhabited by malevolent spirits which motivated them to develop elaborate rituals to placate these spirits[iii]. One can surmise that there already existed various forms of ritualistic practices by the time they came in contact with the rest of the region –starting with Indianized state of Funan in 1 A.D., to the contact with Islamic traders and sufis in the late 1500s.
In the early sixteenth century, Shariff Muhammad Kabungsuan of Johore arrived in Mindanao, landing in what is now Malabang, in Lanao del Sur, and introduced Islam to the native population. He founded the Maguindanao sultanate through his marriage to the daughters of local chieftains. One of his daughters, Mamur, was married to the Buayan chief Pulwa. Thus, the Maguindanao and Buayan sultanate claim descent from Kabungsuan. Later on, succeeding sultanates trace their ancestry from him as well.
During the course of history, the Buayan rulers controlled the datus and territories in the upper valley of the Pulangi –tau sa laya—while the Maguindanao sultans came to control the lower valley –tau sa ilud. Though interdependent, and related through marital and blood ties, they competed against each other for supremacy for most of their histories.
The distinction into tau sa laya and tau sa ilud as inland and coastal people has its dangers[iv], but the contrasts between the two is important in this study. Geographic factors and dialect variations also mean differences in ritual practices. Still both have a lot in common. The traditional Maguindanaon were horticulturists, growing either rice in upland fields or wet rice in lowland paddies. In the modern period, they have shifted to plow and harrow method of wet rice cultivation[v]. The Maguindanaon are excellent fishermen in both the riverine areas and coastlines. They possess a strong weaving, metal craft, carving, and musical tradition.
Although one of the thirteen Muslim ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao, the Maguindanaon people retained indigenous belief systems in their religious culture. It is a reflection of how Islam is practiced by the vast majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia –moderate, tolerant and syncretic.
[i] Ileto, Reynaldo, Magindanao 1860-1888 The Career of Datu Utto of Buayan, Anvil Publishing, 2007.
[ii] McKenna, Thomas, Muslim Rulers and Rebels, Anvil Publishing, 1998.
[iii] Nasuruddin, Mohammad Ghouse, The Malay Traditional Music, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1992.
[iv] Ibid, 1.
[v] Stewart, James C., People of the Flood Plain, Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaii, 1977.