The Petition of Zamboanga Muslim Leaders to the Ottoman Empire in 1912

By Caroline T. Baicy

“…As we are children of Islam. For this reason, your humble subjects plead with humility, requesting that an emissary from His Highness [the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire] be sent here to observe our speeches and actions in the Moro Province… and to teach us two things, how our customs and laws of Islam can be combined with American customs and laws, and how we could follow the words of God and uphold/establish the religion of Muhammadiyyah as stated in the Qu’ran and hadith of the Prophet…”

In 1912 a petition was written by Haji Abdullah Nuño and 58 others requesting the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet V, to send a Muslim scholar in order to teach the Moro population of Taluksangay, Zamboanga about Islam.  The district governor of Zamboanga, John Finley, delivered this petition to the Sultan in Istanbul. After meeting with Sultan Shayk al-Islam, the latter promised to send one of his officials, Sayyid Muhammad Wajih al-Jilani, to Mindanao. Wajih al-Jilani arrived at the port of Zamboanga on January 1914 and went to speak about the duties of a good citizen. The religious excitement of his visit was a cause of concern for the U.S. administration who believed that his visit might strengthen the influence of the hajis and imams.

Hadji Nuño’s background is quite interesting. He was a captive, together with several women and children and brought to Isabela, Northern Luzon by the Spaniards after a war in 1848 with the Sama Balangingi Moros. He was baptized as a Christian, but decided to come back to his homeland after about 35 years and returned to the fold of Islam. He became an influential leader among the Moros of Taluksangay, an important center of Islamic propagation in Western Mindanao.

The petition itself consists of Tausug text, signatures, Arabic translations, and covers. The cover on the side of the Arabic translation is decorated with a flag consisting of the yellow crescent moon and star as well as red and yellow ribbons tied into bows. Along with such decorations is an Arabic inscription consisting of the words of the Sharada as well as a message in Tausug that indicates the titles and name of the addressee. The cover on the Tausug text is decorated with red, yellow, and green ribbons as well as two magical squares. These magical squares are used for a talismanic effect to ensure that the manuscript will safely reach the addressee.

The use of the Tausug language in the petition indicates the predominance of the Tausug language as a means of communication in the Sulu Archipelago. In contrast, the petitioners led by Hadji Nuño speak Sama. This is further emphasized in the late nineteenth century, in which the Tausug language was used by various leaders and lay people in Sulu to express their views and transmit reports concerning affairs with colonial officials.

This petition plays an integral role in displaying the relationship between the Muslims of the Philippines and the Ottoman Sultan. This conception of a relationship between the two regions is due to the Ottoman Sultan’s responsibility to look after Muslims of the world. This relationship is further underscored in the used of honorific titles when addressing the Sultan as well as the petitioner’s referring to themselves as “humble subjects,” thus displays their submission to the authority of the Ottoman Sultan.

The goal of the petition was to educate the Moros about Islam and make it fit the policy of the colonial government. When the Moro province was inaugurated in 1903, United States government officials investigated the laws of the Moros and non-Christians and found many of their customs offensive and undesirable, some of which include slaveholding, the low position of women, and the use of blood money as retribution for killing another Moro. Governor Finley believed that the Moros were steeped in such practices because they did not have adequate knowledge of Islam. Thus, he believed that bringing in a Muslim scholar from the Ottoman Empire would help expand the Philippine Muslims understanding of the values and virtues of Islam. In the case of Nuño’s goals, he wanted to establish the religion of Islam in a way that could meet the needs of socio-political conditions under American rule. This was due to his awareness of Western powers encroaching on Muslim lands. Thus, he wanted to establish links with centers of Islamic learning as well as seek protection of the United States government to avoid exploitation of his people.

Source: Kawashima, Midori. The ‘White Man’s Burden’ and the Islamic Movement in the Philippines: The Petition of Zamboanga Muslim Leaders to the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Monograph Series 17. Institute of Asian Cultures, Sophia University, 2014, Tokyo, Japan.

Caroline Baicy is a Program Assistant working on the eMindanao Project under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace. 

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