Researched Works

Muslim Laws under a Colonized Philippines

Spanish and American colonizers marginalized Muslims and their culture. They also triggered the Muslims' protracted war against the Philippine government.

By the time foreign Muslims reached the northern islands of Luzon, particularly Manila, Hispanic Christianity was already on the rise. Through the business collaboration of the monarchy, the papacy, and early capitalists, European forces set forth to Asia.

Spanish colonization of the Philippines

The Spaniards named the archipelago “Philippines” in 1521 in honor of King Philip II. They appropriated all “public land and natural resources” as properties of the State: “This regalia doctrine is still enshrined in the present Constitution…”, notes Brahm Prakash of the Asian Development Bank (2002). Using religion (particularly Roman Catholicism) as bait, the conquerors grabbed or stole lands and local resources. They also went on to monopolize trade and used early Filipino converts in armed conflicts against those who did not want to accept Christianity nor the Spanish government. As a result, their conquest shattered the harmonious co-existence between Muslims and non-believers that characterized the pre-colonization period.

Moreover, Hispanic rule changed the largely egalitarian and communal relations in early communities with their “divide and conquer” dictum. According to Dinusha Panditaratne (2007), they implemented patriarchal decrees, such as the Spanish Marriage Law of 1870, the Spanish Code of Commerce of 1845, and the Spanish Civil Law of 1885 which promulgated the Roman doctrines of patria potestas and paterfamilias, depicting men as the absolute ruler and directing women to be subservient to their husbands. The Spaniards also prohibited divorce and required women to secure spousal consent in business transactions, following Victorian values that were prevalent in Europe during that period. Ultimately, as a prey of Western imperialism and patriarchal devotees of Roman Catholicism, the Philippines surrendered previously existing women-friendly customary laws.

Early American policies to counter Muslims' struggle

In spite of these developments, the Moros never succumbed to the onslaught of foreign aggression. They fought against Spanish authorities who discriminated against them. Their struggle continued even after Spain sold the Philippines to the United States (US) for $20 million in 1898.

But like their predecessors, as Justin Holbrook reports (2009), the Americans had a series of bloody encounters with the Muslims, killing more than 3,000 of them from 1903 to 1906. They instituted then the Bureau of Non-Christian and Tribal Groups to address the issues of minority communities, particularly the Moro and Lumad Filipinos, the latter of which they called the “Wild Tribe”. Violent clashes, however, still erupted occasionally. The Bureau ceased to operate in 1935, after the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth.

Referring to southern Philippines as “Moroland”, the colonizers “adopted a policy of legal hybridity…” and signed the Bates Agreement of 1899 with the Sultan of Sulu, requiring non-interference from the government “…in exchange for the sultan’s acknowledgment of United States sovereignty.” Holbrook (2009) further narrates that such policy of legal pluralism shifted to integration in 1905, as the US stopped “recognizing the sultanates or their indigenous legal systems, promoting instead the development of Western institutions intended to prepare the Philippines for eventual independence.” During this period, the Organic Act of the Moro Province was enacted, prompting the Legislative Council of the Moro Province to pass laws to collect and codify Moro customary laws prior to institutionalizing Moro district courts. Tribal Ward Courts were established to decide on minor and civil and criminal cases.

In 1915, the Philippine Commission issued Act No. 2520 that founded the Department of Mindanao and led to the passage of the Administrative Code of Mindanao and Sulu in 1917. This code provided a provision on Mohammedan Laws and Customs that allowed Judges of the Court of First Instance and Justices of the Peace to decide on civil cases by “taking into account local laws and customs, provided that such modification shall not be in conflict with the basic principles of the laws of the United States of America.”


Clough, Shepard Bancroft and Charles Woolsey Cole. 1952. Economic history of Europe. In Chapters in Western civilization Volume I by Hesperides 2007. (accessed June 3, 2009).

CPRM Consultants. 2004. Institutional Strengthening of the Shari'a Justice System: (Phase I). Final Report on the SC-UNDP Project. (accessed September 18, 2010).

Holbrook, Justin G. 2009. “Legal Hybridity in the Philippines: Lessons in Legal Pluralism from Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago”. (accessed September 20, 2010).

Panditaratne, Dinusha. 2007. "Towards Gender Equity in a Developing Asia: Reforming Personal Laws within a Pluralist Framework". N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change. (accessed September 21, 2010).

Prakash, Brahm. 2002. “Sociolegal Status of Women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand”. An overview report submitted to the Asian Development Bank. (accessed September 22, 2010).

Russell, Susan, Lina Davide Ong, Rey Ty, and April Gonzalez Anderson. 2006. Inter-ethnic Dialogue and Conflict Resolution in Southern Philippines: Access to Community and Civic Enrichment. International Training Office and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University. (accessed September 22, 2010).

Written by Leann Zarah (

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