Researched Works

Muslim Laws in Pre-Colonial Philippines

Islamic or Muslim laws were observed in the Philippines long before Hispanic Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, became the dominant religion.

The Code of Muslim Personal Laws (CMPL) came about after centuries of Muslim fight for self-determination. Prior to this struggle, however, early Filipino Muslims or Moros already had legal prescriptions based on Prophet Mohammed’s teachings.

During the pre-Islamic period, the different bangsa or barangay (communities) that dotted the archipelago had no written laws and were headed by datus (chieftains) with ancestral land rights. Towards the end of the 13th century, the island of Sulu sheltered Muslim settlers from Arabia, Borneo, Sumatra, and Malaya who worked as merchants and missionaries, some of whom married local women, shared their religious beliefs, and forged political alliances. Islam then propagated in pre-colonial southern Philippines through economic and relational means in lieu of conquest, resulting in an integration of new and existing customary laws.

Early Islamic laws

When datus converted to Islam, sultanates were established in Magindanao and Sulu. These, according to Justin Holbrook (2009): “functioned like “mini-states”, with governments possessing both administrative and judicial powers…Agama courts applied Moro customary law, or adat, as well as shari’a law...” This defined the comprehensive nature of Muslim legal system (also labeled as Sara Agama System) that encompasses legal, socio-political, and civil relations. Holbrook further notes that early Muslims exercised “legal pluralism to forge a relationship with those of different beliefs…”, suggesting that they lived in peaceful co-existence with and did not impose their faith on non-Muslims.

In terms of personal laws, pre-colonial Muslims had “the right to divorce, remarry, and share conjugal earnings and child custody when separated.” Likewise, “women had naming rights over their children, held property, could trade with their own money and maintained independent income from their businesses. These practices demonstrate that customary law in the Philippines was far from being patriarchal,” as Dinusha Panditaratne (2007) describes.

Pre-colonial manuscripts

Comprised of different ethno-linguistic groups, early Muslims had distinct cultures with rich Malayan influences. They could write Arabic and Malay texts, and could also translate “the Qur’an, Hadith, Islamic law books, some magic and other literature in their own respective dialect,” says Mariam Saldona Tagoranao in her paper on preserving Islamic manuscripts (2008). Legal manuscripts such as the Luwaran of Magindanao or the Luwaran Code and the Diwa Tausug illustrate the level of literacy of early Muslims on Arabic law and religion. The Luwaran based its laws “on the law and sovereignty of Allah and consisted of a body of selected texts from the Shafi'i School of Law appended to it”; while the Diwa contained the seven articles of "Mohammedan Law". These prove “the stronghold of Shari’a…very important part in tracing the history of Islamic law in the Philippines.”


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).

Lingga, Abhoud Syed M. 2004. “Muslim Minority in the Philippines”. Paper presented during a conference in Malaysia. (accessed September 24, 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).

Tagoranao, Mariam Saidona. 2008. “Preservation of Islamic Manuscripts in the Philippine’s Libraries: Issues and Prospects”. Paper presented during a congress at the Putra World Trade Center. (accessed September 24, 2010).

This article contains excerpts from the author's Shari’a and the Rights of Muslim Women in the Philippines: Examining the Code of Muslim Personal Laws (CMPL), a paper drafted for work purposes.

Written by Leann Zarah (

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