Recorded history shows that Islam is the oldest monotheistic religion to have entered the country between 12th and 14th century, by way of the natives’ trading relations with Muslims from the Persian Gulf, the Malabar Coast in Southern India, and the Malay archipelago. In 1380, an Arab trader named Karim ul’Makhdum arrived on the islands of Sulu and built the first mosque in the country, the Sheik Karimal Makhdum Mosque. History credits Makhdum for establishing Islam in the Philippines.
The arrival of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 changed the fabric of history for the islands, which until then had Islamic sultanates extending as far up north as the present-day capital of Manila. Magellan claimed the islands for Spain and named it Filipinas, in honor of the Spanish king Felipe II. As Roman Catholic missionaries entered the country, most of the lowland areas were converted to Christianity. The Muslim South, however, successfully resisted the new faith and the new authority and was never under the Spanish rule.
Today, Muslim Filipinos comprise the biggest non-Christian population in the country. Official statistical records place the number of Muslim Filipinos at about 5 million, roughly 5 percent of the country’s population.* Majority of Muslim Filipinos come from Mindanao, the southern area of the Philippines. However, the protracted peace crisis as well as unresolved underdevelopment issues in Muslim Mindanao have pushed many Muslims to migrate to and to live in other parts of the country, particularly in the more developed urban cities of Manila, Cebu and Davao.
Native Muslim Filipinos are generally known in the country as Moros. The term Moro (Moor) originated during the colonial period when the Spaniards used the word as a derogatory name to refer to the Muslim natives. The term Moro would later become a rallying point that would unify the different ethnic groups professing the Islamic faith into one nation, the Bangsamoro (Moro nation), and would forge a separate identity for the Muslim South.
There are at least 10 ethnic Moro groups. The major groups are the Maguindanaoan of North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao provinces; the Maranao of the Lanao provinces; and the Tausug of the Sulu Archipelago. Smaller groups include the Banguingui, Samal and Bajau of the Sulu Archipelago; the Yakan of Basilan and Zamboanga del Sur; the Illanun (Iranun) and Sangir of Davao; the Melabugnans of Southern Palawan; and the Jama Mapuns of Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi Island.
Throughout Philippine history, the Bangsamoro has been fighting for self-determination. On 6 November 1990, the government officially granted the Bangsamoro autonomy, through the creation of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) following a plebiscite. The ARMM is the only autonomous region in the Philippines. Today, the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan with the exception of Isabela City, and Sharif Kabunsuan, as well as the cities of Marawi and Cotabato, form the ARMM.
The other group of Muslims in the Philippines are the Christian Filipinos who have converted to Islam. They come from different areas in the country and they belong to different ethnicities. They are referred to as Balik-Islam (Returnee to Islam) because of the belief among Muslims that people are born with Islam as their natural religion and therefore, converts are only returning to it. As there is no nationwide organization for Balik-Islam nor is there a strict institutional procedure for conversion to Islam, there is no reliable statistic as to how many of Muslim Filipinos are Balik-Islam.
* These statistics are under debate. Many Muslims argue that census-related issues in the South result to “under-counting” of Muslims in the region. Additionally, statistics on the total number of Balik-Islam in the country may not be accurate. In this regard, US country report on the Philippines place the number of Muslims in the country to be somewhere between 5 percent and 9 percent of the total population.