The US captured the Philippine Islands from Spain during the Spanish-American War; one of the territories it controlled were the Muslim Moroland. The Moros are a Malaysian tribal society on the Sulu archipelago and the larger island of Mindanao.

The US Army fought sporadic small wars over the course of decades in Moroland. It adapted to guerrilla warfare in jungles and Muslim suicide attacks (the juramentados). Notably, the US Army worked very closely with the Sultans, the tribal leaders, and religious scholars during the war. It displayed a kind of cultural intelligence and awareness that is unexpected for its era.

A prominant figure in the Moro Wars was a young officer, Captain John J. Pershing. “Black Jack” Pershing was a great counterinsurgency fighter, which is somewhat forgotten since he is best known as America’s commanding general during World War I.

Here’s a background on Moro History and political organization. The Americans collected a large amount of cultural intelligence about the Moros, and the government contracted Anthropologists to study the tribal structure, history, and culture.

The Moros are a Malaysian ethnic group, followers of the Sunni branch of Islam, converted by merchant seamen. At the time, the vast majority were farmers in agricultural settlements. A smaller portion were sea-farers, merchants, or members of the warrior and religious elite. Pacific Islander Muslims typically follow the Shafi’i legal tradition. Shafi’i is popular at the margins of Islamic lands. It frequently blended pre-Muslim tribal laws and customs with Arabic and Muslim laws to give it greater flexibility for new converts.

Centuries ago before the Spanish arrived, the Moros were steadily conquering the Philippines. The Muslims were the initial hegemony in the Philippines and at one point Manila was ruled by a Muslim Sultan. The arrival of the Spanish challenged Moro naval supremacy and contained them to their home islands. For some time, Moros only means of retaliation were coastal raids on the northern islands where they pillaged villages and enslaved the inhabitants. The Spanish converted most of the pagan Filipinos to Christianity and began what was basically a crusade. Much of the Moro anti-imperialist resistance took the form of religious warfare as a result. The Spanish were eventually able to curtail Moro piracy and coastal raids, but they never penetrated beyond the coasts of Mindanao due to the intense resistance.

In 1898, the Americans took over the Moroland from the Spanish Empire.

In 1904, Merton Miller led a team of anthropologists and translators in the Moroland. They were commissioned by the Department of the Interior to record and translate the history and law of the Muslim Filipinos. These scholars traveled to two major locations, Jolo City in the Sulu island chain, and the larger island of Mindanao, in order to collect representative samples of Moro tribal customs and texts. These texts, written in the local Moro dialects with Arabic letters, were photographed and then translated line by line to be published and viewed by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes. Miller, summarizing of his findings, noted that the Moros developed a “form of government planned on lines similar to those of the Arabian caliphate, and adopted written codes of law for guidance in the administration of the state.” In addition, this form of government mixed tribalism and traditional customs with Arabic laws. This was not quaint academic research; it had a clear purpose in preparing the Americans for an extended occupation of the Moro Province in the southern Philippines.

The US administration used this information about Moro laws to form a modernized legal code while making as few cultural changes as possible. The Americans knew better than to tamper with religious aspect of Islam, but were unsure how to untangle political Islam from secular government.

Miller’s study described the tribal political and religious structures. His English translation of the luwaran, a selection of Arabic laws, provided a general overview of Moro society. At the head was the “datu” or tribal chief. His chief advisors were normally an Islamic judge and a Vizier, both of whom acted as Islamic scholars of shari’ah laws and ran the agama, the religious legal court. The luwaran code of laws formed a caste structure that dealt with debt bondage, inheritance, and clearly stated punishments for various levels of crimes. The last of these helped to restrain datus from becoming too tyrannical and arbitrary.

Robbery would be punished by immediate financial repayment and/or debt bondage. The tribes forced the criminals would work off the debt and punishment. Other crimes and punishments were described in similar ways.

Miller’s study was incomplete. One characteristic his team noted was that “in actual practice the Moros do not distinguish between custom and law” yet there was no extended research into these customs (at least in this study). Since Moro society was fragmented into roughly 10 major independent groups with their own dialects and customs, there would be considerable variations.

Modern ethnography presents a more complete description of Moro society. Datu Michael Mastura depicted the entire caste structure – at the top were the Datu (nobility) then the Dumatu (marginals), the Endatuan (commoners), the Kanakan (servants) and at the bottom of the “pyramidal power structure” were the Banyaga, or chattel slaves, typically Filipino Catholics captured during raids or warfare. Besides the Arabic laws, Mastura noted that “genealogy [was] of utmost importance” in a hereditary society and the most powerful of datus and sultans attempted to trace their lineage to Arabs, or even the prophet Muhammad. Many of the practices supported this “pyramidal power structure.” Slaves, for instance, would tend to the crops and perform other laborious duties granting the ruling classes substantial leisure time. The upper classes used their free time to train to become professional warriors or seafarers.

Cesar Adib Mujal similarly portrayed a hierarchical society that retained much of its pre-Islamic organization, namely the tribal customs and datu system, but with Islam interwoven into it. This is an important fact because even though the Americans did not attempt to Christianize the Moros, secular policies would still interfere with Islamic practices.

U.S. Department of the Interior. Studies in Moro History, Law and Religion, Philippine Islands – Ethnological Surveys. edited by Merton Miller, et al. Manila: 21 December 1904.

Mastura, Datu Michael O. Muslim Filipino Experience: A collection of essays. Manila: Ministry of Muslim Affairs, 1984.

Majul, Cesar Adib. The Contemporary Muslim Movement of the Philippines. Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1985