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ETHNONYMS: Magindanao, Maguindanaon (recent variant), Maguindanau, Magindanaw


Identification. The Maguindanao speak the language of the same name, Maguindanao, live mainly on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, and are the largest ethnic group of Muslim Filipinos. The names of both the people and the island on which they live refer to a large inland body of water. The ethnic designation "Maguindanao" has been translated as "people of the flood plain."

Location. The south-central part of Mindanao, where most Maguindanao live, is located between 6° and 8° N and 124° and 126° E. This region has been known historically as Cotabato. The name is derived from the Malay for "stone fort" and apparently refers to a fort that once stood at the mouth of the Pulangi River, the main access to the interior of the Cotabato Valley. The valley is nearly surrounded by mountains, except to the west. The river, now called the Mindanao River, is a confluence of several tributaries that flow down from the mountains and snake across the valley floor before converging and emptying into the Moro Gulf on the western coast. Much of the valley floor is a vast marshland. During periods of heavy rain and flooding it resembles a large, shallow lake. Rainfall is abundant and fairly uniform throughout the year, but the wettest period is generally between May and October.

Demography. Before this century the Cotabato Valley appears to have been only sparsely inhabited despite its large area and evident fertility. By the turn of the century there may have been 100,000 or more Maguindanao living there. The 1948 census found 155,000 Muslims in Cotabato, nearly all of whom would have been Maguindanao. Population figures from the 1980 census are not categorized by ethnicity or religion. Those figures show that Maguindanao was the primary language spoken in 85,964 "households." Maguindanao households often include extended families and/or multiple families, so even a minimum figure of six persons per household would yield a total Maguindanao population of over 500,000. Based on field observation and previous estimates, the actual figure is probably substantially higher.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Maguindanao language is in the Malayo-Polynesian Family. It is clearly related to many other Philippine languages including Tagalog, the predominant national language. The closest cognate language is Maranao, spoken by a Muslim group of that name living just north of Cotabato, with whom the Maguindanao have a strong cultural affinity.

History and Cultural Relations

The Maguindanao are one of many groups of "lowland" Filipinos who appear to have arrived in the islands during successive waves of migration from the Southeast Asian mainland several thousand years ago. They were well established in their present homeland by the time of the first known foreign contact around a.d. 1500. At about that time, or perhaps a bit earlier, Muslim missionaries began to arrive in this area. According to the legends of the Maguindanao, they were converted to Islam by Sarip Kabungsuwan, a Muslim prince from Johor, on the Malay Peninsula, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Kabungsuwan is said to have arrived at Cotabato in a sailing ship with a small group of Samal warriors. The legends state that he won his converts peacefully by a combination of his wisdom, the appeal of his message, and certain supernatural powers that set him apart from ordinary men. The prince married a local woman who is said to have been born miraculously from a stalk of bamboo, and according to these accounts their descendants became the ruling families of both the Maguindanao and the neighboring Maranao.

The first European contact with the Philippines was in 1521, when Magellan landed in the central islands and was killed in a battle with a local chieftain. The earliest Spanish colony was founded on one of these islands in 1565, and the colonists soon learned that some of the native peoples nearby were Muslims. They identified these people with their historical enemies in Spain, the Moors. Thus they called them "Moros" and saw them as enemies to be driven away or conquered and subjugated. The armed clashes that ensued pitted the Spaniards and their local Christian converts against the Maguindanao and other Muslim peoples of the southern islands. This conflict became the long and bitter "Moro Wars," which spanned more than 300 years during the entire Spanish occupation of the islands. The Maguindanao and their Muslim allies were never fully subdued by the Spanish, but within a few years after the United States took control of the Philippines in 1898 the last major battle was fought in Cotabato, in 1905. The American forces prevailed and an uneasy peace was imposed on the region. The American colonial government encouraged people from the northern and central islands to resettle in the less populated areas of Mindanao, including Cotabato, but with limited success because of long-standing ethnic hostilities. After World War II and Philippine independence in 1946, however, large numbers of settlers moved to Cotabato. By 1970, immigrants outnumbered Maguindanao in most of Cotabato. Land disputes and other friction erupted that year into armed conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims. Government forces intervened as the conflict escalated into civil war and spread to other parts of Mindanao and nearby islands. Most of the major fighting ended by the late 1970s, but there was continued unrest and periodic violence in Cotabato and elsewhere through the next decade. The armed conflict has been accompanied by calls for greater autonomy for the southern Philippines and the Muslim peoples there, including the Maguindanao.


Traditional Maguindanao settlements were located mostly near the myriad waterways of their interior territory and along the extensive coast. This settlement pattern allowed relative ease of transportation and communication by boat. It also enabled the Maguindanao to dominate trade between the coast and the remote interior and mountain areas inhabited by various non-Muslim native peoples (e.g., Manobo, Tiruray, etc.). Several major trading centers were also seats of political powereven sultanatessuch as the areas now known as Cotabato City, Datu Plang, and General Santos City. Other settlements along or near the waterways were controlled by datus (local chieftains) and numbered hundreds or even thousands of people. The traditional homes of the datus were large wooden structures designed as multifamily dwellings, often centered in a compound with other buildings housing relatives and followers. Scattered outlying villages were comprised of smaller dwellings of wood, bamboo, and nipa thatch, which also frequently housed extended families. Since the advent of American colonial rule, the traditional settlement pattern in Cotabato has been altered by the building of roads that do not follow the natural course of the waterways. Large towns have sprung up along the roads and highways, becoming new centers of commerce, while many of the older, wateroriented communities have become isolated and have languished.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Maguindanao grow a variety of crops, trap fish, and obtain wild foods and other materials from the marshes for their subsistence. Wet rice is grown in the lowlands, and dry rice and corn are farmed in upland areas. Tubers, including yams and sweet potatoes, are also among the staple crops. Vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, and beans are grown, and wild greens are harvested in abundance from marshlands. Coconuts abound and are gathered at an immature stage for their tender meat and water or to be made into coconut milk for cooking. Many kinds of fruit are common, including bananas, plantains, mangoes, guavas, and durians. Freshwater fish are the main source of protein in the interior, as are saltwater fish and shellfish along the coast. Goats are raised for meat and usually are consumed on ceremonial occasions. An aged or infirm water buffalo may also be slaughtered for such events. Chickens are raised for both eggs and meat. Even today the Maguindanao produce nearly all of their own food.

Industrial Arts. Many items are hand-crafted in households from wood, bamboo, rattan, thatch, and fiber. Most of these are produced for domestic use, but some weaving, mat making, and basketry is done on a limited basis for commercial sale. In the past, the Maguindanao were known for their production of ornate brass containers, ornaments, musical gongs, etc., but brass working has become a lost art in recent times. Steel-bladed tools and weapons are still produced on a small scale.

Trade. Before this century, the Maguindanao dominated trade with people of the interior of the island and exacted tribute from them. Commodities such as salt, metal goods, Chinese pottery, cloth, beads, and other manufactured items passed inland in exchange for rice, gold, and a variety of forest products. It appears slaves may have been taken and sold as well. Trade with other islands involved many of the same items, and some Maguindanao may have been involved in piracy, which has been reported in this area for centuries.

Division of Labor. Those of highest rank in this society tend to be removed from manual labor. Among the rest, the male/female division of labor is not very pronounced. Men do the plowing, harrowing, and other heavy work of farming. Women do most domestic work, often assisted by older children. Nearly all able-bodied adults and young people join in such tasks as planting, weeding, harvesting, and threshing.

Land Tenure. Until early in this century, all land was communally owned. A person could use land if he or she could demonstrate descent from an ancestor who had cleared or used that land. In the 1920s, the American colonial government conducted cadastral surveys to determine individual landholdings. It appears many datus took this opportunity to claim the land farmed by their followers as their own, and thus acquired title to large tracts of formerly communal lands. Today there is a mixture of titled small holdings, land of uncertain title farmed on the basis of traditional claims, and "estate" lands farmed by datus or their tenants.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Maguindanao kinship system is basically bilateral, as is common throughout the Philippines. It is unusual, however, because it is modified by a system of social rank, certain rules of descent, and distinctive marriage patterns related to these. Social rank is determined by one's maratabat, or social status. For those of higher rank, maratabat is based on real or imputed descent from Sarip Kabungsuwan. Higher-ranking families maintain elaborate genealogies to validate their claims to this line of descent. From the highest rank come the datus and the central political leaders who hold the title sulutan, or sultan. The precise social rank of those of lower status is often unclear but is said to be a factor in selecting an appropriate marriage partner. For most purposes, social rank is less important than degree of blood relationship. It is this relationship that is emphasized, and the personal kindred is the most important social group beyond the nuclear family.

Kinship Terminology. Consistent with the bilateral kinship system, terms for male and female relatives traced through either the father's or the mother's line are equivalent. Aside from the nuclear family, all members of one's kindred and often even strangers are addressed by formal male and female generational terms that may be translated as grandparent, uncle, aunt, sibling, or child.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamous marriages are the norm among the Maguindanao. Polygyny is permitted by Islamic law and local tradition, and continues to be practiced by some persons of wealth and high rank. Young people raised in the same extended household or village are considered to be too closely relatedregardless of blood connectionto be married to one another. This creates local exogamy at this level. There is a strong preference, however, for marriage between related families, especially marriage of second cousins, so there is a marked tendency toward kindred endogamy. There are even some marriages between first cousins, although these are rare and are forbidden by customary law. After marriage the couple usually reside in the husband's community. Today the couple may form an independent household, whereas in the past they more often joined the man's parents in an extended household. Divorce can and does occur, especially early in a marriage. It is usually because of infertility, incompatibility, infidelity, or failure of the bride's relatives to pay an agreed bride-wealth. The marriage bond is generally strong after the birth of a child.

Domestic Unit. Households may be comprised of nuclear or extended families, the latter being more common. Even nuclear families in separate houses live immediately adjacent to relatives and share many activities with them. Extended families or multiple families living under one roof may have separate cooking hearths but often share food and socialize in ways that blur distinctions between them. In all of these cases a comparison could be made to a longhouse, or a longhouse that has been broken up into proximate living units.

Inheritance. Males and females generally inherit equally in this society. A limited exception is that among the upper class, titles and an added share of wealth are often passed on to the first-born son.

Socialization. Children are cared for and disciplined not only by their parents but by other adult members of the household. Older siblings are often assigned responsibility to care for and play with the young. When children are outside the house, any adult member of the community may gently correct or chide them, and young people are taught to address their elders by terms that mean aunt/uncle or grandparent, even if they are not related. Formal education has become common for children from families of wealth and high status. In rural areas and among ordinary people, the government-operated schools are still mistrusted as a source of disruptive outside influence. Boys may attend school for the first few grades to learn reading, writing, and simple arithmetic before being withdrawn by their parents. Many girls do not receive any formal schooling at all.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally there have been several regions within Cotabato, each associated with a group of related families who are prominent both socially and politically. In each region are a number of important larger communities in which powerful datus reside. In these communities, status distinctions are significant in everyday life as well as on ceremonial occasions. The datu is accorded special respect and directs many of the activities of his followers. He presides over the affairs of the community and at religious celebrations or other events. Deference is shown not only to him but to his wife or wives and others of high rank who live nearby, many of whom are related to him. Central communities of this type are generally surrounded by many smaller, satellite villages, which may be some distance away. These villages usually are comprised of members of the same loosely defined kindred, possibly including remotely related relatives. Villagers recognize that they have a right to live and farm there because some of their ancestors farmed there in the past. This means they all recognize at least some degree of kinship with one another. In these villages, everyday relations are basically egalitarian. There may be a headman who represents the group in relations with outsiders. Most decisions that affect the group, however, are made by the group or by the adult males of the group. In the case of major problems or conflicts that they cannot resolve, they will turn to the datu who has authority in their area to settle the matter.

Political Organization. The highest political leaders in the past were the sultans. In the past two to four sultans reigned at any one time in different parts of Cotabato. Sometimes only one or two wielded real political power beyond their immediate area. A sultan was selected from among contenders by a council of datus, and had power only to the extent that he enjoyed their support. Today the title is honorific. Datus retain some local power, and intermarriage between families of datus extends an alliance network that continues to be politically important even in terms of national politics.

Social Control. The blood feud is one of the most serious and distinctive types of conflict in this society. It usually results from a killing that involves different families or communities. If the killer is not punished and a settlement reached quickly, a feud can be initiated and can result in seemingly interminable reprisal killings. The families of the killer and the victim try to avert this possibility by immediately negotiating through intermediaries. An effort is made to apprehend the killer and turn him over to the local datu for punishment, including death or incarceration. The families also negotiate payment of a death settlement to the family of the deceased. All members of the killer's kindred are liable for contributions to the settlement, the amount of which is supposed to depend on the social rank of the deceased. This type of serious conflict, while fortunately rare today, is mentioned as an example because of the roles played by the kindred and the datu in conflict resolution.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The predominant religion among the Maguindanao is a form of folk Islam. Islamic beliefs and practices, which are gradually becoming more orthodox, are superimposed on a preexisting animistic belief system. People continue to believe in a variety of environmental spirits, and many tales are told of magic, sorcery, and supernatural beings. Even Sarip Kabungsuwan, who is credited with having brought Islam to this area, is described as having had powers of magic and sorcery.

Religious Practitioners. Muslim religious leaders and teachers (imam and pandita ) preside over religious life and young schoolboys in reading and memorizing the Quran. They are the formal religious practitioners in the society. There are also other, less visible, religious functionaries who perform important services in appeasing the environmental spirits. An example is the apo na palay, or "grandfather of the rice," who conducts rituals and chants incantations over the rice fields at night to ensure a good harvest.

Ceremonies. Muslim religious holidays and other observanees are celebrated among the Maguindanao, but in varying degrees by different communities and individuals. The most widespread ceremonies are those associated with fasting during the month of Ramadan, when virtually everyone appears to participate. Other ceremonies, such as those associated with birth, marriage, and death, tend to incorporate both Islamic and indigenous beliefs and rituals.

Arts. Arts of nearly every type are strikingly less evident in this culture than in many nearby groups. Representational art is confined mostly to weaving, basket making, and certain ornaments. Graceful dances are performed on special occasions to the rhythmic music of gongs and other instruments. Personal adornment in the forms of bright clothing, beaded jewelry, and other accessories is distinctive and colorful.

See also Maranao


Iieto, Reynaldo C. (1971). Magindanao, 1860-1888: The Career of Dato Uto of Buayan. Ithaca, N.Y.: Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University.

Saleeby, Najeeb (1905). Studies in Moro History, Law, and Religion. Manila: Bureau of Public Printing.

Stewart, James C. (1977). People of the Flood Plain: The Changing Ecology of Rice Farming in Cotabato, Philippines. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.