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ALTERNATE NAMES: Meranao or M'ranao
LOCATION: Philippines (island of Mindanao)
POPULATION: 1.1 million
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Filipinos


The Muslim Maranao, the largest non-Christian ethnic group in the Philippines, have lived around Lake Lanao in western Mindanao since at least the 13th century, having separated from kindred coastal people at that time. Some Maranao maintained relations with these Ilanun, joining them in slave-raiding in the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos. Legends, however, locate Maranao origins in Bembaran, a kingdom that sunk to the bottom of the sea because it rejected Islam. Sarip Kabongsoan of Johore (in Malaya) converted the neighboring Magindanao; his descendants went to the Lanao region and intermarried with descendants of refugees from Bembaran.

In contrast to the Magindanao and Tausugs, the Maranao never established a single state but rather divided into a great number of small "sultanates" in continual warfare with each other. They, however, successfully resisted incorporation into the Spanish colonial state, and only the Americans early in the 20th century managed to subdue them. The influx of Christian Filipino settlers, particularly from the nearby Visayas, has threatened to marginalize the Maranao in much of their ancestral land. The region has been one of the hotbeds of the Muslim (Bangsa Moro) separatist movement since the 1970s. A major episode of that struggle was the 1972 MNLF attack on the Maranao city of Marawi (Dansalan before 1956). Under the Marcos' martial law regime, many traditional activities virtually ceased due to curfews strictly enforced by a government army suspicious of all Maranao gatherings. The influence of the many Maranao educated in the Middle East in recent decades has constituted an even greater challenge to Maranao customs, which often do not conform to standard Islamic practice.

The separatist movement notwithstanding, prominent Maranao participate in Philippine national politics, and, under the Aquino administration, an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao including Lanao del Sur province (but not now Christian-majority Lanao del Norte province) was established in 1989. Maranao culture (like Moro and non-Christian cultures more generally) have contributed key icons to the national identity of the predominantly Christian and Hispanized Philippines: the Maranao epic, the Darangen, was put on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, and the artisan village of Tugaya was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.


Maranao (in their own pronunciation, Meranao or M'ranao) means "people of the lake," referring to Lake Lanao, which lies 670 m (2,200 ft) above sea level in western Mindanao. Numbering 776,000 in 1990 and as many as 1.1 million currently (2008), the Maranao, the largest non-Christian ethnic group in the Philippines, inhabit the lands around the lake, dominating the province of Lanao del Sur (609,000 or 91% of the population in 2000) stretching to its south. However, Visayan immigrants now outnumber Maranao in Lanao del Norte province (169,000 or 35.8% of the population). About 61.8% of the Visayan immigrants are of people speaking closely related Visayan dialects, such as Cebuanos, Binisaya, and Boholanos. The Maranao in turn are moving into the highlands to the south of the lake, which are already inhabited by other peoples. 21.9% of households in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (to which Lanao del Sur belongs, but not Lanao del Norte) identified Maranao as their first-language. Small Maranao communities can be found in towns throughout Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. In recent years, many Maranao have settled in Manila (as many as 35,000 by 1984).


The Maranao language is an Austronesian language whose closest similarities are to other indigenous languages of Mindanao (though not to the Visayan-type language of their fellow Muslim Tausugs). In the past, a version of the Arabic script was used to preserve genealogies (salsila), religious literature, and Islamic tales.

Most names derive from Arabic, but native Maranao words referring to desired traits or lucky objects (e.g., Macacuna, "robust," or Bolawan, "gold") are also chosen (now usually as an addition to an Islamic name). Some Maranao have even named their children after prominent Filipino national leaders (e.g., Marcos). Young people often take American nicknames, e.g., "Mike" for Ismail or Macacuna. Among themselves, Maranao do not use surnames, but in dealing with Philippine educational or bureaucratic systems, individuals use the name of a father, grandfather, brother, or prominent ancestor as a second name. In one community, a person may register under one relative's name as a surname; in another, he or she may register under another. This allows Maranao to vote in different jurisdictions, something they understand not as electoral fraud but as a right of descent.


According to legend, Radia Indarapatra married the water nymph Potri Rainalaut and sired two children: one became the ancestor of the Maranao and the other the ancestor of the tonong, invisible beings that protect the Maranao from illness and their crops from pests. Traditional Maranao place offerings of food and betel nuts for the tonong in the lamin, a 1-m (3-ft-long) long box wrapped in yellow cloth and hung from a house beam. The tonong have names (e.g., Tomitay sa Boloto, Apo a Bekong) and inhabit bodies of water, mountains, and especially the nonok (a tree that wraps around other trees like a vine). Maranao who have been educated or influenced by Middle Eastern Islamic universities equate appeasing the tonong as honoring the offspring of the Devil.

Other spirits include: saytan, evil spirits; the inikadowa, a person's invisible double; the malaikat, an angel who guides a person in his or her work; arowak, the souls of the dead who visit their kin on Muslim holidays; gagamoten, a human poisoner; langgam, a ghoul who eats the insides of fresh corpses; and the balbal, one type of which at night splits into a lower half that stays in the house and an upper half that flies off. Tales abound of people being led off by spirits, never to return.


The Maranao are Muslim. In recent years, Maranao who have studied in Islamic universities in the Middle East have worked towards the elimination of traditional spirit beliefs and associated rituals. In addition to the religious merit, much social prestige comes from sponsoring the construction of religious buildings, such that every community now has a mosque and madrasah (Islamic school). Moreover, large numbers of Maranao make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In addition to Muslim religious officials, such as the imam (prayer leader) and kali (judge), there are pandarpa'an , usually old women, through whose possessed bodies spirits speak and pamamantik , practitioners of magic and counter magic.


On certain Islamic holidays, the souls of the dead visit their kin; the latter offer the souls food, which is later distributed to neighbors or given to the tuan, who recite prayers for the dead. At the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, people clean their family graves and at night light them with candles. They also light candles or lamps in their houses so that they might catch a glimpse of the Lailatol Kadr, an angel with a turban and a long white beard who has the power to grant wishes (some enter trances in order to see him). This is the "night of power" when God will answer any prayer.


After birth, the umbilical cord is kept to ward off evil spirits. The placenta is buried near the house, as a guardian for the child, or cast into a body of water, where it can save the child from drowning. On the third or seventh day after birth, the child receives his or her name. After this, a boy can be circumcised, although he may be as old as 10 years of age when this takes place; clitoridectomy for girls persists as well.

Many marriages are still arranged by the parents; even if partners select each other, family approval is necessary. The man's side sends an intermediary to initiate the negotiations. If the woman's side's response is positive, the go-between, the man's parents, and the man visit the woman's family. The parents express the proposal in indirect language, and the go-between mentions the betang (bride-price) that the man's side is willing to pay. The woman's side defers the decision (perhaps for months) but claims a cash fee for opening the discussion. Subsequently, the man's parents gather the money or convene a meeting where other kin will contribute to the betang. On their part, the woman's relatives (who have a right to a portion of the betang) gather to decide the amount to be asked, considering also what advantages an alliance could provide their kin-group. They also investigate the man's genealogy; finding an ancestor who was a slave, a balbal or gagamoten (evil spirits), or a non-Maranao could cancel the wedding. The go-between carries on the bargaining on the betang and the setting of the wedding date.

During the engagement period, the man's relatives may give food to the woman's family, which the latter will share with fellow villagers and, if possible, with neighboring villages. The man may now eat with the woman in her house (though someone else will always be somewhere in the house); he may also sleep there (but not with her), using for a blanket a malong (a type of sarong), which his prospective in-laws give him. The future bride now must ask her fiancé for permission to go out of the house; he must accompany her and cover her expenses.

Some families hold the wedding ceremony in hotels or rented halls (the richest even use hotels in Manila and invite national figures); most build a stage by their house and decorate it with lots of flags. The groom and his kin may travel to the bride's house in a motorcade filmed on a video camera. The groom wears a malong and a shirt (possibly a barong tagalog [seeFilipinos ]) or a Western coat and tie (or, following a new fashion, he may adopt Arab or Pakistani clothing). The bride dresses traditionally or puts on a Western wedding gown. She is not present at the wedding ceremony itself, which does include the groom, the imam (prayer leader), and four witnesses, one for each grandparent's lineage. After this, the groom goes to the bride's room and, after paying a fee to the attendant girls, he touches her for the first time. During the ensuing feast, more cash is given out to guests who do not share in the betang.

Following Islamic regulations, a dead body cannot stay overnight in the house and is buried as soon as possible. Close kin wash and enshroud the body while other relatives arrive to give monetary aid; the immediate family serves food to the relatives. In the gravepit, the imam asks the deceased the questions that an angel will ask him or her later; this is an unorthodox custom, as is the planting of flowers, laying of stones, or laying of cement to mark the grave. The imam reads a prayer and pours water on the four corners and center of the now-sealed grave to "awaken" the deceased. Relatives may guard the grave so that balbal or langgam (corpse-eating ghouls) will not defile the body.

The dead soul lingers on earth for 100 days. Mourning rituals last for three (formerly seven) days; these include having tuan (the community's religious men) recite prayers for the dead and receiving guests in the evening, who entertain themselves with eating, playing parlor games, or sometimes gambling with cards. Tuan offer prayers on every Friday or every 10 days until the 100th day after the death, when a large feast is held where several tuan recite prayers.


A Maranao's sense of maratabat requires that he avenge wrongs done to him, his kin, and his friends. In the past, this led to public combat in spots marked by a red flag, but now ambush is the common method. Maranao will risk their own lives in defense of a sworn friend (quasi-kindred): "Your blood will be on top of mine," i.e. I will die before I let someone lay a hand on you.

Public image is important: a person who spends little on personal comforts will lavish extravagant sums on a family rite-of-passage celebration or the community madrasah building fund. Maranao use euphemistic language or grant concessions in order to avoid embarrassing or humiliating others. Maranao tend to flatter people by addressing them with the highest title associated with their profession (e.g., one might call a schoolteacher "professor").

Each hamlet has two or more descent lines (bangsa), one of which claims superior status to the others and is led by a title-holder (often "Sultan"; there are as many as 43 "royal houses"). Hamlets are grouped into ever-larger associations, which culminate in one of the pat a pangampong a ranao ("the four encampments of the lake") into which the Maranao people are divided.

Although titles are inherited by descent lines, only the most qualified member can hold the title (by virtue of wealth, knowledge of customary law, and the ability to settle disputes without shaming any parties). Today, individuals win titles by surpassing others in contributing to mosque and madrasah building funds. A title-holder must also be prepared to hold a kandori where food is served and cash is distributed. The formal receipt of a title is an occasion of great ceremony preceded by kalilang (traditional music), kambayoka (singing contests), kasipa (kickball), other games, and the slaughter of cattle or water buffalo for feasting.

Boys and girls are strictly segregated, even in school activities. In the evening, a boy visits a girl he likes at her house, but directly courts her kin rather than her. It is older relatives who entertain the boy; both sides display their skill in delivering short love poems in classical Maranao ( panonoroon or tobadtobad ), though today the former may simply tell stories. The boy, the girl, and often the girl's relatives may play music together. A boy can also send the girl a poetic love letter, which she shows her parents for their advice. It is also common for them to exchange notes secretly at school.


Houses are made of wood, raised 0.3 m to 2 m (1-7 ft) from the ground and have steep roofs of galvanized iron. From 2 to 20 families reside in a house; each has its own sleeping area, though there are no partitions. Traditional structures included a separate room for unmarried women. A kitchen shed contains a large hearth.

A descent line has a torogan, a large house where the senior kin-group lives and gatherings are held. Having names such as Bantog (Honorable), Kompas (Guide), Lumba (Center), or even Malacañang (after the presidential palace in Manila), the torogan boasts intricate prow-like carvings on the external beams. However, most traditional torogan were destroyed in a 1955 earthquake.

Hamlets include 3 to 30 multifamily homes strung out along a road or river, along with a mosque and at least one torogan. Until the American conquest, each hamlet contained a fortress of earthen walls reinforced by thorny plants and trees.

Average family income in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, of which Lanao del Sur province is a part, amounted to 89,000 pesos (us$1,745) in 2006, the lowest in the country, cf. the national average of p173,000, the National Capital Region's p311,000, Southern Tagalog's p198,000, and those of the neighboring Davao and Zamboanga regions, p135,000 and p125,000 respectively. In 2000, Lanao del Sur had the fifth lowest Human Development Index, 0.464 (combining measures of health, education, and income) in the country (above Ifugao and the provinces in the Sulu archipelago, cf. the Philippines' national HDI of 0.656); Lanao del Norte was ninth lowest (at 0.512).

According to the 2000 census, the proportion of houses in Lanao del Sur with a roof of galvanized iron/aluminum reached 81.1%, with a roof of grass or palm thatch 5.8%; 54.9% of houses had outer wooden walls, and another 11.9% outer walls of bamboo or thatch. In 2000, 11.7% of households in Lanao del Sur had access to a community faucet, 12.7% to a faucet of their own, and 4.8% to a shared deep well, while 53.3% obtained their water from springs, lakes, rivers, or rain. Almost half of households (47%) disposed of their garbage by burning it, 11.9% by composting it, and 10.5% by burying it; only 2.3% had it picked up by a collection truck. 42% of houses were lit with kerosene lamps, 49% with electricity, and 5.9% with firewood. 72.8% possessed a radio, 31% a television, 12.7% a refrigerator, 8.3% a VCR, 7.5% a telephone or cell phone, 4.9% a washing machine, and 5.1% a motorized vehicle.


An individual's kin-group comprises paternal and maternal relatives up to and including third cousins, although the most important relationships do not go beyond the circle of first cousins. For kinship solidarity, marriage is preferred with second and third cousins (but taboo with first cousins). A person can also claim as many as 15 descent lines for the purpose of inheriting titles.

Until the bride-price is paid in full, the groom lives with the bride's family, only later establishing his own house. Within the multifamily dwellings, a single family eats together and has its own sleeping area. At least one married child remains in the house to take care of the parents.

Because fathers are the disciplinarians, children tend to be closer to their mothers. Close relatives may also correct or punish a child. Parents will not physically punish an older child in public. Children learn skills by assisting their parents in work.

Though permitted under Muslim law, taking more than one wife is not common because it would shame the first wife's family. Physical abuse by a husband or an insult from him in public are grounds for divorce. If a husband cannot tolerate his wife's actions, he is supposed to appeal to her relatives or to community leaders. Because families mediate conflicts, and custom stipulates a "cooling off " period before the finalization of divorce, which requires return of the bride-price if the wife has no sufficient grievance, divorce is rare.


In towns, many Maranao wear nontraditional clothing, not just Western clothing but also the Filipino barong tagalog [ seeFilipinos ], Malay fashions, and most recently Arab and Pakistani garb. The malong, a sarong whose edges are often connected by a langkit , a second piece of cloth of contrasting design, is the main article of traditional clothing for both sexes. Ceremonial apparel for a datu (male title-holder) consists of an embroidered coat and long, tight-fitting pants; a tobao, a matching silk cloth; and a dagger tucked into a 12-cm wide (5-in-wide) waist sash. A bai (female title-holder) wears a long-sleeved blouse (often embroidered); a malong of locally woven silk; a necklace of gold coins; and a kobong veil (formerly, a crown and a special coiffure). Colors range from yellow for sultans to red or maroon for other titles. An attendant holds a large umbrella over the title-holder, while others carry a kris (sword) and a brass basin, symbols of authority and wealth, respectively.


With rice as the staple, Maranao food resembles that of other Filipinos, particularly Muslim groups [ seeFilipinos ].


A madrasah, a school stressing the reading of the Quran, stands in every community, built with community funds, sometimes with additional money from Arab countries. Suspicious of English-language schools as institutions for Christianization, Maranao initially avoided them. Nowadays, however, parents send their children to such schools, often making great sacrifices to do so. Formal education used to be so rare that families celebrated graduations very lavishly. Considerations of family prestige exert high pressure on individuals to obtain degrees. Degree-holders are so numerous that many cannot obtain appropriate employment. Many Maranao have obtained degrees in Middle Eastern Islamic universities, which qualifies them to teach in madrasah.

According to the 2000 census, the literacy level in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was 68.9%, very low by national standards. In Lanao del Sur, nearly one in three (32.8%) had completed elementary school, over one in five (21.5%) high school, and nearly one in eight (11.8%) college or university, though the percentage for elementary was somewhat lower, those for secondary and tertiary education were dramatically higher than in fellow ARMM province, Sulu). SeeTausug


Musical instruments include the kulintang (a horizontal series of eight knobbed gongs played with two sticks), a dabakan (a wooden drum also played with two sticks), various hanging gongs (agong, pamulsan, and babandir), the insi (a bamboo flute), kobing (jew's-harp), and kotyapi (a two-stringed instrument with a soundbox in the shape of an abstract crocodile). In the kalilang ensemble, females play the kulintang with its subtle melodies while men strike the hanging gongs. Formerly, all girls and boys learned to play so they would be proficient by the time they were of marriageable age. Girls could display their expertise to boys; a boy would accompany a girl he was courting, considering it a shame if rivals outdid him in skill.

Among Maranao dances, the singkil is the most famous, mastering it having once been a requirement for aristocratic girls. Two pairs of bamboo poles are crossed; the dancer, maintaining a grave expression and waving a fan, steps in and out of the poles as they are rapidly clapped together. Another well-known dance is the sagayan, a male war dance.

Kambayoka are all-night contests in oratorical singing held as part of the celebrations of high-status people. The Maranao also have an epic, the Darangen.


Mostly relying on rainfall for irrigation, wet-rice is grown in the lowlands. Other crops are maize and sweet potatoes on marginal lands; taro, squash, cassava, peanuts, and chilies in gardens; and betel nut, papayas, and bananas on trees. Livestock include water buffalo, goats, chickens, and ducks. As lake stocks are now depleted, most fish is obtained from trade with the coast.

Maranao peddlers, particularly of brassware, frequent town markets throughout Mindanao and have long been the commercial link between pagan hill peoples and maritime traders.

Acquiring an aristocratic title or bureaucratic job that frees one from manual labor is greatly esteemed.


See the article entitled Filipinos .


See the article entitled Filipinos .


Of all non-Christian people of the Philippines, the Maranao are the most famous for their crafts. Male artisans produce okir, intricate carving for household objects, canoes, and the projecting beams (panolong) of torogan (senior kin-group) houses. Emphasizing plant and floral motifs in delicate scroll-work, there are numerous named designs, including the niaganaga (a stylized dragon) and pako rabong (representing a growing fern). The sari-manok is a stylized bird situated, among other places, on the top of banner poles. Contemporary artists incorporate "Bugis" (i.e., Bornean or Malay) designs and Arab forms, such as the borak (a flying horse with the head of a beautiful woman); they also produce lions, eagles, and peacocks for the tourist market. High-status families will commission famous artists to decorate their torogan.

Women weave cloth with complex geometric patterns (which have poetical names), often using andon, a tie-dying technique (ikat). They also produce mats and baskets.

Metalwork is another art, encompassing gold- and silver smithing as well as the production of swords, such as the sondang (a short dagger) and kampilan (a long-bladed sword), both of which are longer and larger than their Malay-Indonesian counterparts. Much artistry is lavished on the handles, which may be in the shape of a hornbill beak or a swallow tail.


See the article entitled Filipinos .


In 2000, in Sulu the ratio between men and women was 94.27 men for every 100 women, though women were more numerous in the age group from birth to 35 years (which may be partly the result of male insurgent casualties). Literacy levels in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, low by national standards, were somewhat higher for men (69.8%) than for women (67.7%). In Lanao del Sur, however, more of those completing all levels of education were women than men. In contrast to other parts of the country, such as Southern Tagalog, more overseas workers from the ARMM were female (56%) than male; the median age of those female overseas workers was 24 years (there are hiring quotas for Muslim domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim Middle Eastern States).


Disoma, Esmail R. The Meranao: A Study of Their Practices and Beliefs. Marawi City: Mindanao State University, 1990.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed.. Dallas: Texas: SIL International, 2005. (November 21, 2008).

LeBar, Frank M., ed. Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Vol. 2, Philippines and Formosa. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972.

National Statistics Office: Republic of the Philippines. "Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao: Nine Out of Ten Persons Were Muslims." (November 21, 2008).

———. "Lanao del Norte: Population Growth Rate Decreased to 1.53 Percent." (November 21, 2008).

———. "Lanao del Sur: 94 Males for Every 100 Females." (November 21, 2008).

—revised by A. J. Abalahin