Samal Moro

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Samal Moro

ETHNONYMS: Muslim Samalan, Sama, Samal


Identification. "Samal" is a covering term for Muslim Samalan speakers. One of the many ethnic-minority groups in the Philippines, they are one of ten Islamic groups presently living in the southern Philippines. They speak a Malayo-Polynesian language, Siamal or Samalan, perhaps the oldest in the Sulu Archipelago. In the Philippines, ethnic identity is usually determined by language. For the Samal Moro, their minority status is a double bind: they are at once speakers of a less-known language and Muslims in a Christian country. Christians call them "Moros" (as in "Moors"), a reference the Samal consider insulting. Referring to themselves as "Sama" or "Samal," they clearly distinguish themselves from the Sama-laut, known in the literature as "Bajaus" or "Sea Gypsies." Typically, Samal identify themselves more with a particular island or island group.

Location. The Philippines lies in the severest cyclone belt of Asia. It is extremely volcanic, and its climate is tropical with marked rainy and dry seasons except in Sulu. Of 7,100 islands and islets, only 700 are inhabited, and most of them have a simple north-to-south structural alignment. The southernmost group of islands form the Sulu Archipelago where the Samal live. South of Jolo and Siasi, the Samal are found mainly in the TawiTawi area and outlying islands beyond.

Demography. The 1992 national population estimate for the Philippines was 62,380,000, of which 5 to 10 percent are Muslims, the largest minority group. National population density averages 208.2 persons per square kilometer. There are concentrations of forty-five other major ethnic groups in the islands of Luzon, Mindanao, and the Visayas. The annual population growth estimate is 2.49 percent and average life expectancy is 62 years for males and 64 for females. In 1985 the national population was estimated at 56,808,000, of whom an estimated 126,100 were Samal Moro. In Sulu, the Samal are the second-largest indigenous ethnic group (after the Tausug).

Linguistic Affiliation. Around eighty-seven languages and dialects are spoken in the Philippines; with the exception English, Spanish, and Chinese, they all belong to the Austronesian Family. Eight Philippine languages are spoken by 86 percent of the population, with Cebuano (24 percent) and Tagalog (21 percent) being the most widely used. Tagalog has formed the basis for the national language, Pilipino, as it is the major language of Manila. The official languages of the country, Pilipino and English, are used in government, mass communication, and commerce, and beyond grammar school.

History and Cultural Relations

Prior to European colonization, the Philippines had been an outpost of Southeast Asian kingdoms in various periods, the most notable of which was the Majapahit. In the fourteenth century, Islam, by way of Malaysia and Indonesia, had gained a foothold in many coastal regions of the Philippines, leading to a replay of Christian-Muslim conflicts when the Spaniards arrived in 1521. Spanish Christianity was successfully superimposed on the majority of the native cultures, except among interior tribal groups and the southern people of the Philippines. The end of the Spanish-American War brought the Philippines under United States control between 1899 and 1946. Throughout the American occupation, the southern part of the country remained Islamic, separatist in ideology, and hostile. Pacification tactics and containment differed little from those used previously by the Spaniards or those adopted later by the Marcos regime. The short Japanese occupation of the Philippines (1941-1945) left no significant imprint. During the Marcos regime considerable effort was exerted to align the Philippines with its Southeast Asian neighbors, but its cultural links to the West are profound. It is a Roman Catholic country, historically related to Latin America, that champions an American-style government and a public-school system directed toward mass education and modernization; the American experiment on Philippine soil was successful, if only briefly. Until the twentieth century the Chinese presence in the Philippines had been intermittent and confined to trading activities. Today Chinese constitute 2 percent of the population.


Philippine settlements are classifiable as cities, towns, and villages. While the national capital, Manila, stands alone, chartered cities form the second-highest level of urban organization. Small cities and large towns are often interchangeable. Both are based on the number of villages included under their jurisdiction. In Christian areas a Catholic church identifies the town. In Sulu a mosque marks a specific ethnic neighborhood or a village. Typically, Samal villages are of the strip kind, with houses built on stilts along the coastal lines. Denser villages are built out further into the sea and are accessible by platforms serving as passageways. Samal mosques, schoolhouses, and health dispensaries are built inland, as are the homes of more affluent and acculturated families. A typical house has two sections: one part roofed, the other not. Most household chores are done in the latter, while formal activities and sleeping take place in the former. The traditional thatched roofs and walls have given way to more durable materials such as galvanized iron, lumber, and concrete.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. As a maritime people, Samal Muslims have pursued varied patterns of livelihood: cassava and coconut horticulture (huma ), household and commercial fishing, contraband trade, and, mostly among the Sibutu Samal, boat (kumpit ) building. Early acceptance of public schooling has given the Samal an advantage over the Tausug in the training of local civil servants, whose salaries augment household income and sometimes cause relative wealth differentiation between households. Coastal households often fish and also raise a few chickens and ducks, mainly for eggs. Inland households may also raise a goat or a cow for slaughter during ceremonials, especially weddings. Otherwise, the Samals' dietary needs are met via food purchased from the trading centers of Tawitawi and Sitangkai: rice (an expensive supplement to cassava), canned goods, and vegetables.

Industrial Arts. Part-time motorcycle mechanics, sewing-machine Operators, blacksmiths, carvers, and bricklayers are usually found in the Samal villages. Mat weaving is a specialized activity for some women and often a source of additional income.

Trade. Commercial activities in Sulu exist on two levels: legitimate and illegitimate. Legitimate trade involves the sale of dried fish, copra, or a newly built boat to Chinese merchants throughout the markets of Sulu, Zamboanga, and North Borneo. Cash from these transactions is used to smuggle goods from North Borneo into the islands. Smuggling trips involve the cooperative activities of young men in the villages and call for a facility for eluding the naval patrols. A typical village has one or two sari-sari stores, where daily needs such as oil, soap, condiments, spices, and pain remedies are easily bought.

Division of Labor. Except in farm work, division of labor by gender is fairly clear-cut. Men exclusively fish, build boats, and trade. Women do such domestic chores as housecleaning, food preparation, and child care. Men assist in child rearing after infancy.

Land Tenure. Homesteading by people from the northern islands created permanent settlements on many Samal islands and changed their form of adaptation away from sea roving. By 1910 the larger islands like Subutu, Simunul, Bongao, and Pangutaran had settled populations. As late as the 1960s, homesteading was still attracting migrants to Cagayan de Sulu. Residential and farming plots and cemetery grounds are family- or kin-owned. Village founders are well remembered by the first mosques they built or the first trees they planted to mark off their communities.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kin-based groups are readily identifiable as households (magtoteyanak, dambua'luna, dapaningan ) ranging in composition from nuclear to four-generational extended families. The nuclear family, mataan, is distinguished clearly from the household unit. A group of kin-related households, located in the common residential land, form neighborhoods or work teams. Two or more of these localized kindred groups constitute the village (kaum ), the unit of worship. Descent is bilateral, tempered by status.

Kinship Terminology. The traditional distinction between nobility (datus ) and commoners is reflected in the separate sets of address terminology employed within each group. Both use Eskimo cousin terms, but whereas commoners use lineal terms for the first ascendant generation, the nobility employs generational terms. As a result, mixed marriages produce semblances of bifurcate merging and bifurcate collaterality depending on the respective status of the spouses. Kin terms also reflect the significance attributed to relative age.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamy is the norm but polygyny is tolerated, although second and third wives have less status than the first wife. Patrilateral and matrilateral cross cousins are considered equally suitable spouses. Unions between patrilateral parallel cousins, sororate marriages when the second wife is senior to the first wife, and intergenerational marriage between Ego and a parent's first cousin are less preferred. These marriages are considered "hot," or panas, and thus require extra ritual treatment. Matrilocal residence is a more prevalent practice. High frequency of marriage between kin mutes the distinction between consanguineal and affinal relatives. Divorce, though sanctioned by Islamic law, rarely occurs.

Domestic Unit. Mainly a residential and often an economic unit, the household group ranges from single families of six members to extended units that include grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and children of spouses. In multifamily households, the family as the consumption unit stands distinct from the residential group. The latter may have two or three hearths from which individual families prepare their separate meals. House repairs require collective labor or financing by the members.

Inheritance. Equal division of property among children is subscribed to and technically prescribed by law. Because land is held in common by kin groups and houses do not last, inheritable property consists of jewelry, cash, or other salable articles. In this connection, the child, ideally a daughter who cares for and lives with the aging parents, may get the better share.

Socialization. Children are raised by both parents at different stages. Infants are tended almost exclusively by the mother. After children are weaned, they are cared for by their father and older siblings. While physical punishment is rare, teasing is used in sanctioning. Parents are extremely affectionate toward their children, in whom they instill the importance of social relationships and loyalty to the community over self-centeredness.

Sociopolitical Organization

The modern Philippines is a constitutional democracy with a president, vice-president, and congressional and local officials, all popularly elected.

Social Organization. Principles of hierarchy that apply throughout Philippine society are based on age, occupation, wealth, residence, ethnicity, and, in Sulu, on inherited status. Class mobility has obscured status at both regional and local levels: poor datu families and rich commoner families have emerged. The priestly class (pakil ) stands above the status conflict. Patron-client relationships are also hierarchical and often involve petty bureaucrats and their relatives in the chain.

Political Organization. The province, each with its capital, is the major political and administrative division in the country. Provinces are organized into districts; each district, into municipalities; and each municipality, into barrios and/or baranggays. The barrio often corresponds to a village or a group of hamlets. The province is run by an elected governor and council, and it sets policies for its constituent municipalities. Municipalities, in turn, elect their mayors and councils, and their baranggay constituency elects the baranggay captain and council. The seat of the municipality is the poblacion, where some measure of urbanism is recognizable. Chartered cities are specialized municipalities governed in parallel to the provinces. Districts elect representatives to the national congress but senators, like the president and vice-president, are elected at large. The national government, through its appropriate bureaus, provides for its citizenry free elementary and selected secondary schools, competitive national universities, public health dispensaries and selected hospitals, public records, tax collection, courts, police, national highways, and water systems. As a rule, the political regions closer to Manila have better access to these facilities. In Sulu many of these services are nonexistent.

Social Control. In Samal villages gossip provides an effective but informal source of social control. Fear of strangers and evil spirits is also invoked in socialization techniques. Both the baranggay captain and the pakil in their advisory capacity can influence or arbitrate on matters that concern the village, via the village council. Beyond the village, the religious court, agama, is the ultimate source of social control.

Conflict. Status distinction between the nobility and commoners often translates into political campaigns for public office, competition for government appointments in a patronage system, and marriage alliance and preference.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Islam, the religion of submission to God, is the main unifying factor for many groups in the southern Philippines. Of the four schools of the Sunni branch of Islam, the Muslims of Southeast Asia belong to the Shafi school, in which equal weight is given to the authority of the Quran and of the Hadith.

Religious Practitioners . The pakil (priestly) class is composed of imams, hatibs, and bilars, who are ranked according to knowledge of the Quran, experience, and seniority. Traditionally appointed by the agama, these officials are now appointed by the mayor. Their ranking is usually evident during major religious ceremonies; otherwise each may substitute for the others in delivering sermons, leading chants, and performing critical rituals. Attendance at Friday worship (Jumaat) in the mosque is virtually all male. If women do go, they sit in the back, behind the men. Other practitioners include curers and diviners. Sorcerers are widely believed to exist. The Muslim jinn are locally known as saitans (evil spirits), to which the typical Samal makes daily reference in connection with illness, misfortune, failure, and unhappiness. Invocation of Tuhan (God) is comparatively rare and is made in the more abstract assessment of the human condition. Sometimes bogey men with supernatural qualities are imagined.

Ceremonies. The Muslim calendar has twelve months of thirty days each. Important feasts and festivals include the New Year (Muharram) celebration; Maulud en-nabi, the Prophet Mohammed's birthday; Ramadan; Hari Raya Puasa, at the close of the fasting month; the Feast of Sacrifice surrounding the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), locally known as "Hari Raya Hadji"; and the Festival of Mohammed's Night Journey.

Arts. Carved designs are found in the more traditional homes and on burial markers, boats, and machete handles. Brass gongs, drums, and xylophones are typical instruments used in festivities, as well as battery-run radios and phonographs. Dance troupes visit villages, although at long intervals. Competitive sports among school districts (usually interisland) provide great entertainment, as do traveling movies.

Medicine. Spirit possession, spirit loss, and sorcery (kulam ) are often blamed for lingering illness. Curers usually diagnose and prescribe relief alongside a Western medical agent. Sickly children are attended by the pakil, who performs renaming and weighing (pagtimbang ) rituals as remedies.

Death and Afterlife. Funeral rites are held immediately after a death, and before sundown the body is buried. The soul (aluwa ) of a good person is believed to go to heaven, via Mecca; a bad soul goes to hell. The bad soul is feared as a potential ghost and requires the ritual of forgiveness (kipalat ) conducted on its behalf by the living relatives.


Casino, Eric S. (1976). The Jama Mapun: A Changing Samal Society in the Southern Philippines. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Ducommun, Dolores (1962). "Sisangat: A Sulu Fishing Community." Philippine Sociological Review 10:91-107.

Flores-Meiser, Enya P. (1969). "Division and Integration in a Sibutu Barrio (Sulu, Philippines)." In Anthropology: Range and Relevance, 511-526. Quezon City: Kayumanggi Press.

Orosa, Sixto Y. (1923). The Sulu Archipelago and Its People. Yonkers, N.Y.: World Book Co.

Spoehr, Alexander (1973). Zamboanga and Sulu: An Archeological Approach to Ethnic Diversity. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.