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ETHNONYMS: Joloanos, Jolo Moros, Suluk, Sulu Moros, Sulus, Taw Sug


Identification. The Tausug ("people of the current"tau, "people"; sug, "sea current") are the numerically dominant group in the Sulu Archipelago of the southern Philippines. Jolo Island, strategically located near the heart of the archipelago, constitutes the cultural and political center of Tausug society. Major concentrations of Tausug are also present on Pata, Tapul, Lugus, and Siasi islands, on the north and eastern coasts of Basilan, and in the Mindanao provinces of Zamboanga del Sur and Cotabato. Additional populations are found in eastern Sabah (Malaysia), from Labuk-Sugut southward to Tawau. In Sulu the Tausug typically occupy the larger high islands, suitable for intensive agriculture, leaving the low coraline islands to the more maritime Samal. The Tausug are a culturally unified group, and regional differentiation is minimal. On Jolo Island, coastal-dwelling Tausug refer to themselves as "Tau Higad" (higad, "seacoast") and to inland dwellers as "Tau Gimnba" (gimba, "hinterland"), whereas both groups refer to Tausug living on islands other than Jolo as "Tau Pu" (pu, "island"). In Sabah the Tausug are known officially and in the ethnographic literature as "Suluk."

Location. The 400 or so islands of the Sulu Archipelago, bounded on the west by the Sulu Sea and on the east and south by the Celebes Sea, lie between 4°30 and 6°50 N and 119°10 and 122°25 E. Jolo, the largest of the group, is a rugged, high island, 59 kilometers long by 16 kilometers wide. Fertile volcanic soils make possible intensive dry-field cultivation over approximately one-half of its area; the rest is either unarable mountain land, remnant forest, or former farmland turned to imperata grass. Rainfall is abundant, 178 to 254 centimeters annually, but erratic, particularly during the northeast monsoon (November-March). Jolo Island is surrounded by coral reefs and fringed with sand beaches and mangrove swamps.

Demography. The Tausug population of the Philippines was estimated at 325,000 in 1970, of which 190,000 lived on Jolo Island. Following the destruction of Jolo town in 1974 in fighting between Muslim separatists and Christian soldiers, this latter figure has probably declined, as considerable numbers of Tausug were evacuated or fled, many to Basilan, Zamboanga, and Sabah. In Sabah locally born Tausug numbered 10,900 in 1970. Current estimates of their number, together with recent refugees, run from 20,000 to as high as 100,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tausug language belongs to the East Mindanao Subgroup of Central Philippine languages. Its closest affiliation is with Butuanun, spoken at the mouth of the Agusan River (northeast Mindanao), from which it is believed to have separated some 900 years ago. It also exhibits extensive linguistic convergence with Sama-Bajau, indicating a long and close association. Tausug shows little dialectal variation and served historically as the lingua franca of the Sulu sultanate. A Malay-Arabic script is used for religious and other writings.

History and Cultural Relations

The Tausug appear to have come to Sulu from northeastern Mindanao as a result of contact with Sama-Bajau traders. This movement probably began in early Sung times and was related to the growth of Chinese trade during the Sung (a.d. 960-1279) and Yuan (a.d. 1280-1368) periods. Linguistic evidence suggests that a Tausug-speaking community may have originated from a bilingual population established in Jolo by Sama traders and their Tausug-speaking wives and children between the tenth and eleventh centuries. By the end of the thirteenth century the Tausug emerged in the islands as a regionally powerful commercial elite. The date of earliest Islamic penetration is uncertain, but initial contact possibly began in late Sung times, when Arab merchants opened direct trading links with southern China by way of the Sulu Archipelago. There also seems to have been some early proselytizing by Chinese Muslims. Islam was later reinvigorated in Sulu by Sufi missionaries, who came from Arabia or Iraq via Malaya and Sumatra. The Sulu sultanate was established in the mid-fifteenth century, putatively by the legendary Salip (Sharif) Abu Bakkar or Sultan Shariful Hashim. Its establishment consolidated the ascendancy of the Tausug and appears to have furthered their social and economic differentiation from the Sama-Bajau-speaking Samal. The sultanate reached the height of its power in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when its influence extended from Sulu through the coastal foreshores of Mindanao and northern Borneo. Jolo emerged as a major center of trade and piracy and as an entrepôt for slaves, most of them taken in the Christian Philippines. Slavery made possible an intensification of trade-related production and, in addition to being practiced by Tausug slavers, was carried out by Ilanon and Balangingi Samal under the commission of Tausug aristocrats. Following Spain's colonization of the Philippines in the sixteenth century, warfare with the Spanish was almost continuous for the next 300 years. The first Spanish attack on Jolo town occurred in 1578. The town was occupied briefly in the seventeenth century and a permanent garrison was established for the first time in 1876. After Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War, American troops occupied Jolo town in 1899, but stiff resistance prevented them from gaining control over the interior of the island until 1913. The Pax Americana that followed saw the abolition of slavery, confiscation of firearms, and temporary curtailment of piracy and feuding. In 1915, under the terms of the Carpenter Agreement, Sultan Jamal ul-Kiram II relinquished all claims to secular power, while retaining his religious role as an Islamic sovereign. Since World War II indigenous forms of armed conflict have revived. Sulu today is a major center of Islamic separatism, the birthplace of many of the founding leaders of the present Moro National Liberation Front, and the site of some of the most destructive fighting of the recent past.


Except for towns and coastal fishing villages, Tausug communities are typically dispersed, with individual houses located close to family fields. The household, or cluster of two or three adjacent households, comprises the smallest territorial grouping. The next larger unit is the hamlet (lungan ). Still larger is the community (kauman ), having a common name and headman. The unity of a kauman depends on intermarriage, the existence of a core kin group among its members, their attendance at a common mosque, recent history of conflict, and the political skills of the community's headman. Boundaries between kauman tend to be ill-defined, varying according to the dynamics of alliance and feuding and the relative power of successive headmen. The Tausug house typically consists of a single rectangular room, bamboo- or timber-walled, with a thatched roof, raised on posts about 2 to 3 meters above the ground. The structure is generally surrounded by a series of elevated porches leading to a separate kitchen at the rear and is often enclosed within a protective stockade encircling the house compound.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence is based primarily on agriculture, fishing, and trade, with some livestock raising (cattle, chickens, ducks). The Tausug practice plow agriculture, growing dry rice on permanently diked, nonirrigated fields, using cattle or water buffalo as draft animals. Rice is intercropped with corn, cassava, and a small amount of millet, sorghum, and sesame. There are three annual harvests: first, corn and other cereals; second, rice; and third, cassava. The harvesting of cassava continues until the following dry season. Farms are typically fallowed every third year. Other crops, generally planted in separate gardens, include peanuts, yams, eggplants, beans, tomatoes, and onions. The principal cash crops are coconuts (for copra), coffee, abaca, and fruit. Fruit, some of it wild, is an important source of seasonal cash income and includes mangoes, mangosteens, bananas, jackfruits, durians, lanzones, and oranges. Today many coastal Tausug are landless and make their living from fishing or petty trade. Fishing, as either a full- or a part-time occupation, is carried out in coastal waters, mainly using nets, hook-and-line, or traps.

Industrial Arts. Most farm and household items are made of bamboo. Iron implements are forged locally and the manufacture of bladed weapons has historically been an important local craft. Women produce pandanus mats and woven headcloths for both home use and sale.

Trade. From the founding of the Sulu sultanate until the mid-nineteenth century, the Tausug conducted an extensive trade with China in pearls, birds' nests, trepang, camphor, and sandalwood. Historically, considerable interisland trade has also existed within the archipelago. Today copra and abaca are sold primarily through Chinese wholesalers, while most locally consumed products are handled by Tausug or Samal traders. Smuggling between Sulu and nearby Malaysian ports is an important economic activity to many with capital and commercial connections and is a major source of local differences in wealth and power.

Division of Labor. Both sexes share in farm work, men doing much of the heavier work such as clearing, plowing, and fencing fields; planting, weeding, and harvesting are done jointly. Women tend the smaller vegetable gardens and gather fruit. Both sexes engage in trade. Fishing, metalwork, interisland trade, and smuggling are largely male occupations, although, in the latter case, women often manage the financial side.

Land Tenure. Landholdings typically are dispersed, with a man having rights of usufruct or tenancy in farms in several different locations. These rights are individually held. In contrast water holes, pasturelands, and beaches are by tradition unowned and available for common use. In the past, titular rights were held by the sultan over all land within the state and secondarily by local or regional leaders acting as his representatives.


Kin Groups and Descent. The bilateral kindred (usbawaris ) extending to second cousins is the major kinship category. Lineal descent has no special functional or ideological significance, and a hallmark of Tausug society is the absence of enduring corporate groups of any kind. According to the Tausug interpretation of the Shafi marriage law, children are filiated with the father and his kindred (usbaq ), but in other contexts, aside from marriage and divorce, ties are acknowledged bilaterally without distinction. Relations with kin are markedly dyadic; relatives act as a group only during life crises, in times of sickness or special need, or when family honor is at stake. Sibling solidarity is especially intense. Bonds between brothers and first cousins are particularly important in forging political allegiances and in garnering support in times of armed conflict. In addition to kinship, a variety of ritual-friendship relations is recognized. These include sworn alliances between allies and ritual friendships between rivals, or potential rivals, entered intooften at the instigation of regional leadersto forestall open enmity or bring it to an end. Having many friends is essential for success in armed feuds and litigation and for safety in traveling outside one's home region.

Kinship Terminology. Terminology emphasizes generation, relative age, and lineality; cousin terms are of the Eskimo type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is ideally arranged by parents. Contacts between the sexes are restricted and marriageable women are kept in relative seclusion to protect their value to their family as political and economic assets. First and second cousins are favored spouses (with the exception of the children of brothers). A series of negotiations precedes marriage, concluding with an agreement on the amount of bride-wealth and other expenses to be paid by the boy's family. In addition to arranged marriages, wives may be obtained by elopement or abduction, both common alternatives. Weddings are held in the groom's parents' house immediately upon payment of bride-wealth and are officiated by an imam. Newly married couples generally reside uxorilocally for the first year, or until the birth of a child, after which they are free to join the husband's family, remain with the wife's family, or, preferably, build a new house of their own, typically close to the husband's natal community. Independent residence is the eventual ideal. Relations between husband and wife are characteristically close and enduring. Divorce is permitted but is infrequent, occurring in less than 10 percent of all marriages and, although polygyny is allowed, few men take more than one wife.

Domestic Unit. The Tausug household consists of either a nuclear family or a stem family, the latter being comprised of parents, unmarried children, plus a married child, spouse, and grandchildren. Fully extended families are rare.

Inheritance. Land is usually divided between sons, with some preference given to the eldest. Other property is generally inherited bilaterally.

Socialization. Children are looked after by both parents and older siblings. A newborn infant's hold on life is thought to be precarious; therefore, children are commonly protected with amulets (hampan ) and temporarily secluded immediately after birth. At around 1 or 2 years of age, both boys and girls undergo a ritual haircutting and immediately afterward are named. Most preadolescent children attend Quranic school or study the Quran with a private tutor, and when proficient they demonstrate their skills at recitation in a public ceremony called pagtammat. This is typically a festive occasion, its scale reflecting the family's status and economic means. Boys are circumcised (pagislam ) in their early teens; girls undergo a similar rite (pagsunnat ), but without ceremony and attended only by females, when they reach the age of 5 or 6. Socialization emphasizes sensitivity to shame, respect for authority, and family honor. Today children attend public schools, but few attain more than a primary education. Only one in five who begin school complete grade six.

Sociopolitical Organization

The major cultural focus of Tausug society is on conflict, politics, law, and litigation.

Social Organization. Tausug society is hierarchically stratified and has been since at least the founding of the Sulu sultanate. Three major rank categories were formerly recognized: nobles, commoners, and slaves. The nobility consisted of datu, men holding patrilineally inherited titles who exercised regional power, and salip, religiously revered men and women who claimed descent from the Prophet. As in other Malay polities, those of datu status were internally differentiated into what have been called "royal datus" and "ordinary datus" (i.e., those directly related to the line of the ruling sultan and others related only distantly or not at all). Commoners, who comprised some 80 percent of the population, lacked ascribed titles and ranking. The position of each category was defined by law. Commoners and slaves were required to pay allegiance to a particular datu, although they exercised some choice in the matter, as individual datus were not assigned unambiguously bounded territories. To a considerable degree wealth and power were achieved independently of inherited titles, so that men of humble origin often gained great influence and, in acknowledgment, received bestowed titles and recognized positions of prominence in the alliance hierarchy. This status system has thus been characterized as one of "status-conscious egalitarianism."

Political Organization. Although centralized as a polity, political power within the traditional sultanate operated primarily through networks of interlocking leader-centered alliances. Person-to-person bonds of friendship and patronage linked smaller alliances to larger ones in a ramifying network that extended from community headmen and local factional leaders to the sultan and his kindred at the apex of the system. Within the archipelago, the sultan's authority was strongest at the geographical center of the state, on Jolo and neighboring high islands, shading to symbolic hegemony at its outer peripheries. Recognition of a leader's authority and his position in the alliance hierarchy were expressed through ranked titles (panglima, maharaja, orangkaya, parukka, etc.); part of the sultan's authority derived from his powers of investiture and control over the title system. At each level of the alliance network, leaders acted as representatives of the law, performing legal functions, mediating feuds, and imposing fines. They also offered their followers physical protection and, from the sultan downward, were responsible for administering religious law and for appointing local and regional religious officials. At the capital the sultan was advised by a state council (ruma bichara ) made up of religious advisers and leading datus, which, in addition to its advisory role, reserved the right to determine succession. Today traditional political values remain largely intact. Minimal and medial alliances still operate, whereas maximal alliances are now led by acculturated Tausug operating within the setting of Philippine electoral politics. Sulu is divided into two provinces, Sulu (Jolo) and Tawitawi. Jolo in turn is divided into eight municipalities, each with elected officials: mayors, vicemayors, and municipal councillors. Provincial officials include a governor, a provincial board, and a national congressperson. Their powers derive mainly from their ability to obtain government largesse and to guarantee their followers legal immunity. Although the secular power of the sultan is greatly diminished, he continues to preserve, mainly through the agama (religious court), much of his traditional religious function. Since the death of Sultan Jamal ul-Karim II, the office has been represented by two lines of claimants.

Social Control. The Tausug recognize three categories of law: pure Quranic law; interpreted religious law (sara ), codified by the sultan and other Tausug officials; and customary law (adat ), including offenses of honor.

Conflict. Armed feuds are endemic. The pattern is chiefly one of individual revenge. A widely ramifying feud may result in battles involving more than 100 persons on each side. In the past, external warfare took the form of piracy and coastal raiding, organized at the levels of medial and maximal alliance, chiefly for slaves and booty. In the nineteenth century, following the establishment of a precarious Spanish military hegemony over Sulu, a pattern of ritual suicide (sabbil ) developed as a form of personal jihad, or religious martyrdom.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Tausug are Sunni Muslims, followers of the Shaft school. The Five Pillars are observed, although only the elderly practice daily prayers regularly. All illness, accidents, and other misfortunes are ultimately God's will. However, the Tausug retain elements of pre-Islamic belief and, additionally, see the world as inhabited by local spirits capable of causing good or ill fortune. Folk curers (mangungubat ) may be sought in time of illness. Traditional medical specialists, who obtain their powers through dreams or by the instruction of older curers, heal mainly by herbal remedies and prayers.

Religious Practitioners. The imam is an important community figure. He officiates at life-crisis rites, offers religious counsel, and leads the faithful in prayer. Religion is central to Tausug identity and traditionally played a major role in maintaining the hierarchical structure of the state. The sultan, as head of an Islamic polity, was invested with religious authority. Official genealogies traced his descent to the Prophet and in his person he was expected to exemplify ideal qualities of virtue and religious devotion. Paralleling the political pyramid was a religious one, united at its apex in the sultan's person, and consisting, from state to community level, of kadi, ulama, imam, hatib, and bilal, juridical and religious advisors, and mosque officials.

Ceremonies. Major events in the religious calendar include fasting during Ramadan; Hari Raya Puasa, a day of feasting immediately following Ramadan; Hari Raya Hadji, the feast of sacrifice on the tenth day of the month of Jul-Hadj; Maulideen Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet, on the twelfth day of Maulud; and Panulak Balah (lit., "to send away evil"), a day of ritual bathing on the last Wednesday of Sappal.

Arts. Dancing, instrumental music, and song are popular forms of entertainment, but the decorative arts are unelaborated.

Death and Afterlife. Four acts must be performed at death: bathing the corpse, enshrouding it, reciting the prayer for the dead, and burial. Burial is followed by a seven-day vigil. Depending on a family's economic circumstances, commemorative feasts may be held on the 7th, 20th, 40th, and 100th day, and on the first, second, and third anniversaries of death. Each person is believed to have four souls that leave the body at death. The body goes to hell, where the length of punishment it suffers is determined by the misdeeds and accumulated religious merit of the deceased. On the fifteenth day of the month of Shaaban, one of the souls (ro ) of the dead is sent back to earth: here the deceased is honored with prayers and on the following day graves are cleared.

See also Samal


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Hart, Donn V. (1984). "Tausug." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 764-770. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Kiefer, Thomas (1972). "The Tausug Polity and Sultanate of Sulu: A Segmentary State in the Southern Philippines." Sulu Studies 1:19-64.

Kiefer, Thomas (1972). The Tausug: Violence and Law in a Philippine Moslem Society. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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