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Identification. The Yakan are one of the Muslim peoples of the southern Philippines. They live on the island of Basilan, just off the southwestern point of Mindanao.

Location. Basilan is located at 6°40 N and 122°00 E, with a total area of 1,283 square kilometers. The climate is tropical with a rainy season from April to October and a dry season from November to April. The interior is mostly mountainous. The Yakan live predominantly in the interior, mostly in the eastern, central, and southwestern part, whereas Samal and Tausug, who are also Muslim, live along the coasts. Nowadays there is also a large Christian population, which emigrated from other parts of the Philippines, mostly from the Visayan Islands. A few Yakan live on Sacol Island.

Demography. The number of Yakan is usually estimated at between 90,000 and 100,000, though variations between 60,000 and 196,000 may be found. The Yakan constitute a little less than half the population of Basilan.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yakan language is Malayo-Polynesian. It is closely related to the Sama and Bajau languages, and is considered by some to be a Sama dialect.

History and Cultural Relations

The Yakan are probably the original inhabitants of Basilan, and may once have inhabited the whole island. Later the coastal areas were occupied by Sama and Tausug from the Sulu Islands and, more recently, some Christian Filipinos settled not far from the coast, where they established rubber and coconut plantations. The sultan of Sulu once claimed Basilan as part of his possessions. Christian occupation started when the Spanish colonial government established a fort at Isabela on Basilan's northwest coast in 1842. In the 1870s the Yakan were conquered by a Christian Tagalog, who had escaped from a penal colony in nearby Mindanao. After some resistance the Yakans recognized him as their leader, with the title of datu. He adopted Islam, but he also restricted the hostilities between Yakan and Christians. He was succeeded first by a nephew, later by that man's son, who in 1969 was proclaimed sultan of Basilan. The unrest in the southern Philippines in the 1970s hit the Yakan very badly. In the early seventies a considerable part of Basilan was controlled by the rebels, and many Yakans were evacuated for some years. The Yakan are in many respects culturally related to other Muslim groups (Moros), not merely in religion. There has been contact with the Tausug and Sama, and especially with the Sama there is much cultural similarity. However, the Yakan have their own identifiable culture.


The Yakan have no compact villages; the houses are scattered among the fields, and there are vegetables and fruit trees around the house. Usually it is difficult to see where one settlement ends and the next begins. The center of the community is the mosque (langgal ), which is a simple building. The houses are rectangular pile dwellings housing nuclear families. The traditional house has a steep thatched roof, although today corrugated iron is also used. The walls are made of either plaited reed or bamboo, or of wooden boards; the floor may be of bamboo, but is more often of timber. Usually the house has only one big room with no special quarters for the women. To the house is joined a kitchen. The house is entered through a porch, which is an important part of the house. The inhabitants of a settlement may be related, but it is not the rule. Some changes have recently taken place. Though houses may still be scattered, this is no longer the case everywhere. Some people now build closer to one another, which was formerly done rarely and only when the occupants of the houses were closely related. Also, some who can afford to do so now build better, more modern houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Yakan are agriculturalists who practice dry farming with water buffalo-drawn plows. The main crop is upland rice, harvested once a year, but camote and cassava are also important. Other crops are grown, including maize, eggplants, yams, beans, coffee, and sugarcane, as well as many fruits including papaya, banana, mango, pineapple, jackfruit, and durian. Stimulants, betelpepper, areca nuts, and tobacco are also cultivated. For the growing of the main crops, rotation of fields is practiced. Usually only one crop of rice is grown in a field, and after it is harvested camote or cassava is planted in that field. When this second crop has been harvested, the field is usually left fallow for a couple of years, and then rice is planted again. Few people have enough rice to last them from one harvest to the next. On the whole, the crops mentioned are grown primarily for private use.

The same was formerly the case with coconuts. In more recent years, however, coconuts have become increasingly important as the production of copra has become an essential source of income. Coconuts now supplant other crops, even rice. The Yakan have few domestic animals. Formerly they had great herds of cattle, but this ended during World War II; now a household may have only a few cows and water buffalo. They also keep a few goats and chickens. Pigs, of course, are not kept, since the Yakan are Muslims. Hunting was formerly important but this is no longer the case, and although fish play an important part in the diet, the Yakan seldom fish; they mostly buy fish from the Samal.

Industrial Arts. A few Yakan are smiths. In some places there are skillful boat builders, though the Yakan themselves are not a seafaring people. The boats are sold to the coastal peoples. The only important craft is weaving: Yakan women weave beautiful cloths of various kinds on backstrap looms. Formerly these were for personal use only, but they now make textiles for sale. Some of these are of the same kind they use for their own clothing, others are tourist wares made in the old weaving style.

Trade. Barter was practiced in the past, but now money is in universal use. The Yakan bring their products (aside from copra, some vegetables, and weavings) to the markets. In most settlements there is a small Yakan-owned store where the most important goods can be purchased.

Division of Labor. There is no marked division of labor in agriculture. It is most common for men to plow and harrow, but women also perform these tasks, and other forms of agricultural work are done by both men and women. The increasing importance of coconut growing is changing this because the men do most of the work in connection with the production of coconut and making the copra. Household chores are mostly done by women, but men may help. The crafts are gender-specific: smithing is done by men, weaving by women.

Land Tenure. Land is individually owned, but until recently ownership was only by tradition, without legal titles. This has caused problems as non-Yakans have tried to acquire Yakan land in some areas. Now more and more Yakans have acquired land titles legally.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is bilateral: father's and mother's kin are of more or less the same importance. There is a great feeling of solidarity among relatives. At any great event, such as a wedding or a funeral, as many relatives as possible will come together. A settlement may consist of related persons, but that is not the rule.

Kinship Terminology. There are special terms for father and mother. There is no distinction in terms between father's and mother's relatives. The terms for aunt and uncle respectively are the same whether they are father's or mother's sibling. The same is the case in connection with cousins. As to the older generation, there is no distinction between grandparents and their siblings, and grandparents use the same term for their own grandchildren as they do for their siblings' grandchildren. Sibling terms distinguish between elder and younger siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. As Muslims, Yakan men are allowed to have four wives, but polygyny is becoming increasingly rare. Most Yakans have only one wife, although some have two and a very few have three or more. Formerly marriages were arranged by the parents, but now the parents will often consider their children's wishes. The bridegroom and his family must pay a bride-price to the bride, which however is hers only until she has children; then it will be transferred back to them. A greater bride-price is paid to the parents of the bride. All expenses in connection with the wedding are met by the bridegroom's side. It was formerly preferred that the young couple be related, but this is now considered of less importance. Usually the newly married couple will live for some time with the parents of either the bride or the groom; later they will establish their own household on land belonging to either of them. Husbands and wives have separately owned property; what they acquire in common will be their common property. Divorce is not uncommon, and may be initiated by either spouse. If the wife wants a divorce the bride-price must be returned, whereas this is not the case if it is the husband who wants a divorce.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family, consisting of man and wife with unmarried children, is the most common domestic unit. Often newly married children stay with the parents. A parent or sibling of either the husband or the wife may join the household, usually if the person in question is single.

Inheritance. Property is divided equally between the children in spite of the precepts of the Quran that a daughter's inheritance shall be only half as big as a son's.

Socialization. The children are brought up in the family; they begin at an early age to help with family work. Older siblings often take care of smaller brothers or sisters. Formerly the only education the children had was to learn to read the Quran, although there were a few schools before World War II. Today there are several private and public schools. At first many parents did not want their children to go to these schools, but now an increasing number go, although many also attend the Quranic school.

Sociopolitical Organization

The sultan of Sulu once claimed Basilan as his property, and it must be because of this claim that there were a small number of datus among the Yakan. They were all Tausug and apparently representatives of the sultan. Neither sultanate nor datuship is part of Yakan traditional culture. On the whole the sultan's influence seems to have been rather limited. Now, of course, the Yakan are under the Philippine government.

Social Organization. The settlements are small political units based on mosque affiliation. At the head of the community are the imam and a council. Wealth or leading position is respected, and so is age. But on the whole there is no pronounced social stratification. It should be mentioned that although the Yakan are Muslims, there is no segregation of women. Formerly young women were said to have had more limited freedom of movement, but that is no longer the case. Veiling has never been practiced.

Political Organization. There are two sorts of political organization: the traditional, with parishes centered around the langgal and a council taking a role in local matters, and the modern organization of the government of the Republic of the Philippines. Basilan is a province with a city and municipalities headed by mayors, and, more important to the Yakan, barrios (which are composed of several smaller communities called sitios ) headed by barrio captains.

Social Control and Conflict. Formerly fighting among Yakans was not uncommon. Conflicts may still occur. As far as possible they are handled by the council and the imam, though it seems that nowadays it is most often the imam and the barrio captain who handle the cases. This goes also for marriage quarrels, though more serious affairs may be brought before the sultan. Serious matters, such as killings, are settled at the official courts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yakan are Muslims, but many beliefs and practices deriving from an older religion are still retained and are, to a great extent, incorporated into their Muslim rituals and life; the Yakan consider them to be part of Islam. One important example is connected with rice growing. Rice is, to some extent, personified; planting and harvesting are initiated with religious ceremonies, and other religious precautions are taken to secure a good rice harvest. The Muslim center of religious practice, where the official prayers are conducted, is the langgal. There is a belief in various spirits, some of whom may sometimes attack people. Some places are believed to house spirits (e.g., a special kind of tree); one spirit may be encountered near the grave of a newly buried person. There is also a belief in a special devil who may attack and torture people during the second month of the year; people born in that month are especially in danger. To avoid the danger, a bathing ritual is performed on three successive Wednesdays of that month.

Religious Practitioners. The head of the langgal is the imam, who has two helpers, the habib and the bilal, both in accordance with Islam. The imam conducts the service in the langgal, and officiates at the life-cycle rituals and at the rice ceremonies. An important part of his position is to lead household prayer (e.g., to ask for recovery in case of sickness, or to bless a new house). There are other religious practitioners, however, who probably derive from an older, pre-Islamic religion. The most important is the bahasa, a kind of shaman, who will summon spirits to help him cure sickness or to tell fortunes. Whereas the bahasa will never work with the imam, another practitioner, the tabib, may sometimes assist the imam in performing certain semi-Muslim ceremonies outside the langgal. He may also perform the rice ceremonies and cure sickness. These practitioners are all male; the person teaching Quran-reading, the guru, is most often a woman.

Ceremonies. The Yakan follow the Muslim calendar and celebrate both the orthodox and the less common annual Muslim festivals. The most important are the fasting in the ninth month, concluded with a big celebration, and the celebration in the twelfth month during the pilgrimage. Among the Yakan the most important feast, however, is the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed in the third month. Very important also are the three bathing rituals in the second month. The Yakan have annual Islamic celebrations during seven months of the year. Ceremonies are also performed in connection with the life cycle: after birth, at the end of the Quranic studies, at weddings, and a series of ceremonies after death. The wedding usually consists of two ceremonies, an Islamic and an older, pre-Islamic ritual. This is typical of the religious syncretism of the Yakan. Rice ceremonies have already been mentioned.

Art. The Yakan have various musical instruments, most of them percussive, but also flutes and Jew's harps. Percussion instruments are mostly played on certain important life-cycle occasions such as weddings. One special instrument is played while the rice is growing to make it happy so that it will give a good harvest. Dancing is restricted to a war dance performed at weddings. Visual arts are nonexistent.

Medicine. To cure sickness the imam will pray. Sometimes he may also apply roots and herbs, although that method is more typical of the tabib. The bahasa will summon spirits to help him.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral must take place within twenty-four hours after death. The body is placed in the grave on its right side, facing Mecca. After the grave has been filled the imam reads a prayer that teaches the deceased to utter the right words on its way to the Judgment. The spirit is supposed to stay in the home of the deceased person for seven days, during which a prayer is said in the house each evening. After the seven days the spirit begins the journey to the next world, which takes 100 days. On the way the spirit passes certain places, and each time the spirit reaches one of these places a prayer is said in the house. Part of the way to the next world crosses a sea. To help the spirit get across, a goat is sacrificed. The last and biggest ceremony is performed on the hundredth day, when the spirit reaches its destination. The grave is finally arranged, and a grave marker is placed on top of it. This grave marker symbolizes a boat that is intended not for the passage across the sea but for the spirit's use in the next world. In very recent times these cycle-of-death ceremonies have been shortened. In some places there are no longer any rituals after the burial. Recently Muslim missionaries have worked among the Yakan, teaching a more orthodox Islam and trying to do away with the many non-Islamic elements of Yakan religion. In some areas they have been successful, but older people especially prefer the old ways.


Frake, Charles O. (1969). "Struck by Speech: The Yakan Concept of Litigation." In Law in Culture and Society, edited by Laura Nader, 147-167. Chicago: Aldine.

Wulff, Inger (1974). "Features of Yakan Culture." In The Muslim Filipinos, edited by Peter G. Gowing and Robert D. McAmis. Manila: Solidaridad Publishing House.

Wulff, Inger (1978). "Continuity and Change in a Yakan Village." In Social Change in Modern Philippines, edited by Mario D. Zamora, Donald J. Baxter, and Robert Lawless. Vol. 2, 2538. Papers in Anthropology, 19 (2), University of Oklahoma.

Wulff, Inger (1979-1980). "Economic Activities of the YakanWith Special Reference to the Part Taken by the Women." Folk 20-22:35-43.