How copious is our understanding of the Sultanate of Sulu? If Malacañang’s statement is true, that it has only begun consulting historical documents, then that understanding is miserably wanting. Manila has always had an ambivalent appreciation of the sultanate and its rightful place as an institution in Philippine polity.
Islamic scholarship contends that the first-ever sultan was the Prophet Muhammad. Because of the high religious regard for him as messenger of God, his earthly conduct as spiritual leader became an example and tradition. Sultanates thus became a prescription for sustaining that tradition. All sultanate countries hold that belief.
Sulu’s early years are not lacking in historical literature. From the 17th to 18th centuries, the fulcrum of power was not in Luzon but in East Southeast Asia, a vast maritime territory of several insular nations—sultanates mostly of fragmentary polities that relied on alliance-building and trade reciprocity for their power bases. One of these was the Sultanate of Sulu. The region attracted the European powers of the day—Dutch, Portuguese, British and Spaniards. All of them vied to strike alliances with the sultans. Trade gave them a foothold for colonial expansion and that was the fundamental benefit. It was in that context that, later, the British North Borneo Company was created. The Dutch earlier had established theirs, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company).
Sultanic lineage is determined by way of the Tarsila (also Sarsilah, Salsilah; from the Arabic Silsilah, chain or linkages), a genealogical account of the Sulu royalty, ensuring direct lineage from the first sultan. The sultan is not just a temporal ruler, he is also a religious leader. In the traditional Islamic system, separation of church and state is nonexistent. But Philippine colonial regimes altered much of that and demolished traditional Islamic political values. Again, here are lessons that Manila has yet to learn to this day. Both colonial and republican Manila, out of arrogance borne largely out of ignorance, directed changes on the sultanate.
Let’s go back to 1884 when a power struggle for the sultanate arose after Jamalul Kiram II became the sultan at the age of 16. Because of his tender age, interim power was vested in his mother Inchi Jamila as the sultana regent. Then eligible for succession were three royal houses: the House of Kiram, the House of Sharikullah, and the House of Datu Putung represented by Datu Harun Al Rashid. In what was clearly an internal matter, Spain interfered: it unseated Jamalul II and declared Harun as the sultan (1886-1894). Spain never understood the cultural nuance that a sultan’s power builds heavily on alliances with the segmentary datus. Harun failed in that miserably. Spain was forced to restore Jamalul II (1894-1936).
Jamalul II had no direct male heir. His death in 1936 triggered a confusion of succession. By tradition, the successor ordained by the reigning sultan is confirmed by a panel of royal datus, the Ruma Bichara, and by an ecclesiastical court. The heir is titled Raja Muda—presumptive heir. Manila newspapers refer to Agbimuddin Kiram as Raja Muda as if this is his first name. Raja Muda is Agbimuddin’s title.
Jamalul II’s younger brother Mawalil Wasit was proclaimed sultan, but he died before he could ascend the throne that same year (1936). Amid the widespread disagreement about his ability to wield power, there was talk that he was poisoned. His death created a deep division in the House of Kiram. One side was led by Dayang Dayang (Princess) Piandao Kiram, daughter of Sultan Badarudin II (the 30th sultan, 1881-1884); the other, by Dayang Dayang Tarhata Kiram, daughter of Datu Atik Kiram, younger brother of Badarudin II. Because they were both women, neither of them could become sultan by Islamic tradition.
So Piandao proclaimed her husband Datu Ombra Amilbangsa sultan of Sulu. Ombra was not of royal lineage. Naturally Piandao’s proclamation invited the objection of the Ruma Bichara. A dispute erupted. Appeals were made to President Quezon to intervene. Quezon refused and said that Jamalul Kiram II was the last Sultan of Sulu. Stretching Manila’s string of blunders, Quezon announced that the Philippine government was no longer recognizing the Sultanate of Sulu. Meanwhile, Princess Tarhata’s faction proclaimed as sultan Jainal Abirin II. Three sultans, one of them a pretender.
Jainal Abirin II was succeeded in death by Sultan Esmail Kiram I in 1950. When Esmail I died in 1974, his half-brother the Raja Muda Punjungan Kiram became temporary sultan. But Punjungan went into exile in Sabah. In his absence, Esmail I’s eldest son Mahakuttah Kiram became the sultan until he died in 1986. President Marcos had reinstalled Punjungan in 1981 and named his son, Jamalul Kiram III, his successor. Jamalul III was crowned in 1986. It is he who holds the legal papers of North Borneo as decided by Chief Justice Mackaskie of the Session Court of North Borneo in 1939.
Need we lounge in libraries? One Manila lawyer makes an issue of the words “ownership” and “possession” regarding the Sabah claim. Anthropologists like Clifford Geertz emphasize the need to respond to what the field tells us—the ethnographic present. That might as well be an advice to the government. Instead of being obsessed with literary questions in the way Manila indulges in its usual self-absorption, it can do better to respond by addressing Manila’s continued disregard of the Sultanate of Sulu instead of issuing threats of arrest and court cases. This is merely a case of crying for attention. That cry is valid.