MANILA: As they wish others well or express gratitude, Filipinos often use words that were not originally present in their native languages. Few know that one of the main sources of those terms is Arabic, which centuries ago had major influence on the region.
The first Arabs began to reach the southern Philippines, especially the Sulu and Mindanao islands, around the beginning of the second millennium of the Common Era — a few hundred years before Islam began to dominate the region around the year 1380, when the first mosque was established in Tawi-Tawi.
“It’s a long story if we speak of the influence of Arabs in the Philippines. It could be dated probably as early as the ninth, 10th, 11th century onward,” Prof. Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, told Arab News.
Like in most of Southeast Asia, the influence of Arabic and Arab culture began through trade with coastal communities, from where it spread further into the islands that nowadays constitute the Philippine archipelago.
Later, Islam entered the same way. And it was one of the most peaceful processes.
“Why? Because apart from the traders, the conversion happened, in fact, through intermarriages,” Wadi said.
“The remnants of the influence could be shown in Filipino languages.”
The term most Filipinos use to say “thank you” is “salamat” — deriving straight from the Arabic “salam” (peace). The phrase “alam mo ba?” — “do you know?” — comes from the Arabic ‘‘ilm,” which means knowledge.
And there are many more such terms, without which everyday conversations may not be possible.
One of the most popular Tagalog words is “mabuhay,” which can be translated as “may you have a long life.”
Wadi said: “The root word is ‘hayy,’ which means life (in Arabic).” The opposite, death, which is “namatay” in Tagalog, is also derived from Arabic, from the word “mawt.”
He added: “Even our basic concepts of life and death are actually Arabic … Deep in our psychology and spirituality is the Islamic influence.”
They are also reflected in the culture of the predominantly Catholic country, where nowadays Muslims constitute roughly 5 percent of the population.
Wadi believes this is what possibly makes it easier for Filipinos to connect with the Arab communities that host nearly 2 million of them in the Middle East.
“When they go to the Middle East, Filipinos can easily relate with Arabs,” he said.
“I think it is because there is the rootedness of their relationships that is traceable to their past.”