ZAMBOANGA CITY, 5 November 2005 — Muslims in the southern Philippines offered prayers to commemorate the propagation of Islam in the country by an Arabian missionary 625 years ago.
Local Muslims believe that the missionary named Sheikh Karim ul-Makhdum introduced Islam in 1380 when he set foot on Simunul Island in what is now the province of Tawi-Tawi.
That was 141 years before the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, working for the Spanish crown, arrived in the central Philippines (up north from Simunul) and “discovered” the islands and introduced Christianity.
It was on Simunul where the sheikh built the first and the oldest mosque in the country, historians say. The mosque is held with great esteem and emulation by Muslims and non-Muslims.
“We pray in honor of Sheikh Karim ul-Makhdum and we always tell young Muslims about the his great journey to the Philippines and the propagation of Islam in the country,” a respected Muslim leader, Aleem Shariff Julabbi, told Arab News.
In a rather late but welcome gesture, the government of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has declared Nov. 7 of every year a special holiday in the 5 provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur.
“I enjoin all Muslims in the autonomous region to observe this holiday in honor and recognition of Sheik Mahdum, the earliest missionary who propagated Islamic faith in the Philippines,” said ARMM Governor Datu Zaldy Ampatuan.
Last year, Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara filed a bill in the House of Representatives in Manila declaring the mosque a national shrine. Lawmakers Hussin Amin and Erico Fabian and Acmad Tomawis also supported Angara’s bill.
Julabbi said the Sheik Karim ul-Makhdum Mosque should be considered a national heritage. “It is a pride of many Muslims and non-Muslims. It is a symbol of our faith, of our culture and heritage,” he said.
He appealed to Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries, and the government to help rehabilitate the mosque and develop Simunul island as a major religious and tourist destination in the south.
Latter-day historians have noted the striking contrast between Karim and Magellan.
While the natives of Tawi-Tawi welcomed Karim, Magellan’s arrival stirred resentment, culminating in his death in battle with natives of Mactan Island under chieftain Lapu-Lapu.
It took five expeditions before the Spaniards were able to gain foothold in the Philippines. It was by conquest that they were able to introduce Christianity to the natives.