Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Origin of the Names Sulu and Sug

The Origin of the Names Sulu and Sug

By Dr Benj S. Bangahan, Associate Professor, University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines; Former Professor, School of Graduate Studies, Western Mindanao State University, Zamboanga City, Philippines; Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Tausug Krisblade Weekly and Lexicographer, English-Bahasa Sug Dictionary (soon to be published)


Lupa’ Sug and Tausug are terms that vividly picture the visages of a place and a people, respectively, as spin-offs of Sug, the name presently used to refer to the mainland of Jolo. The place and the people have not just been forced to withstand a series of conquests with bombs, bullets and bigotry from animus-laden whites and their progenies, which has been held in a continuum of centuries, but have also been made as innocent vehicles of inaccuracy in nomenclature which was made to ride almost indiscernibly hidden and which was shoved in by unmindful historians. The origin of the terms Sulu and Sug is error-tinged, and in fact, even the name Jolo itself has ensued from a peculiarity of the Spanish spelling and pronunciation that is misplaced in a non-Hispanic area.

History writers have stereotyped the process of evolution into the name Sug as having sprung up from the Bahasa Sug word sug, which means sea- or water-current. James Francis Warren, a relatively more contemporary writer (The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898) has written this line in a footnote of his introductory chapter that was based on Livingston’s Constabulary Monograph of the Province of Sulu (BH-PCL Vol. I, Paper 160, No. 1), to wit: “The name is derived from the islands’ location in an archipelago sliced by many swift flowing currents.”

Livingston’s work appears to occupy a front position in the bandwagon that led the writers to the “sea-current” theory, although no date, unfortunately, can be made as a reference. But even Dr. Samuel K. Tan, a supposedly Tausug present-day historian, apparently has been sold to the idea since he also defines Tausug as “people of the current” (The Filipino Muslim Armed Struggle, 1900-1972), precisely like what other writers have. It is obvious that these history writers have freely joined the bandwagon and have been so for so long. It has even become predictable that when Sulu history is written about, the sea-current based theory of the name Sug is almost always there to the point that it assumes a monopolized derivation and therefore a semblance of being right.

It is the objective of this writer to bring to the fore a more probable source of the name and its spin-off forms.

For a background, let us take cognizance of the observation that at the time when Sulu was just being written about, which presumably was that historical phase when the place was just beginning to entice interested people, the pioneering chroniclers were non-Tausugs, and more hinderingly, non-Muslims: Blair and Robertson, Saleeby, Dalrymple, Santayana, Van Diyk, to name some. In this writer’s opinion, the writers’ being alien to the area had placed them in a detrimental and predisposed position, affecting even the Lebanese-American Najeeb Saleeby (author, The History Of Sulu), who has been claimed by Dean Cesar Adib Majul as “not quite knowledgeable about Islamic institutions” (Muslim in the Philippines, Chapter II), and who therefore suffered from the same predicament. The gist of Sulu history is an inseparable part of the Islamization process in the Southeast Asian area and should be looked at not with a worm’s eye view. Part of the preparation should be Islamic knowledge, and for ease and convenience, Islamic Sufism. From the foregoing it is easy to deduce that this is one attribute that the writers did not possess, an inadequacy that apparently shook their aim on the target, which is to come up with an adept historical exposition. With their bandwagoning the Islamization process has not been played up well, giving it no due importance. This has affected even present-day non-Muslim, even if home grown, scholarly historians, and perhaps the same difficulty can explain why no writer has ever been goaded to conceptualize that Sulu and Sug are just one and the same, or at least, one has led to the other. These are the primary names that this piece is going to explore, and this intends to show that the age-old explanation about Sug was based on an out-of-context use of the term sug, the sea current, and therefore needs to be rectified. It is further postulated that Sulu, or more properly its original name Suluk, ultimately gave rise to the name Sug.

Suluk, which used to be spelled Soolook—and rightly, too—is the original name of Sulu—or Sooloo—that historical place which was already a sovereign state when Magellan set foot on the shores of Visayas and Luzon, and used to refer to the old area circumscribed by the Sulu Sultanate. One proof of the originality is that from then on up to now the Malayos (Malays, Malaysians) have always been using the term “Orang Suluk” to refer to the people of the area, which corresponds to the present term Tausug (Tau Sug, people of Sulu). Likewise, starting also from the old times, the Samal-speaking people of the area have been immutable with their preference for the term a-a Suluk (notably used by the subgroup Bangingi) and a-a Suk (used by the other subgroups) in addressing the Tausugs (source: Bobby Edding).

Sug, as the Tausugs’ present name for the island of Jolo, has been in use since a point in time no one can dare guess. It is however quite logical to presuppose that the pronunciation of the words in that era must have approximated the original form much more nearly than the later times. Sug, the place, has always carried the sound equivalent to the long u vowel in English, whereas sug, the current, has its u vowel pronounced in almost similar manner as the u in the English word urn, which is assigned the dictionary symbol of letter e with a dot on top, hence ė (The Lexicon Webster International Dictionary of the English Language). The uncorrupted and classical Bahasa Sug has four vowels: (1). ä” as in far or father (not the short “a” in cat or apple as pronounced in American English), hence, aku (I), ama(father); (2). “i”, corresponding in sound to the English long ē although shorter in duration, (not to the short “i” of both British and American English as in tin or bit), hence bitbit (to carry hanging from the hand; this word, if given the pronunciation the way the English bit is, sounds ridiculous), bilik (room), higad (edge, side); (3). “u”, sounds like but shorter than the long “u” (ū) in the English phonetics, as in Sug (the place), tuktuk (forehead), kutkut (to scratch roughly); (4). “u” as in the English urn cited above (which I have personally symbolized with ü), as in süg (the current), tüktük (to chop), kütküt (to bite).

It is admitted that some urbanized Tausugs in modern times and others in some selective areas do speak the adulterated Bahasa Sug pronunciation that does not show the difference between the two words, making sug, the current, and Sug, the place, indistinguishable. Presupposing that there were already such affected Tausug speakers at the time and who might have become advisers to the foreign writers, they then could have strengthened the tendency of the writers to believe in the correctness of their claim. In fact, even if the Tausug advisers had the correct phonetics, meaning the two words were pronounced differently, there would still be the possibility for the interchange of the two words from a fault on the writers’ end because of their paucity of exposure to the peculiarity of the pronunciation. We are talking here only about a spoken language, but if we now deal with the written forms of the two differently pronounced words, we would find out that they would become more misleading to an uninformed reader who would find nothing different in them since they are usually similarly spelled (sug, Sug). This could have conjured up the root of the mistake.

Be that as it may, it would be very naïve for any historian to rely on the “sea current” theory given the number of sea currents found in the Philippine seas, and in fact in any sea for that matter. Currents in other seas may even be more formidable than any one of those in Jolo, and concluding then that the latter is so phenomenal as to merit its becoming the source of the name for the place implies a jump-the-gun attitude and depicts a low threshold of excitement of the one who first wrote it, as well as reveals his failure to give due importance to the term Suluk. He could have been excited by the false sense of security built from the seeming similarity of the sounds, but which was actually a trick of Bahasa Sug phonetics, which proved to be deceiving. The “sea current” theory therefore is a misleading basis and has a correspondingly erroneous conclusion.

As has been stated, the original name of the province is Suluk, and this has served as the mainspring for the subsequent derivations. Suluk was transformed into Sug, at least among the Tausugs, after many years of language corruption and “lingual laziness”. People who are intimate with the Bahasa Sug would notice that it is very common among Tausugs to drop their letter “l” in a word or syllable, especially during snappy conversations. Hence, we have the following word changes, with the original meaning and contexts of all the words retained: hulug (drop, fall, money change) to hug; malaggu’ (big) to maggu’; wala’ (no, not) to wa’; malaas (old, mature) to maas; salla’ (defect, error) to sa’; and the following varied forms may further support the contention; malugay (long time) to mawgay; malimu’ (sweet) to maymu’; hulat-hulat (confident, hoping) to huwat-huwat.

Suluk now being transformed to Suk is readily explained by the lingual idiosyncrasy cited. On the other hand, the letters k and g at the end of a word can easily be mistaken for each other depending upon the accuracy of the speaker’s tongue, the keenness of the listener’s ears and the distance one is from the other. Initially, Suk could have been interchangeably used with Sug but the latter permanently took an irreversible hold on some people’s psyche and lingual habit. There are in fact many Bahasa Sug words in which the sounds of g and k interchange, depending on the region and the person speaking. Examples are: malaggu’/malagku’ (big), baggu’/bagku’ (a seashell), haggut/hagkut (chill, cold) and a lot more. As has been noted, some Samal-speaking people have retained Suk instead of Sug.

To recap, the original name Suluk was taken from Ahl ul Suluk, corrupted to Suk, then to Sug. By derivation, therefore, Suluk and Suk (or Sug) should assume the same meaning.

Corollary to the above, an idea that the name was taken from the Arab word suq, which means market, is not workable; there is no way it can evolve into Suluk or Sulu. It has to be assumed then that Suluk and Sug were derived from different sources, which invites more difficulty and complications, making the idea less tenable. Besides, nobody is aware that there was an ancient Arab market or suq in any part of then Suluk that had grown to such an influence enough to start off a name for the place. Instead, what we had was tiangge, Spanish for flea market, and this is why Jolo is called by some people Tiyanggi.

Suluk is an Arabic word which means path, way, travel or journey. Those who are enthusiasts of Islamic Sufism should be conversant with it for the word is used more repeatedly in some books on Sufism. Since Sufism deals with the metaphysical, the context in which the word is used in these books is conventionally esoteric. It is applied, for example, to the spiritual journey during meditation (Contemplative Disciplines in Sufism, by Dr. Mir Valiuddin, MA, Ph.D., edited by Dr.Gulskan Khakee). Hamza Fansuri, the greatest Qadiriyya Malay Sufi poet of the 16th century uses it to mean path or way to Allah (Syed Muhammad Naquib al Attas, The Mysticism of Hamza Fansuri). Hence, Ahl ul Suluk (People of the Path), is the term he uses to refer to his kind, namely the Sufis or Awliya’, in contradistinction to those he calls Doctors of Theology or Ulama. Ahl ul Suluk refers therefore to those learned practitioners of Sufism who journeyed around Southeast Asia to spread Islam in general, and Sufism in particular. The area definitely includes ours. That term is still very much in use in Sufi writings.

There is still an evidence to bolster the coming of those venerated groups of the Ahl ul Suluk. If a modern Tausug with a solid grasp of Sufism goes back to his roots to refresh his thoughts on his folks’ brand of Islamic enlightenment, with ease and in just a short time he will find out that his folks are tenacious adherents of a discipline locally known as mukali’, in that this Islamic erudition is Sufism in substance. Names of the different Sufi masters, which are recited during meditations and are asked blessings for as in the present-day practice among Sufi orders in the Imamul Haqiqat, are part of the mukali’ cultivation.

Mukali’ is from muqri’ or mukri, an Arabic word which means “one who asks another to read.” (source: Ustadh Edris Lim, Zamboanga City). This could have been the teaching-learning method applied when the Sufis were imparting their knowledge to the Tausug natives.

Dr. Cesar Adib Majul’s Muslim in the Philippines serves as a very good reference if we have to enumerate those learned missionaries whose names got included in the pages of Philippine historical writings. It is not only that Dr. Majul is a very knowledgeable and Sufism-literate Muslim but also because his book was based on an extensive research. He cited the Sulu Genealogy’s claim that the first Islamic teacher who arrived sometime in the middle of the 14th century was Tuwan Masha’ika, who was the first to introduce Islam, based on the finding that the people were not yet part of the Ahl ul Sunna wa’l Jamaa. Masha’ika is a Tausugized version of the Arabic mashayikh, the plural of the term shaikh, a title of respect among the Arabs in the Hadramawt area for saints or Sufis and their descendants, and which serves to tell them out from Sharifs and Shayids, the descendants of the Prophet (SAW). All Sufis carry the title—for example: Shayidina Shaikh Abdulqadir Jailani, Shayidina Shaikh Junaid Baghdadi, Shayidina Shaikh Abi Yazid Bastami, Shayidina Shaikh Khatibis Sanbasi, Shayididna Shaikh Ahmadir Rifa’i and a multitude of other People of the Path (cited from Naqsabandi Sufi meditation, source: Ustadh Abdelnasser Daham). Ibn al-Arabi is known as the Ash-Shaikh-al Akbar, or the Supreme Master (Ibn al-Arabi’s The Bezels of Wisdom, R.W.J. Austin, translator). On his part, Tuwan Masha’ika was able to extract reverence from among the natives with his exceptionally superior knowledge of Islam, a quality more commonly identified with the Sufis. In all probability he was therefore a part of the Ahl ul Suluk

Following Tuwan Masha’ika was Karimul Makhdum, who was initially called Sarip, a Tausug version of Sharif. He built a mosque, imparted his knowledge of Islam and Sufism, and was later called Tuwan Sharif Awliya’, which implies that he was a missionary and a preacher. Other supernatural events had been associated with him, like his having been able to walk on water and fly in the air, phenomena which, as acknowledged by those with tasawwuf learning, could be done only by Awliya’ or Sufist. Makhdum, an Arabic word which originally meant master, was later used as a title for a teacher or a learned man, especially in India and Malaysia. It is presumed that the same has been applied when the Makhdum was given the calling. The titles he possessed and the powers he had demonstrated, which were given due regard even by the Jesuit priest Francisco Combes (Historia de Mindanao Y Jolo) can fairly classify the Makhdum as a Sufi or Ahl ul Suluk.

At this juncture words have to be said attendant to the ostensibly magical performances the Makhdum was associated with, that would make him look unreal and because of which people might consider him just a mythical or legendary figure. Peter Gordon Gowing, who has described the Sulu tarsilas as “patently mythological and baffling…” (Muslim Filipinos—Heritage and Horizon), apparently projects an unconvinced posture. However, those with Islamic knowledge believe that the performances are common and have not been attributed only to the Makhdum since similar ascriptions have been given to other missionaries and people with akin personality and Islamic grasp. To help prove the veracity of the seemingly unbelievable capability, this writer would like to invite anyone to see a prototype of such small iron vessel which is kept by his clan in Parang, Sulu. This particular vessel was used by an Arabian woman named Sharifa Amina from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, together with her Tausug husband named Hadji Abiar and their seven children and their belongings. They arrived in Parang, Sulu, the native place of Hadji Abiar, and settled there, and their issues ultimately made up about 90% of Parang natives. The story may also sound fairy tale-like, but the physical presence of Sharifa Amina’s iron craft helps bolster the validity of the claims of unusual feats identified with the Karimul Makhdum.

Next teacher was Sayid Abu Bakr, who came to Sulu in the middle of the 15th century. Dean Majul estimated this to be after the arrival of Rajah Baginda, who himself had come about 50 years after Tuwan Masha’ika. As all history books commonly claim, Sayid Abu Bakr married Paramisuli, a daughter of Rajah Baginda, and became the first Sultan. Different tarsilas are in agreement that he adopted the full sultanate title of Sultan Shariful Hashim, but there has been no unanimity in regard to his proper name of Abu Bakr. There were even traditions which maintained that Zainal Abidin was his actual name.

The inclusion of Sayid Abu Bakr here is not because of the political institution he initiated but his being primarily a preacher or missionary himself, an attribute quite overshadowed by his political position and prominence. His missionary zeal was cited as responsible for the conversion of the Buranun or hill people, which he did after proselytizing the coastal area through the teaching of the Qur’an. It is also indicated in a tradition that during natural crises like a drought, he would ask the people to fast and pray, and indeed rain would soon start pouring. He established a madrasa school, and it is in a center such as this where being a muqri’ could have taken off and evolved into ilmu’ mukali’, or “knowledge of the muqri’”. On this account the first Sultan was a part of the Ahl ul Suluk.

We now usher in the next Ahl ul Suluk missionary named Alawi Balpaki, who was said to be the younger brother of Abu Bakr in a sense that he arrived much later. John Hunt, a British agent who was sent to Sulu in 1814 for political and commercial purposes, wrote that Alawi Balpaki (sometimes called Sayid Berpaki) had succeeded in converting almost the whole population to Islam. The time has been estimated to be the middle of the 18th century. His being a missionary should include him in the genre of the Ahl ul Suluk.

So far we have been citing the names of the Ahl ul Suluk that somehow found their way into the pages of history. It is not inaccurate to presume that many other Sufis or missionaries of the Ahl ul Suluk had come in other times to do their own spreading of the knowledge of Islam and implanting it in the people’s mind and heart to firm up a peculiarly Tausug entity of Islamic persuasion, but without traces left for subsequent history writers. Local traditions are rife with their belief to that effect.

In the rural areas of the mainland of Lupa’ Sug as well as its islands, many Sufism-exposed Tausugs talk among themselves in private gatherings about their belief in the “Seven Brothers” as the ones who Islamized Sulu. They actually refer to the Awliya’ or Sufists who came one after another, as described above, hence brothers in the time frame of reference, whose common mode of conveyance was the previously mentioned toy-looking iron crafts. Historical writings have taken cognizance of some of them.

One very important figure among the Sufists is of course Shaikh Abdulqadir Jailani, the Sultan of the Awliya’ and supposedly the “oldest brother”. He is believed to have included Sulu as one area he traveled around and taught in, so claimed the Mukali’-learned Tausugs, and a papyrus copy of the Qur’an which he had brought along is still intact and well protected in an undisclosed place. Coincidentally or otherwise, Jailani is one of the most common given and family names among the Tausugs. As an added weight, the names of almost all the established Sufists are now often used locally.

One Sufi of the Ahl ul Suluk whose coming to Sulu is exciting to conjecture by virtue of logical circumstances is Hamzah Fansuri himself. There is a reasonable synchronicity of the time frames between the Sufi’s lifetime and the process of Islamization of Sulu. Besides, Hamzah Fansuri was described by Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas as having a remarkable participation in the Islamization process of the Malay-Indonesia-Java areas. These areas include, and should not be separated from, the Islamized areas of Mindanao—more especially Sulu—racially, ethnically, and geographically and particularly in relation to the proselytizing stage. In addition, this writer concurs with the claim of Dean Majul that “Islam’s advent in the area is a function of the general expansion of Islam in Malaysia,” a vital ramification that Najeeb Saleeby failed to give a corroborative importance to, but which Peter Gordon Gowing very much agrees with.

It is now deemed proper that a rectification of a historical basis in this regard should be initiated in order to erase inaccuracies, realign and firm up Tausug identity and add meaning to the values believed in by the Tausugs and the other Muslims in Southeast Asia.

It is asserted that the Arabic word Suluk is the more plausible root of Sug, the name used by the Tausugs to refer to the mainland of Jolo vis-à-vis the age-old stereotyped argument that Sug evolved from sug, the sea current. Furthermore, Sug should rightfully refer to the entire Sulu Archipelago.

This also seeks to establish that from the foregoing, the name Suluk or Sulu, the state, the Sultanate and presently the province, has been taken from those people who belonged to the special genre of Islamic discipline, the Ahl ul Suluk, or the People of the Path, who came in succession to impart Islam and Sufism. The brand of knowledge of these Awliya’ or learned missionaries, the tasawwuf, was assimilated in substance by the Sulu natives, who, up to now, still cling to the established belief.

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