Philippine HiStory Today: The Christian King from Sulu
Happy New Year to everyone! How did you celebrate your first day of the year? My family and I prayed for a good year in the first mass of our neighbourhood church — I won’t be surprised if many of our Catholic brothers and sisters went to church to give thanks too.
Filipinos are deeply entwined with their religion be it Christianity, Islam or any other belief. It has always been so since the beginning of our history. But in one particular chapter of our rich heritage, religion became the turning point in a bubbling war.
The date I have in mind is 3 January 1749: the day when Sultan Muhammad Alimuddin I, the most powerful man in the Muslim kingdom of Sulu, converted to Christianity.
Could you imagine converting to another religion? It’s like turning your back on your parents! I could never do that, and I am sure many of you can’t, neither. What could have moved a man — a king! — to turn his life and his kingdom around?
Sit back and listen…
Muhammad Azim ud-Din I, also known as Alimuddin, became Sultan of the powerful Sultanate of Sulu in the year 1735 by right of succession. Alimuddin was a learned man or a pandita, well-versed in the Koran and the Islamic way of life. He was also educated in Jakarta, which was then called Batavia and was the capital of the powerful Dutch East Indies, where he mastered the Arabic and Malay languages. In short, he was just the kind of man Sulu needed at a time when tension with Spanish forces in Zamboanga grew bloodier.
Map of the Sulu Archipelago.
The Sultanate of Sulu during Alimuddin’s time stretched from Zamboanga City to Sabah, Borneo.
Alimuddin had a vision of a peaceful Sulu archipelago spurred by a healthy economy that reached as far as China. But the Spanish forces which clashed with his allies prevented the sultan from gaining peace in the region. At one time he even sent envoys to Governor Valladares in Zamboanga, none of whom returned.
This did not stop him from his dream though, and he took a giant leap to achieve peace. He went straight to Manila to deal with Spain, and the result was a success: the Treaty of 1737 which respected both Spain and Sulu’s rights and jurisdiction. King Philip V of Spain himself ratified the treaty in 1742 that promised peace, protection and preservation between the two parties.
The friendship between Spain and Sulu thrived. A plot to overthrow Alimuddin was quelled with the help of Spain, while non-Muslim raiders from Borneo were smashed thanks to Alimuddin’s army. Zamboanga Governor Zacarias became a good ally to the sultan, and this relationship paved way to the introduction of Christianity in the archipelago.
Early Christian Contact
Beginning 1746, Jesuits from Zamboanga made contact with the sultan. Missionaries were constantly invited by the sultan to share their beliefs about the Christian faith. Jesuit missionaries wrote about how they were embraced as a brother by the sultan himself when they visited. Meanwhile, Sulu datus followed their leader Alimuddin’s example by also showing interest and admiring Jesuit churches.
Philip V of Spain has been instrumental in bridging the Sultanate and Christian missionaries Sulu
The good relations between the Sultanate and the Jesuit brothers encouraged the latter to pursue a mission in Sulu to spread Christianity. The brothers asked help from Philip V, who sent a request to the sultan on their behalf.
In 1747, in a dramatic show of allegiance to the Christian cause, Sultan Alimuddin came to Zamboanga with a large entourage to answer the king’s request. He presented his son and heir Muhammad Israel as a pupil of the Christian faith. It was done: the Sultanate was ready for Christianity and Alimuddin was opening the doors for the missionaries.
Following the Treaty of 1737 and the peaceful example led by Alimuddin, those who were assigned to spread the faith in Zamboanga did not show force and were strictly working for the Christian cause. However, some in Sulu saw the missions as a political move by Spain to take over their land. They were not happy with the changes.
Many of those in Sulu resented the fact that Alimuddin welcomed Christian missionaries into his home. As a political and religious head, Alimuddin was seen as a traitor to the Islamic way of life. His own brother, Bantilan, led the opposition which grew more threatening every day.
Alimuddin tried everything to appease his people, but he never broke his agreement with the Jesuit missionaries, whom he made to stay under his roof. When it was clear that he was no longer wanted by his people and after an attempt to his life, Alimuddin finally abdicated his seat in 1748 and left Bantilan and two others as regents of the Sultanate.
The regents afterward shipped the missionaries back to Zamboanga and Bantilan soon dissolved the regency and declared himself Sultan of Sulu.
The late Jamalul Kiram III, who led a bloody revival of Sulu’s claim on North Borneo on October 2013, descended from the Royal House of Kiram, a line that branched off from Alimuddin’s great grandson Jamalul Kiram I
3 January 1749
However powerless he proved against his opponents, Alimuddin, true to his nature, did not give up on his throne. In a dramatic move to win back what was rightfully his, he arrived in Manila in 3 January 1749 and invoked the Treaty of 1737, asking for help from Spain. But that was not the crux of the visit. At the same time, he asked to be converted to Christianity.
Okay, let us ask: why convert now? The timing of the baptism request will make us wonder if the move to Christianity was political. Was Alimuddin asking to be converted because he needed the trust of his allies in this new war with his brother? Many historians lean towards this reasoning. But then again, if we were to believe the accounts of the Jesuit missionaries who visited Alimuddin during the early days, then we can say Alimuddin was a genuine devotee of the faith.
Alimuddin’s motive is a historical mystery. But his desire was nevertheless granted. In the same year, Alimuddin was Christened Don Fernando Primero, Rey Cristiano de Jolo in Pangasinan. When he returned to Manila, the city rejoiced with masquerades, bullfights, fireworks and comedies in his honour.
Moro-moro. A Spanish colonial play that showed the victory of Christianity over persecution in the Philippines
For those in Manila, Alimuddin was living proof of the happy endings promised by the moro-moro plays that were popular in that period. But Alimuddin’s ending was bittersweet. On the trip home to Sulu to take back the throne, Governor Zacarias found evidence of his inconsistency and charged him with treason. He was sent back to Fort Santiago and stayed there for more than 10 years as wars raged on between Bantilan and the forces of Spain in Sulu.
The Christian king was readmitted to the sacraments by the Archbishop of Manila, and he was eventually married under Christian rites to one of his concubines. In 1763, under British rule, he was returned to Jolo to live out the rest of his life as the rightful sultan of Sulu.
We might say that Alimuddin’s twilight years are laced in irony though; the man reverted back to Islam and embraced his native faith until his death. However, conversion is not the point of his story. It is rather the pursuit of peace that both the Muslim and Christian faiths ultimately strive for.
Islam and Christianity both believe in Abraham and see his willingness to sacrifice Isaac his son as a perfect example of submission to God’s will.
Pope Francis’ New Year message was also one of peace and non-violence. He said ‘We belong to the same human family and we share a common destiny.’ We are all family, regardless of age, sex, race and religion. Alimuddin saw past the differences in Islam and Christianity and lived a life abiding by a rule shared by the two faiths: unity in times of war… a message we should all carry with us in this New Year.
One good example of interfaith cooperation can be found in Zamboanga: Christ the King Chapel has been restored by Muslims after being battered by the conflict between Moro National Liberation Front and government forces during the Siege of Zamboanga in September 2013.
I believe this is a good resolution, eh? End strife, promote unity… I’m not just talking about world peace because that’s tough work! I’m talking about peace at home, in the workplace, among friends, between neighbours. These are all simple things we can keep anyway, and I have faith that small steps lead to greater things. How about you, how can you lead a more peaceful life this year? Share your thoughts below!