"a caterpillar doesn't just grow into a butterfly. a caterpillar must undergo metamorphosis, and a cocoon is where a caterpillar risks it all: enters total chaos, undergoes total rebuilding, and is born to a new way of living. only in taking the risk of entering that inert cocoon can the caterpillar go from dormancy to potency, from ugliness to beauty."

Saturday, August 04, 2012

setting foot on tawi-tawi’s simunul island

"The harder I push, the more I find within myself
I am always looking for the next step, a different world to go into,
areas where I have not been before... I have experienced new sensations and I want more. That is my excitement, my motivation."

--Ayrton Senna

island hopping from sibutu to simunul
this is part 4 of a series entitled breathtaking tawi-tawi: our journey to the philippines' southernmost frontier.

where is tawi-tawi's simunul?
image source: google maps

day 2. april 22, 2011. holy friday.
route 1: zamboanga city to tawi-tawi, then bongao to sitangkai
route 2: sitangkai to sibutu
route 3: sibutu to simunul

separating the island groups of sibutu and simunul is a great expanse of merging bodies of water in the south. to get from one island group to another involves crossing the celebes (also known as sulawesi) sea and the 29-km wide sibutu passage.

locating the sibutu passage
sibutu passage is the deep channel that separates borneo from the sulu archipelago;
the same marine channel that connects the sulu sea and the celebes sea.
image source: google maps

the sound of the speedboat's engines dominated as we traveled from sibutu to simunul at an amazing speed. with the mid-afternoon sun upon us and the wind harshly hitting our faces and blowing our hair out of place, we were under the threat of combined sunburn and windburn, which we didn't mind so much. we were excited to reach simunul and the sensation that prevailed was akin to flying (without wings, hehe) as the boat effortlessly skimmed over a seemingly endless expanse of water and conquered with ease the waves of the southern seas despite a load of around 20 people.

the boat defined our own temporary super highway and made a beautiful trail of white foam in the blue, blue celebes sea. when we finally got to our destination, we were welcomed by a wonderful sight of this paradise of stilt houses.

the stilt houses of simunul

destination: simunul 
site of the oldest mosque in the philippines

like sitangkai and sibutu, simunul is a municipality in tawi-tawi under the political jurisdiction of the autonomous region in muslim mindanao (ARMM). like sitangkai and sibutu, simunul is blessed with rich marine resources and most of the people rely on the bounties of the sea for livelihood so much so that they define the coastline with their houses built on stilts.

like sitangkai and sibutu, simunul has plenty of stilt houses which, even from afar, command attention.

glipmses of timelessness and simplicity. some of the many stilt houses of simunul.

we docked at the pier in tubig indangan, one of the 15 barangays in simunul. although the municipality of simunul is separated from the tawi-tawi provincial capital by about 17km of seawater and is about 1086km away from the philippine main capital, the place is far from being isolated and cut off from interactions.

simunul is regarded as the cradle of islam in the philippines and telling the story of the spread of islam in the country is never complete without the mention of simunul. present day simunul island, particularly brgy. tubig indangan, is a local mecca and pilgrimage site of filipino muslims.

the pier in simunul's brgy. tubig indangan is a picture of open invitation

the same sea that allowed us passage to the place was the same sea that allowed the arab missionary and trader, sheikh karim ul-makhdum (also reverently known as sharif awliya or tuan sharif aulia), to reach the shores of simunul from malacca in 1380 AD. according to the tarsila or written traditional account of genealogy, he was a religious scholar from no less than mecca.

sheikh makhdum preached islam in the area. his influence was responsible for successfully propagating and reinforcing islam as a way of life in the country long before the coming of the spanish and american colonizers.

it was in tubig indangan of simunul island that sheikh makhdum established the first and oldest mosque in the archipelago.

a photo of the framed photo of the original structure of the sheikh karim ul-makhdum mosque

the islamic temple that stands on the site today is known as sheikh karim ul-makhdum mosque, an important house not only because it is a place made sacred by worship but also because it is the landmark of the original structure and it shelters the four posts of ipil wood which are believed to be from the mosque built in the 14th century. being the first and oldest muslim house of prayer in the philippines and the most notable non-christian religious structure in the country, the mosque is considered a national shrine and a national cultural treasure.

the mosque is just a short straight walk away from the pier in tubig indangan. after leaving the boat, one only needs to simply follow the path because, at the other end, is already the mosque -- the philippines' oldest islamic landmark.

straight ahead is already the sheikh karim ul-makhdum mosque

the mosque is difficult to miss. it is located close to the shore and it stands out among all the other structures in the area. it is the most significant piece of architecture in simunul.

the main dome of sheikh karim ul-makhdum mosque

despite the attention it commands from anyone who sees it, the mosque is actually simple -- outside and inside.

the present day structure of sheikh karim ul-makhdum mosque as seen from the outside

four old wooden posts with intricate carvings are displayed inside the mosque. each of the impressive pillars, believed to be from the first ever mosque built on the site, has its own designated corner inside the present day structure.

most of the space inside the mosque is kept unadorned and unoccupied. 

an old wooden pillar photographed with one of the new

it was my first time to enter a muslim house of prayer and the simplicity of the interiors really impressed me. 

the main prayer area, the prayer hours, and one of the four old posts

outside the building, on the wall facing the path from the pier, are the plaques on marble that cite the significance of the sheikh karim ul-makhdum mosque. one plaque is in filipino -- a marker issued in 1980 by the pambansang suriang pangkasaysayan (national historical institute). the other plaque is in english -- a marker donated in 1967 as a public service by the civil affairs office of the department of national defense and is displayed along with the framed photograph of the old mosque.

kat and i with the mosque's national historical institute marker 

here is my translation of the what is written on the national historical institute marker for the sheikh makhdum mosque: 

'according to historians, islam was strengthened in the philippines by sheikh makhdum, an arab missionary who first came to tubig indangan, simunul of tawi-tawi islands in 1380. on this site, he established the first ever muslim house of prayer in the philippine archipelago which until now still stands as part of the rebuilt "house of Allah." it is believed that the original structure lasted for about 500 years. the original pillars are ipil wood and are being taken care of up to this day.'

the 1967 marker has this information on the first mosque in the philippines:

'the sheik's remains are interred within the mosque's premises and his memory honored and revered by the people of this community.'

as i already mentioned in a previous article entitled exploring tawi-tawi's sibutu island, the site of sheikh makhdum's "real" grave is a subject of controversy. an impressive memorial marks the location of his simple graveyard in sibutu but there is also a simple graveyard -- a sand-covered mound close to the oldest mosque -- for his remains in simunul.

the place where sheikh makhdum's remains lie in simunul, tawi-tawi  

both graveyards are considered sacred. they are also considered "miraculous" because, according to claims, the mounds of sand "grow" or "rise" every year. it is also said that when the coconuts fall from the tree beside his grave in sibutu, none of the coconuts ever fall on his burial mound -- they only fall around his grave.

in addition to the two competing claims, there is also an alleged grave of sheikh makhdum in bud agad, jolo. that one is also considered sacred.

according to the historical accounts on the islamization of the philippines, the conflicting beliefs on the grave locations of sheikh makhdum is owed to the fact that he traveled around the sulu sea to preach islam. his success in spreading islam "threw a new light in islamic history in the philippines" and made him very revered in many places in the archipelago, particularly in those that he went to -- simunul, jolo, sibutu. this kind of reverence accorded to him is also evident in the accounts that speak of him as a man with supernatural abilities such as walking on water and "carrying tree trunks from the jungle to the seashore" with ease, as if they did not weigh much.

another plausible explanation shared by jun mercado in a blog is this: "Karim and Makhdum are really NOT proper names but the plural for “holy” and “learned” men. Is this a case of several holy and learned men, instead of only one historical person, who were responsible for the Islamization of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi? The acceptance of this theory could help explain the several burial grounds. They are all tombs of Karim Makhdum!"

from a personal perspective, i find it enough for my own curiosity that i have been to the two graveyards. what i find more important and worth focusing on is that, at least, in the historical accounts, there is agreement on the role played by sheikh makhdum as the one who reinforced the beginnings of islam in the country by preaching it as a way of life. 

speaking of life... life in simunul seems simple and fuss-free. i'm basing this statement on the smiles and facial expressions of the kids and the not-so-young that we saw in tubig indangan that friday afternoon.

a volleyball game in simunul

across the concrete street where the sacred graveyard is and just a very short walking distance away from the sheikh makhdum mosque, there is an open field of several makeshift volleyball courts.

there, on that friday afternoon, we got an unexpected treat of seeing a lot of the kids and young adults play. with love for the sport lighting up their faces, they played their usual sets. as if oblivious to our presence, the members of each team exhibited forceful smashes which made me wonder how frequently they had to change the balls.

just when i thought basketball is the most popular team sport all over the philippines, in simunul -- it's volleyball!

we did not stay in the area long enough to watch the end of the games that afternoon. however, before we left, one of our local guides indulged our subtle request and showed us his smashing abilities. in the photo, he's that off-the-ground guy in brown shirt.

day 2. april 22, 2011. holy friday.
route 4: simunul to bongao

our itinerary for the day included going back to bongao, the provincial capital of tawi-tawi -- another speedboat ride away.

seeing that the sun was already threatening to slip beyond the horizon, we quickly had our group pictures taken in front of of the arch commemorating the 630th anniversary of the introduction of islam in the philippines. after a good number of shutter actions here and there, we all walked back to the pier and quickly boarded the speedboat.

one of the many takes: our group picture in simunul
with the AMCI team and our local guides

as seen from simunul | over the horizon, bongao beckons

on board the speedboat | we had a nice time visiting you, simunul! :)
this speedboat allowed us to reach & experience in-a-day all the major island stops in tawi-tawi

bye daylight, hello night | good friday 2011 in bongao, tawi-tawi 

we couldn't stop the sun from setting and the day from ending, but before the inevitable setting and ending, we were able to have the experiences we wanted -- from bongao to sitangkai to sibutu to simunul and back again to bongao -- all in a day.  

next up for this series: more island hopping adventure in tawi-tawi

breathtaking tawi-tawi: our journey to the philippines' southernmost frontier | the series

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