The concept of Maratabat is much talked about but only half-understood by most non-Maranaos and even by some Maranaos. First and foremost, maratabat is not about revenge killing, which is related to rido (blood feud).
Maratabat is about honor, “face”, dignity, sense of shame, sense of pride, ethics, etiquette, protocol, and self-esteem. It is an age-old guide to social relations, individual and collective action.
Maratabat is a code of conduct on how individuals should treat himself, his family, his relations, and other people. If he follows the rules, others are expected to reciprocate. But if he does not, then no one is obliged to treat him according to the maratabat norms.
If a leader or a datu does not treat his people well, then he cannot expect respect from the people. If a leader does not fight for his people, then he cannot expect his people to fight for him. Maratabat is a two-way affair.
In the same vein, if a father does not respect his adult children, then his adult children need not respect their father.
In fact, according to Maratabat, a man who abandons his family for no reason at all must be punished – by the children.
Related to the concept of Maratabat is the concept of Tindәg. I take this to mean moral and social stature. My mother used to gauge people by their Tindәg. She usually praised to high heavens those who have mala-a- Tindәg or with high moral and social stature.
These people whom my mother heaped praises upon have similar characteristics. They usually have high self-esteem and confidence. They are gracious and diplomatic. Anybody who comes to their homes — be they rich or poor, powerful or powerless – are welcomed with open arms and sincerity. They are at home with fellow Moros and with strangers. More importantly, they are not intimidated by powerful non-Moro or foreign officials.
Gracious Host / Hostesses
The people whom my mother referred to as having mala-a- Tindәg are gracious hosts / hostesses. People who come to their home, even uninvited ones, can expect a gracious greeting, small chat and some food. This sounds very petty but it is not.
I know many non-Moros who dislike people coming to their homes, especially when unexpected. Many Filipinos prefer guests to come only when invited so they can clean and beautify their houses beforehand and can prepare grand meals. But for unexpected guests, especially relatives, they can expect nothing more than soft drinks and a hello-and-goodbye from the hosts.
Intimidated By Foreigners / Powerful People
When one has maratabat, one cannot be intimidated by others because one has self-esteem. In the 1950s, Basilan City Mayor Leroy Brown was sued in Zamboanga. Brown was installed as Basilan’s Military Mayor by the Americans after WWII. In 1954 Magsaysay appointed him (Civilian) Mayor of Basilan. In his diary, my father, who was the presiding judge, wrote that he was visited first by Congressman (later Senator) Roseller Lim and then by Senator (later Vice President) Emmanuel Pelaez. They told him that President Magsaysay wanted a verdict favoring the American. My father told them that he could not believe that President Magsaysay would try to interfere in the judicial process. He later ruled against Mayor Brown.
Do we still have judges like my father? His maratabat forbade him to follow the dictates of the President of the Republic, the man who appointed him as judge.
According to my mother, once in a party in Jolo, she was with her friends Tausug Princesses Tarhata Kiram and Inda Taas. With them was the young Tarhata Alonto – Lucman, the daughter of Senator Alauya Alonto and wife of my mother’s cousin, Congressman Rashid Lucman. When the foreign ambassadors came, the younger Tarhata stood up to meet them. But the older Tarhata told her to be seated. “Ambassadors come to Princesses, my dear, not the other way around,” the older Tarhata advised the younger Tarhata.
In 1980 or so, my mother and the above-mentioned Tarhata Alonto-Lucman were praying in the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque in Mecca during Eid-ul- Fitr. Before the prayers began, a woman came and asked a now much older Tarhata to vacate the place because her employer, a Saudi princess, was going to occupy the place. Former Governor Tarhata told the woman that she would not go anywhere because she was also a princess. The woman asked where she came from and then left. She asked some other people to leave their places instead.
After the prayers, the Saudi princess took out bags full of money and distributed them around. And the woman came back to ask for Tarhata’s sajada (prayer rug). She said it would please her much to have the prayer rug of a princess from Mindanao!
The two Tarhata’s actions were examples of maratabat. Even non-Maranaos practice them, too.
According to my uncle, Sultan Rashid Lucman, he once went to an office of a Saudi official in Mecca. While talking with him, the Saudi official put up one foot on his chair and acted in a disrespectful manner. Sultan Lucman, who was dressed formally, slapped the Saudi’s leg and told him to sit properly when talking to him.
Still in the 1980s, my second brother had a meeting with an American official at Manila Peninsula. As his habit, my brother went to the meeting dressed in coat and tie. The American, on the other hand, came wearing shirt and jogging pants. My brother scolded him, told him never to wear a track suit in formal meetings and left. The American was so shocked; he immediately called my eldest brother in Jeddah and told him that he just got a scolding from our brother in Manila.
When Spain’s Juan Carlos de Borbon y Borbon and Sophia de Grecia came to the Philippines, my eldest sister refused to attend the gala dinner for them because everyone was ordered to bow before the Spanish royalty. My sister did not want to bow to them. This is not only in accordance with Maratabat but also in accordance with Islam. Man/woman bows to no one but God.
Can you picture Christian Filipinos doing the things above — saying No to the President of the Republic, waiting for foreign ambassadors to come to them instead of going to the ambassadors, bawling out a Saudi or American official for disrespectful sitting or dressing, refusing to give way to a Saudi princess or declining to meet the Spanish King and Queen?
When one has maratabat, one can never be subservient to others. In Saudi Arabia, the Saudis prefer to have Christian Filipinos as workers. They do not like Moros because Moros fight back unlike the Christian Filipinos who are so subservient and submissive.
I have seen with my own eyes how Filipino top officials got tongue-tied when faced with Americans or other Caucasian foreigners. On several occasions, I had to speak up for the Filipinos against foreigners bashing the Filipino character because all the Christian Filipinos around just clam up in front of a Filipino-bashing foreigner.
Sadly, there are now many Maranaos who clam up in front of Maranao- or Moro-bashing Filipinos or foreigners. I have seen and heard how Maranao “leaders” become meek and mild mannered in front of Philippine government officials. Sadly, these people have lost their maratabat.
Maratabat As Avenging Wrongs
Maratabat is known among non-Maranaos as simply vengeful killings. Maratabat is not the cause of vengeful killings. It is the other way around. Vengeful killings are caused by a breach of maratabat. Sometimes the breach can be caused by the silliest things.
When I was in grade school in Manila, we received a telegram from my sisters in Lanao urging our mother to go there immediately because it was “a matter of life and death.” My mother sent one of my brothers there. The “matter of life and death” was nothing but a rumor spread by my sisters’ friends who were envious of their fashionable dresses from Manila. My brother was able to determine the culprits – my sisters’ friends and classmates — who admitted their wrong deeds and apologized to my sisters. After the apology, they were back to being best of friends.
The Maranao society has mechanisms to end Rido or Blood Feuds. There are arbitrations. Even murders can be settled through discussion by the elders. The Maranao elders are quite good in settling disputes.
The maratabat code instructs people to behave courteously, and to respect a person’s age, rank, bloodline, abilities and dignity. If society follows maratabat, then there would be peace and order.
Today, however, many people respect only money or the 3 G’s – guns, goons and gold. Many Maranaos have imbibed the Filipino crab mentality. They think that if they can suck up to Filipino officials, they can have money and power, then they can already do what they want to do and to hell with maratabat. They can even buy royal titles.
Once, because they were in Manila, surrounded by Filipino officials and in a quasi-judicial setting, one Maranao lawyer forgot about maratabat and became very discourteous. He shouted, “And who is Abbas anyway?” Well, my brothers immediately cut him down to size. Thanks to the immediate intercession of the many people around, the cutting down to size was done only figuratively speaking. That incident could have started a rido between our clans. That fellow must have thought that Maratabat stays only in Lanao. It does not. Maratabat is in the heart of every self-respecting Maranao.
It is the breach of maratabat that causes blood feuds and breakdowns in peace and order in Maranao society.
Loss of Maratabat
When a relative told me that he begged and cried to his boss, who was also his relative, not to fire him, I felt so sad. I felt sad not because he lost his job, but because he lost his maratabat. I would rather drown in the lake than beg for a job. I would rather lose a job than lose my “face”.
Many years ago, I saw the Marawi City mayor’s vehicle, presumably with the mayor inside, stopped and inspected by the military at the entrance of Mindanao State University. I was stunned. This was his city and outsiders (sarwang tao) were lording over him.
Today, a Christian general is the President of Mindanao State University. Are there no competent and qualified Maranaos for the job? What does this say about the Maranaos’ maratabat?
Leaders with Maratabat
When they were young, my father, Datu Macapanton Abbas, Sr. together with his best friends Datu Domocao Alonto, Datu Duma Sinsuat, Datu Salipada Pendatun, Sultan Ombra Amilbangsa and a couple others called themselves the Knights of Muhammad. They vowed to serve, protect and promote the interests of the Moro people.
From his diary, I realized how different the Moro leaders were from what the Moro leaders are now. Before, they were in constant contact with each other. And they always thought about the interests of Islam and the Moro people. They were happy if one gets elected or appointed or sent as delegate to foreign shores. And they bowed down to no one. They were not “tutas” (lapdogs) of the powers-that-be.
In the late 50s, they began to see that the Philippine “nation-state project” was not going well for the Moros. Amilbangsa filed a bill in Congress for the separation of the Sultanate of Sulu from the rest of the Philippines.
My father helped in the capture of Kamlon, whose rebellion cost the government millions of pesos and many lives including the crack Nenita unit of the Philippine Constabulary. While he found Kamlon guilty and gave him the maximum sentence (my father was a stickler for legal technicalities), he recommended that Kamlon be given amnesty as promised by the government. The government reneged on their promise. Kamlon stayed in jail until President Marcos pardoned him many years later.
After the Jabidah Massacre, the Moro leaders knew that the Moros needed to rise up or be forever doomed. Unfortunately, my father and Amilbangsa had already passed away. But the others created what eventually became the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Alonto’s brother-in-law, Sultan Rashid Lucman fathered the modern-day Bangsa Moro revolution. Through primarily his efforts, 90 Moro cadres were sent to Sabah for military training. The so-called Top 90 became the core of the MNLF.
Alonto founded the Ansar el-Islam. Later Lucman and Pendatun teamed up with my eldest brother, Macapanton Abbas, Jr. to form the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization (BMLO). Datu Duma died in the 1970s. He was a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention.
These leaders had maratabat. They are now all gone. Can others replace them?
In fine, Maratabat is not about killing people for petty reasons. It is living in a courteous, respectful, ordered and civilized society. It can also be avenging wrongs. It is about self-determination. It is above all, about Freedom. Freedom from want (family, clan and society provides for one’s needs), Freedom from fear (family, clan, society provides for one’s physical protection), Freedom of speech and assembly to seek redress from grievances (ad hoc arbitration committees composed of elders from both clans), and Freedom of expression (Maranaos love oratory, public speaking, lyrical poems (bayoks), story-telling, songs, dances and artistic designs).
Datu Jamal Ashley Yahya Abbas