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Muslim Legal System

The Philippine legal system is aptly described as a blend of customary usages, the Roman (civil law) and the Anglo-American (common law) systems. But in some Southern part of the islands, Islamic law is observed. This aspect of Islamic law is the result of the immigration of Muslim Malays in the 13thcentury or before the subsequent colonization of the islands by Spain and the United States.

The legal system of the Muslims in the Philippines has sometimes been called by scholars as the Sara Agama System 1 being based upon Islam as religion. Attorney Musib Buat opines that:

" The word Agama has come to be known as practice or system. among the Muslims, it is synonymous with the word "ideology." Agama is a Sanskrit word for Religion. The reason for this is perhaps due to the general concept of law and policy among Muslims. The Muslims do not distinguish law as either secular or divine, canon or civil law. "

The legal system of the Muslims, both customary (adat) and Islamic is quite comprehensive. It embraces all legal, social, political and civil relations. '

Non-State Courts and the Judicial Role of Political Rulers

"Non-state" courts were manned by functionaries known in the Sulu archipelago as the panglima and the pandita in Mainland Mindanao. According to Prof. Mastura, the legal scholars conceived their legalist role as advisers to the political rulers, the qadis as practitioners.

The recognition of an apprentice's legal aptitude took place from agama court practices that derived naturally from the theory of reputation in trial apprenticeship. This came about because the specific institutional feature of customary handling of disputes resided in the chief magistrate (datu kall} who presided over sessions to hear the "process of law" argued by a set of paired jurors (wazirs) and advocates (wakilsl representing the party litigants.3

Sources of Muslim Customary Laws

The sources of customary or adat law are basically three-fold: (1) Ancient Malay adat law; (2) Indian-Hindu law and (3) Shari'a or Islamic Law. The natives embraced Islam, mixed Adat law with Shari'a or at least Shari'a blended with pre-Islamic practices or Hukum Shari'a. The sanction of customary law is in the Aqama Court. Sometimes the Muslim Ecclesiastical Authority or Agama leaders like the Sultan, datus and panglimas enforced customary law.

Thus, centuries before the establishment of the Philippine government, the Muslims were already governed by Shari'a and/or Adat law with their own agama courts and judges called Qadis. The Shari'a minded jurists applied the Luwaran Code as well as the Diwan or the "Principal Sulu Code". The former functioned to legitimate their formulation by locating the law and sovereignty of Allah and consisted of a body of selected texts from the Shafi'i School of Law appended to it. The latter embodied basically the seven articles of "Mohammedan Law" which did not operate in isolation of the Qur'an under the care of imam and Qadi.


Organization of Ward Courts

The enactment of the Organic Act of the Moro Province empowered the legislative Council of the Province to enact laws for the purpose of collecting and codifying Moro customary laws for the organization and procedure of Moro district courts. With the organization of the local Tribal Ward Courts together with the procedure and jurisdiction to consider and decide minor civil and criminal cases, the experience in the statutory enforcement of customary law brought about the transformation period.

The Ward court was the counterpart of the justice of the peace courts of the Insular Government system. Under this new setting, the district governor presided over the bureaucratic systems and the ward court included the district secretaries as ex officio justices and such auxiliary justices as needed.

Consideration of Local Laws and Customs in the Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, Court of First Instance and Justices of the Peace Courts

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the Court of First Instance
and Justices of the Peace Courts was extended to the Department of Mindanao created under Act No. 2520 (1915). The Administrative Code of Mindanao and Sulu ushered in the pivotal phase when the conditions of power and authority changed hands. Accordingly, Section 3 of the Code provides:

" Sec.3 Mohammedan Laws and Customs. - Judges of the Courts of First Instance and Justices of the Peace deciding civil cases in which the parties are Mohammedans or pagans, when such actions is deemed wise, may modify the application of the law of the Philippines, taking into account local laws and customs; Provided, that such modification shall not be in conflict with the basic principles of the United States of America. "

In 1917, the Administrative Code of Mindanao and Sulu was passed,
empowering judges to disregard the minimum penalty provided for by law, if the accused is a Muslim, provided that the maximum cannot exceed that which is provided by law. Professor Mastura observed that the position of Islamic justice institutions vis-a-vis the Insular Government was misconceived by the American legal minds due to the fundamental difference between the juridical conception on which American fundamental law relating to "ecclesiastical authority" was based and that of the foundation of the Islamic legal system. As a result, severe criticism and controversies followed this misunderstanding. The agama or religious judicature remained so under the authority of the Sultan and his representative has continued to decide and settle cases. Moreover, Act No. 2520 (191,5) authorized "kalis" or "panditas" or such Muslims as are versed in the local laws and cultures to settle disputes.


After the Commonwealth government in the Philippines and during the period of the Republic, several laws were enacted recognizing certain aspects of Muslim personal laws. Republic Act No. 386 or the New Civil Code recognized marriages among Muslims or mixed marriages between a Muslim male and a non-Muslim female. Article 78 thereof provides that marriages between Mohammedans or pagans who live in non-Christian provinces may be performed in accordance with their customs, rites or practices. No marriage license or formal requisites shall be necessary nor shall persons solemnizing these marriages be obliged to comply with Art. 92. The second paragraph provides that twenty years after the approval of this Code, all marriages performed between Mohammedans or pagans shall be solemnized in accordance with the provisions of this Code unless extended by the President.

Article 79 of the same Code provides for mixed marriages between Muslims and Christians. In case the male is a Christian, the general provisions of the Civil Code applies but if the male is a Muslim, it may be performed in accordance with the provisions of Article 78 if the contracting parties so desire. After the expiration of the 20-year period stipulated in Article 78, Republic Act No. 6268 was approved on June 19,1971 which extended the applications of Article 78 for another ten years. Republic Act No. 394 was passed recognizing divorce among Muslims.

On December 13, 1974, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Executive Order No. 442 creating the Presidential Code Commission to Review the Proposed Code on the Administration of Philippine Muslim Law. On August 29, 1975, the Commission submitted the Code of Muslim Personal Laws to the President, which was finally promulgated as Presidential Decree No. 1083 on February 4,1977.
  Source: CPRM Consultants. (June 2004). Institutional Strengthening of the Shari'a Justice System: (Phase I). Final Report on the SC-UNDP Project: PHI/01/001. Submitted to the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
Used with permission by the SC-PIO.
  Copyright 2008 Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication