The sun was already scorching our backs after two sujood (prostrations). About a third of the Baguio Athletic Bowl was filled with the faithful – Muslim residents of Baguio, international students from Africa and the Middle East taking up allied health courses, converts and journalists covering the event. (READ: IN PHOTOS: Filipino Muslims break fast at start of Eid'l Fitr)
A few more verses and the khutbah (sermon) had begun. It usually begins with prayers in Arabic and then a commentary in the vernacular. At last, the imam (religious leader) spoke in Filipino. Foreign friends waited a few more lines in hopes that the imam would shift to English but, sensing it would not happen, they left one by one.
To a curious mind, the choice of language here opens up a lot of questions. Why, for example, did he not choose English, when obviously, a quarter of his audience were foreigners? Why did he not choose a regional lingua franca say, Ilokano or Bisaya? Why Filipino? (READ: Eid'l Fitr: The challenge after Ramadan)
Language and accessibility
Choosing the national language was the best option. In Islam, the Arabic language is the global language, and it defeats English in this position. Since the khutbah is interspersed with Arabic verses, those who are learned in Qur’anic Arabic will pick up the essence of the message.
While Muslims have been in the north for decades (even centuries, as history will tell) thanks to economic trade, only a few of them speak the regional lingua franca. Most of them speak Filipino as a second language. The rising number of converts, like me, also come from different ethnolinguistic groups.
I am used to attending Eid prayers where the khutbah is delivered in English. In these instances, I can tell that much of the audience could not relate. Filipino remains to be more accessible to the masses.
Accessibility is important in Islam because the Qur’an was written with an intent to be conveyed verbally, as it addressed the then illiterate Arab population. For many people in the country, Filipino as the national language also served as a bridge to spiritual emancipation. (READ: Speaking in tongues: How storytelling shapes Philippine languages)
Filipino is not foreign to the Moros or Muslim Filipinos in much the same way as Arabic is no alien to Filipinos. (WATCH: What is Eid'l Fitr? Islam expert explains)
Many words of Arabic (and Persian) origin have become a staple in Philippine languages. Words as basic as alam (knowledge), hukom (hukm, judgment), talak (talaq, divorce), paham (wise), alak (alcoholic beverage), kapre (kafir, non-believer), salawal (sharwal, trousers), kamison (qamis, tunic), even Manila (Fi Amanillah, In God’s protection) and salamat (salam, peace) have been part of its vocabulary. (READ: Filipino, the language that is not one)
We owe this to that first contact of Arab and Persian traders who landed on the ports of Sulu prior to their sojourn to Guangzhou, China. Muslims soon then reached many provinces in the present-day Philippines as far north as Pampanga and Ilocos. Remember that Rajah Sulayman (Arabic for Solomon), the ruler of the Rajahnate of Manila, was a Muslim, and Manila was a Muslim polity.
Beyond a matter of scheduling
More than just a medium, language is also an annal of history. This is why the recent decision of the Supreme Court (the Kataas-taasang Hukuman) to make Filipino optional in the core curriculum of the tertiary level is a disservice to a people begging for its soul. (READ: 12 reasons to save the national language)
To the justices, the issue was just a matter of scheduling – whether it should be taught up to the tertiary level or not. They have succumbed to ahistorical literalism.
Was it the lady justice’s blindfold’s fault that the court failed to see even our linguistic context and the colonial mold of our education?
I particularly agree with the defenders of Filipino in saying that higher order thinking skills are developed in college, and that there is no better place to intellectualize the national language than in the tertiary level.
We would be remiss to see language education as only a matter of developing proficiency in a medium vis-à-vis developing metalinguistic awareness and national consciousness.
In retrospect, many nations have decreed laws on language use and many of these laws also failed. Scribes will try to obscure the letters of the law to fool its readers. However, it is the masses – the sovereign – that define its spirit.
It is only a matter of time that they will see through these false prophets. Those who have not been deceived have the duty to tell that the emperor has no clothes.
Pete Sengson is a peace activist. He started his advocacy when he converted from Catholicism to Islam back in 2009. He is one of the co-founders of Muslims for Progressive Values - Philippines, a non-governmental organization which aims to gather Muslims in the cause of human rights, social justice and inclusion.