Silat as a martial art is characterized by graceful dancelike movements. While it thrives in southern Philippines, silat in the strictest term is not an indigenous Filipino martial art (FMA).

I first witnessed an exhibition of silat ohlaraga (sport silat) in 1991 and I remember being impressed with the artistry of the movements of the players. The second time I saw a silat performance was in an informal gathering of martial artists in 2006. It was combat silat this time and the two practitioners demonstrated their ways of using a knife. I would describe their techniques as very aggressive and ballistic.

Mark Wiley in his book “Filipino Martial Culture” wrote that silat and Islam came to the Philippines hand-in-hand, “Along with the transplantation of Malaysian martial arts came their practitioner’s Islamic religion. The Muslim religion may have filtered into the Sulu archipelago and Mindanao as early as the thirteenth-century.

In the Philippines, early evidence of an Islamic presence is furnished by a tombstone of a trader-missionary in Indanan, Sulu. It bears the inscription “710 AH,” using the Islamic dating system, which in relation with the Christian calendar, is approximately 1270 A.D. By 1380, Islam had spread throughout Mindanao and Sulu.”

Nid Anima in his book “Filipino Martial Arts” specifically named four characters responsible for bringing silat in the Philippines, it reads, “Available historical data points to three persons – Tubba, Sahudah and Wabulong – as the ones who introduced the silat into this country during the latter half of the 19th century.

All three belongs to the Celebes tribe known as Bugis. But they seem to be not really the first, after all. Another member of the Bugis tribe by the name of Samaru, also a master of this deadly martial sport, came much earlier than these three men credited with the introduction of silat.”

Besides his personal research, Anima pointed to the works of the following writers as the sources of the materials in his book: “The Arnis in Sulu” (Sunday Times Magazine, February 18, 1962) and “The Disappearing Sport of Filipino Wrestling” (Sunday Mirror Magazine, September 4, 1962) by Lamberto Ticsay; and “Ancient Filipino Sports” by Tirzo Rodriguez published in Go Magazine.

Silat flourishes in Mindanao though not easy to find. One teacher who once taught Mindanao silat generously to Muslims and non-Muslims in the Philippines was the late Hadji Yasser Tanadjalan.

Tanadjalan, who has a background in judo, escrima and karate was taught by his father their family system of silat. He said that there are more than a 100 styles of silat in Mindanao. Tanadjalan named the brand of silat that he taught publicly “Mindanao Silat Asli.”

In an interview conducted by Marilitz Dizon for the Rapid Journal (Volume 4 No. 2) at the turn of the century, Tanadjalan explained the secret nature of silat in Mindanao, it reads, “In Mindanao, if your parents do not know anything about the art, then you don’t bother to look for the art.

No one will just teach it to you because this art is usually hidden. Mindanao’s practices are quite different as against how the silat forms are more openly practiced in Indonesia, Malaysia or in Manila.”

Tanadjalan became the head coach of the Philippine sport silat team in 1986. In that year, the Philippine team bagged a gold, silver and three bronze medals when the country’s players only managed to bring home bronze medals in the past – a testament to his excellent coaching skills. Sport silat in the Philippines falls under the jurisdiction of the Philippine Pencak Silat Association.

In the same interview, he pointed out the differences between the traditional and sport aspects of the art, he said, “For sport, the artistic aspect is more emphasized. So the beauty and harmony of pencak silat is shown. There are also specific target areas only. Whereas in non-sport you can fling and hit anywhere.”

Tanadjalan also stated that not too many practitioners in the Philippines are knowledgeable in the use of inner power or tenaga dalam, “But people in Manila don’t know anything about this even if they are into the sport of silat. It is only the people of Mindanao, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore who know,” he said.

While he taught silat to anyone he deemed worthy, Tanadjalan explained that there are facets of silat that can only be understood by Muslims, “There are two kinds of silat. One is the silat that everyone knows as the martial art or pentjak silat and the other is silat rahmi, which means the way of the religion,” he said.

Hadji Yasser Tanadjalan passed away on December 25, 2007.

Though silat technically is not an indigenous FMA, styles of silat that were deeply rooted in various parts of the Philippines developed a distinct character. Indonesian writer and researcher Dipika Rai commenting on the fighting methodology and practical design of the Mindanao kris wrote the following words, “The Filipino blades are different because they are used differently.

The Moro style of fighting is much different than that used in Java. Many of today’s eskrima styles have roots in these southern Muslim styles. They tend to be from the slashing school and the original design of the Java keris was not suitable.”

While no official documentation exists on the matter, silat could have instilled its influence on the various indigenous FMA through intermarriage between Muslims and Christians and through friendly exchange of knowledge between practitioners from both camps.