The Maguindanao are one of many groups of "lowland" Filipinos who appear to have arrived in the islands during successive waves of migration from the Southeast Asian mainland several thousand years ago. They were well established in their present homeland by the time of the first known foreign contact around A.D. 1500. At about that time, or perhaps a bit earlier, Muslim missionaries began to arrive in this area. According to the legends of the Maguindanao, they were converted to Islam by Sarip Kabungsuwan, a Muslim prince from Johor, on the Malay Peninsula, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Kabungsuwan is said to have arrived at Cotabato in a sailing ship with a small group of Samal warriors. The legends state that he won his converts peacefully by a combination of his wisdom, the appeal of his message, and certain supernatural powers that set him apart from ordinary men. The prince married a local woman who is said to have been born miraculously from a stalk of bamboo, and according to these accounts their descendants became the ruling families of both the Maguindanao and the neighboring Maranao.
The first European contact with the Philippines was in 1521, when Magellan landed in the central islands and was killed in a battle with a local chieftain. The earliest Spanish colony was founded on one of these islands in 1565, and the colonists soon learned that some of the native peoples nearby were Muslims. They identified these people with their historical enemies in Spain, the Moors. Thus they called them "Moros" and saw them as enemies to be driven away or conquered and subjugated. The armed clashes that ensued pitted the Spaniards and their local Christian converts against the Maguindanao and other Muslim peoples of the southern islands. This conflict became the long and bitter "Moro Wars," which spanned more than 300 years during the entire Spanish occupation of the islands. The Maguindanao and their Muslim allies were never fully subdued by the Spanish, but within a few years after the United States took control of the Philippines in 1898 the last major battle was fought in Cotabato, in 1905. The American forces prevailed and an uneasy peace was imposed on the region. The American colonial government encouraged people from the northern and central islands to resettle in the less populated areas of Mindanao, including Cotabato, but with limited success because of long-standing ethnic hostilities. After World War II and Philippine independence in 1946, however, large numbers of settlers moved to Cotabato. By 1970, immigrants outnumbered Maguindanao in most of Cotabato. Land disputes and other friction erupted that year into armed conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims. Government forces intervened as the conflict escalated into civil war and spread to other parts of Mindanao and nearby islands. Most of the major fighting ended by the late 1970s, but there was continued unrest and periodic violence in Cotabato and elsewhere through the next decade. The armed conflict has been accompanied by calls for greater autonomy for the southern Philippines and the Muslim peoples there, including the Maguindanao.