The major cultural focus of Tausug society is on conflict, politics, law, and litigation.
Social Organization. Tausug society is hierarchically stratified and has been since at least the founding of the Sulu sultanate. Three major rank categories were formerly recognized: nobles, commoners, and slaves. The nobility consisted of datu, men holding patrilineally inherited titles who exercised regional power, and salip, religiously revered men and women who claimed descent from the Prophet. As in other Malay polities, those of datu status were internally differentiated into what have been called "royal datus" and "ordinary datus" (i.e., those directly related to the line of the ruling sultan and others related only distantly or not at all). Commoners, who comprised some 80 percent of the population, lacked ascribed titles and ranking. The position of each category was defined by law. Commoners and slaves were required to pay allegiance to a particular datu, although they exercised some choice in the matter, as individual datus were not assigned unambiguously bounded territories. To a considerable degree wealth and power were achieved independently of inherited titles, so that men of humble origin often gained great influence and, in acknowledgment, received bestowed titles and recognized positions of prominence in the alliance hierarchy. This status system has thus been characterized as one of "status-conscious egalitarianism."
Political Organization. Although centralized as a polity, political power within the traditional sultanate operated primarily through networks of interlocking leader-centered alliances. Person-to-person bonds of friendship and patronage linked smaller alliances to larger ones in a ramifying network that extended from community headmen and local factional leaders to the sultan and his kindred at the apex of the system. Within the archipelago, the sultan's authority was strongest at the geographical center of the state, on Jolo and neighboring high islands, shading to symbolic hegemony at its outer peripheries. Recognition of a leader's authority and his position in the alliance hierarchy were expressed through ranked titles ( panglima , maharaja, orangkaya, parukka, etc.); part of the sultan's authority derived from his powers of investiture and control over the title system. At each level of the alliance network, leaders acted as representatives of the law, performing legal functions, mediating feuds, and imposing fines. They also offered their followers physical protection and, from the sultan downward, were responsible for administering religious law and for appointing local and regional religious officials. At the capital the sultan was advised by a state council ( ruma bichara ) made up of religious advisers and leading datus, which, in addition to its advisory role, reserved the right to determine succession. Today traditional political values remain largely intact. Minimal and medial alliances still operate, whereas maximal alliances are now led by acculturated Tausug operating within the setting of Philippine electoral politics. Sulu is divided into two provinces, Sulu (Jolo) and Tawitawi. Jolo in turn is divided into eight municipalities, each with elected officials: mayors, vicemayors, and municipal councillors. Provincial officials include a governor, a provincial board, and a national congressperson. Their powers derive mainly from their ability to obtain government largesse and to guarantee their followers legal immunity. Although the secular power of the sultan is greatly diminished, he continues to preserve, mainly through the agama (religious court), much of his traditional religious function. Since the death of Sultan Jamal ul-Karim II, the office has been represented by two lines of claimants.
Social Control. The Tausug recognize three categories of law: pure Quranic law; interpreted religious law ( sara ), codified by the sultan and other Tausug officials; and customary law ( adat ), including offenses of honor.
Conflict. Armed feuds are endemic. The pattern is chiefly one of individual revenge. A widely ramifying feud may result in battles involving more than 100 persons on each side. In the past, external warfare took the form of piracy and coastal raiding, organized at the levels of medial and maximal alliance, chiefly for slaves and booty. In the nineteenth century, following the establishment of a precarious Spanish military hegemony over Sulu, a pattern of ritual suicide ( sabbil ) developed as a form of personal jihad, or religious martyrdom.