The International Writers Magazine: Cambodia and Muslim Faith
A Look at Cambodias Muslim Minority
of the religion of Islam make up less than one percent of the predominantly
Buddhist population of Cambodia. Roughly 80% of Cambodias
Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic group. There are two types
of Muslims in Cambodia. Said Sary Abdulah, president of the
Islamic National Movement for Democracy of Cambodia. The two groups
include: Sunni, traditional Muslims, along the lines of Arab Muslims,
who pray five times per day, and Fojihed Muslims, who follow an
ancient Cham interpretation of the religion. They only pray
once a week. They speak Cham, and keep the old Cham traditions.
Sary Abdulah went
on the explain that the Fojihed maintained many of their pre-Muslim
beliefs, particularly in the super-natural, and magical powers. They
believe that they can pray, and achieve great internal power, called
Chai. It is similar to what Kung Fu people call Chi.
We begin learning Islam in our village when we are small. Our
parents and the village Mullah are our first teachers. Said Ismail
Taib, a twenty-four year old Cham from the large ethnic community, located
at kilometers seven, eight, and nine, outside of Phnom Penh. The Koran
which is being used in Cambodia is written in Arabic. In interviewing
various Chams it seemed that the ability to read and interpret Arabic
was one of the most important issues in deciding who was qualified to
be a Mullah. Anyone who could read Arabic could be a Mullah.
Said Ismail. Later, if we wish to continue our studies, we can
leave the village and go to a big school in Phnom Penh or Kampong Cham.
A few lucky ones will get to go abroad and study.
Although Sary Abdulah, and many members of his organization were US
citizens, Malaysia seemed to be the leading influence on Muslims in
Cambodia, and was one of the leading places that young Muslims hoped
to study. The Koran cannot be translated in Cham, because the
Cham have no writing system. Explained Sary Abdulah. But
we are currently translating the Koran into Khmer language. Of course,
the translation is going slowly, because we have no funds. So, we can
only do a few pages at a time. Sary asked me if there were some
way I could find funds to support his translation of the Koran.
Islamic education and education in general is one of the main focuses
of Sary Abdulahs work as a community leader. We need schools
and volunteer teachers. He told me as we strolled through the
Muslim market at kilometer eight. All of this food is Halal.
He told me, proudly. At a stall, I purchased a pudding, made of gelatinous
coconut oil. No bacon here. He joked. But I think
you will like this one.
After taking a small bite, to see if Sary was putting me on, I devoured
the tasty pastry in a single gulp. I told you. He laughed,
as I ordered three more. You see, Cham people never lie to you.
The market was a typical outdoor market, seen all through Asia, with
various foods and goods being sold from stalls. But the primary difference
was that the vendors were almost all women, who wore the beautiful,
colored head wrappings of the Muslim faith. Although one didnt
see the all-black hoods and dresses of fundamentalist countries, the
Cham wore traditional clothing more often than any other residents of
Phnom Penh. Many of the young Cham boys were clad in sarongs and head
scarves. Older men wore a small hat, or fez, and many sported a beard.
But like religious devotion in western countries, families held varying
degrees of obedience to the traditions, making many Cham indistinguishable
from members of other religions. Sary Abdulah, for example did not go
with his head covered. And many teenage boys were wearing jeans and
T-shirts with images of their favorite Taiwanese pop-group, F-4.
We visited a state run school, where all of the students were Cham,
but where the curriculum followed the same guidelines as Khmer schools.
When the children finish here, they walk across the street to
the Madrasa, and continue studying in the evening. Explained Sary
Abdulah. We teach them about Islam and Arabic language. But we
also want them to learn English and French. So much depends on where
the volunteer teachers are from. Our last teacher was able to teach
the children French. Some can teach Chinese and Japanese. Right now,
we have no teachers at all. Once again, Sary Abdulah made his
plea. When you write this story, please ask teachers to come here
and help up. And ask rich Muslims in America to send money, so we can
build schools, buy computers, and teach our children.
Nearby, the Islamic vocational school was a rundown cinderblock building,
standing alone in an open field, which had flooded during the night.
Chickens and goats ran freely through the school building. I would
like to show you the school. Said Sary Abdulah, But there
is too much water. Anyway, we have a few computers there and a sewing
class. In the Cham community education is available to both boys and
girls. We dont discriminate. Said Sary. But
the boys and the girls come at different times of day.
Sary Abdulah took me on a tour of the mosque, connected with the madrasa.
This building was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. He said.
It took the people until 1987 to be able to rebuild it, and open
the doors again.
As with every other aspect of life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge period,
lasting from 1975-1979 left an indelible mark upon the society. It is
estimated that, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period.
Under the regime, Muslims were prohibited from worshiping. Today, however,
Islam has been given the same freedom as Buddhism. In early 1988, there
were only six mosques left in the Phnom Penh, and of the 113 most prominent
Cham clergy in Cambodia, only 20 survived the Khmer Rouge period.
Our final stop was at a huge feast prepared by a local Cham community.
Because Ramadan is coming soon, we like to have a big feast in
preparation. Sary told me. The pre-Ramadan feast coincided with
the Buddhist festival of the dead, when most Khmers would be saying
prayers for their departed ancestors. Before sitting down to eat, the
men all kneeled on prayer mats and remembered their lost loved ones.
The Koran doesnt tell us this, exactly. Confessed
Sary Abdulah. But we feel it is the right thing to do.
Like everyone else in Cambodia, after being nearly annihilated during
the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cham had been through a lot, but they still
found a place in their hearts for charity. We invite poor people
to the feast so that they can have a good meal. This is what the Koran
says that we must do. Sary brushed the uncomfortable subject of
the US War on Terrorism. Some people misinterpret the Koran. But
the Koran is about peace. Our religion is about peace. We, the Muslim
people, only want peace. You are Catholic. He said of me. But
you are my brother, And I invite you here to share food with us. Because
this is what the Koran says to do.
When asked if he had a message he would like to send out to the whole
world, Sary answered, without hesitation. Let them know that Muslim
people are not terrorists. Please take your articles to America and
teach people about Islam and about the Cham.
Anything else? I asked, in closing.
Yes, He said with a smile. Tell them to send teachers
and money, so we can educate our people.
Contact Sary Abdulah, President of the Islamic National Movement for
Democracy of Cambodia.: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact the author: Antonio_garceffo@hotmail.com
all rights reserved