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Islam in Cambodia: A brief discussion

Asia 21 Jan 2021
Today's Focus
Islam in Cambodia
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia © Letloose78 | Dreamstime.com

‘Cambodia… the name rings a mysterious tune in our ears. If we close our eyes to feel the tune, it reminds us of age-old Buddhist mysteries. Little do we know that Islam in Cambodia has a rich heritage too,’ Professor Hashmi stopped to sip his coffee. I was listening to him in rapt attention. The last words kindled my interest more. Being a student of Islamic history, I am on a dedicated search for Islamic traces all over the world. Gladly, I can say that the Asian continent is contributing a lot to my quest. One of the contributors is Cambodia.

The country occupies a part in the Indo-Chinese Peninsula in the Southeastern part of Asia. Laos is situated on the Northeast of this country. On the East and Southeast, it is bounded by Vietnam. It is bordered with Thailand to the West and Northwest. The country has a landmass of 182000 square kilometres.

‘After the the departure of the UN, also after the restoration of the monarchy in 1993. The Islamic minorities of Cambodia became an important sector of transnational Islamic networks and movements. Primary of these movements are the Salafi movement. And now, the influence is increasing!.’ said Professor Hashmi. I met him in a local cafe and became friends as we both have the same interest.

‘That is interesting.’ I replied, ‘but tell me more about the history at first. How did Islam set its foot on Cambodia?’

Islam in Cambodia

A mosque with muslim community in Phnom Penh, Cambodia © Ashharmustaffa | Dreamstime.com

History of Islam in Cambodia

Professor Hashmi chuckled at my eagerness and continued, ‘ The onset of Islam in Cambodia dates back to 1237 AH or 1823 CE. The Muslim Cham people fled to Cambodia due to Vietnamese conquest, they brought the religion with them. According to some scholars, the Chams were inspired to convert to Islam through one of the father in-laws of Prophet Muhammad(SAW). He was the father of Zaynab bint Jahsh(RA). Prior to that, there were no Muslims in this country.’

‘And what about the present scenario of Islam?’ I asked. Professor Hashmi looked at me intensely. Then he replied, ‘ The population of Muslims is 15% of the total population of the country.’

I knew this answer, yet I asked hoping to get a different one. The government of Cambodia does not recognize the Muslim community and releases contradictory statistics. In fact, Muslim Cambodians are prevented from leaving the country. They are not allowed to perform Hajj. Even they are not allowed to study in any Islamic countries. These are all to conceal the information that Islam exists in Cambodia.

‘Yet, Islam sustained all inequitable blows and sustained through the Cham community.’ retorted Professor Hashmi with a satisfaction.

The political life of Cambodian Muslims

Cham Muslims live in their own hamlets in this country. They maintain a completely different lifestyle in terms of religion, language and customs from the Cambodian society. Each hamlet has a mosque. In the year 1962, there were about 100 mosques in Cambodia. At the end of 19th century, the Islamic community of Cambodia formed a unified community. There were four religious dignitaries-

mupti, tuk kalih, raja kalik and tvan pake.

The councils of Cham hamlets consisted of one hakim and a few Katip, Bilal and Labi. The high dignitaries were exempt from personal taxes and they were in association with the royal court. Nowadays, each cham hamlets has its own governor, who is assisted by one or two men.

The general governor supervises and addresses the affairs of the Muslims including worship and personal affairs. He has the power to appoint the Imaam, Khateeb and Mu’aththin. These Cham hamlets are under the control of the Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs in Cambodia. This council is monitored by the Buddhist Ministry of Religion and Cult department of the Cambodian government.

The Cham Muslims were insignificant in the political scenario of the country till 1970 AD. In that specific year, under the republican system, the political influence of Muslims increased a bit. There was one Muslim member in Senate, four members in the House of Representatives. In fact, five Muslims were appointed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The social life of Cambodian Muslims

Cham Muslims keep themselves by themselves very strictly. They do not marry Cambodians except on a small scale. That is also if the Cambodian person is willing to embrace Islam. In 1970 AD, two Islamic societies were established to help the community, namely:

1. The Central Islamic Association of Cambodia

2. Cambodia Islamic Youth Association (CIYA)

Both of these associations address the educational, social and cultural problems of students and youths. Moreover, they provide help and guidance for poor Muslim students.

But, the Muslims refuse to send their wards to public school. They are satisfied with modest religious education they provide in their own mosques. As a consequence, most Muslims work as a daily labourer, or fisherman. Some of them take part in rice cultivation. A few work in the trading business.

Chams consider Allah as the all-powerful God. The religious dignitaries dress in white and shave their heads and faces. They celebrate many Islamic festivals and rituals. Despite a lot of hassles, the Chams did not give up their belief. Which is something rewarding for our Ummah.

‘ The Chams fought against the Communist invasion prior to 1975 and experienced great calamities. They were annihilated, burned and buried alive and subjected to mass murder.’ Said Professor Hashmi quietly.

‘But did not they launch a Jihad after that?’ I asked.

‘They did and put an end to this injustice. They also brought back the Muslims who fled from the Communist Tortures.’ he replied.

The sun was setting outside the window. We both remained silent and reflected about the Cambodian Muslims.

 

(Written by freelance journalist Shreya T)