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Cambodia, Muslim Minority in

Omar Farouk
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Cambodia, Muslim Minority in


The Muslim minority is a significant community in Cambodia today. Although the constitution of Cambodia upholds Theravada Buddhism as the official religion, other faiths may freely be practiced. Historically, Islam has had a long relationship with the Cambodian traditional polity, which even had a Muslim king for a brief period in the seventeenth century CE. In terms of numbers, the Muslims undoubtedly comprise a sizable community within contemporary Cambodia, although there is disagreement on its exact size. Muslims are believed to constitute about 5 percent, or approximately 700,000, of the current population of 14 million. Geographically, Muslims are now spread all over the kingdom in practically every province, underlining their status as a national minority.

The physical landmarks of Muslim enclaves in Cambodia today have changed considerably since the early years of the new democratic era in the kingdom. There is also evidence of the economic empowerment of Muslims, although poverty is still a major problem. The practice of democracy and the dictates of electoral politics have also made the Muslims an important demographic constituency to be taken seriously.

Ethnically the Muslims in Cambodia today are characterized by diversity. They are represented by various ethnic groups, including the Chams, Chveas, Khmers, Indians, Arabs, and, most recently, the Jerais. The Chams are the most important of these groups, not only because they are the most numerous, but also because they are generally regarded as being synonymous with the Muslim community, constituting its backbone. The Chams consist in turn of two major groups, the Imam San group—or Jahed, as they are called–and Cham Shariat, the latter being the dominant group. For both groups, the principal elements of their identity are knowledge of the Cham language, continued practice of Cham culture, and a common Cham ethnic ancestry. The Cham Shariat have a strong sense of attachment to orthodox Islam, whereas the Jahed style is more idiosyncratic. Nonetheless, the Islamic identity has become an inseparable part of the ethnic identity of all Chams. All Chams in Cambodia are Muslims, although not all Muslims are necessarily Cham.

The Chvea (Jva, Jawi) are another important ethnic group within the Muslim community in terms of numbers as well as role. The name of this group itself denotes some connection with the Malay world. The Khmers are also a very significant group within the national Muslim community, because they constitute a vital link between Islam and the indigenous Khmer culture and demonstrate the affinity that has developed between Islam and the Khmer polity. A “Khmerization” of Islam has taken place in a positive way since about 2000.

There are now over 440 mosques, suraus, and musallas spread over 440 Muslim enclaves throughout Cambodia, most of which have only recently been reconstructed. Not all of these mosques or suraus have been formally registered. The largest concentration of mosques, along with the largest concentration of Muslims, is in Kg. Cham, which has over 148 mosques. The next largest is in Kg. Chhnang, which has over forty-two mosques. The capital city, Phnom Penh, has a total of twelve mosques. As a result of recent conversions as well as internal migration, Muslims can now be found in practically all the provinces of Cambodia.

Culturally, Cambodian Muslims can be fairly easily identified by their practice of Islam.Linguistically, although the Cham language continues to be the principal medium of everyday communication among the Chams, most Chams can also speak some Khmer. Many Chams also learn Malay, which is still perceived as a language associated with Islam, although they may have only limited speaking ability. Language code-switching seems to be a common practice among the Chams and other Muslims.

Politically, the Muslims seem to be well positioned within the kingdom’s democratic system. Although they have been represented in many political parties across the board, their closest alignment appears to be with the Cambodian People’s Party, and with the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, in particular. As a result, they have been able to enjoy a number of accommodating policies. For example, the Cambodian government has allowed Muslim girls to wear hijab in government schools, and has provided musalla at both Pochentong International Airport in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep International Airport. Muslim schools are allowed to exist and Muslims can freely travel abroad. Muslims have been given political posts in practically every ministry to demonstrate the government’s appreciation of their role and potential in Cambodia. The appointment in 2009 of an impressive lineup of young Muslim secretaries and under-secretaries in the Cambodian government is evidence of the new recognition accorded to them. There is also Muslim representation at the ambassadorial level. The present deputy governor of the province, Sem Sokprey, is a Muslim.

Historically, except for the Pol Pot era, the cultural and religious autonomy of the Muslims has invariably been recognized by the Cambodian state. They have always been allowed to manage their own affairs independently as a socio-religious community with the tacit approval of the authorities. The recognition of the two main Cham groups in Cambodia, the Jaheds and the Cham Shariat, is a function of this autonomy. More broadly, the Muslims in Cambodia are represented by different streams and groups which tend to overlap, forcing them constantly to negotiate and even manipulate their religious and ethnic identity and loyalty. There are at least five streams that merit mention here, namely the Jaheds, the Traditionalists, the Salafists or Wahhabis, the Secularists, and the Ahmadiyyas.

The Jaheds.

The Jahed stream of Islam represents a localized, syncretic, and ossified form of Islam that is inseparable from Cham culture and identity. At present this group has a following of about twenty thousand to thirty thousand people and is confined to about thirty-five villages in Cambodia, primarily in Kompong Chhnang, Kampot, and Pursat. It has its own religious hierarchy headed by its own mufti, whose status is officially recognized by the state; its own religious officials, including imams; and unique customs, rites, and practices not recognized by mainstream Islam. The Git is the book of guidance for the Cham Bani, although Quranic verses are selectively incorporated into it. The Cham Bani also has other religious texts, which are written in the ancient Cham script, and peculiar interpretations and understandings of Islam that go against mainstream Islamic ideas and conventions. For example, members of the group pray only once a week, on Friday, and are allowed to delegate others to pray on their behalf. Jahed mosques are closed most of the time and are generally inactive. Women assume a greater role in conducting ceremonies and communal worship. Their spiritual pilgrimage is not performed in Mecca; Oudong, in Cambodia, is considered more sacred. The Jahed differ little from the other Chams in their attire and appear to use Islamic or Arabic salutations, but they are obviously different from their Cham Shariat and other Muslim cousins in Cambodia and elsewhere in their ritual observance. This stream of Islam has been subjected to systematic and concerted attempts to cleanse itself of un-Islamic accretions and influences. As a result of increasing exposure to outside influences, many members of this group are leaving this stream to enter mainstream Islam, although the Ahmadiyya movement has also made some inroads into the Jahed enclaves.

The Traditionalists.

The traditionalists constitute the dominant Muslim group in Cambodia for a number of reasons. The first of these is the relatively successful reorganization of Islam in Cambodia under the leadership of the mufti, the highest official for Islamic affairs in Cambodia, whose position is recognized by the government and the king. A nationwide Muslim socio-religious bureaucracy has now emerged whose function it is to help formulate and implement rules and policies that will lead to the standardization of the practice of Islam in Cambodia. The existence of both the hierarchical and a national organizational framework, despite its imperfections and contestations, has enabled the traditionalist school of Islam to present itself as the legitimate, credible, and authoritative body of Islam in Cambodia.

The traditionalists try to localize Islam by balancing local culture with its universal characteristics. Pre-Islamic and syncretic practices are treated as being inseparable from local Muslim culture. Praying at the graves of the deceased, holding public wedding ceremonies, and reciting prayers without really understanding the words are simply taken as a natural part of their communal religious life, and in this way Islam is approached as if it is a part of the local culture. The observance of maulid celebrations and tahlil recitations, while acceptable to the traditionalist school, are objected to by the Salafists and Wahhabis.

The traditionalists tend to turn to the Malay world for inspiration and leadership. In their attempts to reorganize Islamic education, Kitab Kuning or the Jawi texts and other religious books published in Malaysia have been used. Cambodian Muslim students go to Thailand, Malaysia, and more recently Indonesia, all situated within the traditional Malay world, for their religious education. Many religious schools in Cambodia follow the Malaysian curriculum and function as feeder schools to more advanced institutions in Malaysia. Malay is widely taught, not only in most Islamic schools in Cambodia but also in mosques and suraus. Alongside Malay, in Cham enclaves, Cham is also taught, especially at mosque schools. Most of the new generation of Islamic teachers in Cambodia have been trained in Malaysia or in Pattani in southern Thailand.

Salafists or Wahhabis.

The Salafists or Wahhabis, sometimes referred to as Reformists, also represent an important stream of Islam in Cambodia The current phenomenon of Wahhabism is a function of Cambodia’s increased contacts with the Middle East. As more Cambodian students graduated from Mecca, Medina, and other Islamic universities in the Arab countries, they began to question some of the traditional practices of Islam in their own community. The emergence of a new group of Arabic-speaking Cambodian Muslim scholars has created an environment of competition between them and their locally or regionally trained counterparts.

At the same time, the flow of Arab funds into Cambodia, which helped establish many Islamic-oriented NGOs, also served to strengthen their ties with Islamic institutions in the Middle East, thereby helping to propagate their version of Islam, which tends to be more rigid. The competency and credibility of the traditionalist teachers are frequently questioned since they are often not literate in Arabic.

Notwithstanding the above differences, except for a few isolated cases of actual confrontation, generally the two streams try to coexist, often only subtly concealing the underlying tensions between them.

Secular Islam.

Within Cambodian Muslim society there also exists a secular stream of Islam. The destruction of the Islamic educational infrastructure due to the civil war, on the one hand, and the promotion of national education in Khmer by the state, on the other, has created a new generation of students and graduates who have been educated at secular institutions. Often members of this group represent the Khmer-literate or Khmer-speaking who have very little, if any, exposure to Islamic education other than fardhu ain (basic tenets and rites). These people tend to live either in urban centers or away from their ethnic or socio-religious enclaves. For this reason, Khmerization has also led, in a sense, to secularization, although there has also been a positive Khmerization of Islam. Intermarriages with Khmer Buddhists are not uncommon. The secular stream of Islam may try to seek various kinds of social and political affiliations and connections with the wider Muslim community in the kingdom, but invariably these would be nominal and quite unrelated to Islam as a faith. Their practice of Islam tends to be lax and flexible. The secular stream is not always immediately and easily identifiable. There is also considerable overlap with the other streams, resulting in either desecularization or re-Islamization.

The Ahmadiyya Movement.

The Ahmadiyya movement is the most recent and most controversial Islamic phenomenon in Cambodia. It claims that its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a messiah sent by God to bring peace to the world. Although the attempts by the Ahmadiyya missionaries to penetrate into Cambodian Muslim society may be traced to the mid-1990s, they seem to have been able to establish a foothold in Cambodia only in 2001 when they built their mosque there. There are at present three Ahmadiyya mosques in the kingdom but, interestingly, they have all been built in the Jahed areas rather than those of the Cham Shariat.

The Ahmadiyya has been trying very hard to extend its influence through educational activities. Especially after September 11, 2001, when Islam began to be viewed negatively as a violent faith by governments and people everywhere, the Ahmadiyya movement regained its confidence as a nonviolent school of Islam. The Ahmadiyya missionaries tried to exploit to their advantage the difficult situation facing the Muslims. However, their messianic claims for their founder have placed them in permanent conflict with mainstream ulama, who consider the Ahmadiyya heretical. Despite this controversy there are Cambodian Muslims who have embraced the Ahmadiyya stream for the material benefits that it brings to them, without losing their ties with mainstream Islam.

Muslim NGOs in Cambodia.

The emergence of Muslim civil society in Cambodia is partly a consequence of the rivalry and competition among the different Muslim groups, all of whom have tried to advance their respective interests through various non-governmental organizations. Today there are over twenty Muslim NGOs in Cambodia. The most important is probably the Cambodian Islamic Center, or CIC, which is collaborating with the Office of the Highest Council of Muslim Affairs under the mufti to bring about the formal reorganization of the Muslim socio-religious community. Another major Muslim NGO is the Cambodian Muslim Development Foundation, led by Othsman Hassan, the Secretary of State for Labor, which is invariably seen as representing the interests of the traditionalist stream of Islam. The Cambodian Muslim Intellectuals Association (CMIA), on the other hand, has been accused of having Wahhabi or Salafi leanings.

The Tabligh Jamaat, though not really an NGO, has also emerged as one of the most important organized movements in Cambodia for the promotion of Islamic reawakening. Tabligh Jamaat groups from many countries visit Muslim villages, staying for up to three nights and holding various religious activities to encourage the local people to reaffirm their commitment to Islam. The movement in Cambodia, under the leadership of Imam Suleiman Ibrahim, is based at Phum Treah in Kampong Cham. Today this markaz, or center, is one of the most active in Southeast Asia. The Tabligh movement in Cambodia has also been holding its annual ijtimak (assemblies), drawing tens of thousands of people from all over Cambodia as well as several other countries. The ijtimak has become a major annual Islamic event in Cambodia. While most other Muslim NGOs in Cambodia seem to focus on the material aspects of Islamic reconstruction, the tabligh movement stands out as one of the few whose concern is overwhelmingly spiritual. The recent conversion of the Jerai people to Islam has been attributed to the pioneering dakwah activities of the tabligh movement.


It was the democratic and peaceful transformation of Cambodia into a stable modern polity that enabled the Muslim minority to assume a constructive role following the end of the civil war. The constitutional guarantees accorded to all Cambodians to practice their religion freely paved the way for the reorganization of Muslim social and religious life. The remarkable level of religious tolerance that the Buddhist majority gave to the Muslims has also been a factor in ensuring their existence as a national minority. Despite their small number and minority status, with government and royal patronage and the support and generosity of foreign Muslim governments, donors, and NGOs the Muslims in Cambodia have emerged as a visible and viable community, able to assume their citizenship responsibilities without undermining their religious identity.


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