Islam in Cambodia
|Islam by country|
Islam is the religion of a majority of the Cham (also called Khmer Islam) and Malay minorities in Cambodia. According to Po Dharma, there were 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims in Cambodia as late as 1975. Persecution under the Khmer Rouge eroded their numbers, however, and by the late 1980s they probably had not regained their former strength. In 2009, the Pew Research Center estimated that 1.6% of the population, or 236,000 people were Muslims. Like other Muslim Cham people, those in Cambodia are Shia Muslims of the Imami/ Twelver denomination Po Dharma divides the Muslim Cham in Cambodia into a traditionalist branch and an orthodox branch. (see Islam in Vietnam)
Background of Early Islam
The Cham Muslims trace their ancestry to one of the father-in-laws of Prophet Muhammad, who is Jahsh, the father of Zaynab bint Jahsh. It was in the wake of many Sahabas who arrived in Indo-Chin in 617-18 from Abyssinia by sea route.
The Cham have their own mosques. In 1962 there were about 100 mosques in the country. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Muslims in Cambodia formed a unified community under the authority of four religious dignitaries—mupti, tuk kalih, raja kalik, and tvan pake. A council of notables in Cham villages consisted of one hakem and several katip, bilal, and labi. The four high dignitaries and the hakem were exempt from personal taxes, and they were invited to take part in major national ceremonies at the royal court. When Cambodia became independent, the Islamic community was placed under the control of a five-member council that represented the community in official functions and in contacts with other Islamic communities. Each Muslim community has a hakem who leads the community and the mosque, an imam who leads the prayers, and a bilal who calls the faithful to the daily prayers. The peninsula of Chrouy Changvar near Phnom Penh is considered the spiritual center of the Cham, and several high Muslim officials reside there. Each year some of the Cham go to study the Qur'an at Kelantan in Malaysia, and some go on to study in, or make a pilgrimage to, Mecca. According to figures from the late 1950s, about 7 percent of the Cham had completed the pilgrimage and could wear the fez or turban as a sign of their accomplishment.
The traditional Cham retain many ancient Muslim or pre-Muslim traditions and rites. They consider Allah as the all-powerful God, but they also recognize other non-Islamic practices. They are closer, in many respects, to the Cham of coastal Vietnam than they are to other Muslims. The religious dignitaries of the traditional Cham (and of the Cham in Vietnam) dress completely in white, and they shave their heads and faces. These Cham believe in the power of magic and sorcery, and they attach great importance to magical practices in order to avoid sickness or slow or violent death. They believe in many supernatural powers. Although they show little interest in the pilgrimage to Mecca and in the five daily prayers, the traditional Cham do celebrate many Muslim festivals and rituals.
The orthodox Cham have adopted a more conformist religion largely because of their close contacts with, and intermarriages with, the Malay community. In fact, the orthodox Cham have adopted Malay customs and family organization, and many speak the Malay language. They send pilgrims to Mecca, and they attend international Islamic conferences. Conflicts between the traditional and the orthodox Cham increased between 1954 and 1975. For example, the two groups polarized the population of one village, and each group eventually had its own mosque and separate religious organization.
During the Khmer Rouge era, all religions, including both Buddhism and Islam were persecuted. According to Cham sources, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era, many others were desecrated, and Muslims were not allowed to worship. Muslims were forced to eat pork and were murdered when they refused. Whole Cham villages were exterminated. Chams were not permitted to speak their language. Cham children were taken away from their parents and raised as Khmers.
Orders given by the Khmer Rouge government in 1979 stated: "The Cham nation no longer exists on Kampuchean soil belonging to the Khmer. Accordingly, Cham nationality, language, customs and religious beliefs must be immediately abolished. Those who fail to obey this order will suffer all the consequences for their acts of opposition to Angkar [the Khmer Rouge high command]." 
After the end of Khmer Rouge rule all religions were restored. Vickery believes that about 185,000 Cham lived in Cambodia in the mid-1980s and that the number of mosques was about the same then as it was before 1975. In early 1988, there were six mosques in the Phnom Penh area and a "good number" in the provinces, but Muslim dignitaries were thinly stretched; only 20 of the previous 113 most prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia survived the Khmer Rouge period.
Today, Muslims are able to practice their religion normally and out in the open. This commenced in the People Republic of Kampuchea era where religions were restored and allowed to be practiced again. The Chams also enjoy democratic rights like all Khmer citizens, with the right to vote and be elected as politicians.
- Miller, Tracy, ed. (October 2009), Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population (PDF), Pew Research Center, p. 31, archived from the original (PDF) on December 24, 2009, retrieved 2009-10-08
- T.W.Arnold, 1913/1997, The Preaching of Islam, Delhi: L.P. Publications, p. 294 n.2.
- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.
- De Féo, Agnès (2005). Le royaume bouddhique face au renouveau islamique. Cahiers de l'Orient n°78, Paris.
- De Féo, Agnès (2005). Les Chams Sot, dissidence de l'islam cambodgien. Cahiers de l'Orient n°78, Paris.