A Por Touch villager at midday prayers
CAMBODIA'S Muslim Cham community is in a state of transition as well-funded Islamic
missionary groups from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia gain converts to their Wahabi sect
at the expense of traditional Cham religious practice.
Wahabi is the version of Islam practiced by Afghanistan's extremist Taliban movement,
and the Saudi Royal Family.
Many in the Cham community are afraid that the missionary efforts to "purify"
the Cham style of Islam will mean unwanted changes in Cham culture.
They also are worried about conflict within their community between those who want
to remain true to the traditions of their forefathers, and those eager to embrace
the message from the Arabian peninsular.
Over the centuries the Cham - called by the scholar Paul Mus "the lost children
of Indian culture" - have shown their resilience as a community. Although enduring
conquest and genocide, they have managed to maintain their identity as a people and
keep age-old traditions alive.
The roots of Cambodia's Cham extend back to the ancient Hindu-Buddhist Kingdom of
Champa in what is now central Vietnam. For centuries the Cham were a major regional
force, having sacked Angkor in 1178 and Hanoi in 1371. But eventually their power
waned and over the next two centuries thousands of Cham migrated or fled to Khmer
In an 1874 French census the Cham population in Cambodia was estimated at 26,000.
They were concentrated in villages along the Tonle Sap and Mekong and near the coast
where they specialized in fishing, weaving, and butchering. By 1975 the Cham population
had grown to 250,000.
Between 1975 and 1979 during the rule of the Khmer Rouge it is estimated that 90,000
Cham - about one third of the community - died. The Cambodia scholar Ben Kiernan
says the Cham community suffered treatment even harsher than the general Cambodian
population under the KR regime because of their race and Muslim faith.
After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Cham survivors made their way back to their
home villages and set about rebuilding their lives and community.
Although the Cham welcome outside help to resurrect their community, some voice fears
that accepting help from abroad will jeopardize Cham culture and traditions.
The Nourussalam Mosque in Por Touch village, Kandal Province
Cham elders say Islamic missionaries from the Arabian peninsular not only bring aid,
but also religious change and community dissension.
Abdul Karim, a teacher at the Nourussalam Mosque, in Kandal Province's Por Touch
village, said Kuwaiti and Saudi Islamic organizations are causing divisions in Cham
communities where they use money and gifts to persuade people to adopt their style
"The Prophet Mohammad did not tell Islamic leaders to use money to gain followers,"
His village was last visited by the Kuwaiti missionaries in mid-June.
"The Kuwaitis said they practiced the right way, but we stood firm and told
them our way was correct as well. We don't need new ways; we need only the truth,"
He added that converts to the Kuwaiti/Saudi-influenced Wahabi sect must celebrate
too many holidays each year. "For the people here it is not acceptable. They
need that time to find food to feed their families. Mohammad did not tell us to have
so many holidays," he said.
"How they act is not against Islamic rule; how we act is not against the rules.
Both sides have their own justifications for how they practice."
Karim said the Wa-habi style of Islam is very strict compared to the traditional
The sect was founded by Mohammad Ibn Abdal Wahah near Riyadh in the early eighteenth
century. It is considered an uncompromising form of Islam which interprets the Koran
in the strictest form.
Wahabism led to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The most extreme
political expression of the Wahabi sect is the Taliban movement.
Yak Kob, deputy chairman of Por Touch village's mosque committee, has also rejected
the message of the Wahabi.
"In Cambodia Allah gave us rice to eat, but he told other countries to eat bread,"
Both fill up your stomach. When [the missionaries] visit our village they tell us
to eat bread. This we do not accept."
Kob said the Cham who convert to Wahabi receive many gifts from the missionaries.
And though his community chooses not to follow the practices of the missionaries,
he hoped they will provide a small amount of assistance.
"But we will still recognize that they are Muslims like us, even if they choose
not to help us," he said.
Kob said his community does not want to change practices they have followed for hundreds
of years and still believe strongly. But other Cham communities are converting, he
said, because they are now worried they are not following the teachings of the Prophet.
Kob said the Prophet Mohammed, when alive, tailored his sermons for the differing
needs of the communities where he preached "but the principle was always the
Some orphans from Por Touch now live and study at a Kuwaiti-sponsored orphanage center
in Chaom Chao.
"I am not worried that the young people being trained [at the center] will
make a religious revolution. They still understand the truth," said Karim.
Ny Talib, Imam of the mosque, said he does not believe the new generation will abandon
their Shafi practices.
"I am not worried that the Kuwaitis will destroy our village's traditions,"
"They want to gain support for their religion so they give money.
Girls in Por Touch village
"But I wonder ... if the Kuwaitis did not give money, would they get followers?"
Spearheading the Kuwaiti Wahabi missionary and aid effort in Cambodia is the Islamic
Center of Phnom Penh in Cham Chao. The center houses and educates some 400 Cham boys
between the ages of 10 to 16.
Built in 1995 and funded by the Kuwaiti-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society
(RIHS), the center operates as an orphanage and school.
Most of the boys are not really orphans, as their mothers are still alive, but in
Islamic culture children are considered orphans when their father dies.
RIHS has constructed six other Islamic centers around Cambodia where they educate
a further 1,500 Cham children and teach the children in the ways of the Wahabi sect.
Core funding for RIHS come from the Kuwaiti Government and business community.
A teacher of Islamic studies and spokesperson at the center, Abdulbary Yahya, said
the organization's main aim is to help orphans and Cambodia's Islamic community in
But "purifying" Cham Islamic practice of the "many influences from
Buddhism" is also a key goal of the society, said Yahya.
Yahya said RIHS now strongly influences about 40 percent of the Cham community and
they expect that figure to rise to 80 percent within two or three years.
Since 1995 the Center has sent some 80 Cham students to Medina and Riyadh in Saudi
Arabia for advanced studies in Arabic, the Koran, and Islamic law. They will return
to Cambodia, said Yahya, with a clear understanding of "real" Islam - Wahabi.
A Saudi-based Wahabi missionary group, the Om Al Qura Charity Organization - which
does similar work as the RIHS in Cambodia - refused to speak to the Post about the
organization's work with the Cham.
The President of Cambodia's Islamic Association, Math Ly, said that as a leader of
the Islamic community he welcomes all Islamic groups in Cambodia.
He acknowledged that Wahabi influence was likely to increase among the Cham, but
not at the rates suggested by the RIHS.
Ly said he was surprised to hear Cham villagers complaining that the amount of assistance
they received from the RIHS depended on their willingness to adopt Wahabi ways. He
said he would investigate the matter further.
Sen Madshen, 72, a member of the mosque committee at Phnom Penh's Chruoy Changvar
Krao village, said most Cham feel their Islamic practices are just as "real"
as what the Kuwaitis and Saudis are preaching.
"We are Shafi and follow strictly the rules of Islam," he said.
Madshen said no one at his mosque feels the need to join the Kuwaitis, but acknowledged
that some of the Cham community are tempted by offers of money and new mosques.
"Some Akem (chiefs of mosques) get salaries from the Wahabi. So those mosques
will change from Shafi to Wahabi style," he said.
Madshen said the missionaries from the Arabian peninsular are rich and want more
"They build beautiful mosques, schools, teachers' houses and provide some money
to their new followers," he said.
But not all Cham are tempted, said Madshen.
"Every Friday you can go to see the mosque at [Highway Five's] Kilometer Seven,"
he said. "It is a beautiful mosque but only a few go there to pray. Former members
of that mosque now attend prayers at Shafi mosques at Kilometers Eight and Nine."
Madshen said although the Shafi sect is still strong, he does worry about changes
taking place in the Cham community and the disputes that have erupted between followers
of the Shafi and the Wahabi sects.
"We worry about the money used to persuade Cham to change from the traditional
style. I will not take their money if we must follow their ways - even if they give
us 10 million dollars," he said.
The Cham Under-Secretary of State for the Ministry of Cults and Religions (MoCR),
Ismael Osman, is enthusiastic about the Kuwaiti and Saudi missionary efforts in Cambodia.
Osman said the Arabian peninsular missionaries are helping to develop the Cham community,
and played down the fears of Cham elders that their traditions might be at risk.
"[Cham beliefs] come from the same Allah and Prophet Mohammed [as the Wahabi],"
" The difference is just in the style of worship. We try to unite them - to
get them to understand each other and not cause any disputes," he said.
When asked about claims by the RIHS that they now strongly influence 40 per cent
of the Cham community and expect that figure to rise to 80 per cent in the next few
years, Osman said: "These words will cause divisions."
He said the Ministry understands that Wahabi in Cambodia have increased by about
10 or 15 percent, but said the society must not make claims like this because they
can cause religious divisions.
"The reality in Cambodia is that there are no divisions in the Islam religion.
If you write about this then the world will think the Cham in Cambodia have divisions
and the Government does not want to see that.
We recognize that small disputes have occurred, but we have solved the problem,"
He said he would prefer the media to inform him directly rather than publish stories
if they hear of disputes erupting in Cham communities.
Osman said in recent years some 300 Cham students from Cambodia had been sent abroad
to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan and other Islamic countries for education.
Abupakar Mohammad Sales, President of the Cambodian Islamic Youth Association - a
group which hopes to receive funding from the RIHS soon - also played down divisions
within the Cham community.
He said many of the Shafi sect refuse to accept assistance from the Kuwaiti and Saudi
groups because they had heard rumors that there is something wrong with Wahabi practices.
Sales acknowledged that Cham who convert to Wahabi receive more aid than those who
cling to their traditions.
"Naturally; religion is like politics," he said. "Those who follow
us will receive benefits because this is the aim of one who converts to something."
But Sales warned of the potential for "big conflict" if the Ahmadiyya,
a London-based Islamic sect which began seeking Cham converts in Cambodia in 1995,
increases in strength.
He said Ahmadiyya are not recognized by Islamic authorities in Saudi Arabia as being
part of Islam, but the sect received MoCR permission to operate in Cambodia in 1995.
Unlike other Muslim sects, which believe that Mohammad was the last Prophet, the
Ahmadiyya believe that an Indian Islamic cleric, Ahmad, was actually the last Prophet.
Sales said the Ahmadiyya are targeting followers of the Cham Imamsan sect for conversion
as they are the poorest and least orthodox of Cambodia's Islamic community.
Mohammad Ali Moser, 63, Imam of the Nourussalam Mosque at Kilometer Seven on Highway
Five, said Cham believers of the "old style" (Shafi sect) do not follow
true Islamic teachings.
His mosque was built by the Kuwaitis in 1995 after the RIHS were assured that worshippers
at the mosque would follow practices close to the Wahabi style. He hopes in the future
more Cham will convert to the "new style", whose followers, he thought,
now comprise about 50 per cent of Cambodia's Cham community.
Moser said he still considers himself a Shafi Muslim - just one who now follows the
"If the [Shafi] understand clearly, they will follow. We will not be able to
reunite the Islamic community of Cambodia unless we are educated. Now about 85 per
cent are uneducated," he said.
"If we follow their style [Wahabi] they help us. If other mosques do not then
they will have further negotiations [with the Kuwaiti organization].
"The Kuwaitis and Saudis want us to follow the real Islamic rules. Their aim
is not for now, but for the future. They want Allah to provide us with a place in
paradise," said Moser.