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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The syncretic world of the 'pure Cham'

The syncretic world of the 'pure Cham'

Few outsiders have witnessed the world of the Cham Sot, a Cham minority group of about 30,000 to 40,000.

One of the minority groups within the larger Cambodian Muslim community is referred to in some circles as Cham Sot. Their link to ancient Champa imbues them with pride in their "pure Cham" origins, but they are also looked down on by other Muslims for some of their beliefs.

They have largely resisted the trend of Islamic revivalism which has won over the majority of Cambodia's conservatively estimated 600,000 Muslims and they usually reject donations from overseas Islamic NGOs.

Beginning September 16, however, representatives from the Cham Sot community used money from the US embassy to organize a seven-day seminar on human rights that included a workshop to discuss their own culture. It was an opportunity for Cham Sot to share their beliefs and customs with each other and with outsiders, including representatives of the US and Australian embassies.

Unique origins
The estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Cham Sot are spread out across 39 villages in the provinces of Kampong Chhnang, Kandal, Pursat and Battambang. They live on lands that they say were granted to them by the King Ang Duong in the middle of the 19th century. Unlike the first Cham refugees from Champa, the ancient Hinduized kingdom defeated by the Vietnamese, the Cham Sot migrated to Cambodia after having converted to Islam. Other Muslims had contact with Malay traders and converted to the châfiit school of Islam practiced in other parts of Southeast Asia, but the Cham Sot held true to their ways. From early on, they refused foreign influences and remained faithful to their syncretized Islam from Champa.

Orthodox Cham, who pray five times a day and have opted gradually for a purified Islam, often marginalize Cham Sot for their religious practices. In history books, the Cham Sot are sometimes called Jahed (the pious ascetic), but they never use that term because of its similarity with the Malay word jahat (nasty or evil) used by their detractors. However, the Cham Sot, descendants of the Cham Bani from Vietnam who converted to Islam in the 17th century, view themselves as devoted adherents of the Muslim faith.

The 'wrong' rites
The main distinction between the Cham Sot and the other Chams in Cambodia lies in their interpretation of Islamic obligations. The Cham Sot make it a point of honor to pray only once a week, on Friday. They call themselves kaum jumaat, or "Friday's group."

The center of the Cham Sot community is O' Russey village, located about 40 kms north of Phnom Penh near the ancient capital of Oudong in Kampong Chhnang province. It's here where village chief, ong nur Kai Tam lives. In 1997, then-King Norodom Sihanouk awarded ong nur Tam the prestigious title of Okhna. Ong nur Tam declares his desire to pray only on Friday, according to tradition, and to reject pressure from foreign preachers. Arab, Pakistani, Thai and Malaysian proselytes came to woo them, to convert them to the five canonical prayers, but had to admit defeat when faced with the villagers' silence. Preachers regularly offer to finance the construction of a new mosque on condition that the village converts itself to the practice of praying five times a day. "We would like to accept their money, but we do not want to change our traditions," sighs ong nur Tam.

The Cham Sot see the adoption of the regular practices of Islam as a betrayal of their ancestors' traditions and talk about it with some derision. "If everybody prays five times a day, who's going to keep the tradition of the prayer once a week?" is a common utterance.

Their Friday prayer is quite long and intoned by about 50 pious men dressed all in white (shirt, sarong and turban leaving the top of the head exposed). Old men sit in the back of the mosque and are excused from prostration. Young people, those who work in towns, and those dressed in western-style clothes, sit outside the mosque in the square, where they can hear and participate in the prayer without going inside.

In fact, a ceremony, or tapat, is required to pray inside the sangkik (mosque). The initiates are then called ong chowe and must adopt an irreproachable moral behavior by accepting five commitments: devote their life to adoring Allah and his prophet Mohammad, and never drink alcohol, commit adultery, gamble or steal.

Another variation with regular Islam is the practice of circumcision, or khotan (from Arabic khitân). The Cham Sot rite involves a small incision of the foreskin for boys aged 15. This symbolic operation draws a few droplets of blood and seals the entrance of the young man into Islam.

The dawn-to-dusk fasting ceremony of Ramowan (known as Ramadan in other parts of the world) is adhered to for 30 days by the O'Russey villagers, while the consumption of pork and alcohol is always forbidden. However, the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, is not really recommended. "Why should we go to Mecca, we just have to meditate that we are there," is the justification given by one member of the community.

Only three of the ordained ong chowe of O' Russey have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. They traveled together on a trip organized by Sos Kamry, the grand mufti (spiritual leader) of Cambodia, and which was financed by an association headed by Senator Vann Math of Phnom Penh.

Cham politicians have indicated their desire to "convert" the Cham Sot to orthodox Islam. But when questioned, the three Chams Sot pilgrims maintained they went to Mecca on their own initiative. Despite the fact that the pilgrims must have seen thousands of Muslims praying five times a day in Mecca, they returned determined not to contradict their tradition or lose face, telling their communities that, like them, Muslims in Mecca pray only on Fridays.

Modified law
The Cham Sot like to prove they are really Muslims by adhering to Islamic law. For offenses that are not covered by Cambodian criminal law, ong nur Tam serves as an arbitrator, inspired by the sharia but with certain local changes. With regard to sexual relations out of wedlock (likhas kayas), Tam reports that offenders are punished according to the hadd (legal punishment) stipulated in the Koran: one hundred lashes with a rattan stick. The Cham Sot, however, have altered this punishment by dividing the rattan stick into ten thin strips, allowing the culprit to be flogged only ten times. The pilal, the man who is in charge of the whipping, confides that he flogs very lightly, holding another stick under his armpit to restrict his swing. If the girl involved is pregnant, he doesn't touch her but gives the boy 20 lashes.

If an ong chowe has a love affair with a woman, he is made to ride on a white buffalo three times around a mosque with a chicken's nest on his head. The punishment for drunkenness is to carry water to a mosque for seven Fridays.

While influenced by Islamic law, the Cham Sot have conceded some modifications to their traditions from Champa. Thus, they are much closer to a Koranic ideal than the Muslim Chams from Vietnam, or Bani, who drink alcohol and contravene the taboo on pork when they are outside their village.

Other influences
Certain Cham Sot retain various beliefs in mysticism while elements of Hinduism and Buddism have also influenced their faith.

On Phnom Katera, next to the Khmer kings' tombs in Oudong, stands a white mosque with blue shutters.

No Arabic writing indicates that it is a mosque. Its name is painted on the front in three languages, Khmer, Cham and English: "The Islam Cham Temple of Imam San." In the 19th century, Imam San was considered the master of the hill and is said to have undertaken many good deeds.

Today he is venerated and the community takes their name from his: Kaum Imam San (with Kaum being the Malay word for "group", rather than the Khmer for "commune"). In this way, he could be compared to the eponymous saints of the Sufi orders which gave their name to their brotherhood. Like the Sufi founder saints, his tomb, near the mosque, is the subject of an annual pilgrimage on his birthday. On this occasion, called Maulot (from mawlid, the Prophet's birthday), Cham Sot from all four provinces gather to honor the memory of the ancestors and offer cakes which women have made.

A few elders go to Phnom Katera for devotional retreats and sometimes live for several years in wooden huts near the tomb. Fewer than ten men and women stay there as recluses to train for the "interior purification."

They dress in white to symbolize their purity. A dark skirt or a colored krama worn improperly would bring a fierce reprimand from ong nur Tam if he should learn about it.

Ong Leb, 79, is a scribe and chief of this small group of hermits. He writes amulets in Cham and in an indecipherable writing reminiscent of the Arabic language. Besides the usual prayers on Friday, Ong Leb recommends praying in one's heart during the rest of the week. "We pray in our heart facing Mecca. We have Allah in the heart just like Buddhists have Buddha in theirs. The heart is enough, [there is] no need to make the gesture of praying".

The allusion to Buddhism and the retreat on Phnom Katera are significant, as they highlight the Cham Sot's long co-habitation with the Khmer community and are often criticized by purist Muslims.

Furthermore, the Cham Sot are the only Cambodian Chams to greet each other with the sampeah, or palms-together gesture of the Theravada Buddhists. Others are reluctant to adopt this custom, saying they don't want to pledge allegiance to Buddha.

Other beliefs that have become part of the Cham Sot faith are the subject of unanimous condemnation from orthodox Muslims. Among these are the ceremonies of possession (chai) portraying the neak chai, or spirits of the ancient kings of Champa, which correspond closely with the Khmer animist worship of the neak ta, or ancestor spirits. In other cases, minor deities are said to become incarnate in a person's body, often a woman, during healing ceremonies which are still carried out today.

Various aspects of Hinduism also manifest themselves in the Cham Sot culture, especially the linga-yoni symbolism of male and female forces found in Shivaism. During takoksang pahao, or house- warming celebration, the washing of pillars is compared with the ablutions of the Shiva's linga, or phallic symbol. In many ceremonies, such as weddings, the offerings of betel leaves and money are used to juxtapose the linga of Shiva with the yoni of Uma, the wife of Shiva.

Rolled white banknotes represent the male dynamic and are placed into betel leaves that symbolize the yoni. Together, the betel and money symbolize fertility. Once the offering has been made, the money is removed and the betel leaves and nuts chewed, forming a red liquid that represents the blood shared by a family.

So, the Cham Sot integrate a double legacy, their Cham tradition and that of Islam. They associate the various customs, or adat, with the religion, without experiencing the paradox felt by many other Muslims who reject today their Cham identity to follow a purely Muslim identity.

Orthodox inroads
Despite the strong sense of identity most Cham Sot feel, the number of villages is being reduced little by little, as some people convert to orthodox Islam. Young people are sent to Phnom Penh to continue their studies and are confronted not only with the pressure from other Cham communities, but also with experiences of modernity which challenge the traditions and mores of their native village. They, in turn, are influencing their families and communities, with some conversions to orthodox Islam taking place. What foreign influences could not do with their preachers and money, may be achieved by young Cham Sot returning home from the big city.

When discussing this point, ong nur Tam suddenly looks very vulnerable. However, he looks to the dozen young men ordained as ong chowe last year and remains optimistic about the future of the Cham Sot faith.

"I can't ban nor impose anything," he says. "But I hope that young people will keep the tradition".

Agnès De Féo is a French journalist who has conducted research on Cham communities in Cambodia and Vietnam. Pictures and articles can be found on her Web Site:



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