In Cham history, I’m the one who reformed the Cham language
If you’re looking for a translation of the Islamic holy book the Koran in the Khmer or the Cham language, Cham scholar Ahmad Yahya will probably give you one of each free if you ask him.
Ahmad has spent more than two years translating the Koran into the Khmer language – and his Cham- language Koran is coming out next month.
At his residence on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake, Ahmad took time to explain his role in Cambodia as a translator, linguist and Cham-language reformer.
“The Cham language doesn't have a big enough alphabet, so I added 14 more characters and created 16 vowels. All the Cham people in Vietnam and Cambodia will read my script,” he says.
“In Cham history, I’ll be the one who reformed the Cham language. They will follow Ahmad Yahya style."
Nevertheless, Ahmad says he doesn't want to be a Muslim leader. His role is to “fill a gap” in Cambodia’s Muslim community, he says.
“I swear to God I don’t want to be a Muslim leader. My mission is to fill the gap that the Muslim community in Cambodia needs and to provide the scholarship, to air our voice, to be heard around the world."
Ahmad has three dreams for the Cham people before he dies: a Cham university, a Cham hospital and a Cham media station.
Ahmad sent letters to the Prime Minister of Kuwait and many other Muslim leaders, including Muammar Gaddafi, asking for donations to print the Koran in Khmer and Cham.
“Gaddafi is dead now. If he believes in God, he should not reject my request,” Ahmad says.
The prime minister of Kuwait, however, sponsored the translation and printing of 10,000 copies of Ahmad’s Koran translation in Cham and Khmer.
“Kuwait is very generous, and it promised us $5 million to build a university.
"We have some problems about the land, but in future we will realise our dream to have that university.”
Saudi Arabia also answered Ahmad’s letter, but he had already got the funds he wanted from Kuwait, so he did not accept any Saudi Arabian money because he did not want to misuse any funds, he said.
“They were too late,” says Ahmad, who said he would send a copy of this article to the prime minister of Kuwait.
Ahmad has been active in politics in Cambodia since he joined the CPP, serving as a member of parliament for Kampong Cham for one term, and another term as Secretary of State for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
Today, he serves as a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Social Affairs.
He’s also the president of the Cambodian Muslim Community Development Association.
Ahmad escaped into Vietnam during the Khmer Rouge era, living in Tay Ninh province from late 1974 until 1979.
“I was a farmer planting rice,” he says.
“My father was the imam in our Cham village. Around September of 1973, a friend of my brother went to a meeting with the chief of the Boray district and found out that they had a policy to kill and eliminate all Muslim leaders and scholars.
"When he came back, he told my brother to ask my father to escape from that village and live in another village. My father ran away, and then I went to school and found a way to cross the border into Vietnam.”
Two of Ahmad’s brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge.
In 1982, Ahmad arrived in the United States as a refugee, having spent a month in Indonesia, helped by the International Rescue Committee. He worked for an investment company and bought a house in Herndon, Virginia. He returned to Cambodia in 1991, but his five children are still in Vir-ginia, living and studying.
During his years in Cambodia since the early '90s, Ahmad joined various political parties and finally ending up as a member of the CPP.
“They feel I have influence, and that I have the support of people in different places, and therefore they need me,” he says.
In the early days, there was only one local group for Muslims, the Cambodia Islamic Association. Later, Ahmad formed the Cambodian Muslim Community Development Association. “We get small donations from the Cham community in the USA, from friends and NGOs in Malaysia and some NGOs in Kuwait.
"They don’t impose on me to follow what they want. This is humanitarian; we see the mosque and we want to fix it, and they want to build a school, and relief for flooding and so on and so forth.
“Our donors give from their own generosity, and we don’t need to follow any doctrine.”
Seven years ago, Ahmad wanted to get the Cham voice on the air, and now the Cham-language broadcast may be heard from 8pm to 9pm daily on 103 FM.
The radio broadcast operation received funding from the American, British and Australian embassies.
“We didn’t get a single penny from any Muslim country,” Ahmad says.
He says the popular live show has call-ins and broadcasts international and local news to the 20,000 Cham people around Phnom Penh and the estimated 350,000 Cham people in Kampong Cham (which constitute about half of all the Cham people in Cambodia).
Another activity of Ahmad’s association is to provide scholarships for young Chams who finish high school.
“Ten years ago, only about 100 Cham students graduated from high school each year. Today we have more than 300 students graduate each year. That statistic will grow every year.”
Phnom Penh Post advertising sales executive Tin Rosaly was provided a scholarship by Ahmad’s Cambodian Muslim Community Development Association.
“This year, we provided more than 625 students to study at Norton University.
Ahmad wants to help Cham people practise the orthodox Islam given by the original scholars that date back to the time of Mohammad.
In Ahmad’s thinking, true Islam is moderate.
He acknowledges the Cham traditions that date back to Champa, in what is today Vietnam, but still insists that Koranic teaching should come from the original Islamic scholars from Mecca and Medina.
“I want to make a revolut-ion in Cambodia, to change from the old tradition and for all extremists to become moderates.
"What is a moderate? In the religion of Islam they pray five times a day, and we also have to conserve the environment.
"Everybody wants to become wealthy, and we don’t want to be extremists either. We want to join the world and be moderate,” he said.
Cambodian Muslims are moderates, not extremists, Ahmad says.
“Islam teaches us not to kill people. If you kill people, you are wrong. That is your personality and that is ambitious. They hijacked the religion.”