Today may seem like any other to most people, but for Muslims around the world, it’s the start of their most important month - Ramadan, which requires the devout to fast from dawn to dusk for thirty days.
Sen Im, vice-president of the Islam Cambodia Reaksmey High School in Phnom Penh’s Chom Chao district, explains how Muslim people, known as Cham in Cambodia, are faithful to the tradition.
Normally they start the tradition at the age of 15. They don’t eat, drink anything or even have sex during the day – a big challenge over a month.
“Ramadan is a very important ceremony for us,” he says. “We have been waiting for it to come – we fast so we can focus on its principles. When the sun sets, then everybody can enjoy eating or drinking as normal.”
The Koran states that anybody who has an illness or mental issue is not required to fast. There are some other exceptions to the rule, but they are rare.
“Ramadan offers us two benefits for our religion and overall society,’’ he says. “In our religion, Muslims believe that anybody who joins in fasting will have a chance to go to the heaven. For society, this festival encourages us to learn about hunger. When we fast, we are obviously hungry and thirsty. We learn what it’s like to be hungry, and we can be inspired by this ceremony to contribute food to the poor. In the last days of Ramadan, Muslims always contribute food to the poor.”
People mostly fast at work or home, but the last day of Ramadan is a very big celebration. People gather at mosques to end the fast and have huge feasts prepared by each family that attends.
However, Sen Im fears some strict Muslims who have not studied the Koran very well, persecute Muslims who do not follow Ramadan and don’t know there are some exceptions to the rule. People are allowed take part in the fast as long as they commit to it for the next year.
Still, Cambodian Muslims believe that even swallowing saliva breaks the Ramadan rule.
“Saliva stays in our mouth and throat, and it moves in and out quite often,” Im says. “But in case we collect a lot of saliva in our mouth to swallow in intentionally, it would be wrong.”
During Ramadan, Muslim-based businesses delay the start of the working day from 8am to 9am.
The Cham once had their own country known as Champa, but it was taken over by the Vietnamese in the 1600s.
The people fled in boats to China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Others moved by land and settled in Cambodia, and the Cham now live in many provinces across the Kingdom, especially along rivers where they fish.
Their main center is at Chrang Chamreh commune, about seven kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, where there is a large community and many mosques.
Kae Mad, the director of the Islamic secondary school in Kampong Trolach district, feels regret when he sees carvings on the Bayond and Banteay Chhmar ancient temples depicting Cham soldiers fighting the Khmer in navel battles.
He learnt the Cham history from schools taught by Khmer teachers, but many Cham communities do not have books depicting their own history for the younger generation. He said that they should not forget their history despite being integrated with Khmer people.
“When Cambodia was occupied by the Vietnamese during People’s Republic of Kampuchea, we would be arrested if we talked about our Cham history or told our children that our land is in Vietnam today,” Kae Mad says.
“Now there are many Cham people studying at universities, so I believe we will one day have history books to teach our younger generations.”
Cambodia does unintentionally mark the history of the Cham people every year during the Water Festival - normally in October.
Authorities stage boat races to celebrate the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII, who defeated the Cham in an 11th century naval battle, one of many over the centuries.
During the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979, Cham were in as much danger as other Cambodians. They were forced to work as slaves, were starved, discriminated against or executed. Many Cham people died during the period.
Sos Sobb Ah, President of the Muslim Cambodia Reaksmey High School, still remembers teachers being executed, forced to eat pork and banned from praying.
“The religion was banned at the time,” he said. “After the fall of Khmer Rouge in 1979, our religion was revived before Buddhism because we can practice our religion at home or anywhere else. But the Buddhist people could not practice their religion during the fall of Khmer Rouge. They waited until they returned to their home towns and recruited Buddhist monks for the pagodas.
Kae Mad said his people today enjoy the same freedoms as Khmers. They want Muslim Cambodians to associate with Khmer people.
Cham people marry Khmer people and Cham children go to school with Khmer students, although Islam requires Muslims to read the Koran, so Kae Mad holds extra classes for them at mosques so they can study the holy book in the Arabic language.
He stresses that these religious classes won’t conflict with the Cambodian education system.
Despite such integration, Kae Mad does fear that Muslims have had their reputation damaged by Islamic terrorism. He thinks that it has affected people in his community, and has made some Khmer people feel uncomfortable.
“I just want to clarify that not all Muslims are the terrorists,’’ he says. “In the Koran, we are taught respectfulness. Murder is a sin. It tells us that we cannot even kill animals unless they are for food. Even unnecessarily cutting off tree branches is a sin.”
Mohamad Momiroh, 18, and a student at Kroch Chhmar high school in Kampong Cham, said the story of her people is interesting but she has few ways to learn about it. All she knows about her history was learnt at school.
“My parents don’t even know that the territory in Vietnam was our country and we lost it to Vietnam in the past,” she said.
While her people don’t know very much about their history, they follow Ramadan.
“I get used to it. I just do it straight way,’’ she said.” “I want to complete our duty.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]