As the warm golden sun slowly sets upon the Al Jamee al Islami mosque in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Tom Poung district, Muslim men of all ages arrive and begin ablutions, or the ritual washing of their hands and bodies, in order to purify themselves before prayer.
The 50 or so men congregate on a terrace that surrounds the inside prayer room, then position themselves on the floor to share a meaningful meal. Large, fragrant plates of food are brought in bearing home-cooked dishes made by families in the local community; lamb soup, rice with bamboo sauce and chickpea salads are just some of the combinations the men have to choose from.
Huddled in small groups around the platters, their eyes closed, the men recite the Maghrib prayer before beginning to feast, using only their right hands. Having fasted since sunrise until now, sunset, the men now take part in iftar – the breaking of the daily fast which is one of the five pillars of Islam and a central element of Ramadan.
For the 1.5 billion Muslims living around the world, Ramadan this year began on August 1, representing the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. Come August 30 and the holiday of Eid ul-Fitr, the month of fasting will have come to an end, as will the abstaining from drinking, smoking and sexual relations.
Along with fasting during Ramadan, the profession of faith, praying five times a day, giving charitably and making the pilgrimage to Mecca constitute the five pillars of Islam. From the age of 12, followers of the Islamic faith are expected to observe the fasting of Ramadan while pregnant women, the sick and the weak are not expected to take part, though the have the option of completing their obligations at a later date. Contrary to what some may think, many Muslims find solace and comfort in the 29 to 30-day fast.
“For us, Ramadan is the best month of the year,” says Nousa Lamsha, the imam of the Al Jamee al Islami mosque. “It’s a month of humanity.”
He explains that at the end of the month, those who can afford to must give a batras, or a contribution of rice. In each household, every member is required to give three kilos of rice or the equivalent in a monetary donation, which is then passed on to less fortunate Muslims living in Cambodia’s provinces. Some say requirements like this, and the fast itself, are helpful in learning to empathise with others, and in better understanding one’s self.
“I do Ramadan in order to get good health and as a means to understand what happens when people get hungry,” declares Arafat, 29, a worshipper dressed in a jubah, a traditional long black tunic, and a kepiah head covering. “It’s teaching you how to be patient and how to tolerate your pain,” he adds.
According to the Muslim faith, Friday prayer is the most important and is compulsory for men. And during Ramadan, it takes on even greater significance. Increasingly, however, the demands of modern workplaces make it difficult to complete such obligations.
Arafat, who works at Asia Platform, a private company that imports halal goods, says he is able to comply with prayer times as his company is run by Muslims. “In my work, my employers allow me to pray in a prayer room. On Fridays, I can leave my job for a few hours to go to the mosque,” he says.
Imam Nousa Lamsha says that while Muslims like Arafat are shown a decent amount of flexibility, many others are not, and employers vary greatly in their tolerance. “Some accept [that Muslim employees must pray], while some don’t. For instance, at KFC, special work schedules are arranged for Muslims,” he explains.
Tôn Huy Dunh, a French Cham born in Vietnam who is currently visiting family in Cambodia, is a Muslim, but not a practicing one, and says if one is to subscribe to a religion then they must be fully committed and able to comply with the requirements. “To me, faith is something intimate. There are people who practice but don’t respect the rules, so what’s the point? But I appreciate that Ramadan is truly a special time here – Muslims practice their religion to show their identity,” he says.
Today, Muslims represent only five percent of the Cambodian population, having been specifically suppressed by the Khmer Rouge regime. According to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, of the 700,000 Cham who lived in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge, between 100,000 and 500,000 of them lost their lives during the genocide.
Across Cambodia, Cham communities are now establishing themselves once again and new mosques are being built, bringing together not only Chams but also Muslim Malaysians, Indonesians, Bruneians, Pakistanis and Ghanaians, as was the case the day the Post visited the Al Jamee al Islami mosque.
It is the diversity as well as the shear number of believers attending this year’s Ramadan celebrations that clearly demonstrates the rejuvenation of the Muslim faith in Cambodia. This religious time of Ramadan is yet another facet of life in the Kingdom that shows a subtle yet overwhelmingly positive shift in the country’s cultural landscape.