​Islam, the ancient way, lives on in Oudong | Phnom Penh Post

Islam, the ancient way, lives on in Oudong


Publication date
05 December 1997 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Caroline Gluck

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Under the shade of trees, thousands of Muslim Chams gather in the former capital

of the Cambodian Kings, Oudong, to celebrate the birthday of the 19th Century founder

of their sect, Imam Sam. Their simple mosque, Ta San, stands alone on the hill top,

surrounded by Buddhist pagodas - many containing the ashes of Cambodia's ancient

Royal rulers.

They call themselves the Followers of Imam San, or Kaum Jama'at, the Friday Group

- as they only pray once a week, not five times a day like most other Muslims. Their

dress, too, sets them apart from other Chams - the men, head to foot in white, including

their turbans, while many of the women are in black, their checked kramas offering

the only oasis of color.

During their two-day festival, the group create beautiful trees, from which they

hang items made from sugar bread, representing spiritual and religious symbols such

as the stars and moon, elements of the Cham calendar, and the mythical water serpent,

the Naga. These are taken from the foot of a hill to their mosque where they give

thanks to their founder.

At an adjacent shrine, hangs a large picture of King Sihanouk's mother, Queen Kossamak.

It is thanks to the Royal Family that this unique group of Muslims occupy this special

spot of land in Oudong. King Ang Chan was so impressed with the work of the sect's

founder, Imam San, that he gave him the land to build the mosque in 1837.

"It's very important for us to come here, to honor our movement's leader",

says 25-year-old Adam Bin Osman, a farmer from Kampong Chhnang. "...No-one can

distract our belief from Imam Sam to follow other Islamic groups.

"This place is special; Imam San is our founder," he explains. "It's

like the Cambodian people who use Angkor Wat as their symbol."

Most Muslims in Cambodia are ethnic Chams, who first began arriving in Cambodia in

the 15th Century, when they were forced to flee their Kingdom of Champa - which once

occupied part of what is now modern-day Vietnam - by an invading Vietnamese army.

But if Chams are a minority group in Cambodia, representing under 5% of the population,

this particular sect are a minority within a minority - with just 19,000 followers

in four Cambodian provinces. Despite the urgings of their fellow Muslims, they have

resisted attempts to give up their ancient traditions and practices.

"They wanted us to abandon our marriage and funeral ceremonies, and to begin

praying many times a day. Also, they said we should abandon our Cham script and use

only Arabic," says the modern-day Imam (leader) at Ta San, Sos Rahman. "But

we are proud, even though we have only a small following, we are proud of practicing

the old tradition of Champa."

According to the Imam, the first splits with other Cham groups came more than a hundred

years ago. "The differences began in 1819 because the other groups, they wanted

to modernize their dress. This group still keeps the old traditions. I am sorry so

many others have abandoned the old ways."

He also defends the sects' practices - which many other Muslims believe to be heretical.

"Its not necessary to pray five times a day or once a week. For prayer, you

can pray or worship to God whenever you want."

The group have preserved many archaic practices, and they say this sets them apart

from other Chams. While most Chams just practice their religion, the Followers of

Imam San say they practice religion and nation together - they are proud of their

Champa heritage and their ancient links with Cambodia. They say too many of their

fellow Chams have become influenced by the Middle Eastern practices. While many Muslims

in Cambodia speak Cham, they will pray and study the Koran in Arabic or Malay. The

Followers of Imam San still use their ancient Cham language for worship.

Seventy-one year old Ou Kop, who works at the mosque, has translated manuscripts

of Koran prayers and poems into Cham. He says its an integral part of their identity.

"I want to keep this technique and traditions. I want these traditions to survive


But that's not a view endorsed by other Muslim groups who regard the sect's ancient

traditions, particularly their ancestor worship, with suspicion.

Throughout Cambodia, mosques and religious schools are being rebuilt or restored

at a frantic pace - often with funding from the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia.

During the Pol Pot years, the Chams were persecuted: half of the population died

or were killed and their mosques destroyed or desecrated. While the influx of foreign

aid is welcomed, it can often come with strings attached, according to anthropologist

William Collins, the author of a study on the Chams.

"This particular group of Chams has faced some discrimination, especially

by Middle Eastern donors.

"Many of the development improvements that these Middle Eastern and Malaysian

donors bring have been denied to these Chams. The Kuwaitis and the Gulf Emirates,

the Saudis, the Malaysians, the Indonesians... have brought a lot of development

for their co-religioners here in Cambodia. But one of the stipulations is that they

follow a rather Middle-Eastern oriented Islam," says Collins.

"These folks don't practice that kind of Islam; they practice an archaic form

of Islam with a lot of mystical elements, so they are excluded from those sorts of

benefits and opportunities."

The Imam, Sos Rahman, confirmed that his group had not received any foreign aid -

they rebuilt their mosque, badly damaged during the Khmer Rouge years, with their

own money and labor. He says that outside funding would be useful, but is adamant

that he and the other Followers of Imam San will never take foreign aid if it means

giving up their ancient traditions.

It's the issue of foreign money and the arrival of more fundamentalist forms of Islam

in Cambodia which is the potential cause of divisions within the Cham communities,

rather than any tensions with Khmer Buddhists. The Sunni Chams - many of whom work

as fishermen along the banks of the Tonle Sap, or as artisans, blacksmiths and even

butchers - live harmoniously with their Buddhist neighbors. So too, the Followers

of Imam San say that Buddhists have attended their festivals, and that they are invited

to join Buddhist ceremonies.

Many believe , however, that despite tensions over foreign aid, the Chams will be

able work out a way of balancing Islam with their own culture and traditional relations

with their fellow Cambodians. After all, they've managed to survive recent persecution,

and have preserved their traditions over the centuries.

"I hope these special practices will last forever," says Sos Rahman. "But

whether the traditional cultures and religions continue depends on whether people

appreciate them, or not.

"I regret that so many educated people in our group were killed by the Khmer

Rouge. We are ignorant peo-ple so we only know a little bit about our tradition.

But we keep it very carefully, to make sure it survives."

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