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
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."