Cambodia's heterodox Islamic sect, the Imam San, commemorates its
gilded past each year with the Mawlut ceremony - a practice that also
puts it at odds with orthodox Muslims
Photo by: BRENDAN BRADY
Imam San muslims pray at Udong last Sunday during the Mawlut ceremony to mark the birth of their namesake spiritual leader.
An affront to the 'muslim' faithful
Perhaps no tradition of the Imam San is more offensive to critics than praying only once a week, on Friday, while most other adherents pray five times each day. And none is more bizarre than the Chai ceremony, in which they dance in a possessed state while sometimes carrying prop weapons. This year’s Mawlut was attended by prominent Cham leaders outside the Imam San community, including Ahmed Yahya, president of the Cambodian Islamic Development Association and a recently named government advisor. “These people have to be educated and need contact with Muslims overseas to change their ways,” said Ahmed Yahya, who has aggressively solicited foreign funding for Cambodian Muslims to continue their studies locally and abroad. “We don’t want them to be isolated from the others, so they can change their ways. For the old people, change is difficult; for the young people, if they get a good education, maybe they can change,” he said. “But it is difficult for us to say they are wrong. We don’t want to hurt them.”
THOUSANDS of Imam San Muslims throughout Cambodia gathered in Udong last week to venerate their namesake spiritual leader in a colorful ceremony called the Mawlut, which reaffirms their privileged heritage as well as their isolation from the rest of the Kingdom's Islamic community.
But this long-maintained separation may now be under threat by international Islamic influences that have swept through the rest of Cambodia's Muslim communities in the last few decades and made them, according to anthropologist Bjorn Blengsli, the fastest-changing Islamic community in the world.
Imam San was perhaps Cambodia's most privileged Muslim in his day. Legend has it that in the 19th century, King Ang Duong encountered him meditating in one of the royal forests and was so captivated by the stranger's spirituality that he gave him land in the royal capital.
Now, on the occasion of Imam San's birthday, the sect that emerged from his early followers gathers annually at his grave on Phnom Katera, next to the Khmer kings' tombs, to honor his memory through prayer and gifts.
"This ceremony is to remember the relationship between the Imam San and the Khmer king. It's a reminder of the King's support for us," Kai Tam, the sect's leader, or ong khnuur, told the Post.
The Imam San are the only group to remain outside the domain of the Mufti, the government-sanctioned leader of Islam in Cambodia - a unique status that was reaffirmed in 1988 by the Ministry of Cults and Religion. Successive ong khnuur have held the prestigious title of Okhna, originally awarded by the palace.
Replenishing the community
Cambodia's estimated 30,000 Imam San live in only a few dozen villages in Kompong Chhnang, Kandal, Pursat and Battambang provinces.
Geography has reinforced the sect's isolation, and the Mawlut has become an increasingly important opportunity to forge friendships and - more essential to the survival of the community - marriages.
"I am very happy because this is a chance to meet our people from other parts of the country. This is the occasion for our children to find someone to marry," said 32-year-old Mar Yam, from a village in Kandal province, as she stood beside her two daughters.
Abu Tamal, 72, from O'Russei village in Kompong Chhnang province, said: "It's the only time every year we can meet like this. It's a time to introduce lasting relationships, friendships and marriages."
The day's use for matchmaking may have new importance as the sect's long-standing isolation is challenged by pressures from Cambodia's larger Islamic community.
A community unto itself
The ong khnuur reflected positively on the ties between the Imam San sect and the rest of Cambodia's Muslims. Aside from strengthening relationships within the community, the sect's current leader said on the day of this year's Mawlut that he was "very happy to show our community to other Muslim communities in Cambodia and around the world".
But others see it as the leading obstacle facing the group, as the most discerning critics of the Imam San sect may come from within the faith - an issue overlooked by the minister of religion, Min Khin, when he ensured pilgrims gathered at the Mawlut: "The government always allows all people to believe what they think, if it's good and suitable."
Ek Bourt, 58, from O'Roussei village, said the minister forgot that "other Muslims discriminate against us since we practice our religion in a different way", adding "the fact that we are especially poor also doesn't help our image".
"I'm afraid the next generation might lose our culture and customs ... and become another kind of Muslim, like the Muslims who pray five times a day."
Gilded past, somber future
The pilgrimage to Udong's Phnom Katera - a site of great importance for Khmers' Buddhist and royal traditions - highlights what other Muslims see as the Imam San community's unholy cultural proximity to Khmer society.
Conspicuously, the name of the mosque on Phnom Katera, "The Islam Cham Temple of Imam San", which overlooks the rice fields between the former capital and Phnom Penh, is written in Khmer, Cham and English, but not Arabic
Descendants of the Cham Bani from Vietnam who converted to Islam in the 17th century, Imam Sans view themselves as devoted followers of the Muslim faith even as they maintain religious and cultural practices that are thought by many other Muslims to be at odds with Islamic teaching.
By sticking to their particular brand of Islam - blending an allegiance to the Koran with other religious customs - the Imam San are seen by other Muslims as impure.
In fact, about 85 percent of Muslims consider the Imam San to be so heterodox as not to qualify as Muslims, according to a recent study by Cham expert Blengsli.
The Imam San have become further estranged by resisting the wave of Islamic revivalism subscribed to by the majority of Cambodia's nearly 350,000 Muslims. In the past, they have rejected donations from overseas Islamic groups and resisted pressure from foreign preachers, whose requests that they convert to orthodox Islam are backed by offers to finance new mosques.
Researchers say the sect's distinct identity has gradually weakened in recent years.
In particular, their young who are sent to Phnom Penh to continue their studies face pressure from other Cham communities to convert to orthodox Islam and are also drawn away by their enticing brushes with modernity.
"They are losing numbers to other Muslim sects, like the Salafi, Jamaat Tabligh and Ahmadiyya sects, because these other groups have international standing and the money that comes with it," explained anthropologist Alberto Perez, whose research has focused on Chams. "And they come with a strong message: ‘Your Islam is wrong ... I come from Saudi Arabia, so I should know.' And that's influential."
Some Imam San villages have begun praying five times a day as a compromise to foreign donors who have financed new mosques, according to Emiko Stock, a French anthropologist who has studied Chams in Kompong Chhnang for eight years.
Despite these trends, 67-year-old Ma Joot, from Srae Sa village in Samakki Meachey district in Kompong Chhnang province, spoke avidly of the communal strength offered by the Mawlut ceremony.
"This is a place of miracles, a place to release curses and address problems."