Cham Muslims of Phnom Penh

By Antonio Graceffo

A Look at Cambodia's Islamic Minority

Followers of the religion of Islam make up less than one percent of the predominantly Buddhist population of Cambodia. Roughly 80% of Cambodia's Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic group.

"There are two types of Muslims in Cambodia." Said Yurath Muhammad, president of the Islamic National Movement for Democracy of Cambodia. The two groups include: Sunni, traditional Muslims, along the lines of Arab Muslims, who pray five times per day, and Fojihed Muslims, who follow an ancient Cham interpretation of the religion. "They only pray once a week. They speak Cham, and keep the old Cham traditions." Yurath Muhammad went on the explain that the Fojihed maintained many of their pre-Muslim beliefs, particularly in the super-natural, and magical powers. "They believe that they can pray, and achieve great internal power, called Chai. It is similar to what Kung Fu people call Chi."

"We begin learning Islam in our village when we are small. Our parents and the village Mullah are our first teachers." Said Ismail Taib, a twenty-four year old Cham from the large ethnic community, located at kilometers seven, eight, and nine, outside of Phnom Penh. The Koran which is being used in Cambodia is written in Arabic. In interviewing various Chams it seemed that the ability to read and interpret Arabic was one of the most important issues in deciding who was qualified to be a Mullah. "Anyone who could read Arabic could be a Mullah." Said Ismail. "Later, if we wish to continue our studies, we can leave the village and go to a big school in Phnom Penh or Kampong Cham.

A few lucky ones will get to go abroad and study."

Although Yurath Muhammad, and many members of his organization were US citizens, Malaysia seemed to be the leading influence on Muslims in Cambodia, and was one of the leading places that young Muslims hoped to study.

"The Koran cannot be translated in Cham, because the Cham have no writing system." Explained Yurath Muhammad. "But we are currently translating the Koran into Khmer language. Of course, the translation is going slowly, because we have no funds. So, we can only do a few pages at a time." Yurath Muhammad asked me if there were some way I could find funds to support his translation of the Koran.

Islamic education and education in general is one of the main focuses of Yurath Muhammad's work as a community leader. "We need schools and volunteer teachers." He told me as we strolled through the Muslim market at kilometer eight. "All of this food is Halal." He told me, proudly. At a stall, I purchased a pudding, made of gelatinous coconut oil. "No bacon here." He joked. "But I think you will like this one."

After taking a small bite, to see if Yurath Muhammad was putting me on, I devoured the tasty pastry in a single gulp.

"I told you." He laughed, as I ordered three more. "You see, Cham people never lie to you."

The market was a typical outdoor market, seen all through Asia, with various foods and goods being sold from stalls. But the primary difference was that the vendors were almost all women, who wore the beautiful, colored head wrappings of the Muslim faith. Although one didn't see the all-black hoods and dresses of fundamentalist countries, the Cham wore traditional clothing more often than any other residents of Phnom Penh. Many of the young Cham boys were clad in sarongs and head scarves. Older men wore a small hat, or fez, and many sported a beard. But like religious devotion in western countries, families held varying degrees of obedience to the traditions, making many Cham indistinguishable from members of other religions. Yurath Muhammad, for example did not go with his head covered. And many teenage boys were wearing jeans and T-shirts with images of their favorite Taiwanese pop-group, F-4.

We visited a state run school, where all of the students were Cham, but where the curriculum followed the same guidelines as Khmer schools. "When the children finish here, they walk across the street to the Madrasa, and continue studying in the evening." Explained Yurath Muhammad. "We teach them about Islam and Arabic language. But we also want them to learn English and French. So much depends on where the volunteer teachers are from. Our last teacher was able to teach the children French. Some can teach Chinese and Japanese. Right now, we have no teachers at all."

Once again, Yurath Muhammad made his plea. "When you write this story, please ask teachers to come here and help up. And ask rich Muslims in America to send money, so we can build schools, buy computers, and teach our children."

Nearby, the Islamic vocational school was a rundown cinderblock building, standing alone in an open field, which had flooded during the night. Chickens and goats ran freely through the school building. "I would like to show you the school." Said Yurath Muhammad, "But there is too much water. Anyway, we have a few computers there and a sewing class.

In the Cham community education is available to both boys and girls. "We don't discriminate." Said Yurath Muhammad. "But the boys and the girls come at different times of day."

Yurath Muhammad took me on a tour of the mosque, connected with the madrasa. "This building was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge." He said. "It took the people until 1987 to be able to rebuild it, and open the doors again."

As with every other aspect of life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge period, lasting from 1975-1979 left an indelible mark upon the society. It is estimated that, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period. Under the regime, Muslims were prohibited from worshiping. Today, however, Islam has been given the same freedom as Buddhism. In early 1988, there were only six mosques left in the Phnom Penh, and of the 113 most prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia, only 20 survived the Khmer Rouge period. (

Our final stop was at a huge feast prepared by a local Cham community. "Because Ramadan is coming soon, we like to have a big feast in preparation." Yurath Muhammad told me. The pre-Ramadan feast coincided with the Buddhist festival of the dead, when most Khmers would be saying prayers for their departed ancestors. Before sitting down to eat, the men all kneeled on prayer mats and remembered their lost loved ones. "The Koran doesn't tell us this, exactly." Confessed Yurath Muhammad. "But we feel it is the right thing to do."

Like everyone else in Cambodia, after being nearly annihilated during the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cham had been through a lot, but they still found a place in their hearts for charity. "We invite poor people to the feast so that they can have a good meal. This is what the Koran says that we must do."

Yurath Muhammad brushed the uncomfortable subject of the US War on Terrorism. "Some people misinterpret the Koran. But the Koran is about peace. Our religion is about peace. We, the Muslim people, only want peace. You are Catholic." He said of me. "But you are my brother, And I invite you here to share food with us. Because this is what the Koran says to do."

When asked if he had a message he would like to send out to the whole world, Yurath Muhammad answered, without hesitation. "Let them know that Muslim people are not terrorists. Please take your articles to America and teach people about Islam and about the Cham."

"Anything else?" I asked, in closing.

"Yes," He said with a smile. "Tell them to send teachers and money, so we can educate our people."

About the author

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure author living in Asia. He writes about ethnic minorities, martial arts, and languages. He is the author of four books available on

Antonio's website:


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