Cambodia’s Cham Minorities

The name Cham indicates a purported origin in the ‘Hinduized’ kingdom of Champa that occupied the coast of present-day Vietnam until the Vietnamese destroyed its capital in 1471, reducing it to its southernmost principalities. At this time the Cham underwent a gradual and partial conversion to Islam through the influence of the coastal trade of Arab, Persian and Indian merchants.

The ethnic label Cham in Cambodia covers virtually all the country’s Muslims. They number about 230,000, many of them traders. The Khmer view the Cham with apprehension because of a reputation for possessing strong magic. At the same time, both Khmer and Cham believe the latter belong firmly in Cambodian society, and as a well established Cambodian minority they are ‘good to think with’, as their land was once conquered by the Vietnamese and they thus exemplify a fate that many Khmer fear may one day become Cambodia’s.

Three separate groups may be distinguished within the Cham ethnic category. The Cham proper trace their ancestry to the Champa kingdom, but emphasize their religion (Islam) rather than their historical origins as their main defining feature. Most still speak the Cham language, which belongs to the Austronesian family [and appears most closely related the language of Aceh, Indonesia], but all are bilingual in Khmer. They are found mainly in Kampong Cham, Kampot and north of Phnom Penh.

A second group is referred to as ‘Chvea’, which is the Khmer word for ‘Java’, suggesting a penultimate origin in the Malay-Indonesian area. Today they speak Khmer. They prefer to call themselves not ‘Chvea’ but ‘Khmer Islam’ – stressing both their linguistic and national belonging and their separate religion, rather than their ‘foreign’ origin.

Both these groups are recipients of various forms of Islamic aid from the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Arab Emirates) as well as from Malaysia. The aid consists of schoolbooks and religious literature in Arabic, and contributions to building schools, mosques and wells. It also involves annual travel funds for some prominent members of local communities to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Cham and Chvea welcome this attention from the world Islamic community, feeling it gives international recognition to their importance as Cambodian Muslims.

The third group of Cham are the Jahed. Although Muslims, they identify themselves primarily in terms of their historical origins in the Champa kingdom. Their ancestors formed part of an exodus from a Champa principality after its ruler’s defeat by the Vietnamese in 1692. Today they number about 23,000 people, all speaking Cham, but most being bilingual in Khmer. In terms of religion, the Jahed belong to a minority within the Muslim population. Their somewhat unorthodox version of Islam (superimposed on a basically Hindu type of cosmology and influenced by Sufi traditions) sets them apart from the other Muslims groups in Cambodia, the Chvea and the Cham. Their possession cult featuring the spirits of their royal ancestors in Champa still flourishes, another sign of their unorthodox approach to Islam.

The Jahed are adamant in following the Muslim customs they have preserved from Champa. Central among these are the weekly prayer meetings at the mosque (instead of the five daily prayers of orthodox Muslims), the use of the Cham language (rather than Arabic) for prayers, and the preservation of their religious literature in the Cham script. In the long run it is doubtful that these traditions will survive, as orthodox Islamic missionaries exert pressure through promises of financial support for mosque-building and distribution of cheaply printed prayer books in Arabic.

SOURCE: “Cambodia,” by Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 204-206

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