The Diversity of Cham Muslims: Where Indian, Chinese, Arabic, and Malaysian cultures meet

A nice informative story by Antonio Graceffo about Cham Muslims: The Diversity of Cham Muslims: Where Indian, Chinese, Arabic, and Malaysian cultures meet

Indochina is one of the culturally richest and most diverse locations on earth, as it is the place where Indian and Chinese cultures meet. But the Cham Muslims of Indochina are the pinnacle of diversity, as they represent the mixing of Indian, Chinese, Arabic, and Malaysian culture.

Ratanakirir Province is an unlikely location for the Cham Muslim minority, who often live on houseboats or in floating villages. Sixty-three year old Dun Lee Han, the leader of Ratanakiri’s Cham community explained how the 452 Cham families, who migrated from Kompong Cham province, began making a new life for themselves, as land-bound farmers. According to Dun Lee Han, the first Cham families arrived here ten years ago.

In lower Cambodia 70% of Cham make their living as fishermen. “The fishing just became too crowded.” He said.

Many Cham families were driven into poverty. Seeking a better life, Cham families began abandoning their traditional work, and taking advantage of the free land and fertile soil in Ratanakiri, to become cash crop farmers, growing cashews and soybeans.

Dun Lee Han, who had been a schoolteacher in Kompong Cham, was invited by the Cham community to come to the remote province and educate the Cham children. He now lives in a village of 120 Cham families, beside a large wooden mosque, which doubles as a school.

“Finally, we are building a new mosque.” He told me, proudly. The foundation for the brand new concrete structure had already been poured. “Unfortunately, it won’t be ready for the feast tomorrow.” He said sadly. Ramadan would be ending the next day, and all of the provinces 425 Cham families were expected at a grand celebration, to be held at the building site.

As a linguist, I have been particularly fascinated by the Cham. Their traditional language is an ancient derivation, originating from India. Historically, the Cham had their own writing system, which is still being used among Cham communities in Vietnam, but which has all but died out in Cambodia. Although the traditional written language used in the religion of Islam is Arabic, reforms, originating in Malaysia and Indonesia, the centers for Islamic learning in Eastern Asia, resulted in the widespread printing of Muslim texts in Malay language.

This means that a Cham Muslim student in Cambodia would be able to speak or read at least four languages Arabic, Cham, Khmer, and Malay. But the mathematics of linguistics is not so simple. The word Malay includes two separate writing systems and linguistic origins. There is Bahasa Malay, the language spoken in modern Malaysia. This language is similar to Bahasa Indonesia and the language spoken in Brunai. Bahasa utilises the Latin alphabet, and the majority of texts, which Dun Lee Han showed me were written in Bahasa Malay, with Latin script. I was also pleased to find a number of books, written in the Cham alphabet. Many reports I had read said that the Cham alphabet had completely died out in Cambodia. In fact, even the Muslim association in Phnom Penh had told me that the Cham had no writing system. But here it was a textbook, a school, and a teacher maintaining the ancient writing system, in a small village, in the middle of the jungle.

For me, it was like discovering the Rosetta stone. For not the first time on my voyage of discovery through Cambodia, I felt like Indiana Jones.

The word Malay could also mean the ancient Malay writing system, which to my untrained eye looked somewhat similar to the Indian based writing systems of Indochina, but with a strong influence from Arabic.

So, that means the Cham students were actually juggling five languages, with five alphabets. But we still aren’t finished.

Cambodian Cham don’t have a broad knowledge of the outside world. The Muslim networks of Eastern Asia are now forming, and connecting, supported by donations and teachings from both the Middle East and Malaysia. But, while Malaysian teachers and sponsors have visited the Cambodian Cham, not many Cambodians have been abroad. This further complicated my research, when I would ask Dun Lee Han specific questions about which languages and writing systems they were learning.

In both the Cham and Khmer languages, they often refer to the scholastic language of Chams as Jawei or Javei. This is the same word, which both cultures use for the island of Java, but also for the languages of Malaysia and Indonesia. For this reason, it was often very difficult to understand if the students were learning Bahasa or ancient Malaysian. Interestingly, Dun Lee Han didn’t seem to recognise the name Bahasa. He just kept repeating “Javei, Javei.”

To have students learning a language, but not knowing the origin, or even the proper name of the language raised a number of troubling questions. To what extent could the young, Cham students understand their Kranic lessons, or any other message brought to them by outside teachers? The Chams are an Islamic people surrounded by Buddhists and animists, isolated by both their language and their culture, even less of the global world is reaching Cham communities. Illiteracy rates are high among Chams, many of whom have little or no access toschools, living in floating villages. With the exception to those clustered around Phnom Penh, most Cham don’t have access to the internet or even TV.

In Muslim circles, throughout Asia, the Cambodian Cham have been viewed as either a cowboy Muslim sect, making their own rules, or as a long lost cousin, in need of education and aid. Cambodia’s Cham community is divided into a number of groups, each following their own separate version of Islam, which, understandably, varies greatly from standards in other countries. The more orthodox groups tend to pray several times per day, and keep as closely as they can to Koranic teachings. Others have maintained many of their animist beliefs, and pray only on Fridays. One group doesn’t even refer to themselves as Cham. They are called Khmer Islam. They have Khmer names and speak Khmer language. But they are Muslim. Further, according to my research, five percent of Cambodian Cham did not convert to Islam, and have retained their Hindu religion.

Abdul Hamid, an ancient Imam, sporting a grey beard, and dressed in a long white gown and head covering, explained the religious teachings in the Cham community.

“There are four kinds of Islam.” He began. “Sunni, Sofi, Maliki, Hambali, and Hamani. But we Cham don’t choose just one way. All ways lead to Allah.”

“Islam here is different from other places,” continued Abdul Hamid. “We don’t teach politics. We don’t want to kill anyone.”

Although I was always politely, even kindly, received by Muslims in South East Asia, I believe that on some level there was a certain distrust of Americans. With my close-cropped hair and big shoulders, there is often suspicion that I am a soldier or some type of government agent. As a result, when it comes to questions about religious doctrine, people often go way out of their way to convince me that they are not Jihadists or terrorists. As I am always grateful for the help the Muslim people give me in my research of language and culture, I am willing to tolerate the long dissertations on peace and anti-terror. I am particularly sympathetic of the Cham, who are a poor, simple people, who would be content to be left alone, in their fishing communities, untouched by the outside world.

“I can’t kill anyone.” Said Abdul Hamid, “Because I follow Islam. The people who are doing the killing are not obeying Islam. They use Islam to support their actions. Islam means being a good person, who doesn’t want to kill or have problems with anyone.”

I often have the feeling that the Cham see me as a microphone to the west. And they are anxious to get their message out to the world, “We don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Abdul Hamid, Dun Lee Han, and I were sitting in a small house on stilts, devoid of furnishings or possessions. Even with the movement from fishing to cash crops, the Cham were still terribly poor. Cambodia only reopened to the west in 1990. As recently as the 1970s, the area where we were sitting had been saturation bombed by the US. Within a period of less than five years, the area had also served as a battlefield for not one, but two invasions by Vietnam. During the Pol Pot era, entire villages of Cham were slaughtered.

Poor, defenceless, and historically victimized, the Cham have a right to fear the outside world. Cambodia on the whole has proven time and again that it was incapable of dealing with a modern world, and has typically had bad experiences with international relations. How much more unprepared must the Cham be to deal with the larger world? And, to what extent do they understand that they had become the unwitting pawns in a global chess game, with ten times the scope and social impact of the Cold War?

The new mosque was being built with funds provided by Muslim relief organizations from both Kuwait and Malaysia. Throughout Cambodia, a Kuwaiti NGO had been building modern bathrooms in Cham villages. Other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey had been supporting schools and educational programs. A large Cham school, similar to a university, had opened in Phnom Penh. Those students who excelled in a course of studies, taught in Arabic, would be offered scholarships to study in the Middle East. Others, studying in Thai would be sent to Thailand. And still others, following a program of Bahasa, would be sent to Malaysia. All paid for by foreign governments.

Dun Lee Han was very happy, because this year, he would finally be making the Haj to Mecca, sponsored by a group in Kuwait. This would be his first travel to abroad. The fear, of course, in the west, was that these donations came with a price. Foreign influence and foreign ideas would be transplanted into the Cham community, perhaps teaching a more fundamentalist brand of Islam, or even advocating terror.

From what I could gather, these fears were shared by the Cham, who, because of their desperate financial situation, had no choice but to accept the aid.

This visit to the Cham headman was the final stage in my quest to discover and understand the Khmers. In fact, a glance at my watch said that I was scheduled to fly back to Phnom Penh in less than an hour. After that, I would travel onto Hong Kong to file my stories, and then back to New York to meet my publisher.

Although they probably wouldn’t or couldn’t express it in words, the Cham seemed to know that they had become an “ism.” For outsiders, they had ceased to be individuals. And, their Muslim dress and culture symbolized an unpopular religion, associated with violence. At the same time, I had become a symbol of the warlike policies of the American government.

But for me, at least, by the end of the interview, we weren’t isms, we were Abdul Hamid, Dun Lee Han, and Antonio Graceffo, three men, who met, to share their culture and who didn’t wish harm on anyone.

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