B R U N O __D E N I E L - L A U R E N T




Who knows the
"pure Chams"?


South Eastern Globe (2008)



One of the positive aspects of the Khmer Rouge trials is that they put Cambodia’s recent history in the spotlight. But the Khmers – as well as the expatriates – would do well to acknowledge that the ethnic and religious diversity of their kingdom is a goldmine too often neglected. After all, who knows the traditions of the Jarai, the Kroeungs or the “pure Chams”? Yet, the latter may be one of the most unique peoples in Cambodia, discreet in spite of their fascinating cultural heritage.

But first of all, who are the Chams? Present in Cambodia for five centuries, they are the heirs of the great Hindu kingdom of Champa. Champa, which controlled central modern-day Vietnam from the 7th to the beginning of the 19th century, was the Angkor Empire’s sole rival for a long period, but eventually collapsed under the repeated attacks of the Vietnamese. The 1471 destruction of Vijaya, Champa’s capital, was a catastrophe that forced thousands of Chams to flee to Cambodia.

The Chams one can meet in the street today around Kampong Cham (“the port of the Chams” in Khmer), Battambang or near the coasts are the descendants of these refugees.

It was upon arriving in Cambodia that most Chams converted to Islam. What were the reasons for this conversion? There are probably several. First of all, the Chams are ethnically and culturally similar to the Malays – the Cham language belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian group – and one could suppose that the Malays encouraged the Chams to join them in the heart of the "Community of the Believers" (ummah), allowing them to merge with the flourishing Islamo-Malay civilization. The trauma of the recent defeat may also have played a role in their conversion to Islam, causing them to renounce their Hindu gods and adopt the religion of Allah. By converting to Islam, the Chams also opened themselves up to the world and began praying to Mecca in the west as opposed to their fallen kingdom.

For the most part, the coexistence of the Chams and the Khmers was a peaceful one. Their religion didn’t pose a problem; on the contrary, the Chams were free to specialize in such trades as butchers or slaughterers, which were “forbidden” to the Buddhists. But although they had lived in Cambodia for centuries, the Chams continued to cultivate their identity, which was rooted in their religion, their language, and the memory of their vanished kingdom. For many Chams, Champa represents a sort of myth that allows them to keep the splendor of their former identity alive.

But not all Chams share the same vision of their religion and identity. One would therefore be mistaken in believing that the Chams form a homogenous body: In the very heart of the Cham community, several distinct groups exist. Certain Chams, influenced by the Tablighi Jamaat (a Muslim missionary movement founded in India in the 1920s) or by the Salafis of Saudi Arabia, follow the rigoristic laws of orthodox Islam. This renewal of religious fundamentalism (not to be confused with political Islam, even if certain similarities do exist) can be observed in the villages neighboring the Islamic center of Phum Trea, on the banks of the Mekong to the north of Kampong Cham: the men proudly wear long beards and djellabas, while the women, confined to their homes, cover themselves with long burqas that hide their faces. The influence of the Tablighi Jamaat is also felt in the Muslim villages of Phnom Penh, notably in the village at KM 9, on the route of Kampong Chhnang.

On the other hand, the “pure Chams”, who call themselves Kaum Jumaat (the “Friday group” because they pray only once a week), have religious practices quite unlike those of orthodox Islam. The “pure Chams” form a small community of several tens of thousands, mostly grouped around the village of O’Russei, between Phnom Penh and Kampong Chhnang, and in the provinces of Battambang and Pursat. Peaceful and accommodating, they are the descendents of a group of Chams who fled Vietnam in the 19th century. Unlike other Chams, who were converted to the Shafi‘i school of Islam by the Malays in the 15th century, the “pure Chams” were already Muslims when they arrived in Cambodia. And the Muslim faith they developed in Vietnam is distinctly unorthodox, with certain aspects that resemble Brahmanism, Buddhism or Sufism.

One can encounter these “pure Chams” upon one of the verdant hills of Oudong, watched over by the remarkable tombs of the Khmer kings. A dozen old men and women will welcome you with broad smiles and greet you as Buddhists do, by joining their hands together and raising them above their heads. Shabbily dressed, they live in small wooden huts, revering Iman San, a “saint” of the 19th century who, after performing miracles before the king Ang Duong, was granted permission to construct a small mosque upon the hill. The old hermits of Oudong will take pleasure in welcoming you into the humble structure, which looks more like a small pagoda than a mosque. The elderly Ong Leb, who is unfortunately nearly deaf and blind today, is one of the most endearing personalities of the community of Iman San. Just a few months ago, he was spending his days meditating and creating magical talismans with Cham inscriptions. The writing of these inscriptions, of Indian origin, has been forgotten by nearly all Chams, with the exception of the “pure Chams” who continue to teach it to their children at any cost.

In the village of O’Russei, north of Oudong, lives the spiritual leader of the “pure Chams”, the “Ouknha Khnour” Kay Toam. By attending Friday prayer, one can witness firsthand the remarkable originality of the Islam of the “pure Chams”. First of all, the call to prayer is not performed by a muezzin but with a drum, as Buddhists do. We know also that in Islam, all worshippers must bow during prayer. The “pure Chams” do things differently: only the “initiates”, men dressed in white, are authorized to chant the prayers, expressed in Cham or in imperfect Arabic. And instead of praying five times a day, the “pure Chams” prefer to pray only once a week, which is in contradiction with the Five Pillars of Islam. Similarly, the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) is not encouraged. As for the status of women, there is no denying that it constitutes another significant difference from orthodox Islam: the women are rarely veiled and share equal rights with men concerning inheritance and divorce. And unlike villages living under the rules of Islamic fundamentalism, it is easy for an “infidel” to speak to a woman, who, more often than not, possesses a very communicative sense of humor.

But the most noticeable difference between the “pure Chams” and the other Chams lies in their attachment to the kingdom of Champa. For above all, they consider themselves to be the sole guardians of Champa’s cultural heritage. Among all Chams, they are, therefore, the ones who desire to remain the most faithful to age-old traditions – and that includes pre-Islamic tradition – something that has earned them heavy criticism from fundamentalist Muslims. Some go so far as to claim that the “pure Chams” aren’t even Muslims, or that they are, at the very least, “deviant” ones. The Ouknha Khnour Kay Toam or the hermits of the community of Iman San tell of regular visits from “preachers” who attempt to persuade them to convert to a “purer” Islam.

Isolated, aging, and without financial means, the community of the pure Chams is diminishing little by little every year. Young “pure Chams”, especially when they come to frequent the Islamic centers of Cambodia, Thailand or Malaysia, are especially susceptible to the discourses of these preachers and upon their return will sometimes attempt to convert their villages.

It’s difficult to predict the future of the “pure Chams”, but one can hope that they manage to resist the assaults of the “missionaries” of orthodox Islam who would like everyone to pray and dress the same way, from Senegal to Cambodia to Yemen to Bosnia. Yet it seems obvious that it’s the diversity of religious traditions in the heart of the Muslim world that accounts for so much of the beauty of Islam.


Texte publié dans South Eastern Globe

Bruno Deniel-Laurent



© 2012 Bruno Deniel-Laurent. Tous droits réservés.