From Buddhism to Islam in Cambodia


`Abdul Hameed serves as the religious leader for a village in which almost all of the families are converts to Islam.

20 Feb, 2016 Audrey Wilson and Vandy Muong

Muslims make up only 2.3 per cent of Cambodia’s population, but voices within the Islamic community insist that it is growing. And while most converts have been brought to Islam through marriage, there is at least one village where the religion has taken hold on its own merits.

In Kwan village in Kampong Speu province, 65 year old `Abdul Hameed leads a group of men and women down a dusty road to noon prayers.

Inside the mosque, there are four white walls, hand-woven prayer carpets, and a makeshift curtain to separate the women from the men. The small group of villagers performs their prayers, then return to the noise on the outside.

The small building with its gold dome is quite new, founded by money from a Saudi Arabian donor in 2014.

The Muslim donors saw our village on social media then different countries have come to us with donations: Indonesia, France and the United States.

Khmer Buddhist converted to Islam

The video attracted this kind of attention because the mosque was small and modest and the 52 families living in the community are Khmer Buddhist who converted to Islam.

People here go to the mosque with their wives to perform the prayer. There are 884 mosques and 314 Islamic schools across the country. This is according to the figures released from the Ministry of Cults and Religion. The ministry registers show numbers of buildings and people of 361,483. There are, however, no records on conversion and no one can say exactly how many people convert to Islam yearly or monthly.

Still, conversion is much more common than people imagine, and much more common than people say. This is according to Emiko Stock, an anthropologist who has worked with Cambodia’s Cham community since 2000.

Khmer Muslim women pray in Kwan village.

Khmer Muslim women pray in Kwan village.

Marriage: An important factor for the conversion

The most frequent reason for conversion is marriage as was explained by Farina So, a researcher at DC-Cam who manages the Cham oral history project. In order to marry a Muslim, a non-Muslim has first to become a Muslim. However, Buddhism has no such restrictions.

Chams are even more matrilocal than Cambodians, according to a custom in marriage whereby the husband goes to live with the wife’s community. When you marry, you go with the wife. Therefore, the most new converts who enter the mosques in Cambodia are men.

The number of new Muslims is growing

Sos Mossin, secretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion and the head of the Cambodian Muslim Association, said that the number of Muslims in the country is growing village by village and the marriage of Buddhist man with a Muslim woman is a factor. Mosques are built wherever interested Muslims go since the Khmer Rouge regime, 500 mosques have been built. He said: “Whenever we have Muslim people, we build for them because we want them to pray in a good place.”

Some of these mosques are funded with money from abroad: Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, for example. But mosques funded by Cambodian Muslims who migrate abroad and send money back from Thailand, South Korea or Malaysia are much more common.

The new Muslim in town

When `Abdul-Hameed, who was born a Cham, moved to Kwan village in 2001 and took up farming, his family was the only Muslim family. He became friendly with other villagers, who first joined in celebrations following the fast of Ramadan. His family built a small wooden mosque there.

The Islamic community does not proselytize directly. “We don’t force them to believe.” `Abdul-Hameed said.

The Kwan villagers came to Islam slowly and of their own will, often they bring their entire families with them. But for most of them, it had nothing to do with marriage.

One family met `Abdul-Hameed while tending the fields, and spoke with him about Islam. Favidas, 30 and her husband decided to become Muslims a few years later.

A new mosque was constructed in Kwan village in 2014.

A new mosque was constructed in Kwan village in 2014.

Her older sister, Subiyas and mother, Zariyas, converted soon afterward. Their children now study both Khmer and Arabic in the mosque.

“Sometimes we memorized only some Arabic words to pray.” explained Subiyas. “But we learned the rules of daily five prayers, purification and ablution step by step. It is not hard to understand the principles of Islamic faith.”

A brief history of conversion in Cambodia

Conversion to Islam in Cambodia has been occurring for centuries probable beginning with the upriver migration of the Chams from Champa in search of trade and security.

The most high-profile Khmer convert to Islam was a king, Reameathipadei I, who ruled Cambodia during the 17th century, when the court was at Oudong. While his motivations vary in historical sources the king either converted for political alliances with local Muslim expatriates or for a marriage to a Muslim girl. Reameathpadei became Ibrahim after his conversion, and the court was influenced by the spirit of Islamic culture.

According to Khmer and Dutch sources, the king demanded his ministers, officials and royal servants also to convert to Islam. There has been no Muslim king in Cambodia before that.

Anthropologist Emiko Stock has noted another interesting pattern in her research: conversion by those who were displaced under the Khmer Rouge regime and ended up residing in or near a Cham village.

“I met a very old woman once in Siem Reap. She would have been an adult during the war. She didn’t have anybody of her age alive so she just stayed in the village.” Stock told Post Weekend. “There was no difference between her and the other Chams.”

`Abdul-Hameed said that conversion to Islam is a simple and easy matter. After that the convert has to learn how to pray five times a day. As well as you have to acknowledge that God is one and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a messenger of Allah and the last messenger and the final Prophet of Allah, there is Prophet after him. If you believe that and follow the teachings of Islam then you are a true Muslim. Converts also acquire a Muslim name when they convert to Islam, because, Muslims were ordered by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to select good names and avoid the names that have bad meanings or denotations.

But replacing one set of beliefs with another is significant, and requires a change in practice at the very least: the prayer schedule; ritual purification. Islam prohibits strictly the worship of idols which is a common religious practice in Buddhism.

One of the members of the Khmer-Muslim village is Ummi Kulthum, an 83-year-old woman former Buddhist nun who was introduced to Islam three years ago by her niece and grandchildren in the village.

“My whole family now believes in Allah the Almighty and we try to perform the daily five prayers.” she said. “We get better blessings from Him.”

The recently converted Nazy Saleh, the president of CAMM, attributed the growth of the Cambodian Muslim community not to villages like the one in Kampong Speu, but rather to the younger generation. CAMM, which is headquartered in Phnom Penh, offers a training program for new Muslims and provides Islamic materials in Khmer-language for those who want to learn more about Islam.

Saryfine is a convert to Islam who married a Muslim woman when he was 19 years old, and he converted from Buddhism to Islam.

He also changed his name after the conversion though he can’t read Arabic, but tries to memories the short Surah of the Glorious Qur’an and a mosque there provides him with the translations.

The village around Darusalam Mosque is predominantly Cham.

The village around Darusalam Mosque is predominantly Cham.

Saryfine said: “I cannot be half-Buddhist and half-Muslim; rather, I want to be a complete and true Muslim.” But Rohany, a 21-year-old student and a volunteer at CAMM, knew about Islam through his friends after growing up in a Buddhist family. She now lives in a female Muslim dormitory and will finish her bachelor’s degree in near future.

She moved when she converted and changed her name, now she lives in a Muslim community and participates in the religious activities.

Across the Japanese Bridge, at Darusalam Mosque on the Chroy Changvar peninsula, a community of Cham Muslims has lived there since the early 20th century and the surrounding village was influenced with the Muslim traditions.

About 10 converts live in the village and most of them are men who converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim woman. They often travel for business there was no person there in afternoon last week.

But sometimes a guy comes to the mosque and didn’t know how to pray then another man who studied Islam intensely explains for his Muslim brother. Some Buddhists converted to Islam last year, and Loep Saleh served as their teacher.

If a person wants to convert he has to bring a letter of agreement from his family that clarifies that he wants to convert of his own accord.

Some people are easy to teach and some people are hard to teach, sometimes it takes a day and sometimes it may take a month.

But the most prominent misconception in Cambodia, he said, is a conflation of the Cham ethnicity with Islam. “There is a strong misunderstanding about race and religion here.” he said.buddhism-5

Loep Saleh, at Darusalam Mosque, teaches some of those who convert.

It’s a misconception that is rooted linguistically in the centuries: in the late 15th century, Khmers used the generic term “Cam Jvra” (a reference to Java) to refer to both Chams and Malays collectively, or anyone practicing Islam in the Kingdom, according to Kersten, the historian.


Source: Taken from with modifications.

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