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CAMBODIA. The great Angkor civilization that began in the eighth century and survived until the seventeenth was centered in present-day Cambodia. It was followed by incessant wars with neighboring Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam until Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863. French rule lasted until 1953, when an independent Cambodia was once again established. However, this was followed by a civil war that ended with the success of the communist Khmer Rouge, who caused countless deaths during their four years of rule. In 1979, with Vietnamese military backing, a new communist-led government was formed. Later, the Paris Conference on Cambodia was held, and the United Nations became involved, a situation that ended with the formation of a coalition government in Phnom Penh and the reinstatement of Prince Norodom Sihanouk as head of state in June 1993.

Phnom Penh Mosque

The Muslim community of Cambodia prior to the victory of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 was essentially composed of Cams (or Chains) from the former kingdom of Campa (Champa). These people had been converted by Arab and Indian merchants and artisans. Large numbers of Cams emigrated to Cambodia in the fifteenth century. Also included in the Muslim community were Malays from present-day Malaysia and Indonesia, who also began to arrive in the fifteenth century, as well as Arabs, emigrants from the Indian subcontinent, and some indigenous converts. Muslims came to live throughout Cambodia, but particularly along the Mekong near the capital Phnom Penh and in’ Kompot, Tonle Sap, Kompong, and Battambang. They have tended to be employed in trading, agriculture, and fishing.

Cambodian Muslims have primarily been Sunnis with practices and beliefs similar to other orthodox Southeast Asian Muslims. They have tended to follow religious practices more regularly than their Vietnamese counterparts. Ramadan appears to have been respected, but the hajj was only made by those who could afford it, with as many as eighty pilgrims annually. In 1975 there were between I13 and 120 mosques with some three hundred religious teachers and three hundred preachers. A great many of these teachers were trained in Kelantan, Malaysia, and at Islamic universities in Cairo, India, or Medina. The years from independence to 1975 also saw the formation of Islamic organizations-for example, the Islamic Association in Phnom Penh, which attempted to coordinate all cultural and religious activities, and an Islamic youth group that sought to encourage young people to study at the university.

There were good relations between the Muslim and majority Buddhist communities. During the pre-French period, Muslims played important military and political roles under the kings and held high titles through the centuries. Many Muslims acted as merchants who were also translators for the monarchs in their dealings with Europeans. During the French colonial period Muslims were completely removed from national decision making. However, with the return of independence in 1953 Muslims again were placed in significant posts, including high ranks in the Cambodian military.

The mass murder inflicted on the Cambodian population by the Khmer Rouge after 1975 severely decimated the Muslim population. An untold number were killed, and some twelve to fifteen thousand left the country for nearby refugee camps or settlement overseas. Nearly half the refugees went to Muslim-ruled Malaysia, while others settled in France, Australia, and the United States. Muslims also became part of anticommunist military units based on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1980, of almost six hundred preachers and religious teachers who had resided in Cambodia in 1975, fewer than forty remained; of nearly 700,000 Muslims prior to 1975, only 150,000 to 190,000 remained. Cambodia’s elite were especially targeted by the Khmer Rouge, and this was also true for the Muslim leadership. For example, only one of the country’s nine graduates of al-Azhar University survived. During this period most of Cambodia’s mosques and Muslim religious books were also destroyed.

The new government allowed the return of religious freedom, and many Muslims moved into important government posts; for example Math Ly or Abdellah Hamzah became vice president of parliament. Ibrahim Athmane was the highest religious authority in the early 1990s. At the same time, the death of so many teachers and other religious leaders has meant a severe weakening of religious education and understanding in the remaining Muslim community. There are major gaps in popular recognition of basic issues in Islamic history, theology, and the international Muslim world.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. ]


Correze, Franqois. “Cambodge: Terre d’Islam.” Sud-est Asie (March 1981).

Danois, Jacques. Le temps d’une resurrection. Paris, 1981.

Phoeur, Mak. “La communaute malaise musulmane au Cambodge.” In Le monde indochinois et la peninsule malaise (CNRS publication). Paris and Kuala Lumpur, 1990.

Taouti, Seddik. “The Forgotten Muslims of Kampuchea and Viet Nam.” journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 4.1-2 (1982): 3-13.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/cambodia/

  • writerPosted On: November 4, 2012
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