By Eng Kok-Thay
Imam Sann Community—Imam Sann community is the smallest Muslim group in Cambodia. It is comprised of approximately 38,000 members. They live mostly in Kampong Tralach district of Kampong Chhnang province, but can also be found in provinces such as Kandal, Pursat, Battambang and Kampot. According to the group’s mufti, Kai Team, there are currently 53 mosques and suravs for the Imam Sann community in Cambodia. This group is considered by other groups as less orthodox in their practice of Islam as they only pray one time in seven days. The manner of their prayers, Islamic practices and everyday costumes are also different from other groups. For example, they do not wash their face when they pray. The men do not need to keep a beard. The men’s headscarf (or Khimar) is not the cap-like, wrap-around style used by other Cambodian Muslims. Some men use the Khmer Kramar as headscarf. Indeed, one can see no specific headscarf guideline among the men. Other men wear Khmer-like white scarf around, but not covering, their heads. A few men do wear Khimar. Old men wear simple, white, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Without their headscarves, they look just like Buddhist priests. During the Mawlid ceremony, single women wear green robes while married women wear black robes. However, they do not cover their heads or faces in any Islamic fashion.
The Imam Sann group follows the religious practices of a mysterious, yet famous, Imam Sann who was recognized by a Cambodian King. He was a close counsel to the King and the King gave him a site at the foot of Oudong mountain to build a mosque. Some Muslims say that Imam Sann knew magic, which indicates the influence of Hinduism. Imam Sann’s way of practicing Islam was distinct and strong enough that it commands a devoted group of followers. Today this group is in danger of assimilation into the more orthodox majority Sunni sect. Presumably the Imam Sann group speaks and writes the Cham language more proficiently than other groups. They also believe themselves to be the protectors of the original Cham cultural heritage.
A History of Chan Kiek Village -- In O-Reusey commune of Kampong Tralach district, there are three Imam Sann Muslim villages: Chan Kiek, O-Reusey and Sre Prey. Chan Kiek has 205 families. O-Reusey has 160 families and Sre Prey has 287 families. Each village has its chief, but it also has an Imam who overseas religious practice within their respective communities.
Chan Kiek village has a long history that is deeply connected to overall Cham history in Cambodia. According to village elders, the original inhabitants came from the district of Tbong Khmum in Kampong Cham province, which is one of the original settlements for the refugee Cham who fled Viet Nam, starting in 1471. From Tbong Khmum, Cham began to spread to other provinces in Cambodia, including Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and further west to Battambang province. Many Cham settled in Kampong Tralach of Kampong Chhnang province, which now has one of the largest Muslim districts in Cambodia. The ancestors of the Chan Kiek villagers arrived in the mid-1800s and initially named their village Chouk Sar, meaning white lotus. This is ironic because the idea of a lotus or white lotus seems manifest in Buddhism more than Islam. In the 1950s or 1960s the village changed its name to its current one, Chan Kiek. In fact, its longer name is Boeng Chan Kiek village, meaning a large pond with a Chan fruit tree nearby. Chan is a type of aromatic fruit that produces a pleasant scent when it is ripe. It is collected more for its smell than for consumption. It is also associated more with Buddhism and Hinduism, as carvings of Chan flowers adorn ancient temples in Siem Reap province – Land of Angkor.
The reason for this change of name is unknown. Many villagers do not have very clear memory of their own or their village history. Sou Ly, who is the village religious leader, said that Chan Kiek was a very educated village before the Khmer Rouge. He proudly proclaimed that many government officials working in Kampong Tralach district came from Chan Kiek village. Holding government positions in the 1960s under Sihanouk’s regime was considered prestigious.
The Khmer Rouge changed Chan Kiek’s demographic landscape. As they did consistently throughout Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge made their top priority the elimination of educated and prominent persons in villages. In most cases, family members were eliminated as well. By 1975, Chan Kiek village was fairly small, with about 60 families. In 1979, only about 30 families returned. Most of the educated disappeared. Those who were successful in hiding their identities survived, but prominent village members were killed. Through the 1980s the villagers slowly rebuilt their community, with very visible government assistance. Without the educated, Chan Kiek had no real directed recovery. The village was hardly known to outsiders. According Sou Ly, living conditions changed in the early 1990s when the village began to farm twice a year, during the rainy season and the dry season. Sou Ly said this was promoted by H.E. Kong Sam Ol who is a respected Minister of the Royal Palace. He also oversees Cham affairs. Dry-season farming was enhanced by better management of water from Chan Kiek pond.
Today, dry-season farming is more robust than cultivation during the wet season. This is different from most Cambodian farming communities, which emphasize wet season cultivation. In Chan Kiek, the rainy season produces too much water to farm. Dry-season farming is possible because the village has two natural reservoirs nearby. One is the Chan Kiek pond. The other is Reach pond, five kilometers away. Villagers say they are better off today than in the 1980s because of their multiple economic resources: double season farming, part-time jobs such as working in garment factories, the export of workers to Malaysia (part of a trend across Cambodia), and the selling of foodstuff in the commune market. But because the village practices the Imam Sann form of Islam, virtually no Muslim aid goes to Chan Kiek village.
A History of Sre Prey Village -- Sre Prey has been a farming village since it was established more than 100 years ago. It derives its name from an aquatic plant called Prey, which used to grow in the rice fields. The plant no longer thrives, but when settlement began in the village, according to Kai Tit, who is 77 years old, the place was a partly submerged plain. It was full of Prey plant. Villagers spent a long time uprooting these plants before they could begin farming. It remains an undesirable weed that will return if a farm is not properly maintained. Thus the settlers called their village Sre Prey.
According to Kai Tit, villagers of Sre Prey first arrived somewhere in O-Reusey commune. They had moved from Kampong Cham province when it became too crowded and land for farming was scarce. Like Chan Kiek, Sre Prey was a village which had many Cham intellectuals. Around 1850, King Ang Duong bestowed the title of Oknha Khnour to the mufti, or leader, of the Imam San group.
According to Kai Tit, there have since been eight Oknha Khnour. They have all lived in O-Reusey commune, which is in one of the three Imam San villages. The current Oknha Khnour is named Kai Team and lives in Sre Prey village. From there the Oknha Khnour controls activities and festivities of Imam San members in Kampong Chhnang, Battambang, Pursat and Kandal provinces. The Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals in the village; today, like in Chan Kiek village, Sre Prey members are struggling to educate their children and develop their community.
In Sre Prey village there is an old mosque named Keo Sar O-Reusey, which was originally built in 1960. Unlike many early mosques in Cambodia, its design and construction are intact today. Kai Tit said the villagers want to renovate or rebuild it entirely, but they want a design and construction techniques that follow Imam Sann’s tradition. They are particularly concerned with the design of the roof, which should be similar to a pagoda roof, but without spiked centers and with a layer of ceilings. This is very different from many new mosques in Cambodia, which seem to follow Arab mosques with domes or flat roofs. Sre Prey wants to develop their community, but with development that conveys their particular identity.
Resistance to Change and Development: Internal Strife
Islam is changing in Cambodia. Muslims are benefiting financially from aid from global Islamic institutions. But these benefits are often at the expense of traditional practices, which are quickly changing to conform to the preferences of international donors.
Recently there has been conflict between Chan Kiek and Sre Prey villages. This conflict happens against the background of wider pressures on the Imam San group. Kai Team can quickly count several villages which have already converted to praying five times a day, or have been taken completely away from the influence of Imam San leadership. Those are villages of Thmor Meas in Morng Reusey district, Battambang province; Sre San village, Chhouk Sar commune, Kampong Tralach district, Kampong Chhnang province; and a village Rolie Pa-ier district, Kampong Chhnang province.
In the past, the Mawlid ceremony was conducted at Sre Prey’s Keo Sar O-Reusey mosque, and Kai Team oversaw the festivities. In the past two years, the three villages have conducted separate Mawlid ceremonies. The village of O-Reusey has built its own surav. Chan Kiek is also building a new mosque. Kai Team vehemently opposes these developments.
The decision by Chan Kiek to conduct separate festivities has caused tension between Kai Team and Chan Kiek villagers, led by Sou Ly. Kai Team says he does not object to O-Reusey holding a separate ceremony because it abides by the law and traditional practice of separation. According to Kai Team, that law says a community can build a separate mosque/surav when that location is two kilometers from an existing mosque/surav. Additionally, when the distance is in an extended field, then the new mosque/surav must be built further than the eye can see. If this distance is covered by forest, then the location of the new mosque/surav be within the sound of a drumbeat from the original mosque/surav. If there is a river between the villages which makes it difficult to cross to an original mosque/surav, then it is permissible to build a new mosque on the other side of the river. Kai Team says Sou Ly’s decision to build a new mosque does not follow these rules, as the new mosque is a mere 450 meters from the old one.
Sou Ly explains that the villages in the commune were once small. Today they have expanded several times, and now, he says, the old mosque is too small to accommodate everybody. He also points out that O-Reusey has already set the precedent of separation. Now he, too, wants to have his own village mosque. He and his villagers say that many communities are developing and changing, with funding from overseas sources like a Kuwaiti charity organization. They want their village to have a new face and its own, new mosque, built for them and their children, as opposed to going to the same mosque shared among the whole commune. Sou Ly added that a Kuwaiti organization intends to help with the construction of his new mosque, but he said that if they force him to pray five times a day, he will not accept their donation. Sou Ly added that the guidelines described by Kai Team that prevent him from building a new mosque have no foundation in any written rules. He stresses that they have no practical purpose, and is quick to point out that the more mosques Muslims build, the better it is for Islam.
The conflict described above is a conflict between leader and followers. It is also a conflict between conservatism and modernization in reaction to the pressure for Islamic change in Cambodia. One can only hope that the conflict can lead to benefits for both parties. Kai Team remains open to negotiation and would welcome the return of Sou Ly to join him in the practice of Mawlid ceremony and Islam. It is important to note that in the leadership hierarchy of Imam Sann sect, Sou Ly is the third deputy of Kai Team. Both men were also invited to visit the Khmer Rouge Tribunal by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and participated in DC-Cam’s Cham Muslim oral history project.
Credit/Source: Cambodia: The Cham Identities, by the Documentation Center of Cambodia