General Information

Kingdom of Cambodia

National Name: Preahreacheanacha Kampuchea

Land area: 68,154 sq mi (176,519 sq km); total area: 69,900 sq mi (181,040 sq km)

Population (2008 est.): 14,241,640

Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Phnom Penh, 1,169,800

Monetary unit: Riel

Languages: Khmer 95% (official), French, English

Ethnicity/race: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%

National Holiday: Independence Day, November 9

Religions: Theravada Buddhist 95%, others 5%

Literacy rate: 73.6% (2006 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2006 est.): $25.9 billion; per capita $1,800. Real growth rate: 9.6%. Inflation: 5.9%.

Situated on the Indochinese peninsula, Cambodia is bordered by Thailand and Laos on the north and Vietnam on the east and south. The Gulf of Thailand is off the western coast. The size of Missouri, the country consists chiefly of a large alluvial plain ringed by mountains and on the east is the Mekong River. The plain is centered around Lake Tonle Sap, which is a natural storage basin of the Mekong.

The area that is present-day Cambodia came under Khmer rule about 600, when the region was at the center of a vast empire that stretched over most of Southeast Asia. Under the Khmers, who were Hindus, a magnificent temple complex was constructed at Angkor. Buddhism was introduced in the 12th century during the rule of Jayavaram VII. However, the kingdom, then known as Kambuja, fell into decline after Jayavaram's reign and was nearly annihilated by Thai and Vietnamese invaders. Its power steadily diminished until 1863, when France colonized the region, joining Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam into a single protectorate known as French Indochina.

The French quickly usurped all but ceremonial powers from the monarch, Norodom. When he died in 1904, the French passed over his sons and handed the throne to his brother, Sisowath. Sisowath and his son ruled until 1941, when Norodom Sihanouk was elevated to power. Sihanouk's coronation, along with the Japanese occupation during the war, worked to reinforce a sentiment among Cambodians that the region should be free from outside control. After World War II, Cambodians sought independence, but France was reluctant to part with its colony. Cambodia was granted independence within the French Union in 1949.

Islamic History and Muslims

Islam is the religion of a majority of the Cham (also called Khmer Islam) and Malay minorities in Cambodia. According to Po Dharma, there were 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims in Cambodia as late as 1975. Persecution under the Khmer Rouge eroded their numbers, however, and by the late 1980s they probably had not regained their former strength. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 Cham Muslims in Cambodia, or roughly 3% of the total population of Cambodia. All of the Cham Muslims are Sunnis of the Shafi'i school. Po Dharma divides the Muslim Cham in Cambodia into a traditionalist branch and an orthodox branch.

The Cham have their own mosques. In 1962 there were about 100 mosques in the country. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Muslims in Cambodia formed a unified community under the authority of four religious dignitaries--mupti, tuk kalih, raja kalik, and tvan pake. A council of notables in Cham villages consisted of one hakem and several katip, bilal, and labi. The four high dignitaries and the hakem were exempt from personal taxes, and they were invited to take part in major national ceremonies at the royal court. When Cambodia became independent, the Islamic community was placed under the control of a five-member council that represented the community in official functions and in contacts with other Islamic communities. Each Muslim community has a hakem who leads the community and the mosque, an imam who leads the prayers, and a bilal who calls the faithful to the daily prayers. The peninsula of Chrouy Changvar near Phnom Penh is considered the spiritual center of the Cham, and several high Muslim officials reside there. Each year some of the Cham go to study the Qur'an at Kelantan in Malaysia, and some go on to study in, or make a pilgrimage to, Mecca. According to figures from the late 1950s, about 7 percent of the Cham had completed the pilgrimage and could wear the fez or turban as a sign of their accomplishment.

The traditional Cham retain many ancient Muslim or pre-Muslim traditions and rites. They consider Allah as the all-powerful God, but they also recognize other non-Islamic practices. They are closer, in many respects, to the Cham of coastal Vietnam than they are to other Muslims. The religious dignitaries of the traditional Cham (and of the Cham in Vietnam) dress completely in white, and they shave their heads and faces. These Cham believe in the power of magic and sorcery, and they attach great importance to magical practices in order to avoid sickness or slow or violent death. They believe in many supernatural powers. Although they show little interest in the pilgrimage to Mecca and in the five daily prayers, the traditional Cham do celebrate many Muslim festivals and rituals.

The orthodox Cham have adopted a more conformist religion largely because of their close contacts with, and intermarriages with, the Malay community. In fact, the orthodox Cham have adopted Malay customs and family organization, and many speak the Malay language. They send pilgrims to Mecca, and they attend international Islamic conferences. Conflicts between the traditional and the orthodox Cham increased between 1954 and 1975. For example, the two groups polarized the population of one village, and each group eventually had its own mosque and separate religious organization.

According to Cham sources, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era, many others were desecrated, and Muslims were not allowed to worship. Later, since the Vietnamese-installed PRK regime, Islam has been given the same freedom as Buddhism. Vickery believes that about 185,000 Cham lived in Cambodia in the mid-1980s and that the number of mosques was about the same then as it was before 1975. In early 1988, there were six mosques in the Phnom Penh area and a "good number" in the provinces, but Muslim dignitaries were thinly stretched; only 20 of the previous 113 most prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia survived the Khmer Rouge period.

Cham Muslims: A Look at Cambodia's Muslim Minority

By Antonio Graceffo

Followers of the religion of Islam make up less than one percent of the predominantly Buddhist population of Cambodia. Roughly 80% of Cambodia's Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic group.

"There are two types of Muslims in Cambodia." Said Sary Abdulah, president of the Islamic National Movement for Democracy of Cambodia. The two groups include: Sunni, traditional Muslims, along the lines of Arab Muslims, who pray five times per day, and Fojihed Muslims, who follow an ancient Cham interpretation of the religion. "They only pray once a week. They speak Cham, and keep the old Cham traditions." Sary Abdulah went on the explain that the Fojihed maintained many of their pre-Muslim beliefs, particularly in the super-natural, and magical powers. "They believe that they can pray, and achieve great internal power, called Chai. It is similar to what Kung Fu people call Chi."

"We begin learning Islam in our village when we are small. Our parents and the village Mullah are our first teachers." Said Ismail Taib, a twenty-four year old Cham from the large ethnic community, located at kilometers seven, eight, and nine, outside of Phnom Penh. The Koran which is being used in Cambodia is written in Arabic. In interviewing various Chams it seemed that the ability to read and interpret Arabic was one of the most important issues in deciding who was qualified to be a Mullah. "Anyone who could read Arabic could be a Mullah." Said Ismail. "Later, if we wish to continue our studies, we can leave the village and go to a big school in Phnom Penh or Kampong Cham. A few lucky ones will get to go abroad and study."

Although Sary Abdulah, and many members of his organization were US citizens, Malaysia seemed to be the leading influence on Muslims in Cambodia, and was one of the leading places that young Muslims hoped to study.

"The Koran cannot be translated in Cham, because the Cham have no writing system." Explained Sary Abdulah. "But we are currently translating the Koran into Khmer language. Of course, the translation is going slowly, because we have no funds. So, we can only do a few pages at a time." Sary asked me if there were some way I could find funds to support his translation of the Koran.

Islamic education and education in general is one of the main focuses of Sary Abdulah's work as a community leader. "We need schools and volunteer teachers." He told me as we strolled through the Muslim market at kilometer eight. "All of this food is Halal." He told me, proudly. At a stall, I purchased a pudding, made of gelatinous coconut oil. "No bacon here." He joked. "But I think you will like this one."

After taking a small bite, to see if Sary was putting me on, I devoured the tasty pastry in a single gulp.

"I told you." He laughed, as I ordered three more. "You see, Cham people never lie to you."

The market was a typical outdoor market, seen all through Asia, with various foods and goods being sold from stalls. But the primary difference was that the vendors were almost all women, who wore the beautiful, colored head wrappings of the Muslim faith. Although one didn't see the all-black hoods and dresses of fundamentalist countries, the Cham wore traditional clothing more often than any other residents of Phnom Penh. Many of the young Cham boys were clad in sarongs and head scarves. Older men wore a small hat, or fez, and many sported a beard. But like religious devotion in western countries, families held varying degrees of obedience to the traditions, making many Cham indistinguishable from members of other religions. Sary Abdulah, for example did not go with his head covered. And many teenage boys were wearing jeans and T-shirts with images of their favorite Taiwanese pop-group, F-4.

We visited a state run school, where all of the students were Cham, but where the curriculum followed the same guidelines as Khmer schools. "When the children finish here, they walk across the street to the Madrasa, and continue studying in the evening." Explained Sary Abdulah. "We teach them about Islam and Arabic language. But we also want them to learn English and French. So much depends on where the volunteer teachers are from. Our last teacher was able to teach the children French. Some can teach Chinese and Japanese. Right now, we have no teachers at all."

Once again, Sary Abdulah made his plea. "When you write this story, please ask teachers to come here and help up. And ask rich Muslims in America to send money, so we can build schools, buy computers, and teach our children."

Nearby, the Islamic vocational school was a rundown cinderblock building, standing alone in an open field, which had flooded during the night. Chickens and goats ran freely through the school building. "I would like to show you the school." Said Sary Abdulah, "But there is too much water. Anyway, we have a few computers there and a sewing class. In the Cham community education is available to both boys and girls. "We don't discriminate." Said Sary. "But the boys and the girls come at different times of day."

Sary Abdulah took me on a tour of the mosque, connected with the madrasa. "This building was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge." He said. "It took the people until 1987 to be able to rebuild it, and open the doors again."

As with every other aspect of life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge period, lasting from 1975-1979 left an indelible mark upon the society. It is estimated that, 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period. Under the regime, Muslims were prohibited from worshiping. Today, however, Islam has been given the same freedom as Buddhism. In early 1988, there were only six mosques left in the Phnom Penh, and of the 113 most prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia, only 20 survived the Khmer Rouge period. ( Our final stop was at a huge feast prepared by a local Cham community. "Because Ramadan is coming soon, we like to have a big feast in preparation." Sary told me. The pre-Ramadan feast coincided with the Buddhist festival of the dead, when most Khmers would be saying prayers for their departed ancestors. Before sitting down to eat, the men all kneeled on prayer mats and remembered their lost loved ones. "The Koran doesn't tell us this, exactly." Confessed Sary Abdulah. "But we feel it is the right thing to do."

Like everyone else in Cambodia, after being nearly annihilated during the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cham had been through a lot, but they still found a place in their hearts for charity. "We invite poor people to the feast so that they can have a good meal. This is what the Koran says that we must do."

Sary brushed the uncomfortable subject of the US War on Terrorism. "Some people misinterpret the Koran. But the Koran is about peace. Our religion is about peace. We, the Muslim people, only want peace. You are Catholic." He said of me. "But you are my brother, And I invite you here to share food with us. Because this is what the Koran says to do."

When asked if he had a message he would like to send out to the whole world, Sary answered, without hesitation. "Let them know that Muslim people are not terrorists. Please take your articles to America and teach people about Islam and about the Cham."

"Anything else?" I asked, in closing.

"Yes," He said with a smile. "Tell them to send teachers and money, so we can educate our people."

Contact Sary Abdulah, President of the Islamic National Movement for Democracy of Cambodia:

Contact the author at:

Tramoung Chrum Mosque


The Ma'Ahad El-Muhajirin Islamic Center is a modest compound in Cambodia's rural, southern farmlands.


Cambodian Muslim women outside a mosque at the Ma'Ahad El-Muhajirin Islamic Center in Cambodia's southern province of Kampong Som

Cham girls at the Ma'Ahad El-Muhajirin Islamic Center in Cambodia's southern province of Kampong Som



International Mosque by Boeng Kak.

 Islamic Centers and Organizations

Cambodia Islamic Association, Phnom Penh

Cambodian Islamic Development Association, Phnom Penh

Cambodian Muslim Student Association, Kampong Cham
Phone: 855-12809385

Cambodian Islamic Association 2, Phnom Penh

Cambodian Muslim Students Association, Phnom Penh
Phone: 855-12809385,

Bopha Phnom Penh Restaurant, Phnom Penh
Phone: 023 -427 209

Bites Restaurant, Phnom Penh
Phone: 012 -366 661

Royal India Restaurant, Phnom Penh
Phone: 023 -300 080

Lumbini Restaurant Halal, Phnom Penh
Phone: 023 -212 544

Islamic Advisor of Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Phnom Penh
Phone: 855-12258961 or 9960

  Masjid Locations, Phnom Penh
Masjid Neakmat and Qamariddin Al-Islamiyah School, Siem Reap

  Cambodia Islamic Association, Phnom Penh
  Cambodian Islamic Association 2, Phnom Penh
  Cambodian Islamic Development Association, Phnom Penh
  Cambodian Muslim Community Development, Phnom Penh
  Cambodian Muslim Student Association, Kampong Cham
  Cambodian Muslim Students Association, Phnom Penh
Islamic Advisor of Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Phnom Penh

   Muslim Owned Business

Bites Restaurant, Phnom Penh
  Bopha Phnom Penh Restaurant, Phnom Penh
  D'Wau Restaurant, Siem Reap
  Indian Curry Pot, Phnom Penh
  Lumbini Restaurant Halal, Phnom Penh
  Ma Ma Angkor Restaurant, Siem Reap
  Maharajah Royal Indian Cuisine (HALAL), Siem Reap
  Puncak Hotel, Phnom Penh
Royal India Restaurant, Phnom Penh

Islam in Cambodia(   , September, 2008).
Info please ( ,  September, 2008).
Islam Finder (   , September, 2008).
Anonymous, Documents from Representatives of Islamic Organizations in Cambodia, September 2008.