ISLAM and MUSLIMS IN LAOS

      

General Information

Lao People's Democratic Republic

National name: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao

Land area: 89,112 sq mi (230,800 sq km); total area: 91,428 sq mi (236,800 sq km)

Population (2008 est.): 6,677,534

Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Vientiane, 194,200

Monetary unit: New Kip

Languages: Lao (official), French, English, various ethnic languages

Ethnicity/race: Lao Loum (lowland) 68%, Lao Theung (upland) 22%, Lao Soung (highland) including the Hmong (“Meo”) and the Yao (Mien) 9%, ethnic Vietnamese/Chinese 1%

Religions: Buddhist 60%, animist and other 40% (including Christian 2%)

National Holiday: Republic Day, December 2

Literacy rate: 53% (2003 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2007 est.): $12.65 billion; per capita $2,100. Real growth rate: 7.5%. Inflation: 4.5%.

A landlocked nation in Southeast Asia occupying the northwest portion of the Indochinese peninsula, Laos is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. It is twice the size of Pennsylvania. Laos is a mountainous country, especially in the north, where peaks rise above 9,000 ft (2,800 m). Dense forests cover the northern and eastern areas. The Mekong River, which forms the boundary with Burma and Thailand, flows through the country for 932 mi (1,500 km) of its course.

The Lao people migrated into Laos from southern China from the 8th century onward. In the 14th century, the first Laotian state was founded, the Lan Xang kingdom, which ruled Laos until it split into three separate kingdoms in 1713. During the 18th century the three kingdoms came under Siamese (Thai) rule and, in 1893, became a French protectorate. Its territory was incorporated into the union of Indochina. A strong nationalist movement developed during World War II, but France reestablished control in 1946 and made the king of Luang Prabang constitutional monarch of all Laos. France granted semiautonomy in 1949 and then, spurred by the Viet Minh rebellion in Vietnam, full independence within the French Union in 1950.

Islamic History and Muslims

Muslims are a small minority  (400) in this Buddhist majority country. Muslims are visible in the capital, Vientiane, that also has a Jama Masjid. The Muslim population is mostly engaged in trade and manage meat shops. A small community of Cham Muslims from Cambodia who escaped the Khmer Rouge is also found. Muslims live primarily in urban areas
 

A small but vibrant Muslim community has a rich history in Laos.

  Sandwiched between Thailand to the west, China to the north, and Cambodia and Vietnam in the east, and with a population of less than seven million, Laos is one of the smallest countries in South-East Asia. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world.

Some sixty per cent of Lao's population belongs to the dominant Lao ethnic group, most of who claim to be Buddhists. Around a third of Laotians, mainly from the minority Hmong and Khmu communities, are animists, worshipping various forest and ancestor spirits.

Muslims form a very insignificant proportion of Lao's population. Community leaders estimate their number of be less than eight hundred, making Laos possibly the country with the lowest number and proportion of Muslims in the whole of Asia.


The first Muslims in Laos are said to have arrived in the early twentieth century, when the country was under French colonial rule. Most of them were Tamil-speaking Labbais and Rawthers from south India, many of them from the French-ruled enclave of Pondicherry along the south-eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. The majority of them were single men, who worked mainly as guards and labourers in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. They were later joined by Pashtu-speaking Pakhtun Muslims from the North-West Frontier Province in what is now Pakistan. Many of them had been employed in the British army and stationed in neighbouring Burma during the First World War.

In 1953 Laos won freedom from the French after a long and bloody struggle. However years of chaos followed, plunging Laos into a deadly war between American-backed forces and the communist Pathet Lao, supported by Vietnam and China. In 1973, America was forced to halt its war against Laos, and, two years later, the communists took over the entire country and established the Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic.

In the mid-1960s, the Muslim population in Laos, almost all of South Asian origin, was estimated at around seven thousand. However, war had forced most of them to flee to various other countries. Roshan, a third generation Lao of Tamil origin, says most of those who remained were poor and could not afford to move elsewhere.

Today, a little more than a hundred Muslim families remain in Laos. The single largest ethnic group among them are Muslims of Cambodian origin, numbering sixty-one families. The first Muslims from Cambodia arrived in Laos as workers and small traders some forty years ago, but most of them came after the mid-1980s, when their homeland was taken over by the deadly Khmer Rouge. Today, most of them live by selling traditional medicinal herbs, which they import from Cambodia. Except for five families, all of them live in Vientiane. Some fifteen resident Cambodian Muslims have married Lao women.

Most of Vientiane's Cambodian Muslims cluster around in a locality not far from the town's Chinese quarter. In the centre of their settlement is a large mosque, established in 1986, the Majid Azhaar-a graceful building topped with numerous gilded domes, which contains two large rooms. One room serves as a prayer-hall, and the other as a maktab, where some fifty Cambodian Muslim children study in two daily shifts that are timed in such a way as to allow them to attend regular school as well.

Forty year-old Muhammad Vina bin Ahmad is the Imam of the Masjid Azhaar. He received a traditional Islamic education at a pondok or madrasa in Phonm Penh, the capital of Cambodia. He then travelled to Vietnam to study with some Muslim scholars, after which he attended a three-month course for training would-be Imams in Malaysia. Fifteen years ago, the Cambodian Muslims of Vientiane invited him to become the Imam of the Masjid Azhaar and also to teach their children the basics of the faith.

In contrast to many Laotians, the Imam can understand English and speaks it fairly well. We discuss the community and the issues it faces. There is not a single book about Islam in the Lao language, he tells me. No one has taken the initiative to produce any Islamic literature in any of the country's roughly ninety languages. The closest equivalent available are some Islamic books, including a translation of the Quran, in the Thai language, which is similar to Lao. Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that few Lao people know anything at all about Islam, and there are just a few, some fifteen, Lao converts to the faith. Many of these converted after marrying Cambodian Muslims. Three Lao converts are presently studying Islamic Studies in universities in Malaysia. So far, the Imam goes on, three Cambodian Muslims from Laos have been on the Hajj, the fixed annual quota for the country being six.

Pakhtuns from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province are the largest Muslim ethnic group in Laos after the Cambodian Muslims. In recent years, the community has been considerably depleted with migration to Pakistan and Western countries, and it now numbers less than thirty families. Almost all of them are Lao citizens, and some twenty Pakhtun men have married Lao women, the women having converted to Islam thereafter. Roughly a dozen Pakhtun men are in government service, including one who is a top-ranking police officer. Most of the rest are fairly prosperous cloth merchants based in Vientiane, and several of them own considerable amounts of agricultural land.

The third, and smallest, Muslim ethnic group in Laos are Tamil-speakers from southern India, who number around seventy. Most of them live in Vientiane, and the rest live in three other major towns in the country-Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet. Most of them are engaged in the cosmetics trade, importing their goods from China, Vietnam and Thailand.

Every major town in Laos (and there are only a few of them) has at least one Indian restaurant, and all are run by Tamil Muslims. The most successful Lao Indian restaurateur is 60 year-old Muhammad Nazimuddin, whose official Lao name is Samsack Sivilay (all Lao citizens, irrespective of religion, must have official Lao names). He runs a chain of six very popular Indian restaurants, all named after him, across the country.

Nazimuddin's is, as he explains, a classic rags-to-riches story. His father left his village of Mayuram in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district in the early 1940s and set up a small business in Saigon in Vietnam, which was then under French occupation. Twenty years later, he left Saigon, divorced his Vietnamese wife and returned to India along with Nazimuddin, who was then just two years old.

Nazimuddin studied in his village till the eighth grade and soon after decided to travel to Laos, where he began working as a security guard in Vientiane. Thereafter, he worked as a cook in a small eatery, for which he got a bed and food but no money. Later, he set up his own small food stall, catering mainly to visiting Indians who came to Laos to have their Thai visas renewed.

In 1995, Nazimuddin set up ‘Nazim's Indian Restaurant' in a busy commercial district in Vientiane along the Mekong river. This was a time when the ruling communist party was gradually opening up the country to the outside world. The restaurant catered mostly to the rush of Western tourists crossing over from Thailand eager to explore the hitherto closed and remote country. Today, the six ‘Nazim's Indian Restaurants' across Laos have a similar clientele, and for travelers tired of noodle soup and desperately seeking to avoid almost every conceivable sort of meat that is sold at many Lao eateries (including frogs, civets, dogs, grasshoppers and snakes), they are a major blessing.

The Jamia Masjid in the heart of Vientiane serves mainly Pakhtuns and Tamil Muslims. The Imam of the mosque, Maulvi Qamruddin, is a Tamil, and addresses the Friday congregations in both Urdu and Tamil, alternately using one of the languages every week. The mosque has a small maktab attached to it, where children are taught Arabic and about Islam, and the language of instruction is Lao.

Laos' Tamil Muslims, along with Pakhtun and Cambodian Muslims living in the country, recently joined together to set up the Muslim Association of Laos to oversee Muslim community affairs and also to liaise with the government. Says Haji Muhammad Rafiq, alias Sofi Sengsone, President of the Association (and also teacher at the maktab attached to the Jamia Masjid) "our relations with the Lao government have always been very good and we face no problems at all in our religious affairs...The Lao people, in general, are very gentle and affectionate...and we think it is our good fortune to be living here'.


   The Crescent in Laos: Muslims of Vientiane

Land-locked Laos, an antique, Buddhist land still partly hidden from inquisitive outside eyes by a fading veneer of communism, is just about the last place in Southeast Asia one might expect to find a Muslim community. Certainly the country is ethnically diverse. Roughly half the total population of four million are ethnic Lao, known locally as Lao Lum, close kin to the inhabitants of neighbouring Northeast Thailand. These are the people of the Mekong Valley lowlands who predominate in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and who have traditionally dominated Lao government and society.

Of the remaining half of the population, an estimated twenty per cent are Lao Tai groups such as the Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, and Tai Khao (Black, Red and White Tai), Thai subgroups closely related to the Lao Lum, but who live higher up in the hills and cultivate dry rice, as opposed to the irrigated rice paddy culture of the lowland Mekong valley.

Then there are the Lao Theung, or "approaching the top of the mountain" Lao, a loose affiliation of mostly Mon-Khmer people who live half-way up the mountains and are generally animists. Formerly known to the ruling Lao Lum by the pejorative term kha, or slave, this group constitutes a further fifteen to twenty per cent of the population, and makes up by far the poorest section of Lao society.

Finally, on the distant, misty mountain tops live--as might be expected--the Lao Sung, or "High Lao", people who make their residence at altitudes of more than 1,000 metres above sea level. Representatives of this group are also to be found in northern Thailand--Hmong and Mien, together with smaller numbers of Akha, Lisu and Lahu.

Where, then, in this confusing ethnic melange should one look for a Lao Muslim community? Islam has always been a religion of trade, which suggests the market places of settled urban communities like Vientiane. Because of their special dietary needs (the requirement to consume only halal, or "permitted" foodstuffs, with a total prohibition on pork and improperly butchered meat), Muslims are often to be found working in meat markets, their stalls distinguished by a crescent moon or simple sign in Arabic.

On the other hand, in Laos as in neighbouring Thailand, Burma and Southwest China, much of the trade on the mountains has traditionally been carried on by Chinese Muslims from Yunnan--known to the Lao, as to the Thai, as the Chin Haw. These pioneering caravaneers once drove their mule trains south to Luang Prabang and beyond. In the late 19th century outlaw bands of Haw, both Muslim and non-Muslim, sacked Vientiane where they tore the spire off That Luang in their search for buried gold. Haw Muslims, unexpectedly, do sometimes live on the mountain tops, where they have become successful middle-men in the trade between lowlanders and hill people.

In times past, then, Laos did have a small rural Muslim community living high in the hills, but with relatives in town to supply the necessary trade goods. Today, however, the Chin Haw Muslims--together with much of the Chinese community, of whatever religious persuasion--have by and large returned to China or migrated abroad to Thailand or the West, peripheral victims of the Sino-Soviet cold war which saw Laos, as Vietnam's protege, on the side of the Russians and against the Chinese.

With the departure of the Chin Haw, Laos' sole remaining Muslim community is to be found in the capital, Vientiane. The city boasts one Jama' Masjid, or Congregational Mosque, in a narrow lane just behind the central Nam Phu Fountain. The building is constructed in neo-Moghul style, with a typically South Asian miniature minaret and speakers to broadcast the call to prayer to the faithful. Signs within the mosque, which boasts a large communal kitchen at ground level and the main prayer room on the first floor, are written in five languages--Arabic, Lao, Tamil, Urdu and English.

The unexpected presence of South Indian Tamil script is a reminder that, in crossing the Mekong, the traveller has traversed not just one of the great rivers of Asia, but also one of the great cultural divides of Europe. For Vientiane's Jama' Masjid, like the surrounding city and indeed Laos itself, was once part of former French Indo-China. The unexpected Tamil influence derives from Pondicherry, France's former Tamil toe-hold on the Indian mainland. Tamil Muslims, known as Labbai in Madras, and as Chulia in Malaysia and Phuket, found their unlikely way to Vientiane via Saigon, where the mosques also sport signs in Tamil, or in Malayalam, the language of South India's Kerala province, and site of France's other former Indian possession, Mahe.

Not that there is any indication of Francophone influence in the Vientiane Mosque. On Fridays, when the obligatory Jama', or congregational prayer, is held, the atmosphere is strongly South Asian. Local Muslims, speaking Lao but often of unmistakably subcontinental ancestry, mix with itinerant Pathans and Bengalis on Dawa'--a kind of wandering missionary work aimed less at converting the non-believer than at "purifying" the practice of those already committed to the way of Islam.

Other regulars at the mosque include diplomats from Muslim embassies in Vientiane, such as the Malaysians and the Indonesians. The Palestinians also maintain an embassy in Laos, and the Palestinian ambassador is a familiar sight at Friday prayers.

Most of Vientiane's Muslims are businessmen, involved in the textile business, various branches of import-export, or in servicing their own community as butchers and restaurateurs. A number of good South Indian Muslim restaurants exist, notably the centrally situated Taj off Man Tha Hurat Road, and a group of two or three halal establishments at the junction of Phonxay and Nong Bon Roads which also cater to hungry embassy staff.

During working hours, Vientiane's local Muslims are most visible in the textile sections of the various markets--for example the Talat Sao, or Morning Market, at the junction of Lan Xang and Khu Vieng Roads. They tend to be confident, friendly, and well-to-do, though they speak less English than is usual amongst South Asian residents of Southeast Asia, and a question in English may well elicit the reply "Bo hu" ("I Don't know") in Lao.

Few Muslims live in the smaller towns and settlements beyond Vientiane. Some say there is a small mosque in Sayaburi, on the west bank of the Mekong not far from Nan--but Sayaburi has been closed to outsiders for many years, and only now, as the restrictions on internal travel within Laos are lifted, is it once again becoming accessible. When asked about the presence of Muslims elsewhere in the country, an elderly Muslim of Vientiane shook his head sadly and replied--in an intriguing hybrid of Lao-Arabic--"Kaffir mot", all unbelievers.

Yet this is not quite the case. For within Vientiane, yet outside the predominantly South Asian circle of the city's Jama' Masjid, another less prosperous Muslim community also exists. These are the Cambodian Chams, most of whom are refugees from the barbaric Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, who instituted a campaign of genocide against Cambodia's Cham Muslim minority.


Vientiane's Azhar Mosque, known locally as "Masjid Cambodia", is located in an obscure corner of Vientiane's Chantaburi district. The Cham community is small--numbering only about two hundred--and it is relatively poor. The Chams do have, however, a strong sense of identity, which is why they have built their own mosque. As followers of the Shafi'i madhab their religious practices differ slightly, too, from the South Asian Hanafis of the Jama' Masjid.

Besides their relative poverty, many of Vientiane's Chams have been traumatised by their experiences living under and escaping from the Khmer Rouge. Most originally come from Muslim fishing villages along the banks of the Mekong above Phnom Penh. Following the Khmer Rouge seizure of power in 1975, their mosques were pulled down, they were forbidden to worship or to speak in the Cham language, and many were forced to keep pigs.

Pol Pot's eventual aim seems to have been the complete extermination of the Cham as a people. The eyes of Musa Abu Bakr, the dignified old imam of Vientiane's "Masjid Cambodia" filled with involuntary tears as he recalled the death of nearly all his family from starvation. Reduced to eating grass, the only meat they got was when the Khmer Rouge soldiery forced them to eat strips of pork, forbidden to them by religion.

Some Chams, like those in Vientiane, fled Cambodia. Others survived by concealing their religion and ethnic identity. As many as seventy per cent died from famine, or from having their heads beaten in with hoes to save bullets. It is a testimony both to the hospitality of the Lao people, and to the tenacity and will to survive of the Chams, that Vientiane now boasts a small but resilient Cham Muslim community.

 

   Cham Mosque, Vientiane, Laos.

  Islamic Centers and Organizations

Vientine Jamia Masjid, Vientiane, vientiane
Phone: 856205613302
islamic association in lao, Vientiane, vientiane
Phone: 856--020513475

The Crescent in Laos: Muslims of Vientiane
   Muslim Owned Business

NOORAINI AHMADZ & ZAINUDIN MOHD DALIB, Vientiane
Phone: +60192406282

References
Islam in Laos ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Laos  , September, 2008).
Info please ( http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107702.html,  September, 2008).
Islam Finder ( http://www.islamicfinder.org/cityPrayerNew.php?country=lao_peoples_democratic_republic  , September, 2008).                                              The Crescent in Laos: Muslims of Vientiane  ( http://www.cpamedia.com/culture/vientiane_muslims/  , September, 2008).                                       
Hidden Beyond the Mekong: Muslims in Laos ( http://www.arf-asia.org/amana/prod/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3309&Itemid=98   , September, 2008).
Anonymous, Documents from Representatives of Islamic Organizations in Laos, September 2008.