ISLAM and MUSLIMS IN LAOS
Lao People's Democratic Republic
National name: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon
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,
Monetary unit: New Kip
Languages: Lao (official), French, English, various
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:
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
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
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
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
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.
Islamic Centers and Organizations
Jamia Masjid, Vientiane, vientiane
association in lao, Vientiane, vientiane
The Crescent in Laos: Muslims of Vientiane
Muslim Owned Business
AHMADZ & ZAINUDIN MOHD DALIB, Vientiane
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 (
The Crescent in Laos: Muslims of Vientiane (
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,