(The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia © Letloose78 | Dreamstime.com)
In 2009, the Pew Research Center estimated that only 1.6% of Cambodia's population, or 236,000 people, were Muslims. They mainly consist of Cham, speaking their own language, and Javanese descendants (Chwea), speaking Khmer. There are also smaller
groups of Bangladeshi and Pakistani descendants. The term 'Cham' is generally used to
indicate all Muslims in Cambodia regardless of ethnicity.
The Chams originated from the Kingdom of Champa. After Vietnam invaded and conquered Champa, Cambodia granted refuge to Cham Muslims escaping from Vietnamese conquest. According to some accounts, the Chams' first contact with Islam was with one of the fathers-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, Jahsh, the father of Zaynab bint Jahsh. It was in the wake of many Sahabas who arrived in Indo-China in 617-18 from Abyssinia by sea route.
Islam was then further spread by the Chams and finally consolidated by the expansion of the territories of converted rulers and their communities. Islam is now the religion of a majority of the Cham and Malay minorities in Cambodia. Most are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi'i denomination and following the Maturidi doctrine. By 1962, there were about 100 mosques in the country.
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. These Cham believe in the power of magic and sorcery, and they attach great importance to magical practices in order to avoid sickness or death. Despite that, they do celebrate many Muslim festivals and rituals.
The orthodox Cham on the other hand 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 can even speak the Malay language.
Persecution of the Cham in Cambodia took place mainly during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. This resulted in the massive relocation of the masses from urban areas to the countryside where they were forced to work in the fields every day with little food and rest.
Buddhism, which was then the dominant faith group in Cambodian society, was repressed; the monks were made to be defrocked and sent to work in the fields. The Cham were also not spared from persecution, torture, and death under the hands of the regime. Scholars and historians have differed in the definite number of victims, but have estimated that nearly one-third of the Cambodian population then were killed by the regime or died from starvation and disease - bringing the total number to between 1.05 million to 2.2 million lives.
Today, Muslims practice their religion normally and out in the open. This commenced in the People Republic of Kampuchea era where religions were restored and allowed to be practiced again. The Chams also enjoy democratic rights like all Khmer citizens, with the right to vote and be elected as politicians.
However, many of Cambodia's Cham live in poverty and have lower education
levels, higher illiteracy rates, and poorer health indicators than the rest of the Cambodian
population. Most Cham still live in rural areas, where they are primarily engaged in fishing and farming.
(Sources : Wikipedia, The European Institute for Asian Studies)