THE BIRTH OF THE KAN IMAM SAN ON THE RECENT ESTABLISHMENT OF A NEW ISLAMIC CONGREGATION IN CAMBODIA.

Author:Bruckmayr, Philipp
Position:Report
 
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The Cambodian state is unique in Southeast Asia, due to its official recognition of two distinct Islamic religious communities, whose separate existence is entirely unrelated to the Sunni-Shia divide characterizing Muslim sectarian relations in many countries of the Middle East. Whereas the great majority of Cambodian Muslims, which primarily consist of ethnic Chams, is represented by the Mufti of Cambodia, a second officially recognized Islamic community has been placed under the authority of the Oknha Khnour, as leader of the so-called Islamic Community of Imam San (Kan Imam San), since 1998. The Kan Imam San regard themselves as practicing a distinctively Cambodian Cham form of Islam, and account for roughly 10 percent of the country's Muslim population. The present contribution will shed light on the genesis of the community by elucidating its distinguishing features, defining practices, cultural icons, self-perception, self-representation and selective approaches to history as well as the internal and external mechanisms behind its formation. Specific attention will be paid to the way in which the Kan Imam San relies on vernacular manuscript culture and local traditions of saint and ancestor worship to make its case for cultural and religious authenticity in the face of an overall espousal of Malay and other models of Islamic religiosity and scholarship by the majority of Cambodian Muslims since the mid-nineteeth century.

INTRODUCTION

As far as the administration of Islam is concerned, Buddhist Cambodia represents a unique case in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the most intriguing feature of Cambodia's Muslims, estimated in 2010 at 340,450 people (or roughly 2.5 percent of the general population) living in over 450 villages, (1) is that they are split into two distinct, officially recognized Islamic communities. This bifurcation is all the more striking, as it neither falls into the category of Sunni-Shiite differences nor fully accords with the ethnic make-up of the community, which consists of an 80 percent majority of ethnic Chams. Their language is of the Austronesian family and they are descendants of migrants from former Cham kingdoms in present-day coastal Central and Southern Vietnam who arrived in Cambodia between the late fifteenth and early nineteeth centuries. The remaining 20 percent are known as Chvea. They speak the national Khmer language and claim descent from unions between Malay settlers and local women. (2) What lies at the root of the split within the country's Muslim community is a divide between competing strands primarily regarding themselves as either forming a part of wider Southeast Asian or even global Islam, or conversely as representing distinctly vernacular traditions. Thus, whereas the great majority of the Cambodian Muslim community is represented by the Mufti of Cambodia, the latter now has an officially recognized counterpart in the figure of the Ong Gnur (venerable master, or Oknha Khnour in official Khmer nomenclature) as leader of the so-called Islamic Community of Imam San (Kan Imam San, henceforth KIS) since 1998.

The latter community, which regards itself as practicing a distinctively Cambodian Cham form of Islam, accounts for roughly 10 percent of the country's Muslim population. The present contribution will shed light on the genesis of the community by elucidating its distinguishing features, defining practices, cultural icons, self-perception, self-representation, and selective approaches to history as well as the internal and external mechanisms behind its construction. Among these, historical factors such as Cambodian political history and voluntary as well as involuntary settlement patterns of the past 150 years have featured prominently, just as have more recent developments, such as the reverberations of the Khmers Rouges genocide and the increasing influence of transnational Islamic movements. Specific attention will be paid, however, to the way in which KIS emphasizes vernacular manuscript culture and traditions of saint and ancestor worship to make its case for cultural and religious authenticity in the face of an overall espousal of Malay and other models of Islamic religiosity and scholarship by the majority Cambodian Muslims since the mid-nineteenth century.

The present approach, seeking to trace and explain the formation of KIS as a distinct Islamic community, relies on two conceptual tools that may well be unfamiliar to readers. First, it departs from the basic assumption that the great majority of Muslims in Cambodia has from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards undergone a sweeping process of cultural and religious change, which I have chosen to refer to as Jawization. Indeed, the late nineteenth century witnessed a considerable expansion of usage of the Malay language and its adaptation of the Arabic script, known as the Jawi language and script respectively, as the main language of Islamic instruction and scholarship in Cambodia. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia at that time, this greatly enhanced role of Malay both accompanied and provided a necessary basis for an unprecedented expansion of Islamic schooling. Moreover, it symbolized the full immersion of a steadily growing segment of Cambodia's Muslims in an emerging trans-Southeast Asian Muslim scholarly culture with its social manifestations predicated on the common usage of Jawi. It is this historical process of religious change that is here referred to as Jawization. As will be shown, however, Jawization was far from uncontested at the local level. Indeed, the formation of KIS must be regarded as a long-term result of local resistance to Jawization and the related erosion of contending vernacular Islamic traditions.

Secondly, it will be argued that the institutionalization of this resistance in the form of KIS, an unlikely outcome, given the eventual overall dominance of Jawi models, depended on the "entitivity" of specific groups of discontents of Jawization. This concept was introduced by Stewart in connection with debates about religious purity, mixture, and syncretism, and was briefly defined as "the quality of forming a discrete entity." (3) Contrary to this approach, entitivity will be used subsequently in the additional sense of a set of cultural, religious, and social resources endowing a group of people with the capacity to form a discrete entity, thereby potentially turning an aggregate of more or less like-minded individuals into a distinctive group. It is therefore clearly linked to the notion of entitativity in social psychology, which is used to measure the extent to which a given aggregate of individuals can be perceived as a coherent social unit. (4) Such perception can be of an either emic (i.e., internal) or etic (i.e., external) nature. (5) The entitivity behind the formation of KIS is also of a reflexive nature. It refers both to the emerging self-perception of KIS as a distinctive Islamic community and to its external perception as a "collective other" by the majority of Cambodian Muslims and the state.

TWO DIFFERENT FORMS OF ISLAM IN CAMBODIA

As the Cambodian Ministry of Cults appointed the representatives of two distinct Islamic communities in 1996 and 1998 respectively, it gave official sanction and provided a congregational framework to a split within Cambodian Islam, which had been latent for at least a century. To get an indication of the differences between the two Islamic communities, it is sufficient to take a look at the religious educational backgrounds of their appointed leaders. On the one hand, there is Sos Kamry (b. 1950), the Mufti of Cambodia, who heads the Cambodian Highest Council of Islamic Affairs. Kamry, who acquired his religious schooling almost exclusively from local teachers in his native village of Speu in Eastern Cambodia's Kampong Cham province, (6) is the product of a local Islamic educational system, which, even though supported primarily by Cham-speakers, used to rely almost exclusively on Malay-language books written in Jawi script (i.e. the Malay adaptation of Arabic script) from the late nine-teenth century onwards. Conversely, the Ong Gnur Kai Tam of KIS, likewise educated in his native village of Sre Prey (Au Russey commune) in Kampong Chhnang in Central Cambodia, (7) was reared in a scholarly culture grounded in the use of Cham-language manuscripts employing the Cham script, which had been developed out of South Indian scripts from the third to fourth centuries onwards. (8)

The split within Cambodian Islam, epitomized by these two religious leaders with their vastly different backgrounds of Islamic education and institutionalized with their official recognition as heads of separate Islamic congregations in the late 1990s, is the result of a long history of local intra-religious change. This change was most decisively shaped by the gravitation to and participation in a homogenizing trans-Southeast Asian Islamic discursive tradition by a continually increasing proportion of Cambodian Muslims between the late nine-teenth century and the early 1970s. Thus, the local Muslim communities largely began to orient themselves towards an evolving, overarching, scholarly and social world of Southeast Asian Islam, aptly defined as the "Jawi ecumene" by Michael Laffan. (9) This Southeast Asian ecumene linked the different Muslim peoples from the Southern Philippines and Eastern Indonesia in the East to those of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra in the West through the Malay language and the Jawi script as the common media of transmission and communication, and as the "expression of a Jawi identity." (10)

By becoming Jawi, Cambodian Muslims became closely linked to their co-religionists throughout much of Southeast Asia, and particularly to those of southern Thailand and northeastern Malaysia. Yet, this process has gradually also resulted--for the majority of Cham Muslims in Cambodia--in a growing and eventually irreversible...

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