The Cham (also called Khmer Islam) are Muslims who live in Cambodia. As late as 1975, there were between 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims in Cambodia, however, persecution under the Khmer Rouge eroded their numbers. The Cham Muslims are Sunnis of the Shafii school. The Cham of Cambodia can be divided into a traditionalist branch and an orthodox branch. The date that Islam was introduced is unknown. Malay influence is responsible for restoring Muslim practices of the Orthodox Cham. However, the restrictions of Islamic law against pork and drink alcohol, have been relaxed among many of the Cham.

Cham society is matrilineal - children trace their line of descent through their mother and Cham families give a position of authority to their maternal uncle(s).

The Cham people speak Western Cham (Tjam), a Malayo-Polynesian language which uses an old Devanagari script, which is similar to the alphabet used by some modern Indian languages. The Cham once had a strong empire, called Champa, which was located in southern Vietnam. Champa was almost always at war, yet its economy and society flourished until the late 1400's. In 1471, Champa was invaded and destroyed by the Vietnamese, and most Cham fled to Cambodia. The poorer Cham remained in Vietnam and are known as the Western Cham.

The Cham have their own mosques and, in 1962 there were about 100 mosques in Cambodia. By the end of the 19th 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 elders 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.

After Cambodia became independent, the Cham were placed under the control of a five-member council which represented the Muslims in official functions. Each local Muslim community had a Hakem [who lead the community and the mosque], an Imam [who lead the prayers], and a Bilal [who called the faithful to the daily prayers].

The peninsula of Chrouy Changvar near Phnom Penh is the spiritual center of the Cham. The traditional Cham retain many ancient Muslim and even pre-Muslim traditions and rites. They consider Allah as the all-powerful God, but they also recognize non-Islamic deities. Some Cham have a special tradition of burying their dead twice. Immediately after death, the person is buried in a temporary grave and, after a year, the person's bones are removed and taken to a permanent place to be buried with their rings.

The religious leaders of the Traditional Cham (of both Cambodia and Vietnam) dress completely in white and shave their heads and faces. They believe in magic and sorcery, and give great importance to magical practices which they believe helps them avoid sickness and death. These Cham have little interest in the pilgrimage to Mecca or in the five daily prayers, however the traditional Cham do celebrate Muslim festivals and rituals.

The Orthodox Cham practice a more orthodox form of Islam religion due largely to their close contacts and intermarriages with, the Malay Muslim community. The Orthodox Cham have adopted Malay customs, family organization, and many speak Malay. The Orthodox Cham send pilgrims to Mecca. Conflicts between the Traditional and the Orthodox Cham increased between 1954 and 1975 to the point where the two groups, within the same village, had their own mosques and separate religious organizations.


United States Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress under the Country Studies/Area Handbook Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Army.

The Western Cham of Vietnam
The Western Cham of Cambodia

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