Cambodia’s Unique Islamic Sect Fights to Resist Assimilation

Practitioners of the Kan Imam San sect are promised a better life if they convert to Sunni Islam, but many ethnic Chams prefer to hold onto their traditions.

On the outskirts of a village near the ancient Cambodian capital of Longvek, the only sounds are the whir of an electric fan and the hum of insects all around. Suddenly, the silence is broken by the beating of a large drum hanging from an awning. At first, the pounding comes slowly, like a heartbeat. But soon the urgency increases as the rhythm beats faster and faster until suddenly the drummer stops and silence returns to the isolated courtyard. The drummer, clad in white, sits on the ground and prepares a tea set. After a few minutes, villagers, mostly men in white robes, emerge from their homes nearby and start assembling in the courtyard for their weekly prayer.

They are all devotees of Kan Imam San, a sect of Islam practiced almost exclusively by a small number of isolated villages of ethnic Chams in rural Cambodia. They pray only on Fridays, have their own scriptures and writing systems, and do not observe all the rules of Halal. Their behavior often seems to go against what the overwhelming majority of global Muslims would understand as Islam. However, they view themselves as the preservers of the authentic Islam of their ancestors.

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