kompong chhnang province – The struggle for the souls of Cambodia’s Muslims on Wednesday came down to cake.
It is the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed’s birth, and in honor of the holiday—which Cambodians call Malut, after the Arabic Mawlid—the nation’s traditional Chams have been busily baking seven kinds of cake.
In Kompong Chhnang’s Sre Prey village, a center of Cambodia’s traditional Imam Sann Cham community, the prayers began just after 9:30 am. The men, all in white, for purity, crowded into the Keo Sar O’Russey mosque—simple as a schoolroom, with no Arabic flourishes in sight—and began to chant.
They held worn notebooks in their hands, with verses from the Koran copied out in Arabic script. Their voices rose and fell like the sea, as they sang out the life of Mohammed, whom they and other Muslims the world over revere as Islam’s holiest prophet.
The women arrived shortly after noon, wave upon wave of them, in bright silken caftans and glittering hijabi, towers of ceremonial cakes fluttering with 100-riel notes poised upon their heads. Suddenly, the air itself smelled sweet.
For the vast majority of Cambodia’s Muslims, however, Wednesday was plain as any other day.
Mufti Sos Kamry, the religious leader of Cambodia’s “modern” Cham, said his adherents will celebrate today instead, in line with much of the global Islamic community. There will be an hour or two of prayer, and nary a Pak, Pel Char, Pai Nong, Tak Chou, Lak Tram, Deav Kanhiek, or Pai Yes pudding in sight.
Sos Kamry says the traditional Cham can have their cake. “This is their right and freedom,” he said, adding: “Hopefully, someday, those people will awake and understand more about us and join with us.”
For Sos Kamry, the Prophet’s birthday isn’t even that important a holiday.
For Saki Mas, 18, however, an Imam Sann Muslim from Chan Keak village, Malut is the most important day of the year.
She has been cooking for ten days preparing recipes she learned from her dear old aunt and will likely teach her children.
The day-long celebration on the Prophet’s birthday is also the only time new babies can be welcomed into the Imam Sann community, said Leb Ke, 30, an English teacher from Sre Prey village. Christians baptize with water; Imam Sann Chams symbolically cut their infants’ hair, he said.
Behind Leb Ke, the cakes of Sre Prey have the density of the village itself. The women have braided their dough into elaborate flowers, peacocks, great dragons, and small, sweet birds, all dusted with sugar.
There are hair-fine beehives, spun in purest white, to symbolize the gathering of the community, and red-dyed duck eggs that conjure the body itself. There are long boiled cylinders of sweet rice and banana, representing men, and trays neatly lain with bowls of perfumed water, for the fastidiousness of female beauty.
Low platters of sweets represent children. Flashy, mid-sized confections stand in for adolescents, handkerchiefs pinned to their peaks as a sign of sexual maturity. And finally, closest to the mosque itself, are the tallest, adult towers, bursting with fake flowers and electric purple tinsel.
“There is nothing like this in the world,” said Leb Ke. “I want to keep this for the world. I want this to happen in a thousand years.”
He says Cambodia’s majority “modern” Muslims, who encompass a variety of Malaysia and Arabic influenced Muslims, look down on these old rites of Champa as heresy.
“They say it’s the wrong way. They say it’s like Satan,” he said. He says people have tried to turn him from his traditions, encouraging him to pray five times a day instead of once a week, on Fridays.
“They say if I change, they will give me a good job, a high salary. They will send me to study abroad,” he said.
“That’s not important for me. What is important is my culture. If I love my culture, I love myself,” he added. “That’s what I tell my students.”
Kay Tith, 74, an official at Keo Sar O’Russey mosque, says that today there are about 38,000 Imam Sann Cham living in Kompong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang, and Kandal Provinces. They have 40 mosques, but no religious schools to pass on the community’s traditions, he said.
The community is dwindling, he added, as traditionalists succumb to the attractions of the better-funded “modern” Chams.
Kay Tith said his mosque had several offers of overseas aid, but the Islamic donors wanted them to tear down their mosque and build a new one with a dome. They said no.
“I am not criticizing the modern Cham community, but I am really sorry that some traditional people have turned themselves to respect and carry out modern Cham rules,” he said.
To him, that would be a betrayal of his ancestors. Champa was once a great kingdom that encompassed modern-day Vietnam and southern Cambodia; by 1802, it had been swallowed by the Vietnamese.
Today, he said: “We are orphans. We have lost our land, our country, and our king.”