Toothless and balding, Bhann Tes sat on a wooden bed, writing Cham script in a handheld notebook outside a mosque on Udong mountain, some 30 kilometers from Phnom Penh.
The mosque, which looks more like a Buddhist temple, might not be recognizable to more orthodox Muslims. Nor would the practices of Bhann Tes, who belongs to a rare sect of Islam whose members say is in decline.
Bhann Tes, who is 76, travels to the mosque from his home, 20 kilometers away in Kampong Chhnang province, just once a week to pray. This was required by Allah to maintain a good mind, he said. To pray five times a day, as other Muslims do, was not necessary, he said.
“Allah did not tell us to physically pray five times a day, but only to keep our minds clean of bad thoughts, like wanting to steal others’ property, telling lies, or cheating others,” he said.
Bhann Tes belongs to the Imam San sect of Islam, better known as Jahed, who comprise an estimated 37,000 Cham Muslims and whose beliefs merge the teachings of the Quran with older traditions and customs like ancestor worship.
The small group is now facing a new threat, as money and influence from other Islamic groups, including those in Arab states, have begun drawing the Jahed under their influence.
“They consider us out of their group, but we follow the same holy book,” said Kai Tam, a revered Jahed elder. “They pray with body movement, and we just pray without it.” (Women, he said, are not required to pray at all.)
“I am worried that we may lose our customs and identity in the future, as some of our members have already lost their self-identity to join with the other groups for money,” Kai Tam said in an interview at his home in Kampong Chhnang’s Kampong Tralach district.
However, Sos Kamry, who leads the majority of Cambodia’s Muslims as a mufti, denied Jaheds were being lured by material gain or money.
“Those who have joined our group did it on a voluntary basis, especially after they returned from overseas studies or pilgrimages in some Arab states, where they witnessed the true practices of Islam,” Sos Kamry said. “They call themselves Muslims, but they worship our Lord a bit differently. They may not yet know how to do it fully, but when they understand it better they follow [us] because their practices exist nowhere else in the world.”
Emiko Stock, a French anthropologist who has studied the Cham for nearly a decade, said leaders of the Imam San community often refuse aid from other Islamic sects for fear they might lose their identity.
“For instance, if they accept aid from Arab states or other countries, they said they are worried that the way of practicing their religion would be changed, such as the observance of Mawlut ceremony and the prayers for their ancestor.”
Although Cambodia’s two sects of Islam practice the same religion quite differently, no clashes or mishaps have been reported in the Buddhist-dominated country.
Min Khin, the Minister of Cults and Religion, and Senate President Chea Sim each said separately at a Buddhist conference this week that Cambodia would maintain freedom of religion.
For worshippers like Bhann Tes, the differences make no difference.
“We are all walking toward the same light,” he said. “It’s just that the way we are taking is different. Who will reach the light first, let’s just wait and see.”