Ho Chi Minh City – More than 1,000 years ago, the first Vietnamese embraced Islam and charted the religion’s unique path into this Indo Chinese country.
Today Vietnamese Muslims claims that there are about 65,000 Muslims in Southern Vietnam, with at least 5,000 believers living in Ho Chi Minh City alone. There are about 15 mosques and Muslim places of worship in the capital city with at least 3 of them frequented by Muslims from Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Pakistan respectively.
Muslims are the minority in this predominately Buddhist and Socialist State. Islam was introduced to Vietnam by the merchants and travelers from the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan who sailed along the coastal lines and at the same time spread the teachings of Islam to the local people there. These foreign visitors married Vietnamese partners and naturally settled in this new land and very soon, a second generation of Muslims was already evolving in Vietnam.
Converts comprise the second largest grouping of Muslims found in Vietnam. These are local Vietnamese who were drawn to Islamic teachings and later on converted to Islam. One such example was the case where an entire community of Tan Bou village in Tan An province was converted to Islam.
But the Champa Muslims would be considered the biggest group of Muslims in Vietnam. They are also one of the biggest groupings of indigenous people of Vietnam
The history of the Champa kingdom and culture dates back to the 2nd century and had lasted until 17th century. The Cham people belong to the Malay Polynesian stock and most of them were initially Hindu devotees.
Islam made its greatest impact on the Cham people in the 17th century when the Champa King became a believer and influenced his people to convert to Islam. When his empire collapsed and was succeeded by a Vietnamese King, the Muslim Champa community was believed to have suffered severe persecution under the new ruler.
History records that the Muslim King then led his people out of this bondage by making their exodus to Malaysia where they could seek refuge with other fellow Muslims who could accept them there. Until today the Malaysian state of Terengganu is still the historical location of “Kampung Cham” where the First Champa Muslims established themselves in Malaysia.
For those who had remained in Vietnam, they lived in isolation and very soon found themselves blending the teachings of Islam with Buddhism and local practices. It was not until several centuries later that they began to rediscover their Islamic Faith from other Muslims in Ho Chi Minh City and Southern part of Vietnam. Malaysian Muslim traders who sailed through the Mekong River also influenced the relearning of Islam by the Cham Muslims then
Another well remembered exodus of Vietnamese Muslims was after the Vietnam War in 1975. A large number of Muslims migrated to other countries such as America, France, Malaysia, India, Canada and Australia because they had feared persecution from the newly installed socialist government.
Today Vietnamese Muslims are mainly found along the South Eastern coast facing the South China Sea, and in the south, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
The Vietnamese Cham Muslims adhere to the Sunni Islamic school of thought, which is similar to their counterparts in Kampuchea, Malaysian and Indonesian. Even their lifestyles and customary practices reflect this common trend of Islamic belief.
For instance Muslim communities are all these places are called “kampongs”. Muslim men wear “batik lungi” tied in a knot at the waist. But while the “Songkok” (Black Muslim cap) is popular in Indonesia and Malaysia, the Cham of Vietnam and Kampuchea wear white skull caps called “Kapea” The elders among the Cham wear white robes and turbans “Sunnah”.
The Cham are economically very depressed and thus it is difficult for them to maintain their communities and even religious practises. In southern parts of Vietnam, The Cham Muslim communities are mainly involved in fishing, weaving and small trade unlike their counterparts in the north and central who are usually farmers. The Cham people are well known for their finely woven silk and “sarong” garments.
One such Cham Muslim community is located in the “Jamiul Muslimin Mosque ” in Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the 15 or so Muslim families work in low-income jobs such as contract laborers, small vendors, cloth weavers and some temporary odd jobs workers in the city.
“We often depend on the financial support from Muslims in other countries just to build our “madrasah”, religious school or place of worship,” explained Haji Idris Ismael, community leader of Jamiul Muslimin Mosque.
Ismael further explained that although as Cham Muslims they have accepted the teachings of Islam, but they still try to maintain their traditional customs and practises.
“We live together as Muslims in the same community because we have different lifestyle and practises from the other Vietnamese,” declared Ismael. “We the older generation must also be careful not to lose our Cham cultural heritage,” he added.
300 years after the first migration of Vietnamese Muslims Malaysia, today a new wave of migration is happening among the Vietnamese Muslims. Vietnamese Muslim students are being sent to the International Islam University in Malaysia to take up Islamic studies, and also secular study programs such as computer science, forestry, food technology and engineering
“We used to get financial support from Muslim concerned groups and individuals in Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia in the early 1990’s but now there is little help from abroad,” Ismael said.
He cited the example of the “madrasah” religious school in his community (a small brick walled room good for 40 odd children to study) that was finally completed after 4 years, mainly financed by concerned people from abroad.
Ismael explained that there is good integration and mutual respect between the Cham Muslims and the Vietnamese government and society in general. However the socialist state does not seem to have financial subsidy to support the Cham Muslim communities and their activities.
“We must be able to take care of our brothers and sisters in islam especially the poor and the orphans,” he said as he recited from memory the well-quoted verse from the Qu’ran.
“If we can get help from a Muslim neighbor, we would be able to gradually improve our lives and community one step at a time” he added.