Islam in Vietnam is primarily the religion of the Cham people, a minority ethnic group related to Malays; however, roughly one-third of the Muslims in Vietnam are of other ethnic groups. There is also a community describing themselves of mixed ethnic origins (Cham, Khmer, Malay, Minang, Viet, Chinese and Arab), who practice Islam and are also known as Cham, or Cham Muslims, around the region of Chau Doc in the Southwest.
History of Muslim in Vietnam
Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam, the legends have it, sent the first official Muslim envoy to Vietnam and Tang Dynasty China in 650. Seafaring Muslim traders are known to have made stops at ports in the Champa Kingdom en route to China very early in the history of Islam; however, the earliest material evidence of the transmission of Islam consists of Song Dynasty-era documents from China which record that the Cham familiarized themselves with Islam in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The number of followers began to increase as contacts with Sultanate of Malacca broadened in the wake of the 1471 collapse of the Champa Kingdom, but Islam would not become widespread among the Cham until the mid-17th century. In the mid-19th century, many Muslim Chams emigrated from Cambodia and settled in the Mekong River Delta region, further bolstering the presence of Islam in Vietnam. Malayan Islam began to have an increasing influence on the Chams in the early 20th century; religions publications were imported from Malaya, Malay clerics gave khutba (sermons) in mosques in the Malay language, and some Cham people went to Malayan madrasah to further their studies of Islam.
After the 1976 establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, some of the 55,000 Muslim Chams emigrated to Malaysia. 1,750 were also accepted as immigrants by Yemen; most settled in Ta’izz. Those who remained did not suffer violent persecution, although some writers claim that their mosques were closed by the government. In 1981, foreign visitors to Vietnam were still permitted to speak to indigenous Muslims and pray alongside them, and a 1985 account described Ho Chi Minh City’s Muslim community as being especially ethnically diverse: aside from Cham people, there were also Indonesians, Malays, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Omanis, and North Africans; their total numbers were roughly 10,000 at the time. However, Vietnam’s Muslims remained relatively isolated from the mainstream of world Islam, and their isolation, combined with the lack of religious schools, caused the practice of Islam in Vietnam to become increasingly synergetic. Command of Arabic is not widespread even among religious leaders, and some Muslims are reported to pray to Ali and refer to him as the “Son of God”.
Vietnam’s largest mosque was opened in January 2006 in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai Province; its construction was partially funded by donations from Saudi Arabia.
Origins of Islam in Vietnam
There are about 72,000 Muslims in Vietnam, making up about 0.1% of the country’s population of 91 million people. Most of the Muslims in Vietnam are Champa Muslims. The second largest group of Muslims in Vietnam is the Inter-Racial Muslims, who are both the offspring of mixed marriages between the Vietnamese and Muslim traders and also the spouses who converted to Islam after marriage. The third group of Muslims in Vietnam is those that converted to Islam after interacting with Muslim traders and embracing the religion. There are 79 mosques in Vietnam. Islam is the primary religion of the Cham people of Vietnam, with account for one third of the Islam population in Vietnam. The rest of the Muslims are Khmer, Malay, Minang, Viet, Chinese, and Arab.
There are different legends as to how Islam reached Vietnam, but all stories suggest that the Cham people brought the religion to Vietnam. Between 618-907 (the exact dates are not known), merchants and traders from the Muslim world sailed along the coastal cities of Indo-China on the way to mainland China, introducing the Islam religion along the way. One of the stops that the seafaring merchants made was in the Champa Kingdom, which is located in what is now modern Vietnam. Two gravestones of Champa Muslims from the 11th century is the earliest physical evidence of the transmission of Islam in Vietnam. There are also Chinese documents that confirm that the Cham people familiarized themselves with Islam in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. It was not until 1607-1676 that the majority of the Champa people converted to the Islam religion after the king of Champa became Muslim. By the 17th century, Champa province had been completely annexed and absorbed by the Vietnamese. Some of the Champa migrated along the Mekong River, where they intereacted with Malaysian Muslim traders which helped them preserve the true teachings of Islam. Other Champa Muslims in Vietnam settled in Central Vietnam, where they began blending Islam with other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.
In 1959, the Champa Muslims from Central Vietnam started interacting with Champa Muslims in a village in South Vietnam and also with Muslims in Saigon. The Muslim Community in Saigon were Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Indonesians, and Arabs. As a result of this coming together of the Muslims of Vietnam, the true teachings of Islam were again enforced. With the strengthened unity of the Islam followers of Vietnam, many mosques were built throughout South Vietnam to provide places of prayer and worship for the Muslims in Vietnam.
Vietnamese perspective on Islam
From the French colonial rule in Vietnam to the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, the Cham Muslims have been victims to forced assimilation. Ho Chi Minh broke promises to the Cham Muslims of ethnic autonomy and many Cham leaders were incarcerated in communist re-education camps and even executed. Representation of Cham Muslims in Vietnam were mis-construed by French Scholars. Early French scholars that described Cham Muslims in Vietnam were influenced by the orientalist mode of scholarship discussed by Edward Said in his book Orientalism and by Dr. Bazian in class. The scholars and Vietnamese government officials accentuated the exotic quality of Cham life, painting static portraits of Cham culture from images derived from early translations of Islamic religious texts. This depersonalized the people described. Furthermore, the Cham culture and society was often depicted as inferior and uncivilized in comparison to the West.
The Cham Muslims in Vietnam are an ethnic minority whose autonomy and traditional ways of life are no longer possible because of today’s “incursions of armies, modernizing reforms, resource extraction, and a ﬂood of new migrants.” They suffer from government policies and pressures to conform to mainstream cultural standards or become marginalized. The individualism of the people are ignored and the Cham Muslims are referred to under a larger umbrella of “minorities”, a classification, because of globalization and ethnic categorizing. Categorized as an ethnic minority, the Cham Muslims are depicted as “poor,” “backward,” and “deficient.” They are often stereotyped, discriminated against as inferior, and when they protest, their voice is ignored and unrepresentative. Writer Phillip Taylor conveys that the Ethnic Minorities of Vietnam are “subjugated, disciplined, and circumscribed…their freedom has been lost; they are overrun, overwhelmed, and determined by forces over which they have little or no control.”
The Muslims in Vietnam still struggle to feel accepted in a country where their religion makes them a minority and an outcast. Vietnam is primarily a Buddhist country, and there are only about 72,000 Muslims in a country of over 91 million people. In an interview with Muslims in Vietnam, one named Hachot says that she does not feel like she is a part of the larger Vietnamese society or community. She says that although some of the Non-Muslims in Vietnam don’t care about their different religious practices, there are others who think that the Cham Muslims are dirty and object to the Muslims’ shunning of pork. Hachot states, “The Cham fell and lost their country. I feel like I live in another country and it’s not my home.” Some Cham Muslim women do not wear their headscarves to work, but instead wear jeans because of fear of discrimination by their co-workers.
After the Vietnam War in 1975, most Muslims left Vietnam and immigrated to other countries such as America, France, Malaysia, India, Canada and Australia because they feared prosecution from the Socialist Government. Today, the Muslims that remained are extremely financially depressed and struggle to maintain their religious practices. The Socialist government fails to provide any financial subsidy to the Muslims in Vietnam, so they must rely on other Muslim communities in neighboring countries for financial support to build mosques, religious schools, and places of worship.
The Muslims in Vietnam are isolated from the mainstream world of Islam, which has caused repercussions. In an interview, Mack Aly, a Muslim in Vietnam, he states that Islam in Vietnam is “not so strong” so he is less devout than most other Muslims in the world. Although he still adheres to the avoidance of pork, he does not pray 5 times a day, dates non-Muslim women, drinks alcohol, and smokes cigarettes. Furthermore, Vietnam lacks religious schools that teach Islam. The isolation and lack of education has caused the practice of Islam in Vietnam to become blurred with other religions and less defined and strong. Most Muslims and even religious leaders in Vietnam are not fluent in Arabic. Furthermore, some Muslims pray to Ali instead of Allah.
Upon conducting a google book search on “war on terror” and “Vietnam,” there are many books written that draw parallels between the Vietnam War with the War on Terror. The Vietnam War is a horrific event in US history that terrorized Americans. In the books, Vietnam and the Vietnamese people are portrayed as the terrorizers. It casts a very negative view in Americans’ minds and creates a feeling of anger and resentment towards the Vietnamese people by stereotyping them all as cruel communists. By paralleling the Vietnam War with the current War on Terror, this shapes the American perspective that the War on Terror is horrific, just as the Vietnam War was. It also perpetuates Islamophobia by drawing similarities between the Vietnamese communists and terrorists.
Muslim in Saigon
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 practices. 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 practices.
“We live together as Muslims in the same community because we have different lifestyle and practices 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.
(Source: Tan Jo Hann, Malaysian writer).