The Crescent in Laos: Muslims of Vientiane

Land-locked Laos, an antique, Buddhist land still partly hidden from inquisitive outside eyes by a fading veneer of communism, is just about the last place in Southeast Asia one might expect to find a Muslim community. Certainly the country is ethnically diverse. Roughly half the total population of four million are ethnic Lao, known locally as Lao Lum, close kin to the inhabitants of neighbouring Northeast Thailand. These are the people of the Mekong Valley lowlands who predominate in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and who have traditionally dominated Lao government and society.

Of the remaining half of the population, an estimated twenty per cent are Lao Tai groups such as the Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, and Tai Khao (Black, Red and White Tai), Thai subgroups closely related to the Lao Lum, but who live higher up in the hills and cultivate dry rice, as opposed to the irrigated rice paddy culture of the lowland Mekong valley.

Then there are the Lao Theung, or "approaching the top of the mountain" Lao, a loose affiliation of mostly Mon-Khmer people who live half-way up the mountains and are generally animists. Formerly known to the ruling Lao Lum by the pejorative term kha, or slave, this group constitutes a further fifteen to twenty per cent of the population, and makes up by far the poorest section of Lao society.

Finally, on the distant, misty mountain tops live--as might be expected--the Lao Sung, or "High Lao", people who make their residence at altitudes of more than 1,000 metres above sea level. Representatives of this group are also to be found in northern Thailand--Hmong and Mien, together with smaller numbers of Akha, Lisu and Lahu.

Where, then, in this confusing ethnic melange should one look for a Lao Muslim community? Islam has always been a religion of trade, which suggests the market places of settled urban communities like Vientiane. Because of their special dietary needs (the requirement to consume only halal, or "permitted" foodstuffs, with a total prohibition on pork and improperly butchered meat), Muslims are often to be found working in meat markets, their stalls distinguished by a crescent moon or simple sign in Arabic.

On the other hand, in Laos as in neighbouring Thailand, Burma and Southwest China, much of the trade on the mountains has traditionally been carried on by Chinese Muslims from Yunnan--known to the Lao, as to the Thai, as the Chin Haw. These pioneering caravaneers once drove their mule trains south to Luang Prabang and beyond. In the late 19th century outlaw bands of Haw, both Muslim and non-Muslim, sacked Vientiane where they tore the spire off That Luang in their search for buried gold. Haw Muslims, unexpectedly, do sometimes live on the mountain tops, where they have become successful middle-men in the trade between lowlanders and hill people.

In times past, then, Laos did have a small rural Muslim community living high in the hills, but with relatives in town to supply the necessary trade goods. Today, however, the Chin Haw Muslims--together with much of the Chinese community, of whatever religious persuasion--have by and large returned to China or migrated abroad to Thailand or the West, peripheral victims of the Sino-Soviet cold war which saw Laos, as Vietnam's protege, on the side of the Russians and against the Chinese.

With the departure of the Chin Haw, Laos' sole remaining Muslim community is to be found in the capital, Vientiane. The city boasts one Jama' Masjid, or Congregational Mosque, in a narrow lane just behind the central Nam Phu Fountain. The building is constructed in neo-Moghul style, with a typically South Asian miniature minaret and speakers to broadcast the call to prayer to the faithful. Signs within the mosque, which boasts a large communal kitchen at ground level and the main prayer room on the first floor, are written in five languages--Arabic, Lao, Tamil, Urdu and English.

The unexpected presence of South Indian Tamil script is a reminder that, in crossing the Mekong, the traveller has traversed not just one of the great rivers of Asia, but also one of the great cultural divides of Europe. For Vientiane's Jama' Masjid, like the surrounding city and indeed Laos itself, was once part of former French Indo-China. The unexpected Tamil influence derives from Pondicherry, France's former Tamil toe-hold on the Indian mainland. Tamil Muslims, known as Labbai in Madras, and as Chulia in Malaysia and Phuket, found their unlikely way to Vientiane via Saigon, where the mosques also sport signs in Tamil, or in Malayalam, the language of South India's Kerala province, and site of France's other former Indian possession, Mahe.

Not that there is any indication of Francophone influence in the Vientiane Mosque. On Fridays, when the obligatory Jama', or congregational prayer, is held, the atmosphere is strongly South Asian. Local Muslims, speaking Lao but often of unmistakably subcontinental ancestry, mix with itinerant Pathans and Bengalis on Dawa'--a kind of wandering missionary work aimed less at converting the non-believer than at "purifying" the practice of those already committed to the way of Islam.

Other regulars at the mosque include diplomats from Muslim embassies in Vientiane, such as the Malaysians and the Indonesians. The Palestinians also maintain an embassy in Laos, and the Palestinian ambassador is a familiar sight at Friday prayers.

Most of Vientiane's Muslims are businessmen, involved in the textile business, various branches of import-export, or in servicing their own community as butchers and restaurateurs. A number of good South Indian Muslim restaurants exist, notably the centrally situated Taj off Man Tha Hurat Road, and a group of two or three halal establishments at the junction of Phonxay and Nong Bon Roads which also cater to hungry embassy staff.

During working hours, Vientiane's local Muslims are most visible in the textile sections of the various markets--for example the Talat Sao, or Morning Market, at the junction of Lan Xang and Khu Vieng Roads. They tend to be confident, friendly, and well-to-do, though they speak less English than is usual amongst South Asian residents of Southeast Asia, and a question in English may well elicit the reply "Bo hu" ("I Don't know") in Lao.

Few Muslims live in the smaller towns and settlements beyond Vientiane. Some say there is a small mosque in Sayaburi, on the west bank of the Mekong not far from Nan--but Sayaburi has been closed to outsiders for many years, and only now, as the restrictions on internal travel within Laos are lifted, is it once again becoming accessible. When asked about the presence of Muslims elsewhere in the country, an elderly Muslim of Vientiane shook his head sadly and replied--in an intriguing hybrid of Lao-Arabic--"Kaffir mot", all unbelievers.

Yet this is not quite the case. For within Vientiane, yet outside the predominantly South Asian circle of the city's Jama' Masjid, another less prosperous Muslim community also exists. These are the Cambodian Chams, most of whom are refugees from the barbaric Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, who instituted a campaign of genocide against Cambodia's Cham Muslim minority.

Cham schoolteachers at a madrassa in Vientiane.
David Henley / CPA
Cham schoolteachers at a madrassa in Vientiane.

Vientiane's Azhar Mosque, known locally as "Masjid Cambodia", is located in an obscure corner of Vientiane's Chantaburi district. The Cham community is small--numbering only about two hundred--and it is relatively poor. The Chams do have, however, a strong sense of identity, which is why they have built their own mosque. As followers of the Shafi'i madhab their religious practices differ slightly, too, from the South Asian Hanafis of the Jama' Masjid.

Besides their relative poverty, many of Vientiane's Chams have been traumatised by their experiences living under and escaping from the Khmer Rouge. Most originally come from Muslim fishing villages along the banks of the Mekong above Phnom Penh. Following the Khmer Rouge seizure of power in 1975, their mosques were pulled down, they were forbidden to worship or to speak in the Cham language, and many were forced to keep pigs.

Pol Pot's eventual aim seems to have been the complete extermination of the Cham as a people. The eyes of Musa Abu Bakr, the dignified old imam of Vientiane's "Masjid Cambodia" filled with involuntary tears as he recalled the death of nearly all his family from starvation. Reduced to eating grass, the only meat they got was when the Khmer Rouge soldiery forced them to eat strips of pork, forbidden to them by religion.

Some Chams, like those in Vientiane, fled Cambodia. Others survived by concealing their religion and ethnic identity. As many as seventy per cent died from famine, or from having their heads beaten in with hoes to save bullets. It is a testimony both to the hospitality of the Lao people, and to the tenacity and will to survive of the Chams, that Vientiane now boasts a small but resilient Cham Muslim community.

Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2001.

This article was originally published in Saudi Aramco World.

Crescent moons against a stormy monsoon sky, Vientiane, Laos.
David Henley / CPA
Crescent moons against a stormy monsoon sky, Vientiane, Laos.

Cham Mosque, Vientiane, Laos.
David Henley / CPA
Cham Mosque, Vientiane, Laos.


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