Islam in the Maldives

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Maldives religions (2010)[1]
Mosque in Hulhumalé

Islam is the most widespread and the official religion of the Maldives.


A Plaque in Juma Mosque, Malé, Maldives, on which Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn's name is written. Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn was a Somali who is said to have converted Maldives in 12th century AD to Islam.
Malé Friday Mosque Minaret, 1981

The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the 12th century may partly explain why the last Buddhist king of Maldives Dhovemi converted to Islam in the year 1153 (or 1193, for certain copper plate grants give a later date). The king thereupon adopted the Muslim title and name (in Arabic) of Sultan (besides the old Divehi title of Maha Radun or Ras Kilege or Rasgefānu) Muhammad al Adil, initiating a series of six Islamic dynasties consisting of eighty-four sultans and sultanas that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective.The formal title of the Sultan up to 1965 was, Sultan of Land and Sea, Lord of the twelve-thousand islands and Sultan of the Maldives which came with the style Highness. The person traditionally deemed responsible for this conversion was a Sunni Muslim visitor named Abu al Barakat, or more commonly known as the Shaykh Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn. His venerated tomb now stands on the grounds of Hukuru Mosque in the capital Malé. Built in 1656, this is the oldest mosque in Maldives. Following the Islamic concept that before Islam there was the time of Jahiliya (ignorance), in the history books used by Maldivians the introduction of Islam at the end of the 12th century is considered the cornerstone of the country's history.

Compared to the other areas of South Asia, the conversion of the Maldives to Islam happened relatively late. Arab Traders had converted populations in the Malabar Coast since the 7th century, and the Arab invader Muhammad Bin Qāsim had converted large swathes of Sindh to Islam at about the same time. The Maldives remained a Buddhist kingdom for another five hundred years (perhaps the south-westernmost Buddhist country) until the conversion to Islam.

Introduction of Islam[edit]

Arab interest in Maldives also was reflected in the residence there in the 1340s of Ibn Battutah. The well-known North African traveler wrote how a Moroccan, one Abu Barakat the Berber, was believed to have been responsible for spreading Islam in the islands, reportedly convincing the local king after having subdued Ranna Maari, a demon coming from the sea.[2] Even though this report has been contested in later sources, it does explain some crucial aspects of Maldivian culture. For instance, historically Arabic has been the prime language of administration there, instead of the Persian and Urdu languages used in the nearby Muslim states. Another link to North Africa was the Maliki school of jurisprudence, used throughout most of North Africa, which was the official one in the Maldives until the 17th century.[3]

Some scholars have suggested the possibility of Ibn Battuta misreading Maldive texts, and have posited another scenario where this Abu Barakat might have been a native of Berbera, a significant trading port on the north western coast of Somalia.[4] This Shaykh is the famous Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn He is also credited to have been responsible for spreading Islam in the islands, establishing the Hukuru Miskiiy Mosque, and converting the Maldivian population into Islam.[5] Ibn Batuta states the Madliveian king was converted by Abu Al Barakat Al Berber (Blessed Father of Somalia)[6]. This scenario would also help explain the usage of the Arabic language and the predominance of the Maliki school on the islands.

Another interpretation, held by the more reliable local historical chronicles, Raadavalhi and Taarikh,[7][8] is that Abu Barakat was an Iranian from Tabriz called Yusuf Shamsud-din, also locally known as Tabrīzugefānu (the much venerated tomb of this saint now stands opposite the grounds of Hukuru Miski, in the centre of Malé).[9] In the Arabic script the words al-Barbari and al-Tabrizi are very much alike, owing to the fact that at the time, Arabic had several consonants that looked identical and could only be differentiated by overall context (this has since changed by addition of dots above or below letters to clarify pronunciation – For example, the letter "B" in modern Arabic has a dot below, whereas the letter "T" looks identical except there are two dots above it). The first reference to an Iranian origin dates to an 18th-century Persian text.[10]

Sufi elements in Maldivian Islam[edit]

The Maldives have had a long history of Sufic orders, as can be seen in the history of the country such as the building of tombs. They were used until as recently as the 1980s for seeking the help of buried saints. They can be seen today next to some old mosques and are considered today as cultural heritage.

Other aspects of tassawuf, such as ritualised dhikr ceremonies called Maulūdu (Mawlid) — the liturgy of which included recitations and certain supplications in a melodical tone—existed until very recent times. These Maulūdu festivals were held in ornate tents specially built for the occasion. At present Islam is the official religion of the entire population, as adherence to it is required for citizenship.

Role of islam in Maldivian society[edit]

The Islamic Centre, housing the mosque Masjid-al-Sultan Mohammed Thakurufaanu-al-A'z'am.

Islam is the state religion of Maldives, and adherence to it is legally required for citizens by a revision of the constitution in 2008: Article 9, Section D states that a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.[11]

The traditional Islamic law code of shariah, known in Dhivehi as sariatu, forms the Maldives' basic code of law, as interpreted to conform to local Maldivian conditions by the President, the attorney general, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Majlis. On the inhabited islands, the miski, or mosque, forms the central place where Islam is practiced. Because Friday is the most important day for Muslims to attend mosque, shops and offices in towns and villages close around 11 a.m., and the sermon begins by 12:30 p.m.

Adhan (prayer) sessions are held five times daily. Mudimu, the mosque caretakers, make the call. Most shops and offices close for fifteen minutes after each call. During the ninth Muslim month of Ramadan, cafés and restaurants are closed during the day, and working hours are limited.

Mosques in the Maldives[edit]

Most inhabited Maldivian islands have several mosques; Malé has more than thirty. Most traditional mosques are whitewashed buildings constructed of coral stone with corrugated iron or thatched roofs.

Some Maldivian mosques host mandala-like decorative elements, cultural influences from the pre-Islamic period and/or from the Indian sub-continent.

In Malé, the Islamic Center and the Grand Friday Mosque, built in 1984 with funding from the Persian Gulf states, Pakistan, Brunei, and Malaysia, are imposing elegant structures. The gold-colored dome of this mosque is the first structure sighted when approaching Malé. In mid-1991 Maldives had a total of 725 mosques and 266 women's mosques.[12]

Growth of radicalism[edit]

In the late 1990s the spread of Wahhabism challenged more traditional Islamic practices. After the 2004 tsunami, Saudi-funded preachers gained even more influence.[13][14] Indian Newspaper The Week reported that charities that served as fronts for Pakistani terrorist groups like Lashkar e Toiba used disaster relief missions to tsunami-torn Maldives as an opportunity to recruit potential jihadists.[15]

The Guardian estimates that 50-100 fighters have joined ISIS and al Qaeda from the Maldives.[14] The Financial Times puts the number at 200.[16] Radicalization often happens in jail where the "only thing to read is the Qur’an or religious literature. There are also lots of older militants and young guys look up to them."[14]

  • 2007 Malé bombing: On 29 September 2007 a homemade bomb went off in Sultan Park near the Islamic Centre in the Maldivian capital Malé, injuring 12 foreign tourists. In December, three men were sentenced to 15 years in jail after they confessed to the bombing. Two of those imprisoned, Mohamed Sobah and Ahmed Naseer - both Maldivian natives in their early twenties - had their sentences changed from incarceration to three-year suspended sentences under observation and were later set free in August 2010.[15]
  • 2011 Ismail Khilath Rasheed controversy
  • In February 2012 almost all the National Museum (Maldives)'s pre-Islamic artifacts, dating back to before the 12th century, were destroyed during an attack: "Some of the pieces can be put together but mostly they are made of sandstone, coral and limestone, and they are reduced to powder." He said the museum had "nothing [left] to show" of the country's pre-Islamic history.[17][18] Among the damaged objects were a six-faced coral statue, an 18 in (46 cm) high bust of Buddha, as well as assorted limestone and coral statues[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maldives.
  2. ^ Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, tr. and ed. H. A. R. Gibb (London: Broadway House, 1929)
  3. ^ The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveller of the Fourteenth Century
  4. ^ "Richard Bulliet – History of the World to 1500 CE (Session 22) – Tropical Africa and Asia". 23 November 2010. Retrieved 23 September 2013. 
  5. ^ Mackintosh-Smith, Tim (2010). Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam from Zanzibar to the Alhambra. Hodder & Stoughton. p. 384. 
  6. ^ Ibn Batuta (1968). Monteil, Vincent, ed. Voyages d'Ibn Battuta:Textes et documents retrouves (in arabe). Anthropos. p. 127. 
  7. ^ Kamala Visweswaran (6 May 2011). Perspectives on Modern South Asia: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 164–. ISBN 978-1-4051-0062-5. 
  8. ^ Ishtiaq Ahmed (2002). Ingvar Svanberg; David Westerlund, eds. Islam Outside the Arab World. p. 250. 
  9. ^ HCP Bell, The Máldive Islands. Monograph on the History, Archæology, and Epigraphy with W. L. De Silva, Colombo 1940
  10. ^ Paul, Ludwig (2003). Persian Origins--: Early Judaeo-Persian and the Emergence of New Persian : Collected Papers of the Symposium, Göttingen 1999. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 31. ISBN 978-3-447-04731-9. 
  11. ^ Ran Hirschl (2010). Constitutional Theocracy. Harvard University Press. p. 34. 
  12. ^ Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Maldives: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1994.
  13. ^ Mary Boland (August 16, 2014). "Tourists blissfully unaware of Islamist tide in Maldives". Irish Times. 
  14. ^ a b c Jason Burke (February 26, 2015). "Paradise jihadis: Maldives sees surge in young Muslims leaving for Syria". Guardian. 
  15. ^ a b Anupam Dasgupta (2011-01-23). "A Male-volent link". The Week. Archived from the original on 2011-02-07. It surprised India when Nasheed freed two prime accused in the 2007 Sultan Park bombings in Male in August 2010. We are planning to send Mohamed Sobah and Ahmed Naseer [the two accused] back to jail. We feel they are dangerous to our society and we are not willing to risk internal security, said Ahmed Muneer, deputy commissioner of the Maldives police. 
  16. ^ Victor Mallet (December 4, 2015). "The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy". Financial Times. 
  17. ^ Trouble in paradise: Maldives and Islamic extremism
  18. ^ "Maldives museum reopens minus smashed Hindu images", Associated Press, 14 February 2012
  19. ^ Bajaj, Vikas (13 February 2012). "Vandalism at Maldives Museum Stirs Fears of Extremism". The New York Times.