The Maldives consist of about 1200 small coral atolls and islands in the Indian Ocean. The country is an Islamic nation and the 1997 Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion. There is no religious freedom in the Maldives as the Constitution specifically forbids the practice of religions other than Islam by citizens of the Maldives. All citizens of the Maldives must be Muslims and, if anyone were to convert from Islam to another religion, that person would lose his/her citizenship. Foreigners, including those working in the growing tourist industry, are allowed to practice their religion but may do so only in private and may not engage in any missionary activities. The importation of religious artifacts, such as religious statues or pictures, is banned; however, religious scriptures may be brought into the country for personal use.
According to the Constitution the President is the “supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam.” By law he must be a Sunni Muslim as are all cabinet members and members of the People’s Majlis (Parliament). The government has established a Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, under the Home Affairs Ministry, to provide guidance on religious matters and assure that all imams and other religious officials who conduct services at Mosques are qualified. Instruction in Islam is part of the national education curriculum and a required subject for all students. The law and Constitution limit the freedom of speech in order to “Protect the basic tenets of Islam”. People have been jailed, tortured, and even executed on charges of blasphemy stemming from publications, web or email messages, and public speech which are interpreted as being against Islam as promoted by the Constitution.
The country operates under Islamic Shari’a law which is the law of the land. The majority of the nation operates under the Shafi’i school of law with a minority adhering to the Ja’fari system (these are two of the four official Sunni law schools, which differ on certain points of interpretation). The Shari’a regulates family and criminal law, while English common law often functions in the commercial sector. Judges are appointed and removed by the President and there is no trial by jury. Family law allows children under the age of 7 to remain with the mother unless she remarries at which point they go to the custody of the maternal grandmother, the paternal grandmother or the father, in that order. The minimum age of marriage is 15 although marriage before the age of 16 is discouraged. Women are not required to wear the burka (head to toe Islamic covering) although many women do wear the head scarf. Divorce is high, one of the highest rates in the world and remarriage is common. Women are allowed to work outside the home and to serve in the military.
Certain tourist establishments are exempt from provisions in Shari’a law, which ban the sale and use of alcoholic beverages or the consumption of pork. In fact, foreigners are encouraged to come to the nation and work in the tourist industry, especially in the international hotels, so that Maldive citizens are not “contaminated” by having to work in places that serve alcohol. This causes some concern to the government as the native population of the country is only 280,000 while over 300,000 tourists, mostly Europeans and Japanese, visit each year. About 20,000 foreigners are employed in the tourist industry; while many of them are from Pakistan and Bangladesh and thus are also Muslims, workers also come from Sri Lanka and India and are allowed to practice Buddhism and Hinduism privately. While the government encourages and promotes tourism, which is today the biggest money maker for the nation, it is increasingly concerned that the citizens of the Maldives not be “corrupted” by the religious or secular ideas and life styles displayed by the tourists.
The Maldives were not always Islamic, but became converted in the 12th Century by visiting Islamic holy men, who accompanied Arab traders. Prior to that time, the country, which was settled by successive waves of migration from India and more importantly Sri Lanka, had a vibrant Hindu and Buddhist culture. The conversion of the islands to Islam was a lengthy process and one which incorporated elements of Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions into Islam. The most popular type of Islam in the Islands was Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam) and worship at the grave sites of prominent Sufi masters, saint or other legendary figures, was commonplace. The 16th century saw the colonization of the islands by the Portuguese and the 17 years of Portuguese rule is referred to in Maldive history as “the dark night of Portuguese Christian rule.” It is claimed that the “seas ran red with blood” as the Portuguese attempted to convert the citizens to Christianity. The return to power of native rulers saw an Islamic revival, the adoption of the Arabic-style script, Thaana, and the visit to the islands of religious scholars who became the chief advisors to the sultans. Under their influence, the Kingship came to be seen as an institution created by Allah and held according to His wishes. Thus, correct religious practice on the part of the king (sultan) was seen as an essential justification of his right to rule and religious scholars were an essential part of the court. The Maldives was fairly unaffected by the British rule (the Raj) in the rest of South Asia and it wasn’t until 1887 that the country became a “protectorate” of the British; however, the British did not significantly interfere with the running of the state. Full independence was gained in July 26, 1965 and the current President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is now in his 3rd term of office. The status of Islam was not affected by British rule.