Vol. 3    Issue 14   01-15 December 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture


Maldives is the smallest Muslim country in the world with a population of just over 300,000 and an area of approximately 298 square kilometres. Maldives consists of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka. About 200 of the islands are inhabited, which are grouped into clusters, or atolls. The atolls have long stretches of sandy beaches, lagoons and a luxurious growth of coconut palms.

The capital of Maldives is Male, which is one of the most densely populated towns in the world, with more than 100,000 people packed into two square kilometres. The country’s economy is based on fishing, tourism and boatbuilding. Maldives exports coconut, betelnuts, dried fish, mats and tortoise hide to Sri Lanka and the Malabar coast.

Around the 5th century BC, the archipelago came to be inhabited by settlers from Sri Lanks and southern India. Islam came to the islands, through Arab traders, in 1153. The celebrated globetrotter, Ibn Battuta, visited the islands and stayed there for nearly a year in 1343. In the course of his stay he was appointed a qadi by the sultan of Maldives. The population of Maldives is ethnically mixed, comprising people of Dravidian stock as well as Arab descent. The country’s official language is Divehi, which contains a large number of words from Arabic. The population is almost entirely Muslim and Islam is the official religion. Mosques and madrasas testify to the pervasive influence of Islam in the islands. Most women wear the headscarf.

From nearly eight centuries Maldives was an independent Muslim sultanate. In the 16th and 17th centuries the islands came under the control of the Portuguese and the Dutch. Subsequently it became a British protectorate. It gained independence from Britain in 1965. In 1968 the monarchy was abolished and replaced by a republic. Ibrahim Nasir became the country’s first president, who ruled the country for ten years with an iron hand. He was succeeded in 1978 by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Maumoon Abdul Ghayoom held the reins of power for nearly three decades, winning six consecutive elections. His long reign brought about political stability and substantial economic development, mainly fuelled by the boom in the tourism industry.

Maummon’s reign was marked by political repression. Political parties were banned. In September 2003 there were widespread protests in the capital following the torture and custodial death of a young man. The police opened fire on the protesters, killing some of them, and a large number of people were arrested. The government clamped a state of emergency. As the unrest in the islands became palpable, which was highlighted by the global media, a law allowing political parties to register was passed in July 2005. Following the first democratic election in November 2008, Mohammad Nasheed, a former political prisoner, was sworn in on 11 November 2008 as the country’s new president.


Maldives is known as an upmarket tourist destination with one of the finest beaches in the world. Eighty eight uninhabited islands in Maldives have been turned into tourist resorts, attracting more than 600,000 tourists, most of them European, each year. The resorts can be reached by speed boat or seaplanes. Tourism accounts for nearly 60% of the country’s foreign exchange.

Tourism has made Maldives the richest country in South Asia, with GDP per head in excess of $3,000. Unfortunately, the country’s wealth is unevenly distributed. Many families are forced to live in cramped houses on small plots of land with no space to grow anything except coconuts and betelnuts. The common occupation is fishing, but there are no facilities for cold storage or cannery. Economic inequality and lack of opportunities have produced frustration and despair in the youth, and many of them are taking to drugs. International tourism brings in its wake not only wealth and employment opportunities but also moral vices, including drugs, paedophilia and nudity. Maldives is experiencing both the positive and negative fallout of global tourism.

Climate change and Maldives’ survival

In its latest report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that, with the erosion of ice sheets and the expansion of warming seawater, sea levels are likely to rise worldwide by up to two feet by 2100. Maldives is the lowest high point on earth: the natural ground level anywhere in the islands does not exceed 2.3 metres. Sea levels around the Maldives have risen by about 20cm in the past century, and the UN estimates that they will rise by a further 58 cm by 2100. The islands were inundated by unusually high tides in 1987 that caused extensive damage. The Asian tsunami of December 2004 left a trail of devastation in the islands. It resulted in the death of 82 people, the displacement of 12,000 more and inflicted $375 million damage. Any sea level rise could have a devastating effect on the people of Maldives and may in fact endanger the very survival of the country.

Mohammad Nasheed, the new president, is seized of the likely calamity. He recently told the BBC that he planned to establish an investment fund with some of the earnings from tourism, which could be used to purchase land—either in Sri Lanka or India—to relocate the entire population of Maldives in the event of a dangerous rise in sea levels. This seems to be an extremely complex and problematic proposition, which involves issues of sovereignty, national borders and international law.

The government is also mulling over another, comparative more feasible, alternative. It plans to construct a new island, Hulu Male, where the population of some of its lowest-lying atolls, as well as the capital Male, could be relocated. Perhaps Burj al-Arab, a 7-star luxury hotel in Dubai, which has been built on an artificially created island in the Arabian Sea, could provide a lead in this project.

It is unfortunate that Maldives happens to be a victim of an environmental disaster which is not of its own making, but is largely the outcome of a combination of short-sighted policies and lifestyle in the industrialised countries. “And fear trial and tribulation, which affect not just those of you who indulge in wrong-doing, and know that Allah is exacting in punishment” (Quran 8:25).

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