Islam is the religion of the Maldives and those who practice it are called Muslims. All Maldivians are Muslims of the Sunni sect, as opposed to the Shi’ite sect. There are no other religions or sects present or permitted in the country.
Islam in the Maldives is fundamental to all aspects of life; there’s no getting away from it unless you go to a resort. It is, however, Islam of a more liberal nature that that adhered to in the Arab states; comparable rather, to the faith practised in India and Indonesia. Maldivian women, for example, do not have to observe purdah, which is the custom of keeping women in seclusion, with clothing that conceals them completely when they go out.
Children are taught the Arabic alphabet and, until their mid-teens, attend a maktab, one of the traditional Islamic schools where the reading and reciting of the Koran is taught.
There are mosques for the men and for the women. Most are of simple, unadorned design, both inside and out, and apart from the new Islamic Center in Malé, they are generally not much to look at.
Islam shares its roots with two of the other religions, Judaism and Christianity, and its teachings correspond closely with the Torah, the Old Testament, and the Gospels. Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus are all accepted as Muslim prophets, although Jesus is not recognised as the son of God. According to Islam, all of these prophets received the word of Allah (God), but only Mohammed received the complete revelation. The essence of Islam is the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed.
The Prophet Mohammed
Mohammed was born in Mecca (now Saudi Arabia) in 570 AD and had his first revelation from Allah in 610 AD. He began to preach against the idolatry that was rampant in the region, particularly in Mecca, and proved to be a powerful and persuasive speaker attracting devoted following. His teachings appealed to the poorer levels of society and angered the wealthy merchant class.
By 622 AD, life for Mohammed and his followers became so unpleasant they they were forced to migrate to Medina, 300km to the north. This migration, known as the Hejira, marks the start of the Islamic Calender: 622 AD became year 1 AH.
In 630 AD, Mohammed had gained enough followers to return and take Mecca. Within two decades of Mohammed’s death most of Arabia had converted to Islam. With seemingly unlimited ambition and zeal, the Prophet’s followers spread the word, using force where necessary, and the influence of the Islamic state soon extended from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
The Five Pillars of Islam
Islam is the Arabic word for submission and underlies the duty of all Muslims to submit themselves to Allah. Shahada, the profession of faith that ‘there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’, if the first of five pillars of Islam – the tenets that guide Muslims in their daily life.
This first pillar is accomplished through prayer which is the second prayer. Salath is the call to prayer and Islam decrees that Muslims must face Mecca and pray five times each day. In the Maldives, salath is also called namadh.
The third pillar is zakat, the act of giving alms to the needy. Some Islamic countries have turned this into an obligatory land tax which goes to help the poor.
The fifth pillar is the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. It is the duty of every Muslim who is able, to make the haj at least once in their life.
The initial prayer session is in the first hour before sunrise, the second around noon, the third in the mid-afternoon around 3:30pm, the fourth at sunset, and the final session in the early evening.
The call to prayer is delivered by the mudeem or muezzin. In former days, he climbed to the top of the minaret and shouted it out. Now a recording, relayed by loudspeakers on the minaret, announces the call and the mudeem even appears on television.
Shops and offices close for 15 minutes after each call. Some people go to the mosque, some kneel where there are and others do not participate.
The fast during the month of Ramadan begins at the time of a full moon. The Ramadan month varies from year to year but is usually sometime between February and April. During Ramadan Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, or have sex between sunrise and sunset, and working hours are restricted. Exceptions are granted to young children, pregnant or menstruating women and those who are travelling. It is a difficult time for visitors, as cafés are closed during the day and everybody is generally on edge. The evenings, however, are long and lively.
Circumcision is a religious rite and a big event in Maldivian life. The some extent, the festivities are held to distract and console the snipped six-year-olds. Often several boys will be done at once, with one big carnival to save expense.
The boys lie on their beds, or on wooden platforms, each with a sheet suspended over his lower body while the merriment continues around them. There is singing, dancing and lots to eat – for the guests; it takes the youngsters three days to get back on their feet.
You’ll know when a circumcision party is in progress by the noise and the colored lights which often decorate the house and yard. Most circumcisions take place during the school holidays.
In the islands people still fear jinnis, the evil spirits which come from the sea, land and sky. They are blamed for everything that can’t be explained by religion or education.
The combat jinnis, there are fandhita, which are the spells and potions provided by a local hakeem or medicine man. The hakeem is often called upon when illness strikes, if a woman fails to conceive or if the fishing catch is poor.
The hakeem might cast a spell by writing phrases form the Koran on strips of paper and sticking or tying them to the patient. Another method is to write the sayings in ink on a plate, fill the plate with water to dissolve the ink and make the patient drink the potion. Other concoctions include isitri, a love potion use din matchmaking, and its antidote varitoli, which is used to break up marriages.
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