Land of Mosques
The Maldives is attracting considerable investment from rich Islamic countries to build mosques.
In the middle of the Indian Ocean, lies a country like no other. Made of 1200 islands, Maldives stretches to cover over 970 kilometres. This stunning piece of nature is home to a predominantly Muslim population.
Historically, the island served as a transit point for seafarers travelling from east to west and therefore the initial settlers in the Maldives were Indians, Sir Lankans, East Africans, Arabs, Persians and people from the Malay Archipelago, shaping a rich history of cultural fusion that dates back to 300 BC.
The larger population practiced Buddhism until the advent of Islam in 1153 CE and since its introduction, followers have grown in numbers.
The intermingling of communities and interaction of diverse cultures and religions, especially Buddhism and Islam, has developed a heritage for the Maldives that is distinct and one of a kind.
With the growing popularity of Islam, the landscape of the country has evolved immensely. With Islam now a main driving force, the development of mosques is on its peak and the places of worship are present in each and every inhabited island of the country. Whether it is the daily ritual of prayers or specials Friday prayers, there is great attendance by locals at the mosques.
The Maldives has gradually become the hub of a historic and modern mix of mosques that hold great significance religiously as well as economically as they also serve as tourist spots. In mid- 1991, the Maldives had a total of 725 mosques and 266 women's mosques, a number that has grown significantly over the years, with mosque constructions funded by the Maldivian government as well as other contributing countries.
Malé, the capital city of the Republic of the Maldives has over thirty mosques dotting the city landscape. Two of the most elegant structures built in 1984 in Malé are the Islamic Centre and the Grand Friday Mosque within its parameters.
The Grand Friday Mosque’s gold dome serves as the first sight of the city. The mosque is named after one of the most celebrated Maldivian heroes, Sultan Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al Auzam of the Maldives and can accommodate over 5000 people, making it one of the largest mosques in the Maldives.
Besides the Grand Mosque of Male, there are some other mosques that are common favourites. To name a few that have been also under consideration by UNESCO to be declared as world heritage sites, there is the ancient mosque in Alif Dhaal Fenfushi, the ancient mosque in Raa atoll Meedhoo, the Friday Mosque, Ihavandhoo, Haa Alifu Atoll and the
Old Mosque, Isdhoo, Laamu Atoll and they are all made from coral stone.
Mosques in the Maldives are mainly whitewashed structures, constructed with coral stone and crenelated iron or thatched roofs. The reason for this dates back to the ancient times when the Maldives was dependent on locally abundant materials for long lasting constructions. Two of such materials were timber and coral which supported architectural and sculptural works, therefore making the coral stone mosques an epitome of spectacular style, design and grandeur.
However the credit not only goes to the extraordinary coral stone, but much of the magnificence is the result of skillful artistry that has been administered by locals in building intricate interlocking coral blocks that provide finesse to the overall look of the mosques. Much of this refinement in stone construction in the Maldives can be attributed to the Islamic period.
Because of this rich history and representation of skill, the coral mosques of th Maldives have caught the attention of UNESCO’s World Heritage Organization which has termed these mosques to have outstanding universal value, based on the fact that no other example of such quality of coral stone architecture, carvings and lacquer exists in any other part of the world.
The skill depicted in these structures is in itself a work of art and pure creativity. The mosques are the only living example of the unique methods of stone carpentry. Not only do these structures represent architectural supremacy but they are also a manifestation of seaborne, cultural fusion that has taken place due to travel in the Indian Ocean.
The mosques represent four major cultures, namely, the Indian subcontinental culture, Swahili, Malayan and Arab culture.
Moreover, the mosques are a tangible reminder of the spiritual values of the communities and most importantly signify the advent of Islam in the Indian Ocean region.
While their inclusion as UNESCO’S World Heritage sites can uplift cultural tourism in the Maldives and bring more funds to the sites, the importance of the mosques is overlooked by entities vested with the responsibility of preservation and renovation of the structures.
In 2014, The Islamic ministry was unable to discharge funds for the renovation of the mosques in Male, because of which the Male City Council had to turn to private donations. Most of the donations come from local and international businesses.
The inability of local bodies to preserve the mosques has opened a new challenge for the Maldivian government, which is now approaching countries like from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Malaysia, and Brunei for donations, putting a new spin to the country’s strategic foreign relationships.
The most significant of these has been the pledge that the Maldivian government received from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to build ten mosques in the Maldives. Saudi Arabia has already donates $ 1 million for the purpose.
The most striking angle to the Saudi- Maldivian collaboration is the Maldives’ partnership with Saudi Arabia in the energy sector as well as in Islamic Affairs. The alliance is expected to bring funds to the Maldivian government as well as influence that might create for the country the threat of religious rifts.
The writer is an undergraduate student with interest in culture and society.