Land of Mosques

The Mal­dives is at­tract­ing con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment from rich Is­lamic coun­tries to build mosques.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Zu­fah An­sari

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.

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