Maldivians consider the introduction of Islam in the 12 th century as the cornerstone of their country's history. Islam remains the state religion today. According to tradition Islam was introduced to the Maldives in A.D. 1153 by a visitor to the Maldives named Abu al Barakat (Abdul Barakaath Yoosuf Al Barbary). He was an Arab saint who claimed he had the power to drive away powerful jinni (evil spirits) by reading the Koran. The last Buddhist king of Maldives, Dhovemi, was convinced of his powers, the story goes, and converted to Islam and encouraged his subjects to do the same. Some say (or 1193)

The interest of Middle Eastern peoples in Maldives resulted from its strategic location and its abundant supply of cowrie shells, a form of currency that was widely used throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast since ancient times. Middle Eastern seafarers had just begun to take over the Indian Ocean trade routes in the tenth century A.D. and found Maldives to be an important link in those routes. The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the twelfth century A.D. may partly explain why the last Buddhist king of Maldives converted to Islam in the year 1153. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994*]

Abu al Barakat was a Sunni Muslim visitor to the Maldives. His venerated tomb now stands on the grounds of Hukuru Mosque, or miski, in the capital of Male. Built in 1656, this is the oldest mosque in Maldives. Arab interest in Maldives also was reflected in the residence there in the 1340s of the well-known North African traveler Ibn Battutah.*

Stories, Legends and Theories About the Introduction of Islam to the Maldives

There are many folk stories and legends associated with the conversion of the Maldives to Islam. One such story states that the Maldivians were haunted by a sea demon named Rannamaari. To appease this sea demon the islanders were forced to present a virgin girl every month. According to legend Abu al Barakat, who was visiting the Maldives during this period, offered to take the place of the girl. Before the sacrifice, he recited the Koran throughout the night, and the demon could do nothing out of fear of the Sacred Word. Thus Abu al Barakat rescued the Maldives from this sea demon and afterwards convinced the king to adopt Islam. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation ]

Abu al Barakat (Abu al-Barakat Yusuf al-Barbari, also known as Aw Barkhadle) is said to have been a Moroccan but more likely he was a Somali Muslim. According to the story told to Ibn Battutah, a mosque was built with the inscription: 'The Sultan Ahmad Shanurazah accepted Islam at the hand of Abu al-Barakat Yusuf al-Barbari.' There is still some debate as to whether Abu al Barakat was from West Africa (Morocco) or East Africa (Somalia). Ibn Battuta is credited with advocating the East Africa narritive, perhaps because he was a Moroccan, but even when Ibn Battuta visited the islands, the governor of the island at that time was Abd Aziz Al Mogadishawi, a Somali.

According to scholars, Abu al Barakat was Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn, a well-known Somali scholar and founder of the Walashma dynasty of the Horn of Africa. After his conversion of the population of Dogor (now known as Aw Barkhadle), a town in Somalia, he spread Islam in the Maldives. Ibn Battuta states the Maldivian king was converted by Abu al-Barakat Yusuf al-Barbari (Blessed Father of Somalia). Others have it he may have been from the Persian town of Tabriz.The first reference to an Iranian origin dates to an 18th-century Persian text.

The conversion process was not entirely peaceful. A document called the Dhanbidhu Lomafanu provides information about the violent suppression of Buddhism in the southern Haddhunmathi Atoll, which had been a major Buddhist center. It describes monks being taken to Male and beheaded and the destruction and disfigurement of numerous stupas and statues.

Maldives Sultunate

After Dhovemi, the last Buddhist king of Maldives, converted to Islam in the year 1153 he adopted the Muslim title and name of Sultan Muhammad al Adil, initiating a series of six dynasties consisting of eighty-four sultans and sultanas that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994]

Islam helped the Maldives establish trade links throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond. The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the 12th century may partly explain why the last Buddhist king if the Maldives converted to Islam. The formal title of the sultan up to 1965 was, Sultan of Land and Sea, Lord of the twelve-thousand islands and Sultan of the Maldives. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: The formation of the Maldives as a political entity is generally dated from the period of conversion to Islam in the 1100s. This makes the Maldives one of the oldest surviving small states in the world. Unlike most other countries in the region, the Maldives was not subject to the overt domination of foreign powers. This is most likely due to the problems of navigating the sea around and within the islands as, without a high level of knowledge of the dangers of the reefs and shallow lagoons, ships would often be smashed or grounded. The Portuguese managed to rule the Maldives for a period of 17 years in the mid-1500s. They were soon thwarted in their dominance by a guerrilla war assisted by the Rajah of Cannanore in what is now India. Various sultans then ruled the Maldives unhindered, until Sultan Muhammad Muenuddin entered into an agreement with the British in 1887. The British, whose empire extended throughout South Asia, made the Maldives a British protectorate in return for the payment of tribute.

Governorship of the Maldives Sultunate

For about 800 years the Maldives were ruled by sultans and sultanas (female sultans). The sultanate became a quasi constitutional monarchy with the promulgation of the 1932 constitution. The Maldives experienced a very short period of republican form of government in 1953 and 1554, but the country returned to being a sultanate after that and remained that way until 1968 when a republican form of government was adopted, The first constitution of the Republic of the Maldives was promulgated on June 4, 1968.

A total of 92 sultans ruled over the Maldives (and a few sultanas) for 800 years from 1153 to 1953. They grew rich through their trade links throughout the Indian Ocean. Except for a brief period of Portuguese occupation from 1558-73, Maldives remained independent at least in name. From the 14th century, the ad-Din dynasty ruled the Maldives. The sultan agreed for the Maldives to be protectorate under the Dutch and British in exchange for relative independence.

Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, the Maldives went through various Islamic and European phases. The Portuguese controlled the islands from 1558 until their ouster in 1573. The Dutch held the island Sultanate as a protectorate in the seventeenth century. The British held the same position as the Dutch following their takeover of Sri Lanka and the ouster of the Dutch from there. The Maldives were a British protectorate from 1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, attempt to establish a a republican form of government, but the sultanate was quickly re-instated. Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another three years. On November 11, 1968, it was officially abolished and replaced by a republic. [Source: Leena Banerjee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2006, Thomson Gale]

Maldives Under Muslim-Sultanate Rule

Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam. A system of quasi democracy existed in the Maldives from a very early time. The possession of sultan was not hereditary. It was rare for a son to succeed his father. The sultan acted like a constitutional monarch who upheld the laws of land. Sultanate and chief council system endured until 1931.

The sultan often made decisions in accordance with a council of chiefs of which he was regarded as a kind of first among equals. The council of chiefs often include women and the chiefs were selected by the their constituents of the sultan. The council usually met to discuss taxation and defense and other matters. A special council made up of “badi Koshi” (gunners) and “Kulhi Koshi” (martial arts experts) served as protectors.

Compared to the other areas of South Asia, the conversion of the Maldives to Islam happened relatively late. Major conversions to Islam in India and what is now Pakistan began taking place in the A.D. 7th century. In the Maldives, Arabic became the prime language of administration (not Persian like in Iran or Urdu like India), and the Maliki school of Sharia (Islamic law) was adopted, an indication that the Maldives had direct contacts with the core of the Arab world.

The Maldives served as an important way station for Middle Eastern seafarers and traders plying Indian Ocean trade routes between Africa and the Middle East and Southeast Asia and Indonesia. The Maldives was the first landfall for traders sailing from Basra to Southeast Asia. In the Maldives, ships would load up on fresh water, fruit and baskets filled with smoked bonito, regarded as both a provision consumed by sailors and a delicacy exported to Sindh, China and Yemen. The people of the archipelago were described as gentle, civilised and hospitable. They produced brass utensils as well as fine cotton textiles, exported in the form of sarongs and turban lengths. These local industries must have depended on imported raw materials.

Trade was centered around cowrie shells — widely used as a form of currency throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast—and coir, the dried fiber from coconuts. The Bengal Sultanate, where cowrie shells were used as legal tender, was one of the principal trading partners of the Maldives. The Bengal–Maldives cowry shell trade was the largest shell currency trade network in history. The Maldives received rice in exchange for cowry shells. Coir is resistant to saltwater nad has traditionally been stitched together for rigging dhows, the boats that traversed the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.. Maldivian coir was exported to Sindh, China, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf.

Ibn Battuta in the Maldives

Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) is regarded as the greatest traveler of all time. He was an Islamic scholar, jurist, judge, explorer, geographer from Tangier in present-day Morocco who traveled 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) through more than 40 present-day countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia during a 27 year period 700 years before trains and automobiles. He described his adventures in “Travels in Asia and Africa." Ibn Battuta was a contemporary of Marco Polo (1254-1324). His journeys preceded those of Columbus by about 150 years. Although he is little known in the West he is as well known as Marco Polo and Columbus in the Arab world. [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, December 1991]

Ibn Battuta visited the Maldives for 18 months in 1343 and 1344. He arrived there after he left India as part of a mission with gifts from the Sultan of Delhi for the Emperor of China that including “a hundred thoroughbred horses, a hundred white slaves...and 15 eunuchs.” The mission lost everything after being robbed by infidels. Fearing the ire if the sultan, Ibn Battuta decided to try to make it to China in his own. He sailed to the Maldives

Ibn Battuta stayed in the Maldives much long than he originally planned. After he arrived in Male, the islands’ largest town, he was given gifts of gold and slave girls and named a judge. He taught Islamic law and was ill for week, perhaps from malaria. He only left after falling out of favor with the local vizier. [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, December 1991]

As a Chief Qadi, his skills were highly desirable in the formerly Buddhist nation that had recently converted to Islam. Half-kidnapped into staying, he became chief judge and married into the royal family of Omar I. He became embroiled in local politics and left when his strict judgments in the laissez-faire island kingdom began to chafe with its rulers. He was particularly upset by the fact that local women went around topless — am affront to Middle Eastern Islamic standards of modesty — and that the locals ignored his complaints. [Sources: “The Introduction to the "Voyages of Ibn Battutah" by Vincent Monteil in The Islamic Review and Arab Affairs, March 1970: 30-37; World Heritage Encyclopedia, Project Gutenberg, Self-Publishing Press, ]

Life of Ibn Battuta in the Maldives

According to Nick Bartel and ORIAS: The rulers in Male “happened to be looking for a chief judge, someone who knew Arabic and the laws of the Koran. The rulers were delighted to find a visitor that fit their requirements. They sent Ibn Battuta slave girls, pearls, and gold jewelry to convince him to stay. They even made it impossible for him to arrange to leave by ship — so like it or not, he stayed. He agreed to remain there with some conditions, however: he would not go about Male on foot, but be carried in a litter or ride on horseback, just like the king or queen! He even took another wife after staying there less than two months, a noblewoman related to the queen. It seems as though Ibn Battuta was playing politics. He was now part of the royal family and the most important judge. [Source: Travels of Ibn Battuta, Nick Bartel and ORIAS, U. C. Berkeley, |::|]

“He set about his duties as a judge with enthusiasm and tried with all his might to establish the rule of strict Muslim law and change local customs. He ordered that any man who failed to attend Friday prayer was to be whipped and publicly disgraced. Thieves had their right hands cut off, and he ordered women who went "topless" to cover up. He took three more wives who also had powerful social connections, and seems to brag: "After I had become connected by marriage ... the [governor] and the people feared me, for they felt themselves to be weak." |::|

“And so he began to make enemies, especially the governor. After nasty arguments and political plots, Ibn Battuta decided to leave...He quit his job as qadi, but he really would have been fired. He took three of his wives with him, but he divorced them all after a short time. One of them was pregnant. He stayed on another island, and there he married two more women, and divorced them, too." Later, he even thought about going back to the Maldive Islands and taking over under the support of an army commander in southern India. But that was not to be." |::|

Ibn Battuta on the Maldives

Ibn Battuta called the Maldives "one of the wonders of the world." Reflecting on the island, he wrote: "Most women wear only a loincloth. In this fashion they stroll in the markets...As a judge in the islands...I tried to order...the women to dress, but without success." He attributed the islanders "extraordinary vigor in lovemaking" to a diet of coconuts and fish. "As for me, It had four wives, not counting the concubines. Each day I made a general tour...and I passed the night with each in their turn." During his brief visit he married and divorced six times. On the voyage out he wrote: We “came to a tiny island in which there was but one house...And I swear that I envied that man, and wished that the island had been mine, that I might have made my retreat until inevitable hour should befall me." [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, December 1991]

According to Nick Bartel and ORIAS: “The Maldive Islands were important in medieval times for their exports: coconut fiber used to make ropes and cowrie shells which were used as currency (money) in Malaysia and in parts of Africa. About the middle of the twelfth century the people of Maldives converted from Buddhism to Islam when a pious Muslim from north Africa rid the land of a terrible demon. (The demon had demanded a young virgin each month - and the Muslim hero offered to take the place of the girl. Before the sacrifice, he recited the Koran throughout the night, and the demon could do nothing out of fear of the Sacred Word.) [Source: Travels of Ibn Battuta, Nick Bartel and ORIAS, U. C. Berkeley, |::|]

On marriage and divorce in the Maldives, Iban Battuta wrote: "It is easy to marry in these islands because of the smallness of the dowries and the pleasures of society which the women offer... When the ships put in, the crew marry; when they intend to leave they divorce their wives. This is a kind of temporary marriage. The women of these islands never leave their country." He told of eating many products of the coconut (coconut milk, juice, "meat", and sweet honey from the sap of the tree), and rice, fish, salted meat, fowl, quail, and some fruits." |::|

Archaeological Excavations of Medieval Islamic Maldives

In 2016 a team led by Anne Haour, excavated three sites in the Maldives — on three islands – Utheemu in the far north, Malé the capital, and Veyvah in the centre-south — and did wider surveys in the islands with aim of identify sites likely to date to the medieval Islamic period, as part of a research project investigating the timescale and nature of the importation of cowrie shells (Cypraea) into West Africa, 1150 to 1900 AD. [Source: “Tracking the Cowrie Shell: Excavations in the Maldives” by Anne Haour, Annalisa Christie, Shiura Jaufar, Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 2016]

Anne Haour wrote: “Excavations at Utheemu The island of Utheemu had been selected for investigation for two principal reasons: the island’s documented importance in the history of the Maldives, and reports that a cowrie hoard, and various artefacts apparently indicative of medieval trade, had been recovered, both in the palace area and during the development of a field nearby. Our work involved the excavation of five test pits, of which Units 3, 4 and 5 were the most productive.

“Unit 3 was placed in a currently uninhibited zone of the island, slated for development as a tourist zone while Units 4 and 5 were placed within the palace. This palace is a historically significant structure, home of the mid-16th century leader Mohammed Thakurufaanu, who resisted Portuguese occupation of the Maldives. At Unit 3, we exposed two large coral stone blocks, bearing traces of possible limestone plaster. The slabs are in good condition, and show some evidence of the use of tongue and groove technique. The pottery is largely coarse orange-brown low-fired ware, primarily incised and quite thin; and the very occasional potsherd of seeming Chinese origin. A trench was laid out inside the palace next to the north entrance. Large quantities of cowries had been uncovered in similar locations adjacent to the northeast and south gates when an electricity cable was laid.

“Three pits of varying depth, filled with sterile white sand, were noted; ethnographic data from the islands suggest these might represent putrefaction pits for cowrie shells. Archaeological remains including earthenware and ceramic pottery, shell, bone and metal were recovered in most contexts, with a high number of Cypraea moneta found in deeper contexts in the centre of the trench. Despite the numbers of cowries recovered, they remain too few and too disparately distributed to be considered a hoard.

“Unit 5 was excavated within the alleged kitchen within the women’s quarter inside the palace (Figure 4). At the northern side of the unit two burnt floors and a possible hearth were identified. A burial was encountered at ca. 1m depth, its position consistent with an Islamic burial. It was highly unexpected to find a grave within the palace complex and according to local informants, human burials had been encountered during construction of a mosque on an adjacent plot – it therefore seems likely that the cemetery once extended towards the palace. Finds from Unit 5 include lots of metal pieces from the first few contexts and abundant charcoal throughout the unit. Several potsherds were also recovered from this unit, most of them being earthenware (including some large rim sherds) and only a few Chinese ceramics.

In Malé we focused our attention on one of the only remaining open spaces, Sultans’ Park, on which once stood the sultan’s palace. We set out two perpendicular lines on an area adjacent to the only remaining standing palace building and excavated seven 0.5x0.5m units along them (Figure 6). With the exception perhaps of the final unit, closest to the extant palace, all uncovered what seem to be rubble and destruction layers, with little stratigraphic integrity but plentiful structural remains (bricks, stones, plaster fragments) and small finds (metal objects, glass, and many cowrie shells, especially in one unit, N12, which we extended in size in order to determine whether we were faced with a hoard).

“Excavations at Veyvah The island of Veyvah had been selected for investigation for two principal reasons: the presence on the island of an old (400 years?) coral stone mosque described as being in a remote part of the island and thus offering good prospects of undisturbed levels, and the geographical location of the island, south of Malé, giving us a good spread of locations tested. The island lies within the atoll of Mulaku (Meemu), which is mentioned by both ibn Majid and ibn Battuta. Our work involved the excavation of five test pits, of which Unit 5 was the most productive, and will be discussed here.

“Earthenware pottery, shells and bone were recovered throughout the trench with increasing density from Context 3. Shells and bone were particularly prevalent in the northeast and southwest corners - with pits identified in both areas. The southwest pit cut the naturalsoil and contained a strongly cemented feature. This overlaid a coarse-grey deposit that had a lot of large diagnostic earthenware sherds, many shells and numerous large fish bones. Two beads, apparently glass, were recovered. These are the only beads recovered from any of the excavations conducted in the Maldives this season.

“The shell and bone assemblages from Veyvah 5 appear to be very different to those excavated in Utheemu and Malé. On initial observation, the bone assemblage appears to have a much higher proportion of complete fish bones (including large vertebra and cranial elements) many of which on first glance appear to have been from reef fish; this contrasts with the lower proportions of fish cranial elements from other sites. The shell assemblage also appears to have been more diverse – with Eurosaria erosa and Palmadusta asselus appearing in greater abundance than do Cypraea moneta, and much more frequently than they did in the other test pits. This is particularly in- teresting in light of the etymological association with cowries of neighbouring (Boli) Mulah island, which is renowned for being associated with cowrie collection – generally assumed to have been Cypraea moneta (Ragupathy and Mohammed 2008).

“Excavation at three islands of the Maldives enabled us to recover a good suite of materials. These include an assemblage of just under 5000 sherds, both coarse wares and diagnostic imported pottery (Chinese ceramics), which will form the cornerstone of Jaufar’s thesis, shells (including cowries), metal objects (ferrous and cuprous), faunal remains (including a range of fish species), and charcoal (eight samples have been sent for dating). We have several questions relating to the cowrie assemblages themselves: at Utheemu palace for example, why were hoards only recovered in front of the northeast and southeast gates and not the north gate; was there a socio-symbolic significance to their position?”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Republic of Maldives Department of Information, the government site (, Ministry of Tourism Maldives (, Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC,, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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