The constitution designates Sunni Islam as the state religion, and government regulations are based on Islamic law. Several articles in the constitution make the practice of Islam mandatory. Non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship. The constitution does not provide for the right to freedom of religion or belief and does not prohibit discrimination based on religion. The constitution bars non-Muslims from voting and holding public office; it stipulates that judges, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and the president must be Sunni Muslims.
The constitution prohibits utterances contrary to tenets of Islam or the government’s religious policies. It limits citizens’ right to freedom of expression in order to protect the “basic tenets of Islam” and prohibits criticism of the government’s policies on religion. Non-Islamic religious and secular discourse is strictly monitored.
The justice system is based on a hybrid of common and Islamic laws. Civil law is officially subordinate to Islamic law. Islamic law is applied to situations not covered by civil law, such as divorce and adultery cases. The law prohibits public statements contrary to Islam, and violators face penalties ranging from two to five years in prison or house arrest.
The law prescribes flogging sentences for a number of crimes, including fornication. Women are more likely to receive a flogging sentence than men.
Schools are required to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” According to the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, these provisions are understood to mean parents must educate their children as Sunni Muslims.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs mandates Islamic instruction in schools and funds salaries of religious instructors. It also certifies imams, who are responsible for presenting government-approved sermons, which provide content for Friday prayers. Only foreign nationals can opt out of Islamic instruction in schools.
Mosques are required to register with the government. The government maintains and funds most mosques. By law, no one may publicly discuss Islam unless invited to do so by the government, and imams may not prepare sermons without government authorization.
The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Any statement or action found contrary to this aim is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include working to disrupt religious unity, any discussions or acts promoting religious differences, and delivering religious sermons or engaging in public discussions in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limits the rights of a specific section of society. Sentences for violators range from a fine to imprisonment, and may include deportation for foreigners.
Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two to five years in prison or house arrest, depending on the gravity of the offense. Within Islam, proselytizing of Sunnis and non-Sunnis to change denominations is illegal unless a government representative is present. The penalty for Islamic proselytizing is two to five years in jail or house arrest, depending on the gravity of the offense. If the offender is a foreigner, his or her license to preach in the country will be revoked, and he or she will be deported. Proselytizing of Muslims by adherents of other religions is also illegal, and the penalty is the same as for Islamic proselytizing.
Government regulations stipulate strict requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial and gender discrimination; discourage access to education or health services in the name of Islam; or demean the character of, or create hatred towards, people of any other religion. In addition, the regulations require any scholar to have prior written approval from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to preach. Foreign scholars may not criticize domestic policies and laws in their sermons.
Non-Muslim foreign residents may practice their religion only in private and may not encourage local citizens to participate. Foreigners may raise their children to follow any religious teaching as long as this is done privately in their homes or hotel rooms, and they do not include citizens in their religious activities.
The law prohibits importation of any items deemed contrary to Islam, including alcohol, pork products, or religious statues for worship. Alcoholic beverages are available to tourists on resort islands, but it is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen. The government generally permits the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The sale of religious items, such as Christmas cards, is restricted to the resort islands patronized by foreign tourists.
The government only registers clubs and other private associations that do not contravene Islamic or civil laws; many informal groups, such as the bar association, do not have to register.
By law, a Maldivian woman cannot marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he converts to Islam first. A Maldivian man can marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.
The government interprets the conversion by a Muslim to another religion as a violation of Islamic law, which could result in punishment, including loss of the convert’s citizenship. There are no known cases of the government discovering converts and rescinding their citizenship.