The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates the state religion as Islam, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings. It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam. According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.
The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” In making a decision about whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must take into account the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.
The constitution makes no mention of the freedom of religion or belief. Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis of discrimination. The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to tenets of Islam.”
The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion (i.e., apostasy) and specifies a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence.
The Religious Unity Act states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.” Any statement or action found to be contrary to this aim is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, working to disrupt religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society. According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa (MVR) ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.
The law criminalizes speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The law states freedom of expression is a basic right “as long as it is in line with the tenets of Islam.” It states the expression of thoughts and opinion in writing, in speech, or through another medium is protected, except in cases where such an expression “makes a mockery of Islam.” Additional exceptions include questioning the validity of Islam or one of its tenets, expressions that compromise the “religious homogeneity of Maldivians,” or acts that cause “disunity and religious polarization.” The law further states any religious preaching or efforts to teach Islam shall be in accordance with the standards set forth in the Religious Unity Act. It also states schools and universities shall carry out religious teaching in accordance with the Religious Unity Act and only with instructors authorized by the government to teach Islam.
The law authorizes the government to cut off live feeds and/or suspend a station’s license if it broadcasts content that contradicts a tenet of Islam. It states the penalty for an individual “breaking the tenets of Islam” shall be the same as those the existing penal code specifies for “criticizing Islam.” A person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing “idols of worship”; and/or attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry or conversing or acting in a manner likely to cause “religious segregation.” Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.
By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA. Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization. To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, must have a degree in religious studies, and must not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court. The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate. Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit statements in sermons which may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination; discourage access to education or health services in the name of Islam; or demean the character of, or create hatred toward, people of any other religion. The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions. Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine between 5,000-20,000 MVR ($320-$1,300). The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.
Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in jail or house arrest. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty. 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.
By law, mosques and prayer houses remain under the control of the MIA rather than the country’s island councils. The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.
The law states “non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities or involving Maldivians in such activities.” The law states those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 MVR ($320 to $1,300), and deportation.
By law, a Maldivian woman may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A Maldivian man may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.
The law prohibits importation of any items deemed contrary to Islam by the MIA, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials. Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months to three years imprisonment. It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages on resort islands. Individuals may request permission to import restricted goods from the Ministry of Economic Development.
The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools. By law, educators who teach Islamic Studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government. By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic Studies may only receive authorization to do so if they subscribe to Sunni Islam. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. A curriculum introduced in 2015 incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices.
The constitution states Islam forms one basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.” The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law.
The penal code prescribes flogging for a small number of crimes, including fornication. Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for hudood (serious crimes) listed in the Quran and qisas (retaliatory) offenses – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt. The penal code requires all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to hudood and qisas offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.
The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters. The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms. The president names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives. The minister of Islamic affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to approval by the president.
Antiterror legislation includes as a crime “unlawfully” promoting any religious, political, or other ideology.
The constitution stipulates the president, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.”