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 the state religion of 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 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 in a manner “not contrary to tenets of Islam.”
The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion and specifies a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence.
The law, in the provisions of the Religious Unity Act passed in 1994, 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 working to disrupt religious unity and discussions or acts promoting religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way infringing 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 ($1,322) or imprisonment from two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.
In August the parliament passed a new law entitled “Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression” which criminalizes speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The new 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,” questions the validity of Islam or one of its tenets, compromises the “religious homogeneity of Maldivians,” or causes “disunity and religious polarization.” The new 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 religious teaching in schools and universities shall be carried out in accordance with the Religious Unity Act and only by those authorized by the government to teach Islam.
The new law authorizes the government to cut off live feeds and/or suspend a station’s license if it broadcasts content that violates its provisions. Publications, including websites, carrying “defamatory” comments may also have their licenses revoked. The new law specifies fines for defamation and violating social norms ranging between 50,000 rufiyaa ($3,305) and 2 million rufiyaa ($132,000) and states a failure to pay the fine will result in a jail sentence of three to six months. Failure to pay the fine may also lead to the closure of newspapers and media offices. The verdicts may only be appealed after the fine is paid.
The new law states the penalty for “breaking the tenets of Islam” shall be the same as those specified under the existing penal code for “criticizing Islam,” which states a person commits an offense 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, citizens may not deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license to do so 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 towards, 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 rufiyaa ($330-$1,322). The law requires foreign scholars to shape their sermons in line with the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.
Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is illegal and punishable by 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 to Muslims by adherents of other religions is illegal, and the penalty is the same as for intra-Islamic proselytizing.
By law, 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 prohibits noncitizens living in or visiting the country from conducting religious activities in public.
By law, a Maldivian woman may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he converts to Islam first. 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. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. A new curriculum introduced in 2015 incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies that are 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 sentences 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 to a standard of practical certainty.
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.
In April and November the parliament passed amendments to the law creating a Supreme Council of Fatwa with the authority to issue fatwas or legal opinions on religious matters. The Supreme Council replaced the Fiqh Academy, the institution previously responsible for resolving differences of opinion and disputes on religious matters. The council will function under the MIA and comprise of 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, but this appointment is still 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.”