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INDIAN OCEAN SOCIETIES. Apart from two major islands-Sri Lanka in the north and Madagascar in the south-the Indian Ocean otherwise has only very small islands and island groups, only one of which (Mauritius) has a population in excess of one million. The ocean has acted as a highway for Islam; for example, the great medieval Arab traveler and explorer Ibn Battutah visited both Sri Lanka and the Maldives during his fourteenth-century travels. Seven islands or island groups are considered here: the Comoros and the Maldives, whose peoples are nearly ioo percent Muslim; Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius, with important Muslim minorities; and Reunion and the Seychelles.

india ocean

Table I gives comparative 1992 figures for population and adherents of Islam for the seven islands. The Comoros and Maldives are closest in terms of size and back


Comoros 497,E 494,018 994 Madagascar 12,804,000 217,668 1.7 Maldives 230,000 230,000 100.0 Mauritius 1,081,000 139,449 12.9 Reunion 623,000 12,460 2.0 Seychelles 71,000 – –

Sri Lanka              17,464,000           1,327,264             7.6

ground and in the fact that their populations are overwhelmingly Muslim, but even here there are some substantial differences. Comoros, which lies at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and the African mainland, is a Federal Islamic Republic. Its people are an ethnic mixture; the majority come from Africa, but minority groups include Arabs, Indonesians, and Iranians, each contributing its own distinctive approach to Islam. When Europeans first visited the Comoros in the sixteenth century, the predominant influence was Arab.

France took possession of the Comoros in 1843; in 1975 three of the four islands that make up the group declared their independence, while the fourth, Mayotte, remained linked to France. Ali Soilih was the leader of the coup that ousted President Ahmed Abdallah on 3 August 1975; in May 1977 his government passed a loi fondamentale under which Comoros became a “democratic, secular, socialist republic.” The subsequent revolution of the left looked for its inspiration to a mixture of Islam and Maoism, which in fact were incompatible. Soilih, while insisting upon his adherence to Islam, made many attacks on traditional aspects of the country’s life that were derived from Islam, and the resulting resentments led to his overthrow in a coup of May 1978. Later that year, on I October 1978, more than 99 percent of those voting approved a new constitution that made Comoros a Federal Islamic Republic. In its preamble the constitution claims that the will of the Comoran people is derived from the state religion, Islam, which is the inspiration for the regulation of government. The great majority of the people are Sunni(Shafi’i-) Muslims; the Comoran language is close to Swahili (in addition, some Arabic is spoken). The Shafi’i- school predominates in eastern Africa where the majority of the Comoran people originated. There is a tiny Roman Catholic minority representing only 0.6 percent of the total population. The people of Mayotte, which has retained its links with France, are also predominantly Muslim.

The Maldives are a chain of coral islands lying some 370 miles southwest of India. Following Britain’s seizure of Sri Lanka from the Dutch in 1796, the Maldives were also brought under British rule until they achieved independence in 1965. The British did not interfere with their religion, and the people remained overwhelmingly Muslim. Traders had visited the Maldives from earliest times, and the islands were converted to Islam in the twelfth century; according to legend, an itinerant Muslim holy man converted the people in 1153. Interestingly, Ibn Battutah, who visited the Maldives in the 1340s, remarked on the freedom enjoyed by women, a freedom that has remained a feature of Maldivian society ever since. Isma’ili merchants from Bombay established themselves in Male in the nineteenth century and were expelled after 196o.

Today, as in the Comoros, Islam is the state religion of the Maldives, whose people are loo percent Sunni Muslims. Judges administer the law according to the tenets of the shard `ah through a body appointed by the president, while traditional schools (maktabs) teach the Qur’an. Under the constitution, within the provisions of Islam, freedom of “life movement,” speech, and development are guaranteed as basic rights.

Muslims in Sri Lanka have traditionally been referred to as Moors: trade links with other Indian Ocean states led small groups of Moorish traders to settle in Sri Lanka beginning in the eighth century. Under the constitution of Sri Lanka freedom of worship is guaranteed, although Buddhism is given primacy and it is the duty of the state to protect and foster it. At the same time, any citizen is free to adopt the religion of his choice. The Muslim minority in Sri Lanka has managed to stay outside the ethnic confrontations that have troubled the country for the past decade and more. Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority Of 1.3 million is larger than the combined Muslim populations of all the other Indian Ocean societies under consideration here.

Islam reached Madagascar only during the later coastal settlements, and there are considerable Muslim communities in the northwest of the island. The main culture of Madagascar is Indonesian, though Arab and Islamic influences are to be found, for example, in the system of divination and the calendar. After the fourteenth century Muslim traders from East Africa probably established trading colonies in the north; during the sixteenth century the Portuguese raided the coast on a number of occasions in attempts to destroy its Muslim settlements.

Mauritius was not settled until the seventeenth century, following colonization by France. Its population is a mixture derived from France, Africa (Creoles and the descendants of slaves), India, and China. It is among the Indians that Islam is largely practiced: Indians now make up a majority of the population, and about onethird of them are Muslim. In Reunion the Muslims (2 per cent) are drawn from the Indian and Arab sections of the population. Islam has no influence in the Seychelles.


Benedict, Burton. Mauritius: Problems of a Plural Society. London, 1965.

Bunge, Frederica M., ed. Indian Ocean: Five Island Countries. 2d ed. Washington, D.C., 1983.

Cohen, Robin, ed. African Islands and Enclaves. Beverly Hills, 1983. Deschamps, Hubert, and Suzanne Vianes. Les Malgaches du Sud-Est. Paris, 1959

Ibn Battutah. Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354 (1929). Translated and edited by H. A. R. Gibb. London, 1969.

Maloney, Clarence. People of the Maldive Islands. Bombay, 198o. Prudhomme, Claude. Histoire religieuse de la Reunion. Paris, 1984.




Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/indian-ocean-societies/

  • writerPosted On: May 7, 2014
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