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Indian Ocean Societies

Guy Arnold
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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 Muslims; for example, the great medieval Arab traveler and explorer Ibn Baṭṭūṭah 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 100 percent Muslim; Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Mauritius, with important Muslim minorities; and Réunion and the Seychelles. Table 1 gives 2006 figures for population.

Populations of Indian Ocean Islands

Country Population Approximate Muslim  Percentages
Comoros 600,000 99.4
Madagascar 18,606,000 1.7
Maldives 329,000 100.0
Mauritius 1,248,000 12.9
Réunion* 793,000 2.0
Seychelles 84,000 0
Sri Lanka 19,582,000 7.6
*A department of France.


The Comoros and Maldives are closest in terms of size and background and their populations are overwhelmingly Muslim, but there are some substantial differences between them. 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. In the sixteenth century the predominant influence was Arab. The great majority of the Comoran people are Sunnī (Shāfiʿī) Muslims. The Comoran language is close to Swahili; in addition, some Arabic is spoken.

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, who ousted President Ahmed Abdallah on August 3, 1975, passed a loi fondamentale in May 1977 under which Comoros became a “democratic, secular, socialist republic,” a mixture of Islam and Maoism. Soilih, who had insisted upon his adherence to Islam, was overthrown in a coup in May 1978. On October 1, 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 politics of the Comoros remained volatile and troubled through the twentieth century, while Mayotte remained in a political limbo as a “collectivity,” with France refusing to hold a referendum on departmental status. During controversial elections in 2003, allegations were made that Comoran passports were being sold to Islamic extremists. 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 form 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 Baṭṭūṭah, 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. In 1998President Abdul Gayoom was re-elected for a fifth term. As one of the priorities for his new government, he defined “increasing the observance of Islamic values and ideals in society.” As with the Seychelles, global warming threatens the fragile ecosystem of the low-lying archipelago of the Maldives, as rising sea temperatures destroy the coral reefs. There was a negative reaction to U.S. President George W. Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol; reversing global warming is seen as a life-and-death matter for the islands, since they could be totally submerged during the twenty-first century.

Today, as in the Comoros, Islam is the state religion of the Maldives, whose people are 100 percent Sunnī Muslims. Judges administer the law according to the tenets of the sharīʿah through a body appointed by the president, while traditional schools (madrasahs) teach the Qurʿān. Under the constitution, within the provisions of Islam, freedom of “life movement,” speech, and development are guaranteed as basic rights.

Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's Muslim minority of some 1.3 million is larger than the combined Muslim populations of all the other Indian Ocean societies under consideration here. Trade links with other Indian Ocean states led a small group of Moorish traders to settle in Sri Lanka beginning in the eighth century. As a result, Muslims in Sri Lanka have traditionally been referred to as Moors. 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 or her choice.

The Muslim minority in Sri Lanka has largely managed to stay outside the ethnic confrontations that have troubled the country since the early 1980s. However, in 1997 in raids into the eastern province of Sri Lanka, a Muslim member of the opposition United National Party (UNP) was killed. On September 4, 1999, possible reconciliation between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government was set back when A. C. S. Hameed, the former Foreign Minister of the United National Party (UNP), died. He was a leader of the Muslim community and had been active in efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Later that year, another leader of the Muslim community and a government minister, Mohammed Ashraff, died in a helicopter crash. By 2002, Muslims in the east coast region felt so threatened by the LTTE that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress aimed to create a Muslim administration in order to avoid domination by the LTTE. In April 2003, serious communal riots erupted between Tamils and Muslims in Murrur.


Islam reached Madagascar only during the later coastal settlements, and there are significant 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 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 one-third of them are Muslim. Following September 11, 2001, Mauritius came under pressure to pass a stringent anti-terrorist law that would commit it to cooperate with the United States. However, President Cassam Uteem, who had close links with the Muslim community, refused to sign the legislation, and resigned in February 2002.

Réunion and Seychelles.

In Réunion the Muslims (2 percent) are drawn from Indian and Arab sections of the population. Islam has no influence in the Seychelles.

See also FRANCE and IBN BAṭṭūṭA.


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  • Benedict, Burton. Mauritius: Problems of a Plural Society. London, 1965.
  • Bunge, Frederica, ed.Indian Ocean: Five Island Countries. 2d ed.Washington, D. C., 1983.
  • Cohen, Robin, ed.African Islands and Enclaves. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1983.
  • Deschamps, Hubert, and Suzanne Vianes. Les Malgaches du Sud-Est. Paris, 1959.
  • Ibn Baṭṭūṭah. 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, 1980.
  • Chaudhuri, K.N. Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocea: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Prudhomme, Claude. Histoire religieuse de la Réunion. Paris, 1984.
  • Sherer, A.La Réunion. Paris, 1998.
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