Maldives comprises some 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. The earliest settlers were probably from southern India, and they were followed by Indo-European speakers from Sri Lanka in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. In the 12th century AD, sailors from East Africa and Arab countries came to the islands. Today, the Maldivian ethnic identity is a blend of these cultures, reinforced by religion and language.
Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the mid-12th century. Islam is the official religion of nearly the entire population. Strict adherence to Islamic precepts and close community relationships have helped keep crime under control.
The official and common language is Dhivehi, an Indo-European language related to Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka. The writing system, like Arabic, is from right to left, although alphabets are different. English is used widely in commerce and increasingly as the medium of instruction in government schools.
Some social stratification exits on the islands. It is not rigid, since rank is based on varied factors, including occupation, wealth, Islamic virtue, and family ties. Members of the social elite are concentrated in Male.
The early history of the Maldives is obscure. According to Maldivian legend, a Sinhalese prince named Koimale was stranded with his bride--daughter of the king of Sri Lanka--in a Maldivian lagoon and stayed on to rule as the first sultan.
Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development influenced by sailors from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean littorals. Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast--present-day Kerala state in India--harassed the islands. In the 16th century, the Portuguese subjugated and ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73) before being driven away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azam.
Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt at a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was reimposed.
Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another three years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name.