By Daniel Bosley
Much of the Maldives’ official history begins and ends in Male’, the traditional home of kings and sultans, judges and presidents. But for the country’s most-beloved religious teacher, Mohamed Jamaluddin – also known as Vaadhoo Dhanna Kaleyfaanu – this couldn’t be further from the truth.
While the Yemen-trained sheikh’s name is most often heard in reference to the primary school in Male’, the 16th century scholar’s moniker echoes louder around the sandy streets of Gaafu Dhaalu Vaadhoo, where his tomb can still be visited.
Here, tribute was paid until relatively recently at the Jamaluddin ziyaaraiy, which lies just opposite Vaadhoo’s own Jamaluddin school; next door to the uncompleted Jamaluddin library, and a couple of streets over from Jamaluddin Magu.
Though many details of the sheikh’s life-journey remain shrouded in obscurity, the official tarikh describes Jamaluddin as having come to the aid of the Maldives’ independence hero Mohamed Thakurufaanu, after fifteen years of brutal Portuguese rule had left the country bereft of spiritual leadership. Indeed, the most famous accounts of ‘Bodu’ Thakurufaanu’s exploits depict Jamaluddin’s homecoming as the final chapter in the Maldives’ favourite story.
Folklore may well have romanticised the specifics of his return, but it is agreed that even after a spectacular welcome in Male’ and the offer of wealth and influence as the Maldives’ chief judge, Jamaluddin instead headed to Huvadhu where he established a local educational hub for the remainder of his days.
It is also generally agreed that his time in Arabia was spent in Hadramawt (15 years says the tarikh), where the University of Zabid was already world famous as a centre of Islamic scholarship – of the Shafi’i school in particular. The ancient town is still preserved today as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
Studies of historical trade and migration suggest that waves of Shafi’i scholars had been making their way east across the ocean from Yemen in large numbers at the time of the Maldives’ 12th century conversion to Islam. Indeed, foreign judges seemed common in the Maldives throughout the period. The 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta is perhaps the most famous example, while his diaries noted that his direct predecessor had himself been from Yemen.
Similarly, the tarikh mentions that it had been the failure to replace a sheikh from Medina named Fagi Suleiman that had left the newly-liberated Maldives without religious leadership in the late 1500s. Even after Jamaluddin’s life had ended, Arab scholars like Sheikh Mohamed Shamsuddin (who later became sultan, in 1692) would continue to arrive, claiming lineage from the Prophet.
The influence of these missionary migrants, argues A.D.W. Forbes, would lead to the Shafi’i madhhab’s dominance across the Indian Ocean, the Malabar coast and South-East Asia, with Sheikh Mohamed Jamaluddin first bringing this school to the Maldives.
That Jamaluddin chose to settle in Huvadhu atoll has led some to suggest he may have been of southern origin, while others believe he was simply a Male’ person who wanted to share his knowledge in a quiet place far away from the capital’s political intrigue – of which the fandiyaru very often fell foul.
Whether a local or not, Vaadhoo is where the sheikh saw out his days, and where people still tell stories of his life, his death, and beyond. Some say that Jamaluddin led a long and celibate existence, with his heart finally failing after one too many unwanted advances from the ladies of the island. Other stories say his legendary tutelage continued after his death, still correcting fellow hafiz from beyond the grave (or the ziyaaraiy).
Either way, it seems Mohamed Jamaluddin’s journey is one that still links Southern Arabia, Male’, and Huvadhu, and one that has crossed the borders of myth and legend; of past, present and future.
Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands.