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Zahira’s first 100 years

The Beginnings

Speech made by Mr. S.L.M. Shafi Marikkar (former Princiapl) at the Centenary Celebration of the college on 29th September, 1992.

The history of Muslim education culminating in the establishment of Zahira College is a fascinating study of the triumph of the human mind over environment and circumstance. Conceived by visionaries at a time when circumstances were positively hostile to English education, Muslim education succeeded in over-coming the constraints of an environment where English education was closely associated with proselytism that the elders of the community preferred lack of formal English education to the realities of an almost state aided conversion that had almost submerged other communities. Nevertheless our pioneers in education were more than satisfied that Islam would weather assaults at conversion but that education was essential for the community’s progress if not its very survival. Thus did Zahira make its first faltering steps – not through state patronage, not through ministrations of foreign missionaries but through the vision of a few leaders whose enthusiasm by and by warmed an entire community to action.

The historic speech made by M. C. Siddhi Lebbe in 1891 in the Maradana Mosque Hall and his impassioned appeal to the Muslims to unite and promote the educational advancement of the community led to the formation of the Colombo Muslim Educational Society with I. L. M. Abdul Aziz as Secretary and A. M. Wappitchi Marikar as Treasurer. With the active patronage of Ahamed Orabi Pasha, the Egyptian exile in Ceylon the long cherished dream of the visionary M. C. Siddhi Lebbe became a reality when Al-Madrasathul Zahira was established on Monday 22nd of August 1892 with Wappitchi Marikar as its first Manage. In 1894 the school was registered as a grant-in-aid school Maradana Mohammedan Boys School – the number of pupils being 35.

In 1905 the foundation stone for a two-storied building was laid by Moulavi Rafiudeen Ahmed of Bombay who was in the island in connection with the Fez question. The building declared open by Ahmed Orabi Pasha in 1906. In 1911 the school was upgraded as a Secondary School and in 1913 re-named Muslim Zahira College – Mr. O. E. Martinus, BA as its first Principal.

In 1917 Wappitchi Marikar handed over the management of the College to the Maradana Mosque after having successfully managed the school for twenty-five years. Mr. N. H. M. Abdul Cader, Proctor SC took over as Manager in 1917. In 1919 Mr. A. S. Abdul Cader, the first Muslim Trained teacher was appointed Headmaster.

Although Zahira College was now established on strong foundation yet it was apparent that he enthusiasm and optimism of the early pioneers was somewhat waning leading even to the reduction of the number of pupils from the earlier figure of 108 in 1909.

It was at this stage that the Maradana Muslim Committee through its Manager N. H. M. Abdul Cader invited Mr. T. B. Jayah to take up the Principalship of the College.

Development and maturity

Mr. T. B. Jayah assumed duties as Principal on the 1st of September 1921. Mr. Jayah brought with him not only his deep interest in Muslim education but also the experience he had gained during the earlier ten years of teaching in leading schools.

When Mr. Jayah took charge of Zahira College, the school had been in existence for nearly 30 years – 1892 to 1921. The conditions of the school can best be described in Mr. Jayah’s own words – “The outlook was dismal – six teachers and fifty nine boys, hardly any furniture worth the name, with a building just enough for a primary school used at night by loafers and undesirables with unattractive surroundings and almost twenty or thirty yards from the building thickets and shrubs regarded by the public as the rendezvous of the denizens of the underworld, relieved only by the majesty of the mosque”.

As soon as he assumed duties he announced the formation of classes from Kindergarten to London Matriculation with special emphasis on the effective teaching of English and while insisting on provision of Islamic environment in the education at Zahira College. He made several trips to outstations and urged Muslims all over to give the best possible education with religious background to their children.

In May 1922, that is within ten months of the appointing of Mr. T. B. Jayah as Principal the number of pupils rose to 450 with 30 teachers. The Holy Quran was taught on new lines, Arabic and Islamic History were included in the curriculum. Luhar and Asar prayers formed a part of the school timetable. Qualified and experienced Moulavis were in charge of the religious education of the children.

Preparation of students for Cambridge Junior and Senior Examination soon followed. In 1923 five Muslim students passed the Cambridge junior examination for the first time and in 1928 four passed the London Matriculation – on in the first division.

Very soon a Commercial Department to prepare students for commercial subject was set up with a donation of the necessary equipment from M. K. A. Hameed Modige Muhandiram of Kurunegala – declared open on 28.10.1929 by His Excellency Sir Herbert Stanley, Governor.

In view of the increased numbers of students and the need for classroom accommodation, a set of 12 classrooms donated by P. B. Umbichy was declared open by Sir Henry William Manning, Governor. Also Al Haj N. D. H. Abdul Ghaffoor donated a Science Laboratory at a cost of Rs. 20,000/- More accommodation became necessary in course of time. The Manager Hon. H. H. M. Abdul Cader obtained a grant of Rs. 35,000/- from the government. With this amount and with Rs. 60,000/- donated by Al Haj N. D. H. Abdul Ghaffoor, contribution of Rs. 20,000/- by the Maradana Mosque and Rs. 25,000/- by other Muslims, the Main Building with 16 classrooms and the Abdul Ghaffoor Hall was constructed and declared open on 28.01.1928 by Sir Herbert Stanley, Governor. Further a block to accommodate kindergarten classes was donated by P. B. Umbichy.

The Principal gave all possible encouragement and assistance towards the development of sports at Zahira College right from the beginning. The abandoned cemetery was converted into a first class playing field with financial assistance from P. B. Umbichy. Rugby, Football, Boxing, Scouting, Cadetting were introduced. Zahira College students performed quite well in all forms of sports.

The Principal also encouraged visits by distinguished visitors from abroad who addressed the students. The College made steady progress until 1930 when the economic depression caused a serious set back. In 1939 Al Haj A. H. M. Ismail succeeded Hon. N. H. M. Abdul Cader as Manager of the College.

In 1942 College celebrated its Golden Jubilee on a subdued note. In the meantime the Second World War had already started in 1939 and the emergency situation caused particularly after the entry of Japan against the allies in 1942 led to mass evacuation of people of Colombo to the outstation and the closure of the College and Hostel as well as the requisition of the College buildings and premises by the military authorities. However T. B. Jayah the great visionary sensed that the cause of Muslim education need not suffer and that the emergency situation could be made use of for the benefit of the Muslim community. The Principal therefore conceived the idea of providing education in areas of Muslim concentration and established branches of Zahira College in Alutgama (1942), Gampola (1942), Matale (1944) and Puttalam (1944) and also in Wekande. The branches despite initial teething problems blossomed into leading independent Muslim institutions in their respective Districts.

In 1943 M. M. Jayah won the Government Scholarship in Science. In 1945 Zahira College entered the free Education Scheme – being one of the first Schools to do so. This led to further increase in the numbers seeking admission. The Zahira Evening School was commenced to provide education for over-aged pupils – also a source of income for the school.

In 1946 Zahira College celebrated the Silver Jubilee of Mr. T. B. Jayah. A special issue of the “Crescent” was published in connection with these celebrations. The “Crescent” editorial commented – “There is an institution within this institution. It is twenty-five years old. Mr. T. B. Jayah appositely called the Seyed Ahmed Khan of Ceylon …….. “He was definitely made for some mission in life. The past twenty-five years constitute a momentous era not only in the annals of Zahira and Muslims but also in those of the country at large. In the same issue of the “Crescent”, Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice Chancellor of University of Ceylon refers to the role of Zahira College and Mr. Jayah in the sphere of Higher Education.

In 1927 there were only 3 Muslims in a student body of 315. When the University was formed in 1942 there were 904 students of whom 25 were Muslims and in 1946 there were 1302 pupils of whom 37 were Muslims. The figures bear witness to the effort devoted to Muslims education in the past 25 years – of that effort Zahira College and Mr. Jayah have borne a noble share”.

After the General Elections of 1947 Mr. T. B. Jayah was appointed Minister of Labour and Social Services but continued to function as Principal till August, 1948. The Principal’s period at Zahira was now drawing to a close. In his Prize Day address in August, 1948 referring to the appointment of Mr. A. M. A. Azeez as his successor. Mr. Jayah confessed “I was anxious to find a successor in whose hands the future of Zahira College would be safe. I passed many anxious moments till I succeeded in persuading Mr. A. M. A. Azeez to give up an alluring career in the Civil Service for National Service with great possibilities for which his talents specially fitted him”. Mr. A. M. A. Azeez was therefore appointed on Mr. T. B. Jayah’s recommendation. The transition from T. B. Jayah to A. M. A. Azeez at Zahira has been aptly described in “T. B. Jayah – Pioneer of Muslim Educations as follows:

“In August, 1948 Mr. T. B. Jayah handed over the reins (of Zahira) to his successor Mr. A. M. A. Azeez. What he handed over was in fact the outcome of a life of devoted service to an educational system in which the hopes and aspiration of the entire Muslim Community were centered. He had found Zahira lowly and humble. He raised it to prominence among the finest institution of the land with several ancillary institutions. He had assumed duties as Principal of a single institution with 59 pupils and 6 teachers. When he retired there were ten institutions with over 3500 pupils and 150 teachers. He found Zahira almost penniless and barely able to pay her way through. He left Zahira with full coffers an assured income – it was indeed a splendid heritage to which the new Principal succeeded in 1948. His Treasury was full. He had a willing and cooperative staff. He was provided with everything necessary for turning out young men of character, integrity and honesty. All the advantages that early Zahira credit for and did not get were now his for the asking”.

Under Mr. Jayah Zahira College had been one of the foremost educational institution in the island with its own special traditions and “a place, which may rightly be called the cradle, home and citadel of Muslim education; for it was at this College Mr. Jayah’s vision of the Universality of Islamic Civilization and the mission of Zahira College in the realization of that civilization was conceived, incubated, born, fostered, cherished and attained. He had shaped the destiny of Zahira College during the most crucial years of its life, established guidelines for further development and set the background for consolidation.


In Mr. A. M. A. Azeez who assumed duties on 21st of August, 1948. Zahira indeed found a worthy successor who accepted his new duties with zest and enthusiasm and began a new era under the brightest of auspices. The school had 1400 pupils and 90 teachers to start with. With a highly qualified and competent staff, the school was able to reach high standard in the accamdemic field right from the beginning itself. In successive University Entrance Examination Zahira College maintained a high standard.

The numbers rose from 1400 to 2000. Zahira could not afford to shut out any eligible Muslim boy seeking admission. However admission was open to students of all communities. At one time 40% of the students in the post-primary classes were non-Muslims.

To provide increased accommodation an old shed was converted into a set of classrooms at a cost of Rs. 12,000/- donated by A. E. M. Sulaiman. Extensions were made to the kindergarten block by M/s P. B. Umbichy, Iqbal block to house primary classes was constructed from the proceeds of Crescent Lights Carnival 1953. The Ghaffoor Hall was converted into eight classrooms with the Hall above at a cost of Rs. 43,000/- collected from the Zahira College Building Fund Sweep.

The construction of the ground flow for the New Hostel Building was completed in 1950. A block of 3 classrooms was donated by Mr. Muttuwappa. In 1957 the Practical Education Building construction was started with a loan of Rs. 80,000/- from the Education Department. Construction of the Library (Ceylon Muslim Cultural Centre) was commenced with a donation of Rs. 75,000/- from Asia Foundation and Rs. 25,000/- from Pakistan. A 20 years lease was entered into with the Small Mosque. In the field of sports Zahira continued to shine. In Cricket, Wrestling, Badminton, Table Tennis, Swimming, Zahira did well. Soccer and Rugger re-introduced. These teams toured India and Malaysia. In cadetting Zahira was always on top – Herman Loos Cup won in 1951 and 1955. M. H. Ameen won the Queen’s Cup. The Principal was in constant contact with the former Principal H. E. T. B. Jayah, High Commissioner for Ceylon in Pakistan. An OBA branch in Karachi was formed and donated Rs. 1,000/- for bulletin boards etc. Zahira had several eminent visitors from abroad. The sum up during this period 1948/1960 Zahira reaped the fruits of the labours of its great founders and pioneers and those who had managed and administered this institution in the past.

Examination results were quite good. – Achievements in the field of sports was maintained at a high level. Zahira as a Private Non-fee Levying Unaided School (01.12.1960 21.08.1961):

The country’s educational system was undergoing rapid changes. The Assisted schools and Training Colleges (Special Provisions) Act 5 of 1960 passed on 14th October, 1960 provided for the take-over of all assisted schools other than Grade One schools which elected to be non-fee levying unaided private schools outside the scheme. The Maradana Mosque had to decide whether to run Zahira as a private school without any aid from the government solely dependent on the benefactors of the College for funds or to hand over the school to the state.

On the 23rd of October, 1960 the Executive Committee, with the Principal too being present decide to run the school as an unaided school from 01st December, 1960.

Zahira College, became a private unaided non-fee levying school from 01st December, 1960 and functioned smoothly as such till July, 1961. On 16th of July, 1961 the contributors to the benefactors of Zahira Fund at a meeting convened by the Principal decided to wind up the Fund in view of the financial situation of the country at the time and inview of the promise by the government of the conversion of Zahira College into a Muslim University. The resolution indicated that the running of the school as an unaided school was not going to be smooth anymore.

Foreign rule


(21st August, 1961 – 31st December, 1966)

With effect from 21.08.1961 the school was taken over by the Hon Minister of Education and Broadcasting for Director-Management for alleged contravention of section 6(1) of Act 5 of 1960 Mr. A. M. A. Azeez was appointed Honorary Principal of Zahira College under government management. This was followed by the Vesting of Zahira College premises etc in the crown as from 20th December, 1961 and Zahira College the once proud possession of the Muslim community became just another government school . Mr. A. M. A. Azeez thereafter resigned.

The darkest period in Zahira’s proud history had began. On 01st of January, 1962 Mr. I. L. M. Mashoor, former Principal of Govt. Teachers College Addalaichenai for several years assumed duties as Principal of Zahira College. The Zahira Evening School was absorbed into the main school. The cadet platoon which has been withdrawn when the school became private was restored. In sports activities a steady progress was maintained. In early 1965 Mr. Mashoor resigned and Mr. M. F. M. H. Fakhir, the Vice-Principal was appointed Acting Principal.


Campaign – Community Agitation

In the meantime the “take over” of the College for Director – Management and the subsequent vesting of the College premises led to continued and persistent agitation by the Muslim Community against the government organised by the Zahira College Old Boys Association led by Mr. A. C. M. Ameer, its President. Protest meetings were held at the Maradana Mosque grounds, Beruwela, Mawanella, Gampola, Kurunegala and several other places. It was said that the unity of the Muslims community in regard to this problem was similar to the unity shown by the Muslim in regard to the “Fez Question” in 1905.

Encouraged by the support extended by the Muslim community and particularly the OBA, the Maradana Mosque committee appealed on 14th December, 1961 to the Supreme Court to have the Order of the Minister dated 21st August, 1961 quashed. The case was argued in the Supreme Court on 22nd March, 1962 and on the 3rd of September, 1963 (after a question in Parliament regarding the delay), the application of the Maradana Mosque was dismissed. The Mosque committee thereafter appealed against the order of the Supreme Court to the privy council which heard the appeal on 19th January, 1966. The Privy Council allowed the appeal and set aside the Order of the Supreme Court. The Ministers order taking over Zahira College on 21.08.1961 was thereby quashed.


Zahira College was “restored” to Maradana Mosque committee with effect from 01st January, 1967. The Muslim Community should ever remain grateful to the Maradana Mosque Committee and the Old Boys Association headed by Mr. A. C. M. Ameer, QC for successfully campaigning against the “take over” of the College and for the successful legal steps taken to win back the College for the Muslim community.


Mr. S. L. M. Shafie Marikar assumed duties as Principal Zahira College on the 1st of January, 1967. 1967 was the 75th Anniversary year of the College and celebrations were organised by the College OBA and PTA. In his report presented at the 75th Anniversary Prize Giving held on 5.8.1968 with Mr. Dudley Senanayake, Prime Minister as Chief Guest, the Principal remarked: “Zahira College came under government control on 21st August, 1961. We got back the school as from 01st January, 1967. This six-years interruption had very sad and unexpected results. In January, 1967 when the school once more came under Muslim management, conditions were indeed chaotic and the school resembled a deserted bottle field. To crown it all a mob of 1500 students schooled in indiscipline, frustration and unhappy was ready to riot at the drop of a pin. When I took charge of the school as Principal on 01st January, 1967 I was confronted with a heart breaking task. All around I saw neglect, disorder and indiscipline. I had no organization – only one teacher on the staff and not one rupee in the school funds. I had inherited instead a heavy liability – 1500 students to be sorted out into classes and work provided for them on a Time Table. Against all this on the other hand I had one great heartening asset – the solid golden goodwill of the Muslim Community, our well wishers and Old Boys. With their support within the short period of three weeks we had the staff, the money and the school running smoothly.

This to some extent describes the position in which the school was when it was restored on 01.01.1967 quite a contrast indeed to the orderly, well-disciplined, adequately staffed and well-equipped school left behind by Dr. T. B. Jayah to his successor Mr. Azeez in August, 1948. However within the shortest possible time the necessary teaching and non-teaching staff for an entire institution were recruited and all activities of the College – religious, academic and sports organized. Arrangements were made to commence one by one the completion of the building projects left unfinished during the previous two decades commencing with the hostel.

Priority was necessarily given to the measures to improve speedily the discipline of the school. Curricular changes were made to ensure an Islamic environment in the school. Attendance at Luhar prayers at the correct time (Assar Jammaath), termination of all sports practices in time for Maghrib prayers, attendance for Jummah service on Fridays and two periods of class-work thereafter, hostel time table centred round the observance of five times daily prayers, religious talks in the mosque monthly after Luhar prayers – were some of the steps taken to ensure Islamic discipline. Prefects to be “models” of good behaviour to the rest.

With the freezing of the English stream in keeping with the policy of the government, Sinhala – medium classes were introduced; Tamil – medium classes extended to GCE (A/L) classes.

As a result of more student seeking admission to the College from the outstation the number of Boarders increased to over 200 including 60 Junior Boarders. Work on the new hostel building – of which only the basement had been completed in 1950, was taken in hand on 12.03.1967 and the new hostel building was declared open on 11th of July, 1969 by Hon. Dudley Senanayake, Prime Minister.

In the meantime arrangements were made for necessary legislation to be introduced for the incorporation of the Board of Governors. Through the enthusiasm and dedication of Al Haj M. Falil A Caffoor MP the Board of Trustees and Mosque Jammath were convinced of the need to broad base the management of the College and Mr. Falil Caffoor gave notice on 29.09.1969 of a bill to incorporate the Board of Governors.

Subsequently as the Bill lapsed due to dissolution of Parliament, on 26th November, 1976 Mr. M. H. M. Naina Marikar, MP presented a Bill to incorporate the Board.

In the meantime the 85th Anniversary Celebration of the College took place from 9 to 17 October, 1977 to commemorate the 10th Anniversary since the “Take-Back” of the College from the Government. The celebrations included on international Islamic Seminar which was attended by several distinguished educationists and intellectuals of the contemporary Muslim world.

On 18.9.1980 Hon. Prime Minister R. Premadasa declared open the Orabi Pasha Memorial Building, an income-earning project financed largely by Messrs. Jafferjee Brothers.

In the meantime work on a 16 classrooms block was commenced on 29.5.1981 and eight of the classrooms were occupied as from 1.1.1982.

As from 1.1.1980 Zahira College became a state aided non-fee levying private school, the government deciding to meet the cost of salaries of “eligible” staff.

During the period of 1967 to 1982 sports activities showed steady progress. Hockey was introduced for the first time and great improvement was shown in Athletics, Boxing Cricket, Rugger, Soccer, Wrestling, Table Tennis, Badminton and Swimming. The Scout Troop was reorganized.

The Old Zahirian’s Sports Club was inaugurated in 1968 with A. H. A. Sameed as President and S. M. M. Namiz as Secretary.

In 1967 B. Amit captained the Colombo North Schools Cricket Team to Victory in the Observer Cup Tournament. T. F. Samath represented Ceylon at the Asian Youth Tournament in Bangkok in 1967. In 1969 Ameer Mukthar represented Ceylon at the same championship tournament.

1969 M. J. Bawa and M. Ameera Mukthar played for Ceylon Schools in Soccer Tournament in India. In Soccer Zahira College won the Brazil Cup for five consecutive years from 1967-1971. In Boxing Zahira won the Stubs Shield for three successive years 1969-1971 and Zahira had the unique distinction of being the only College, club or institution in Ceylon to become both Juvenile Adult Champions for two successive years. All this was due to the dedication of Coach M. D. Fonseka.

Branches of the OBA were organized in Puttalam, Dharga Town and Kurunegala.

In the meantime the Zahira College, Board of Governors (Incorporation) Act No. 18 of 1982 was certified on the 20th of May 1982. When the Maradana Mosque Committee made arrangements to hand over the management and administration to the new Board of Governors, Mr. S. L. M. Shafie Marikar retired from 1.7.1982 and the new Board took over as from 9.7.1982 with Mr. A. C. M. Ameer, QC as first Chairman. Mr. M. S. Allapitchai continued to function as Acting Principal. When the new Board took over on 9.7.1982 the amount laying to the credit of the College was Rs. 1,691,322.90 and with the donation of US$ 30,000, amounting to Rs. 600,000/- received through the former Principal, the total amount available to the Board was nearly 2.3 million, besides the income from Orabi Pasha Building, Motor Garage and Hayleys shares.

Community management

Mr. A. C. M. Ameer, QC was the first Chairman of the Board of Governors followed by Hon. M. A. Bakeer Markar MP, Prof. M. T. A. Furkhan, Al Haj M. H. M. Naina Marikar and Al Haj A. Raheman M Hathy.

After the new Board took over on 9.7.1982, Mr. M. S. Allapitchai continued to function as Acting Principal followed by Mr. R. I. T. Alles as Director of Studies and co-curricular activities, and Messrs A. C. M. Zeirudeen, Saeed M. Irshad, T. D. Hannan, A. Z. Omerdeen as Principal. Mr. A. M. Sameen, the present Principal took up appointment on 1.8.1990.
On 27.03.1985 a three-storied block with 12 classrooms constructed at a cost of nearly two million rupees contributed by parents and well-wishers was declared open by Hon. R. Premadasa, MP, Prime Minister, who also was Chief Guest of the College Prize Giving the same day. During the period, the PTA supplied 1125 cushioned and steel chairs for use in the College Hall at a cost of Rs. 40,000/- while two side Pitches for Cricket and Modern Score Board were also provided.

Mr. A. M. Nahiya was appointed Vice Principal by the Board of Governors as from 15th of November, 1984.

The number of pupils had increased from 2000 in 1980 to 3500. The school presently gets a rant of approximately Rs. 200,000/- from the government. Arrangements are being made to open a branch of Zahira College at Maharagama. Professor M. T. A. Furkhan is handling this project.

The management of the College is now broad based and the Maradana Mosque Committee, the Old Boys Association, the PTA and the Welfare Society are all represented. These bodies have been throughout doing their utmost to ensure the progress and development of Zahira College.

I thank you all for listening to me so kindly and patiently. As for me it has been an exhilarating experience re-living in my mind the great saga of the emergence of English education for Muslims, the founding of Zahira College and the sacrifices made by an entire community for its survival and progress.

The Zahira College Centenary Committee is preparing a complete history of Zahira College in which any inadequacy of treatment on my part will be made good.

I believe with the founding fathers of Muslim education and Zahira College in the supreme value of education within the framework of Islamic way of life. I believe that the Muslim Community needs Zahira just as much as Zahira needs the Muslim Community and together in a symbiolic relationship fulfil the dreams of the founding fathers of Muslim education and the architects of Zahira College. The community has a great part to play in the life of the nation and it will be Zahira’s distinguished role to equip the community with the manpower and the will to face any challenge with the same confidence and courage as in the past. The past has been a glorious achievement Alhamdulillah !

Let the future be no less glorious as its historic past. Insha Allah !


Speech made by Mr. S.L.M. Shafi Marikkar (former Princiapl) at the Centenary Celebration of the college on 29th September, 1992.


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