Why Zahira, Historic In Her Path Of Success, Her Role In The Present Day Context And The Possibility Of Becoming A University In The Future

Marhoom S.H.M. Jameel

Marhoom S.H.M. Jameel

On this occasion of the 121st year of existence of our Alma Mater, Zahira College, Colombo, it is appropriate to look back at its historic path of success, together with her possibility of becoming a University in the future and determine her role in the present context.

Zahira College, established in 1892 has as its motto ALHAMDU LILLAH and the School Song is a prayer seeking KNOWLEDGE AND PIETY.

The establishment should be looked at the context prevailing at the end of the 19th century in then Ceylon .The Muslim community was not interested in education and their children were not attending schools. The Reports of Director of Public Instruction, specially that of Charles Bruce in 1878 gave an insight into the pathetic situation of the education of the Muslims.

  • 1875: There were only 2 Muslim teachers in the whole Island-J.J.Sudar in Narandeniya and S.M. Ibrahim in Puttalam.
  • 1878: No names of any Muslim student found in results lists of examinations or scholarships.
  • 1879: There were only 1233 Muslim students in the whole Island which was 2.2 % of the total student population. English medium schools had 167 students, Anglo Vernacular schools 315 students and Vernacular schools 715 students of the Vernacular students, 542 were in the Eastern Province.
  • 1880: The premier educational institution at that time, namely the Colombo Academy (Royal College) had only one Muslim student up to the period 1880.
  • 1881: The Literacy Rate among the males was 32% and 02% among females.
  • 1900: Only 3 Mohammedan schools had been registered up to 1900-Mohamedan Boys School, Kandy (1891), Maradana Mohamedan Boys School, Colombo (1892) and Gampola Mohamedan Boys School (1892).
  • 1903: The community had 6 Aided Schools and 7 Government Schools for them.
  • 1933: There were only 5 teachers namely Abdul Latheef of Weligama, Abdul CaderLebbe,Mohamed Ismail and Mohamed Ismail from Kattankudi and Abdul Cader from Mannar.

The definition of a Mohamedan School was that “Instruction is given in the subjects of Arabic and Mohamedan Religion in addition to the ordinary subjects of the Code”

The main reason for the lethargy of the community in sending their children to schools was the fear of religious conversion. Most of the schools were managed by the Christian Missionaries and the emphasis was on Scriptures and the Bible. The Curriculum was British oriented and the local languages, culture and history were ignored.

However, by the latter part of the 19th Century, the social structure was changing, leading to the emergence of a new economic, political and social order, which impacted on the Muslim community through the rise of a middle class among them, specially in Galle and Colombo, who felt the need for education and realized that fluency in the English language would enhance their position in the business world.

They realized that the community had remained too long culturally isolated, educationally backward and politically insignificant and the remedial measure was to motivate the community to take interest in education, of course with caution by way of opening schools with Islamic environment. This resulted in the establishment of Mohamedan schools, wherein the Maradana Mohamedan Boys School emerged to be the premier school in the 20th Century.
Wapiche Marikar, a Founding Father declared in 1907 that “the object is to have a school worthy of the community and to turn out boys able to take their place among those of other communities now trained at colleges in Colombo and elsewhere. We aim at making our boys fill high and responsible positions in life”.

I.L.M. AbdulAzeez, another member of the pioneer group of community leaders advised in 1909 through his paper “AL MUSLIM” that “for the survival of the community, it was necessary that a fair number should possess a good knowledge of English which is indispensable to commercial prosperity, good citizenship, professional knowledge and government employment”.
The inspiration for this educational awakening came from Mohamed CassimSiddilebbe.

Mohamed Cassim Siddilebbe

M. C. Siddilebbe from Kandy was a lawyer, Municipal Councillor, educationist, author, publisher, writer of Arabic text books and a social reformer. He published a Monthly journal named ‘Muslim Nesan’ through which he propagated the urgent need for education for his community.

Pursuing his ambition to set up schools for girls and boys, he started Girls’ Schools in Trincomalee Street and at Katukele in Kandy, one at Gampola and another at Kurunagala. His sister helped him immensely in managing these schools. Another aspect of his ambition was to establish a Central Boys’ School in Colombo.

In 1891, Siddilebbe delivered a speech at Maradana Mosque in Colombo which inspired the formation of the Muslim Educational Society with the main object of starting an English school for Boys in Colombo and the live-wire of the society was Arasi Marikar Wapiche Marikar.

A.M.Wapiche Marikar

WapichiMarikar was a reputed building contractor who had built many landmark buildings of the city of Colombo like the National Museum, General Post Office, Old Town Hall and the Galle Face Hotel. The Muslim Educational Society under his leadership opened a school that eventually became Zahira College.

  • 1892: Al Matharasathuz Zahira opened and registered as Maradana Mohamedan Boys School. The first Manager was Wapiche Marikar who remained in that position for 25 years till 1917. He spent his time, money and energy in building up this school.
  • 1894: 35 students on roll. The first head-master was K. Darmoran who remained till 1901
  • 1911: Approved as a Secondary school. The first principal was O.E. Martinez
  • 1913: Named as Zahira College
  • 1914: July 11 – First meeting of the Old Boys’ Association
  • 1917: Management handed over to Maradana Mosque. N.H.M. Abdul Cader, the Chairman of the Mosque Committee became the Manager and remained in the post till 1939, and was succeeded by A.H.M.Ismail.

The BUILDINGS during the days of the Founders came up in the following order:

  • 1892: The first building was constructed by Wapiche Marikar costing Rs.951/=. He built six houses also at Darley Road, Maradana to maintain the expenses of the school with their rent.
  • 1906: A building by Careemji Jafferjee. He played an important role in the ‘Fez Issue’ by bringing down the famous lawyer of Bombay, Rafiudeen Ahamed to address the mass meeting held in Colombo in 1905. Orabi Pasha stayed at his ‘Esa Villa’ in Bambalapitiya before his departure from Ceylon after nineteen years of exile in this country.
  • 1922: The greatest benefactor was N.D.H.AbdulGhaffoor.He donated theScience Block and continued his philanthrophy towards Zahira until his last days by not only constructing many more buildings, but also donating an 18 acre rubber estate at Maharagama. In 1928, he contributed the major share for the construction of 16 class-rooms and the Main Hall, which today is called as the Ghaffoor Hall.
  • In 1948 he once again donated one hundred thousand rupees for the construction of the Hostel Building which was estimated to cost two hundred and fifty thousand rupees. The ground Floor was completed and it became the Junior Hostel accommodating about 150 students. The First and Second Floors were completed in 1969, when I.L.M. Shafie Marikar was the Principal with the donations from M.I.M. Naleem Hajiyar from Beruwela and the famous Jewellers in Colombo, Pallaklebbe& Company, whose proprietors were from Kayalpattanam of South India.
  • 1922 P.B.Umbichy from Kerala constructed the Playground and 12 class rooms. He further constructed a building for the Kindergarten Section.
  • 1953: MuthuWappa donated a building to the Primary Section.

The above scenario demonstrates very clearly that Zahira College had the fortune of strong support of not only Sri Lankans, but also North Indians as well as South Indians domiciled in this country, and also an Egyptian-Orabi Pasha.

Orabi Pasha

The latter part of the 19th Century saw the emergence of liberation movements in Egypt against the autocratic rule of the Khedive and the British domination. A leader of this movement named Mohamed Abduh, who was a disciple of Jamaluddeen Afghani formed the National Liberal Party in 1878. Orabi Pasha, then a Colonel in the army joined this party and led a revolt by the Nationalists , which was defeated at Tel-al-Kabir in 1882 by the British forces ,as a result of which he and a group of his supporters were sentenced to death, but subsequently commuted to Life Imprisonment and banished to Ceylon .

On arrival in Ceylon, he was received by the Muslims not as a war- criminal, but as a great freedom-fighter and a hero. He arrived in 1882, lived here for 19 years and returned to his country in 1901.

Orabi Pasha became a model and a guide to the emerging elite of the Muslim community. He had acquired modern education, wore the Western attire with the Fez cap and interacted very closely with the Sri Lankans.

Siddi lebbe very soon established a very strong and everlasting friendship with Orabi Pasha, which brought Orabi Pasha into the educational movement. He actively participated in the founding of Zahira and in fact the name Mathrasathuz Zahira was chosen on his suggestion. He presided at the Inauguration Ceremony of the school and continued his association until his departure.

I.L.M. Abdul Azeez

Idroos Lebbe Marikar Abdul Azeez was another Reformer of the early 20th Century. He was the President of the Moors Association and a Trustee of the Maradana Mosque. He continued the reformist activities of Siddilebbe after his demise, including the publication of Muslim Nesan – a monthly paper started by Siddilebbe. Subsequently he started editing his own paper named Muslim Guardian, with a Tamil section under the name of ‘Muslim Pathukavalan’, through which he strongly campaigned for the improvement of the educational standard of his community. He never failed to allocate space in his paper to motivate his brotheren to extend their fullest support for the development of Zahira College. He always chided the parents for their lethargy in the education of their children. Mr. Ponnambalam Ramanathan delivered a speech in the Legislative Council in 1885 and subsequently in the Royal Asiatic Society on 26th April 1888, on the ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon, through which he strove to establish the Moors as part of the Tamil ethnicity, obviously with the political motive of preventing the Moors from getting a separate representative in the Legislature. It was Abdul Azeez who very strongly dismissed the claims of Ramanathan by publishing an exhaustive research book entitled ‘A Criticism of Mr. Ramanathan’s Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon’ in 1907.

N.H.M. Abdul Cader

Mr.N.H.M. AbdulC ader was the younger brother of N.D.H. Abdul Ghaffoor, the great benefactor of Zahira. He was a lawyer by profession and was appointed as a member to the Legislative Council in 1917. When a system of election was introduced in 1924, he was elected as one of the three members to the Mohamedan Electorate. H.M.Macan Markar obtained 10311 votes, N.H.M.Abdul Cader 6750 votes and T.B. Jayah 5221 votes.

Being the manager of Zahira College for 25 years, he extended his fullest co-operation to T.B. Jayah, the Principal, so much so,the Board of Management headed by him even permitted Jayah to contest an election where Abdul Cader himself was a candidate.

T.B. Jayah

The period of Tuan Brahanudeen Jayah as the Principal (1st September 1921 to 22nd August 1948) lasted for 27 years.
The period from 1892 to 1921 could be considered as an era of establishment and stabilization; from 1921 to 1948 as an era of consolidation and progress; and from 1948 to 1960 as an era of reaching the peak of progress.

During the stewardship of Jayah, Zahira began to produce the leaders and reformers; thinkers and philosophers; legislators and national figures. It emerged as a symbol of Islamic consciousness, Muslim education and culture.

Besides the vast academic improvement; Zahira saw expansion and glory in the fields of athletics and sports; formation of Literary Associations and the publication of the school magazine named Crescent in 1922. A Free Night School was started and a wholesome mid day meal of rice and curry was provided in the school for merely ten cents.

Foreign dignitaries visiting Ceylon always included a visit to Zahira in their itinerary. Moulana Rafiudeen Ahamed, Moulana Saukat Ali, Mahathma Gandhi, Rajaji, Sarojini Naidu, N.Dawoodsha, AllamaYoosuf Ali were some of those great personalities who delivered orations to the students of the College.

Mahathma Gandhi spoke to the students in a Special Assembly on 22nd November 1927 on Character Building saying that “ the Principal and teachers cannot give you character from the pages of books. Character building comes from their very lives and really speaking, it must come from within yourself”. In fact Mahadev Desai who maintained detailed notes on Gandhi’s visit and subsequently published it as a book in 1928 named ‘With Gandhiji in Ceylon’ refers to Jayah as one of the remarkable men they met here in Ceylon.

Being interested in the education of girls, he admitted young girls to the Kindergarten Section of the school. They could study here up to the age of 8 years.

During the Second World War (1939-1945), the buildings of Zahira College were requisitioned by the Government for war efforts. The out-station students had to be sent back to their homes. Jayah made use of this adverse situation for an Islandwide educational development by opening branches of Colombo Zahira College in the outstations at Alutgama (1942), Gampola (1942), Matale (1944), Puttalam (1944) and Wekanda, Colombo (1945). In course of time he made them independent schools. His efforts to establish Zahira branches in Jaffna and Kalmunai did not materialize due to insufficient co-operation from the people of those areas.

While being the Principal, be became a Member of the Legislative Council and was nominated to its Committee on Education. He was elected as a member to the first Parliament in 1947 and elevated to the post of a Cabinet Minister. He later served as the first High Commissioner to Pakistan, where the University of Punjab awarded him a Doctorate (HonourisCausa).

In the words of A.M.A. Azeez, his chosen successor to the post of Principal, Zahira became the “Radiating Centre of Muslim Thought and Activity”.

A.M.A. Azeez

The Radiating Centre of Muslim Thought and Activity built up by Jayah reached the zenith of its Golden Era during the Principalship of Aboobucker Mohamed Abdul Azeez, who had the distinction of being the first Muslim Civil Servant. He resigned from this prestigious position to take over Zahira at the request of Jayah- a vital decision that made him a great intellectual and educationist of the 20th Century.

Zahira, during the Azeez Era , (23rd August 1948 to 31st December 1961) became an all- community national school catering not only to Ceylon Muslims, but also to Sinhalese, Tamils, South Indians resident in Ceylon and even foreign students from Maldives, Malaysia , Kenya and Pakistan. Many of the non-Muslim students held positions of student leadership and responsibility. A branch of the Old Boys’ Association was formed in Pakistan when he visited that country in 1951, when Jayah was the High Commissioner there.

The first entrant to the University from Zahira was in the year 1944 and it showed a remarkable progress during the period of Azeez. He had maintained a list of University admissions in his personal library, a copy of which was provided to me by his son Mohamed Ali Azeez. From 1944 to 1961, the following number of students had entered the Faculties of the Ceylon University.

  • Arts 44
  • Science 30
  • Medicine 26
  • Engineering 23
  • Veterinary Sc. 13
  • Agriculture 02
    Total 138

The above students belonged to the following communities:

  • Muslims 80
  • Sinhalese 37
  • Tamils 21

This number of 138 should be more, as it is observed that the names of some of the students of Zahira who had sat as private candidates for the second and third times and entered the university appear to have not come into this list.

Zahira was the only school at that time which taught Arabic as one of the subjects in the H.S.C. class and therefore the only school that was providing students to the Department of Arabic at the University of Ceylon. Azeez had mentioned in a Report in 1960 that up to then the Ceylon University had produced 3 Arabic Special graduates and 3 others with Arabic as one of the subjects for their degree and all of them were Zahirians.

Of the 4 Alims who were sent to the Al-Azhar University in Egypt for higher studies on the initiative of the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund, founded by Azeez, three were members of the staff of Zahira College. During the same period, another student was sent to Bathkande College of Hindustani Music at the University of Lucknow on Indian Government Scholarship to graduate in Hindustani Music.

Azeez had to leave Zahira, when all the private schools were taken over by the Government on 1st January 1961.

I.L.M. Shafi Marikar

Even though Shafie Marikar did not belong to the era of the Founding Fathers, we cannot fail to mention his name in the history of this educational institution, because after being a State school for a brief period and when Zahira was handed back to private management, it was Shafie Marikar as the Principal for 16 years (January 1967 to June 1982), ensured the survival and continuity of the College. He devoted his entire life to his Alma Mater. He lived in a modest apartment within the school premises and never went abroad even though there were several offers and opportunities.

Aspirations for a Cultural University

Sri Lanka had only a University College till 1942 through which the students obtained their degrees by sitting for London Examinations. The second World War disrupted the sea-transport, which compelled the authorities to elevate the University College to the status of a university and thus the University of Ceylon was born which remained as the only University till 1958.

1950s saw the emergence of the desire to establish more higher educational institutions in the form of Cultural Universities, which went a step further by the elevation of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas into full-fledged universities in December 1958 by an Act of Parliamment Number 45 of 1958.These are the present Sri Jayawardenapura and Keleniya Universities.

The Tamils and Muslims started requesting for Cultural Universities of their own. The Tamils formed the ‘University Movement” to establish a fully-fledged university of their own and even bought 350 acres of land in Trincomalee to site the university.

Dr. T.B.Jayah, in his Prize Day Oration at Zahira College on 15th February 1958 stated as follows: “ I feel it is my duty to pose the question whether it is not time in view of the changes taking place in the country to take steps for the establishment of a Muslim University. While we welcome the conversion of two well known Pirivenas into Universities, Hindu and Christian universities in the making, we Muslims will be failing in our duty if unmindful of the inspiring lead Muslims have given the world in higher and university education, we look on with folded arms on the rapidly developing situation in the country, which may leave us out of the reckoning as nationals worthy of consideration and attention in any scheme of national construction .I wish to express the hope that Zahira College will under the leadership of the Principal and the helpful co-operation of the Management rise higher and higher and in co-operation with other Zahira Colleges make possible the establishment of a University to enable the community to play a worthy part as builders of New Ceylon”

A.M.A. Azeez, along with a few associates conceived an idea in 1954 of a precursor of a cultural university in the form of a CEYLON MUSLIM CULTURAL CENTRE, the framework of which had been explained in a document published by him on 1st of May 1956.

On an earlier occasion in 1952 Dr. K.G. Saidian, Joint Secretary and Education Advisor to the Ministry of Education, Government of India, in a lecture delivered at

Zahira College said that “The aim of Zahira should be to build it up into an educational and cultural centre which would focus the activities of the Muslim community in cultural and educational matters”.

The foundation stone for the building of the Cultural Centre was laid by H.S. Ismail, Speaker of Parliament, at the premises of Zahira College on 18th March 1958. As an integral part of Zahira, the aim was to develop into an Islamic Institute offering adequate facilities for reading and research for students and scholars here and abroad.

The objectives are as follows:

  • A Research and Reading Library of 75000 volumes on Islam, Islamic Culture and Civilization in all available languages, specially in Arabic, Urdu, English and Arabu Tamil. The Library would have a seating capacity for 250 persons and also an Auditorium.
  • A School of Islamic Music and Art, specially Arabic Calligraphy. Special Trainers from abroad would be employed in this School.
  • Classes in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy and lectures in Muslim affairs.
  • A Bureau of Publications with emphasis of books in Sinhala language.
  • Islamic and Educational Research Centre.
  • Archives
  • Museum and Exhibition Centre
  • Spanish Garden in Saracenic style

Azeez was able to muster donations and support for the project from Asia Foundation and the Governments of Ceylon, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Kuwait, Malaya, Saudi Arabia and Maldives

Azeez also realized that a higher educational institute of this nature needs State recognition, legal status, statutory recognition, financial resources, trained personnel and full time staff., all of which could be provided only by a university and in pursuance of this concept ha submitted a proposal on 11th March 1961 that Zahira College premises would be the suitable place to locate the Muslim Cultural University.

The Governor-General, in opening of Parliament in 1961 included in his speech the proposals of setting up a University Grants Commission for all the three universities; and establishment of two cultural universities, one for the promotion of the Tamil language and Hindu culture and the other for the promotion of the Arabic language and the Muslim culture.

A.M.A. Azeez in his Address of Thanks made in the Senate on 13th July 1961 to the above Speech of the Governor General fully endorsed the establishment of the cultural universities by his statement that “I would concentrate on just one item, namely, the establishment of two cultural universities, one for the promotion of the Arabic Language and Muslim Culture. As a Muslim, I should like to make it clear that as far as the Muslims are concerned, culture is religion and religion is culture, language and race occupy very subordinate places in Muslim society compared with religion. By the promise of this university, I would say that the present Government especially the Hon. Prime Minister has earned the gratitude of the entire Muslim community as well as the unborn generations of the Muslims of this Island, for in this country Islam has been preserved at considerable sacrifices during the four centuries of foreign rule beginning with Portuguese atrocities.”

But the concept of cultural universities did not proceed much further. Azeez too relinquished his post of Principal with the take over of Zahira by the Government.

Hon. A.C.S. Hameed, a longtime Minister of External Affairs and subsequently Minister of Higher Education revived the idea of an Arabic University, which too did not proceed far.

Today, Sri Lanka has 15 State universities, many Degree Awarding Institutes, Affiliated Universities and Tertiary Educational Institutes. State Universities of Colombo, Peradeniya, Jaffnaand the Eastern have Departments of Arabic and Islamic Studies, while the South Eastern University has the distinction of a fully-fledged Faculty of Islamic Studies and Arabic.

Great Expectations from Zahira

Looking back at the long march of 121 years of Zahira, we are proud that the visions and aspirations of the Founders were not in vain. It emerged as the radiating centre of Islamic

Thought and Muslim Activity. Though it slid from this pedestal at one stage, we are glad to note the forward strides it is making during the past few years towards reviving the Golden Era. We appreciate all the efforts undertaken by the present Board of Governors under the leadership of Mr. Fowzul Hameed, with the support and co-operation of the old boys, parents and well wishers. Extensive infra- structure developments likethe completion of the Science Laboratory Building, new buildings for the Library , Primary Section, the Furkhan Building donated by Desamanya M.T.A. Furkhan, the Swimming Pool and many others. The discipline and the general atmosphere have vastly improved.

Impressive achievements are made in the playing fields of sports and athletics.

What we need today is academic excellence. This can be achieved by attitudinal changes among parents, concentration among students and devotion by teachers. Once this optimum level of academic excellence is achieved, Zahira could revive its dream of elevating itself to be a higher institute of learning at the university level.

I thank the Principal Mr.A.R.M.Trizviiy Marikkar and the Deputy Principal Mr.M.N.Mohamed Riza for having invited me to deliver this Oration.

Thank you.

Marhoom Mr.S.H.M.Jameel is a past student of Zahira College and an eminent educationist.He had served as Principal of Zahira College, Kalmunai; Teachers Training College, Addalaichenai; first Registrar of the Eastern University; Secretary of the Ministry of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs; and retired as Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs. He is the author/ compiler of 40 books on education, history, literature, political science and folklore.

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Famous Publications:

The Muslim Heritage of Eastern Sri Lanka