We are now endeavouring to perpetuate the memory and name of Ahmad ‘Orabi El Misri the National Hero of Egypt – to us Misr, the land of Islam where ."Islamic civilization and its heritage which the Mongols ravaged in their conquest of the old Islamic capitals retreated and sought refuge and found shelter and safety." Misr, the heart of the Arab World, and the Centre of Arabic learning and literature and the Home of the Y.M.M.A. Movement – Misr which attracted Imam Shafii, to whose madhhab nearly all the Muslims of Ceylon belong, ."to spend the remainder of his life there dividing his time between the exercises of religion, the instruction of the ignorant and the composition of his later works." – Misr to which belongs Imam Busiri whose Qasi-da-tul-Burda is recited with venerartion among us. It was ordained that the National Hero of Egypt, Ahmad ‘Orabi, should spend the best part of his life, a period of nearly nineteen years, from January 11, 1883 to September 18, 1901, in Ceylon – the land of his exile. In his time he attempted, though unsuccessfully, to purify the civil and military administration of his country, to do away with the domination of the foreigners and wrest Egypt for the Egyptians. And when he, his attempts having failed, left the shores of Egypt with his faith unshaken though broken-hearted, he thus uttered his parting words to Egypt:
"My land, beloved of Allah, show patience in Your troubles and Allah will surely help".
His prayers were answered though after a lapse of seventy years when in the Revolution of July 23, 1952 King Farouk was banished and its leaders, who form the present Government, successfully concluded on October 20, 1954 an agreement with Great Britain for the complete evacuation of all British troops from the Suez Canal Zone.
Ahmad ‘Orabi reached Ceylon in 1883 to serve a life term of banishment, having been found guilty of treason and rebellion as a subject of the Khedive and guilty of mutiny as an officer of the army. He had been painted by the foreign press as "a heavy fellah" and "the mere mouth-piece of a turbulent solidiery". The high officials of Ceylon and the society to which they belonged could not in such circumstances have anticipated the verdict of history that "Ahmad ‘Orabi was the leader of a genuine national movement which represented the enlightened and liberal elements in Egypt.It was a struggle for freedom from foreign exploitation and an attempt to extract a Constitution guaranteeing the people’s rights and safeguarding their interests from a ruler who had become the helpless instrument for foreign and native reactionary intrigue".
But to the Muslims of Ceylon he was Arabi Pasha of Tel-el-Kebir, the leader and uncrowned sovereign of the People of Egypt who matched his strength against a Mighty Empire for the sake of his faith and for the sake of his own, his native land. It was better that he dared and failed than that he did not dare at all. They thus recognized in him a fellow Muslim, full of fire of the faith in him, partaking of some of the characteristics of the Heroes of Islam in the heyday of its Glory. So they gave him a royal welcome on his arrival at the Colombo jetty. A contemporary report tells us that "the Mahomedans of Colombo contrary to general expectation, did not make any demonstration…. and conducted themselves in an eminently orderly and peaceable manner…. and then came Arabi himself, with Toulba and Abdelal Sahmy. The excitement now reached its highest pitch…. and it was with difficulty that the crowd was kept from rushing on to the jetty in their eagerness to obtain a glimpse of Arabi…. while being conducted to their carriages Arabi and his companions were profoundly saluted by the crowd, and very courteously and repeatedly bowed their acknowledgements. "
Thereafter till his departure in 1901 Arabi Pasha was an adopted and highly esteemed member of Muslim society in Colombo and later in Kandy. His company was eagerly sought after by the elite of the Community who befriended him and feted him to an extent unknown before and after. They even copied his dress. The red fez or tarboosh and the European trousers became very popular among them. And to him the land of temporary exile became the land of eternal charm. By his advice and admonitions, he begun to exert such an influence on the life of the Community that in the correspondence column of the local "Examiner" it was feelingly alleged that a rebel was being accorded the treatment befitting royalty while a weak Government was silently tolerating with loss of dignity this manifestation of disloyalty on the part of an important section of Ceylon’s subjects.
Of these Muslims one who most lovingly desired the friendship of Arabi Pasha was M.C. Siddi Lebbe a proctor by profession and a social worker by inclination who was possessed of an intellect and gifted with a stature which grow larger in proportion as the years recede. He was nearly of the same age as Arabi Pasha. Siddi Lebbe had followed with understanding and insight the history of Egypt, the history of other Countries and the history of other Communities in Ceylon and had with a farsightedness not given to his contemporaries concluded that the survival of the local Muslim Community largely depended on its successful pursuit of modern education while not permitting any of its pernicious aspects to undermine the faith that had successfully survived the days of Portuguese proselytism and Dutch persecution. Siddi Lebbe had for several years previously canvassed the opinion of his co-religionists for a new educational approach and had even dissipated his own wealth for the cause that was near and dear to his heart earning in the process the silly contempt of the wordly-wise of his generation. He had not been heeded; instead he had been reviled as one attempting to take the Muslims of his day away from the Straight Path. Yet he was undaunted and persisted in his efforts believing firmly that reason would prevail in the end and that his Community would soon see the error of its attitude and actions. So he approached Arabi Pasha and prevailed upon him to use his prestige and position in the cause of modern education among his co-religionists. Arabi Pasha found in Siddi Lebbe a kindred soul whose ideal of life was "though treated cruelly by his brethren to live for their good, though pierced by the arrow, to remain fond of the arrow, to live anxious to serve his Community, and to die with that anxiety in his heart. " Arabi Pasha had known the effects of the educational reforms that were undertaken in Egypt during the early years of the nineteenth century and had later felt the exhortations of Jamaludin Afghani who during his comparatively short stay in Egypt between the years of 1871 and 1879 "preached freedom not only from foreign rule, but also and even more from the obstructive force of rigid and worn out beliefs and practices. " To Siddi Lebbe’s appeal Arabi Pasha’s response was quick and favourable indeed. He exhorted Siddi Lebbe to carry on his good work unmindful of the venom of the malignant tongues of his enemies and equally unmindful of the sluggishness of the slow moving minds of his friends. Arabi Pasha devoted the rest of his days in Ceylon even after the death on February 5, 1898 of his dear friend in whose company he much delighted, to the cause of English educations and reforms in religious practices. His private discourses always centred round these themes and in whatever function he was persuaded to participate he always drew the attention of the Muslims present to the urgent necessity for effective steps being taken to promote the cause of modern education. For the same cause he himself strove hard and brought about unity among the three parties that were previously warring against each other, dominated by petty jealousies and indulging in factious recriminations. To his appeals backed by the prestige of his personality the Community responded more favourably and the dream of Siddi Lebbe became a reality when Al-Madra-satuz-Zahira was founded in 1892 with the active patronage of Arabi Pasha and the assiduous efforts of Wapche Marikar its first Manager and his friends. The name of Al-Madrasatuz Zahira with its beautiful and significant connotation was specially chosen by Arabi Pasha himself. It is this Al-Madrasatuz Zahira that has since blossomed into the present Zahira College.
On Monday August 22, 1892 Arabi Pasha presided over the inauguration function and gave his prayers and blessings for the future of this institution and today after about sixty-three yers we are assembled here, to cherish his memory in a manner traditional and appropriate, under the most auspicious of circumstances and in the presence of an important Egyptian Minister of a Government that has victoriously pursued the ideals of Arabi Pasha.
Between 1892 and 1901 Arabi Pasha paid frequent visits to his beloved Al-Madrasatuz Zahira and conversed with the Staff and Students in his quiet and inimitable manner, and throughout encouraged its Manager Wapche Marikar in his indefatigable endeavours to improve the Institution. Arabi Pasha paid his last visit to this Institution on or about the 12th of September, 1901 six days before his departure to Egypt. On that day he presided over a Prize Distribution and listened to some of the students feelingly reciting a farewell address composed in Arabic verse. References were then made to the sacrifices he made and the services he rendered for Egypt, to the fame he brought to this Island of ours, to the lustre he shed on the local Muslim Community and its faith and to the encouragement he gave to long needed reforms in its midst. And it was stated that Arabi Pasha had become their loving father and they his dutiful sons. The address ended invoking the blessings of Almighty Allah on him.
The building in which this fond farewell took place stands to this day within the College premises and is still used – at present as a science lecture room – It is our fervent hope and earnest prayer that some day in the near future on the ground which this building occupies will be erected an imposing structure, with striking saracenic features aptly named after Arabi Pasha.
Arabi Pasha came to Ceylon as a forlorn refugee branded as a ‘heavy fellah’ and a disloyal rebel. History has since pronounced its verdict and Egypt will for ever hail him her Hero, who farshightedly foresaw the power of evil wielded against Egypt by the combination of the feudal and foreign elements in the Country. His name will be remembered with reverence not only in the Land of his birth but also in our land, the Land of his exile. And Zahira will for ever remain an imperishable monument to the immense influence for good which he exerted on the local Muslim Community.