The  Role  of  the  Muslims  during  the  Pre-Portuguese  Period.

1.         The  arrival  of  the  first  Muslim  settlers  dates  back  to  the  early  part  of  the  eighth  century.  During  subsequent  years  Muslims  came  in  increasing  numbers,  attracted  by  the  geographical  position  which  Ceylon  occupied  as  a  commercial  junction  of  great  importance. They  settled  down  in  Ceylon,  fascinated  by  its  scenic  splendour  and enamoured  of  the  hoary  traditions  associated  with  the  Adam’s  Peak.  They  were  encouraged  to  make  Ceylon  their  Island-Home  by  the  cordial  treatment  meted  out  by  the  local  rulers  and  the  favourable  reception  given  them  by  the  country’s  inhabitants.  These  Muslims  were  never  regarded  as  aliens.  Instead  they  were  valued  as  contributors  to  the  country’s  wealth  and  welfare.  They  entertained  no  scheme  for  the  temporal  and  spiritual  conquest  of  Ceylon.  The  local  rulers,  therefore,  accorded  them  the  status  of  the  most  favoured  community  for  the  commercial  and  political  contacts  these  Muslims  gained  for  Ceylon, the  foreign  skills  they  secured  and  the  encouragement  they  gave  local  trade  by  the  introduction  of  new  crafts  and  improved  methods  of  transport.  But  with  the  advent  of  the  Portuguese  in  1505,  they  suffered  a  change  in  their  status  which  was  never  recovered  till  Ceylon  became  free  of  foreign  domination.

The  Ideal of  a  Muslim  University  and  its  Genesis .

2.         There  was, however,  during  the  closing  quarter  of  the  19th  century,  an  awakening  among  them  brought  by  the  cumulative  influences  traceable  to  the  Aligarh  Movement  started  by  Sir Syed  Ahmad  Khan,  the  religious  and  educational  renaissance  resulting  from  the  efforts  of the Buddhist Theosophical Society  in  Ceylon,  and  to  the  Hindu  counter-reformation  associated  with Sri La Sri Arumuga Navalar. For this awakening among the Muslims, the leadership was  provided  by  M. C. Siddi  Lebbe,  who  having  skillfully  diagnosed  the  dire  disease  then  afflicting  them with the unmistakable symptoms of  educational  backwardness, cultural isolation and political  insignificance, prescribed the sovereign remedy of MODERN EDUCATION IN MUSLIM  ENVIRONMENT.

3.         This  awakening  found  its  best  expression  in  the  establishement  during  the  year  1892  under  the  patronage  of  Arabi  Pasha  –  dearly  beloved  of  the  Muslims  though   officially  a  rebel-exile  –  of Al-Madrasathuz  Zahira  which  has  since  blossomed  into Zahira College,  Colombo.

4.         During  the  period  as  principal  ( 1921-1948 ) of  the  late  Dr. T.B. Jayah, Zahira became “The Radiating Centre of Muslim Thought and Activity” and thus played in  the Island of Ceylon the role of the Aligarh Movement,  in the sub-Continent of India.  The Aligarh Movement culminated in the establishment, by the Indian Act XL of 1920,  of the Aligarh  Muslim University which has received recently  special recognition in the educational set-up  of the Government of the Indian  Republic

5.         Zahira  thus  never  did  consider  herself  a  mere  collegiate  or  secondary  school  but  was  throughout  conscious of  her  duty  to  foster  the  culture  distinctive  of  the  Muslims  of  Ceylon.  In  the  words  in  1952  of  Dr. K.G. Saiyidain, Joint  Secretary  and  Educational  Advisor  to the Ministry of Education,  Government  of  India,  the  aim  was  “ to  build  up  Zahira  into  an  educational  and  a  cultural  centre  which would focus  the  activities  of  the  Muslim community  in  cultural  and  educational  matters.”

6.         In  furtherance  of  the  above  objective  and  impelled  by  the  conviction  that  the  Muslim  community  best  serves  Sri Lanka  not  by  the  desertion,  disregard or  dilution  of  its  preservation,  protection  and  promotion,  the  project of  the  Ceylon  Muslim  Cultural Centre  as  an  integral  part  of  Zahira  College,  Colombo,  was  conceived  in  1954.  Through  this  Centre,  it  was  hoped  that  the  community  would  steadily  contribute  to  the  cultural  enrichment  of  Ceylon  and  firmly  maintain  its  spiritual  links  with  the  World  of Islam.

Cultural  Universities  and  the  Government  of  Ceylon ( 1956-60 )

7.         When  the  Government  of  the  late   Hon’ble  S. W. R. D.  Bandaranaike  was  actively  engaged  during  the  years  1956-58  in  the  task  of  establishing  Vidyodaya  and  Vidyalankara  Universities  for  the  promotion,  inter  alia,  of  Sinhala  and  Buddhist  culture, the  Muslims  were  themselves  keen  on  obtaining  a  similar  institution  for  the  promotion  of  Islamic  Culture  and  Arabic,  encouraged  as  they  were  by  the  attitude  of  the  then  Prime  Minister  the  Hon’ble  S. W. R. D.  Bandaranaike in  respect  of  cultural  affairs  and  Cultural  Universities.

8.         On  the  15th  day  of  February,  1958,  in  the  course  of  his  Prize  Day  speech  at  Zahira  College,  Colombo,  Dr. T. B.  Jayah  made  the  following  remarks  so  eloquently  expressive  of  the  felt  want  of  the  Muslim  Community :-

          “While on this subject and before I conclude, I feel it 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,  the Hindu and Christian Universities in the making, we  Muslims will be failing in our duty if unmindful of the inspiring lead Muslims had 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 reconstruction. While congratulating  Zahira College on the great achievement of her students during last year in the class room, in the playing fields, in the firing line, and in other directions, 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 Muslim University to enable the Muslim community to play a worthy part as builders of New Ceylon”.

 9.        A  few  Months  later,  in  December  1958,  Vidyodaya  and  Vidyalankara  Universities  were  created by  the  Act  No.45  of  1958. On  the  occasion  of  the  inauguration in  February  1959 of   the Vidyodaya University, the late Prime Minister made  a  statement  in favour  of  a  Cultural  University  for  the Tamils of Ceylon.  The several resolutions passed soon after by various Muslim  organizations pressing for  the  establishment  of  a  Muslim  University  gave  expression  to  their  feeling  that  the  claims  of  the  community  should  not  be   lost  sight  of  or  ignored   for  lack  of  numbers or want of influence.

10.        On 30th October, 1959  Mr. M..E.H. Mohamed Ali, M.P.,  addressed  a  communication  on  this subject to the than Prime Minister, requesting the conferring of University  status on the premier  Muslim  institution  in  the  Island – Zahira  College, Colombo. This  received  wide  publicity  in  the  press. 

The  Programme and  Progress  of the  Ceylon  Muslim  Cultural  Centre –  Zahira College,  Colombo.

11.        Meanwhile  the  project  of  the  Ceylon  Muslim  Cultural  Centre  conceived  in  1954  was  making  steady  progress.  The  foundation  ceremony  of  the  Centre  (Stage 1)  took  place  on  March  18, 1958  and  the  building  is  now  nearing  completion. On  that  occasion  the  hope  was  expressed  that  the  centre  would  develop  into  an  Islamic  Institute  offering adequate  facilities  for  reading and research, attracting specialist students from  Ceylon  and  abroad.  The  present  financial  position is set out below:-

Stage  1  –  Rs . 175,000/-                                         Stage  1                       Rs. 175,000/-

                   Stage 11 –      .   225,000/-                                        Donation Received             163,500/-                          

                   Total:         Rs.   400,000/-                                        Balance Required         Rs .  11,500/-


Donations  so  far  received:

The  Asia  Foundation,  U.  S.  A. (1956  &  1960 )                                      …   Rs.  81,000/-

The  Government  of  PAKISTAN  (November  1956                                    ….          25,000/- 

The  Government  of  CEYLON  (Sept. 1957, 58, 59, 60 )                              ….        12,000/-

H.H.  Dr  Syedna Taher  Saifudeen  Saheb,  Chancellor,

                            Aligarh  Muslim  University,  India  (Feb. 1954 )                 ….     10,000/- 

The Government  of  the  Republic  of  IRAQ  (Sept. 1960 )                          ….        10,000/- 

Govt. of  KUWAIT, Arabian  Gulf ( February  1961)                                        ….       10,000/-

H.M.  The  Late Tuanku Abdul  Rahman,  Paramount  Ruler

                        of  the  Federation  of  MALAYA,  (1958)                           ….            3,000/- 

His Excellency  the  Ambassador  of  SAUDI  ARABIA

                       at  Karachi  ( March  1961 )                                                  .…         2,500/-

The  MALDIVIAN  Governnment  (June  1957 )                                             ….          2,000/-      

Local Benefactors                                                                                                   8,000/- 

                                                                                                                             Rs. 163,500/-      

12.        The objectives of the Centre, on the  fulfilment  of  which depends so much the future of  the  Community and its harmonious integration into the national life of Sri Lanka, as laid down  rom  the  commencement  may  be  stated  as  follows:-

a)   a  Library  ( for both  research  and  reading )  of  volumes  on  Islam  and  Islamic Culture and  Civilization  in  all  the available  languages specially  Arabic, English, Urdu  and  Arabic-Tamil; 

b)    a  School  of  Islamic  Music  and  Art  including   Quranic   Recitation  and  Arabic  Calligraphy;

c)     Classes  in  Arabic  and  Islamic  Philosophy,  and  Lectures  on  Muslim  Affairs;

d)    a  Bureau  of  Publications,  specializing  in  the  production  of  books  on  Islam  in  Sinhala  including  translations,  text  books,  supplementary  readers  and  books for  general  readers.  In  view  of  the  non-availability  of  Islamic  literature  in  Sinhala,  these  publications,  in  addition  to  enriching  Sinhala  literature  will  enable  the  Muslims  to  adapt  themselves  without  difficulty  to  the  changing  conditions  brought  about  by  the  adoption  of  Sinhala  as  the  Official  Language of Ceylon;

e)     an  Islamic  and  Educational  Research  Centre  for  special  fields  of  knowledge  e.g.  Contribution  of  Arabic-Tamil  literature  to  Islamic  Civilization,  the   Sociological  and  Cultural  Aspects  of  the  History,  of  the  Muslims  of  Ceylon,  problems  connected  with  the  complexities  of  the  Muslim  Curriculum  including  the  Teaching  of  Islam.

13.        The  progress  of  the  Centre,  however,  depended  entirely  on  the  voluntary  services  offered  by  the  staff  of  Zahira  College,  Colombo,  and  on  the  financial  assistance  received  from  well-wishers.  In  consequence,  the  results  so  far  achieved  with  difficulty  do  not  match  the  aspirations  entertained  with  enthusiasm.

14.       Regarding  (a)  above  a  good  library  has  been  built  up  steadily  and  is  extensively  used;  (b)  a  member  of  Zahira’s  staff  already  possessed  of  recognized  qualification  in  Carnatic  Music  will  be  shortly  completing,  with  the  scholarship  awarded  by  the  Government  of  India,  a  course  in  Hindustani  Music  at  Bathkanda  College,  Lucknow;  (c)  classes  in  Classical  Arabic  were  inaugurated  in  September  1957.  Several  adhoc  lectures  have  been  delivered, e.g. Islamic  Contribution  to  Indian  Culture  by  the  Hon’ble  Humayun  Kabir,  Minister  of  Scientific  Research  and  Cultural  Affairs,  Government  of  India;  (d)  A  Life  of  Holy  Prophet  Muhammed ( on  whom  be  peace )  has  been  translated  into  Sinhala  and  is  to  be  shortly  published  with  a  special  Glossary.  A  series  of  Readers  in  Islam  for Schools  have  been  completed and are awaiting publication after revision, based  on  comments  received  from  practising  teachers;  (e)  No  progress   in  respects  of  Research  has  been  made  so  far  due  to  the  lack  of  funds  for  the  employment  of  trained  personnel.

The  Need  for  a  Cultural  University

15.        It  will  be  thus  seen  that  without  legal  status,  statutory  recognition,  financial  resources,  trained  personnel  and  full-time  staff,  these  objectives  cannot    be  satisfactorily  realized.  A  University  alone  can  serve  the  purpose  adequately.

16.        Such  a  University  will  provide  a  valuable  repository  of  Islamic  Knowledge  and  a  radiating  centre  for  the  study  of  Islamic  Culture  in  all  its  aspects,  applications  and  influences.  This  university  will  act  as  a  catalytic  agent  for  the  healthy  growth  among  the  Muslims  of  a  Ceylonese  nationhood.  In  addition  the  University  will  supply  leadership,  among  the  Muslim,  in  the  various  spheres of  national  life,  thereby  largely  remedying  the  Community’s  backwardness,  resulting  from  a  long  period  of  unequal  opportunity,  due  to  causes  for  which  the  Community  is  not  entirely  responsible.

17.        What  is  therefore  required  in  the  present  circumstances  is  an  enactment  on  the  lines  of  the  Act No. 45 of 1958 (Vidyodaya  and  Vidyalankara  University  Act)  for  the  creation  of  a  Cultural  University  for  the  Muslims  of  Ceylon  where  with  State-recognition  research  and  teaching  will  receive  adequate  emphasis  and  support.  The  need  for  this  enactment  has  become  urgent  in  view  of  the  special  importance  now  attached  to  the  teaching  of  Religion  in  the  National  system of Education recently inaugurated.

Site and Premises for the University.

18.        For  the  purpose  of  such  a  University,  the  proprietor  of  Zahira  College,  Colombo, (The  Executive Committee  of  the  Maradana  Mosque,  Mardana)  is  prepared to lease  the  premises  of  Zahira  College,  Colombo,  on  a  nominal  rental  to  the  University  Corporation  to  be  statutorily constituted.

19.        These  premises  are  spaciously  situated  within  the  heart  of  the  City  of  Colombo  with  the  adjoining  Maradana Mosque  dominating  the  scene so befittingly  for  a  Cultural  University.  The  premises  and  building  are  such  that  they  will  adequately  serve  the  needs  of  this  University  for  several  years  to  come  thereby  saving  for  the  University  Corporation expenditure on buildings. 

20.        It  is  therefore urged  that  the Government  of  Ceylon  be  pleased  to  initiate action  for  the  enactment  of  a  Bill  on  the  lines  of  Act  No. 45  of  1958  for  the  creation  of  a  Cultural  University  for  the  Muslims  of  Ceylon  and  for  the  provision  of  the  necessary funds  in  the  Estimates  of  1961-62.


The Ceylon  Muslim Cultural Centre,                                                              Senator A.M.A..Azeez

Zahira  College,  Colombo, 11.3.1961                                                                    Principal  ZCC.



In the Governor-General’s Speech at the Opening of Parliament on 13th July, 1961 the following clauses were included:-

“Steps will be taken to ensure that the facilities provided by the three Universities will be utilised to the fullest benefit of the country by establishing a University Grants Commission.

My Government proposes to introduce legislation for the establishment of two Cultural Universities, one for the promotion of the Tamil language and Hindu culture, the other for the promotion of the Arabic language and Muslim culture”.     


In the Address of Thanks to the Throne Speech by Senator A.M.A. Azeez on 13th July, 1961, he said:-

“There are several items in the Throne Speech which further promote the ends of the Bandaranaike creed. But for want of time I would concentrate upon 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. The Prime Minister, has earned the gratitude of the entire Muslim community as well as of the unborn generations of 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”.                                                                              

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