Special Haj Day Supplement of the Times of Ceylon of August, 1952

In the  history  of Muslim education in Ceylon, the year 1892 will always remain a  memorable  year.  It  was  in that year that the Muslim Educational Society achieved its object of establishing a school to impart English education. The formation of this Society was almost wholly due to M.C. Siddi Lebbe who in the previous year had delivered an inspiring address on the Maradana Mosque Grounds, which opened the eyes of the Muslims to the parlous state to which Community had been brought through their neglect of modern education. It was very fortunate for the Community that at this same time there was found in Wapche Marikar, the man to translate M.C. Siddi Lebbe's ideals into action. Wapche Marikar's leadership and enthusiasm soon resulted in the creation of a school within the premises of the Maradana Mosque. Viewed in the context of present day educational trends, it is not without interest to note that the object of the new institution was "to impart free education in the English, Arabic and Tamil languages to the children of Muhammadan parents in Colombo."

On Monday, August 22nd, 1892, a largely attended meeting was held in the new  school hall. It was specially noteworthy that the chair on the occasion was  taken  by  Ahmed Arabi Pasha, the Father of the Egyptian Independence Movement, who was at that time an exile in Ceylon. Arabi Pasha, it may be observed, belonged to that group of Egyptians who did not fear the impart of Western thought and languages on Islam. The meeting was a great success and a very encouraging message was read from  Hon'ble the Colonial Secretary. Of  the  many  speeches  delivered that day, the most impressive and eloquent was that of M.C. Siddi Lebbe who more than anyone else had been responsible for awakening the Muslim Community to realities. The fervour at this meeting must have reached a high pitch for at its close there were several munificent donations, among them being Rs. 750.00 from an Indian Muslim and another offer from a local Muslim to provide free books to the students "as long as the institution might last."
The  actual  date  of  the starting of classes is not known with any certainty, but we shall not be far wrong if we assume it to be during that same month of August, 1892.
Such  were  the  beginnings  of  Zahira.  Originally  known  as  Al-Madrasathul Zahira, it was registered in  1894 as an Assisted School under the name of Maradana Mohammedan Boys' School with Wapche Marikar as Manager. The number of students on roll was 35 with an average attendance of 25.
Reference to old records shows that there were at this period other Muslim schools of this type in various parts of Ceylon. In addition to several boys' schools, there is an account of the establishment of a Mohammedan Girls' School at  Kurunegala as far back as December, 1891. But unlike the Al-madrasathul Zahira, which blossomed in to the present Zahira College, the other schools either did not endure or failed to attain full stature.
I wonder how many of those who were present at that historic meeting of August 22nd, 1892 could have visualised the rich harvest that has sprung up from the small seeds sown that day. To some, at least, of them, those among them who dreamt dreams and saw visions, I am sure the full burgeoning of their hopes could not have appeared an altogether unattainable ideal.
With the establishment of the new school ended the period of Muslim non co-operation with Modern Education that had characterised the previous seventy five years of the Nineteenth Century. This non-co-operation was the result  of  many  factors.  Modern education at that period was naturally synonymous with English education. So long as the Government was itself directly engaged in the promotion of English education, Muslims saw in such education only one danger viz : the danger of the impact of a foreign culture on Islam. This was sufficient reason for them to view the new education with suspicion. This hostility to education was greatly intensified when during the latter half of the nineteenth century the Government was forced by the Coffee depression and the general  slump  to give up its direct responsibility for English education and transfer  a  good  many  of  its English schools to Christian Missionary Organisations. English education thus became closely associated with Christianity, and quite naturally the spirit of non-co-operation hardened among the Muslims. They were not prepared to endanger the faith of their children, even though they were fully conscious that thereby they were sacrificing their chances of obtaining Government jobs.
By  this  deliberate  policy  of foregoing the advantages of English education, that were available to them,  the  Muslims quite unequivocally asserted their cultural individuality. They can thus claim that they were the first to repudiate the Macaulayan conception of education.
But a broader and more realistic approach to the problem had to come, if the Muslims were not to be in a state of perpetual inferiority in the general life of the Country.  This  approach  came with the growing realisation by them that the lack of English education in their midst not only involved a renunciation of lucrative Government employment but also barred the way to all progress whether in the political, the commercial or the intellectual spheres. If the  old approach persisted, so long would the Muslims have to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water.
The Buddhists and the Hindus had themselves been confronted with the same  dilemma  of  depriving  themselves  of the benefits of modern education, if they were not prepared to receive their education in an alien atmosphere. They solved the problem in the only satisfactory way possible by establishing institutions of  their  own  where  English could be imparted without jeopardising their faith and their culture. The first such school was established in Jaffna in 1872 by Sri la Sri Arumuga Navalar. In 1886 the Buddhists opened their first English school.
There is no doubt that the example of the Buddhists and the Hindus had a  considerable  influence  on  Muslim  opinion. It  became  evident  that  the English  language  was  not  necessarily  synonymous  with Christianity. Incalculable also was the effect of the establishment by Sir Seyed Ahmed Khan in 1875 of the Aligarh Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College. Siddi Lebbe had  for  many years been preaching these truths and advocating a reorientation of views : for a long time his was like a voice crying in the wilderness. Now at last he began to be heard with respect, and his was the inspiration behind the meeting of August 22nd, 1892.
The year 1892 can therefore be rightly regarded as the dividing line between the old and the new epochs in the history of Muslim education in Ceylon.  Once   and   for   all   the   Muslims   abandoned   their  attitude  of non-co-operation with English education. The champions of the new order had convinced the Muslim public of the necessity of English education for the progress of the Community. This is now axiomatic.
Time was when English education was universally regarded in Ceylon as the privilege of a selected few. The democratic conception of education was non-existent then, though it is taken for granted today. Zahira has not failed to keep pace with developing concept of education. When the school was  founded  in  1892,  it  was with the limited objective  of imparting education to the Muslim children in the vicinity. The year of her Diamond Jubilee,  1952,  may  perhaps  be  the  appropriate  time  to  review the contributions that have since been made by her many benefactors chief among whom is the late. N.D.H. Abdul Ghafoor Hadjiar and by her Principal His Excellency T.B. Jayah and to record her growth from those small beginnings to what she has now become – the Citadel of Muslim' education, the Muslims Cultural Home and the "Radiating Centre of Muslim Thought and Activity."

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