A.M.A. Azeez at Zahira:

A Time of Consolidation 1948 – 1961.

When A.M.A. Azeez was appointed Principal of the College in 1948, he was only in his thirties, 37 years to be exact. But he brought to the post exceptional attainments: He had a superb personality tall, fair-complexioned, handsome in face and figure; his physical build matched with intellectual vigour. A brilliant pupil both at school and at University, he had won the prestigious Government University Scholarship to Cambridge, but could not follow the intended post – graduate degree in History as he had passed the Civil Service examination back home. He entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1936, the first Muslim to enter the Civil Service. He held senior positions in the country's Administrative Service such as Assistant Government Agent in the Eastern Province and later in the Kandy region and Senior Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Health. He was an excellent writer and a ready speaker. Above all he was a good and pious Muslim.

An abiding feature of Azeez's thinking was his sense of history. Unlike many History honours graduates he did not consider the subject as a passing phase to the phased out in their later careers; he looked upon Zahira not as the culmination but a perennial reaching forward of the Muslims' attempt to institutionalize education in Sri Lanka. Later he was to encapsulate this thinking into the single crystal clear phase, "the radiating centre of Islamic thought and culture".

Mr. Azeez had a scholarly background; his forefathers from Jaffna were well versed in Tamil and Islamic Tamil Literature. He himself, having studied in Jaffna, at Vaideshwara Vidyalayam and later at Jaffna Hindu College, was deeply involved in Tamil language and literature. Unlike many Muslim leaders and decision makers of his day, his knowledge of Tamil was not second to his deep knowledge of English. His sense of history made him to delve deep into the history of Muslim education in this country. The more he studied the more it dawned on him that Zahira was central to the education of Muslims in Sri Lanka. He learnt that Muslims such as Mohamed Cassim Siddi Lebbe, I.L.M. Abdul Azeez and Arisi Marikar Wappichi Marikar, had worked towards the founding and upliftment of Zahira. Azeez himself worked hard to bring into focus the works and achievements of these pioneers; when he could not find the time for such research he persuaded his pupils to carry out the basic research work, making them also interested in the work of these persons in the upliftment of the community. (1)

It was this quickening sense of history which made him look upon Zahira not as a mere public school for Muslims in Sri Lanka but something more. Zahira was to be the microcosm of Islamic civilization in this country. Therefore, a history of Zahira would be, pardoning the hyperbole, a history of Islamic culture in this country.

The Early Years

The passing of Zahira from the principalship of Mr. Jayah to that of Mr. Azeez was as smooth as silk; the continuity was perfect. There were a few changes, such as in the curriculum when the teaching of Latin lapsed. This arose however, out of the revision of the syllabi of the Ceylon Law College and the Ceylon Medical College which made Latin redundant for their purpose.

He was ably assisted by the Deputy Principal, Mr. D.S. Wijeratne, M.A. (Oxon), Vice Principals Mr. T. Suhayb & Mr. M.P. David. Mr. Anif Doray was the Headmaster of the Lower School.

In the Prize Day Address of 1955, Mr. H.H.Basnayake Q.C. states, "In Mr. Azeez you have an energetic, keen untiring and ambitious Head with a breadth of vision and a depth of learning that are very rare."

Just as he saw the centrality of Zahira in the upliftment of the Muslims, he looked at the educational progress of Sri Lanka strongly in the light of Muslim educational amelioration. Reviewing the situation in his later years he wrote :-

" The Muslims of Sri Lanka were the richer by the establishment of Swabhasa Schools. The staff problems of these schools— it must be remembered that during this period there was an insufficiency of Muslim teachers— were solved by the putting up of Special Training Colleges (Primary) for Muslim male teachers. The Executive Committee of Education in seeing that the Department of Education recognized Arabic Colleges and their Moulavi Certificates which meant that the Moulavis could be appointed to Government schools and paid by the Government. The instruction of pupils in their religion within the school premises was encouraged; its fruition was to be the new section 4 of Ordinance No. 26 of 1939; that the school should give as part of the course of studies, instruction in the religion of the parent of the child. This was the bridge between the Maktabs of the Arabic schools of the Muslims and the modern Government Primary School. This was the resurrection of special Muslim schools of the last century. This resulted in the educational awakening of the Muslims of the Sri Lanka and elicited the fullest corporation even of the Muslims of the hinterland". (2)

Immediately on the assumption of duties as principal Mr. Azeez decided to strengthen the teaching staff of the Higher School Certificate classes (H.S.C.), which were also the University Entrance classes. For this purpose he brought in six young graduates, who included Mr. M.F.M.H. Fakir, who later was to be in charge of the Upper School administration and finally became Principal. It is interesting to note that of these young graduates, 4 were Muslims a 2 were Sinhalese. The Principal himself took up, for some time, the teaching of Government in the H.S.C. These measures brought with them the necessary success; for in 1950 10 Zahirians were selected for admission to the University, 9 for Arts and 1 for Engineering..

A.M.A. Azeez's attitude to his new office as Principal of Zahira is best expressed in the statement he made in the Prize Report of 1949. " I am fully conscious of the great responsibilities of the heritage to which I have succeeded at Zahira. The raw material which I have now to deal is no longer bundles of files. Instead it is the most precious of raw materials in the world – namely young human beings. Accordingly my work at Zahira has become invested with a special sanctity".

From the earliest years of this stewardship of Zahira he cultivated a close, but not familiar relationship with his students. Sometimes he conducted classes in Islamic history; often he took classes in Government in the H.S.C. It was, of course, an enlivening experience. Most teachers of this subject, unlike Azeez, were neither close to important personages or important events of that period. He, as a senior Civil Servant, had seen and known how the levers of governmental and administrative apparatus actually worked. This knowledge he passed on to his students. Later pressure of administrative work of the College made him discontinue the taking of these classes-a great loss for the students.

A characteristic of Mr. Azeez was that he did not waste time either at College or elsewhere. It was said by his students that he noted on his shirt- cuff what he read in the newspapers every day!. He marked every book he read and cross-indexed important references on the book itself, so that he need not read it again. He did this with newspaper and periodicals as well. He worked on his own articles and speeches in his spare time; when he wanted references he used the resource of the library sometimes pressing his pupils to search for references. (3)

He was immediate in all his actions; if he wanted a fact he had it found at once. No shilly – shallying; no approximations. This was one way in which he trained Zahirians to be meticulous and accurate in their work.

Mr. Azeez's early years in office were immediately attended with success. Incidentally, when one of the Old Boys, M.J.M.Muhsin an Arabic Honours graduate, was successful in the C.C.S. examination in 1949 a holiday for the College was declared; an encouragement to the students to work towards such goals. His immeidate task was to beef-up the pre-University classes; thus a post – S.S.C. class was introduced to include all those who sat the S.S.C. (Senior School Certificate) but were not hopeful of qualifying for the U.E. Classes. This measure prevented these students from idling at home or at school.

As mentioned earlier, many young graduates were recruited to teach in the U.E. classes; in the Science side the main subjects that could be offered were Chemistry, Physics, Botany, Zoology, Pure and Applied Mathematics while a variety of Arts subjects could be offered. Many students did Government, Ceylon and European History, Tamil or Sinhalese Literature; a few offered English and Arabic. Geography could be offered by both Arts or Science students. Results progressively improved.

It was common knowledge that the college attracted, during those years and subsequently, a considerable number of non – Muslim students. A reason for this was that the admission regulations were so designed that no student was denied admission to the U.E. classes, if he was willing and able to work diligently. The College, it was said believed that its Staff could do the rest ! In 1950 and 1951 alone there were more than 10 non – Muslim students in the U.E. (Arts) classes. These students have since 
distinguished themselves at national level in the fields of mass communication (including journalism), education, and administration and as academics. On the science side, the non – Muslim students distinguished themselves in the fields of medicine, engineering and science. Many of these distinguished non – Muslim old boys have claimed that Zahira welcomed them with open arms when other colleges had shut their doors.

In the late 1950's there was a large batch of Zahirians at the Peradeniya campus; including non-Muslims, many of them University Coloursmen. They were said to be a friendly group and were collectively called "the Arab League."

The Later Years

By common consent, the years 1951 – 1961 are regarded as a significant segment of Zahira's history. By the end of the 1940's it was borne on the Principal and other concerned persons that the College needed more space as it was attracting more and more students; space was especially needed for the Upper school, the S.S.C. and the U.E. classes. There appeared an easy solution at hand – the Main Block had the vast Ghaffoor Hall – a large cavernous hall with galleries on either side. The solution was to divide it horizontally into two, the upper storey to be the new Ghaffoor hall and the lower storey to be converted into classrooms. The renovation eased the space problem of the Upper school.

Some of the old classrooms opposite the main hall were used for other purposes; for instance, one room was converted into a Geography room, temperature and rainfall variations were indicated on a map by focusing different small lights on the map. This map was made with the help of officers from the Survey Department, with the assistance of the Geography Master, Mr. M.I.M. Nalir, who later was to become the Deputy Surveyor – General.

The space problem of the Middle school could not be solved so easily. The area between the Science Block and the Main Building was used to construct a two storey building. This consisted of classrooms and also provided the venue for seminars, club meetings and for meetings of the Teacher's Guild. 
As a relief from the centralized executive direction of the Ceylon Civil Service, perhaps, Mr. Azeez introduced a measure of democratization of school administration. He advocated the participation of the students in matters of administration wherever possible or feasible. He strengthened the Board of Prefects and gave them a small room to hold their meetings and for their work.

He also introduced the system whereby student representatives from each class were chosen to aid the work of Prefects. He regularly invited the Prefects, sometimes to his home, for discussion; nonetheless he asserted that the direction and administration of the College should be in the hands of the Principal and the Staff only.

The many clubs and associations of the College too were strengthened. The English Literary Union flourished; various distinguished personages addressed these associations. The participation of the Upper school in extra – curricular activities was greatly encouraged. Thus societies such as the Curia Historica and the Science Club grew from strength to strength. Debating teams from Zahira regularly met those of other colleges and often won stunning victories. The Do-you-Know contests conducted by Radio Ceylon during this period, always included a team from Zahira.

The new concept of Zahira

During the middle of the 1950's, the College was growing in numbers both in the number of students as well as the Staff. From 1955 onwards there was a large scale entry into the Staff, of newly qualified graduates mainly from the University of Ceylon, both in the Arts and Science streams. For instance during one year (1958), of the total teaching strength of 110, these graduates numbered more than 20. They were appointed to take up teaching in the upper forms. Mr. Azeez reasoned that the teaching of these forms by young graduates was mandatory as they consisted of students who aspired for University education. It was axiomatic that the newly passed out graduates would be immediately aware of the requirements of the University. At all events, they would be aware of the latest methodology and subject content used in the various Faculties of the University. The Principal insisted that these young teachers should produce good results – and so they did, for every facility was provided for this purpose. These teachers were given adequate free periods to prepare their lessons and the College library was geared to the needs of the upper forms.

The latest editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica as well as other smaller ones were available in the library; Kessing's Almanac (which gives a summary of world events) was also at hand, while the students of Geography had the benefit of such journals as the National Geographic Magazine. These journals and others such as History Today and the Listener were later bound. Students of English had access to various anthologies and works on criticism such as those of T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards. The works of Arberry, Moulana Mohamed Ali and Ameer Ali, among others, were available to those students who favoured Arabic. In addition the College library contained a good collection of fiction. The reference books included such prized copies as for example Levy's Sociology of Islam and the works of Guilluame. The library was more than adequate for the students as well as those interested in research. A story often repeated in the College concerns the student who chanced on Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India while looking through the history books, and finding it very interesting had read through it from cover to cover – and passed his history paper in the U.E. exam without recourse to the usual text books!.

During the 1950's U.E. students had to sit papers in Current Affairs and English. The Principal arranged the time table so that the Science students were taught these subjects adequately. These students had to face a model viva-voce examination in the presence of members of the University Staff – a disquieting experience especially for those students who were rather shy and diffident. A role-play of this viva-voce examination was arranged with the students participating. They were tested and advised by the Principal and senior teachers and given all encouragement to face the examination with confidence. All these measures brought salutary results and many students came in from other colleges to join the U.E. classes at Zahira.

Mr. Azeez believed that this new role of Zahira, where students came with the idea of following University education, should be high-lighted. The Prize-Givings were grand and spectacular affairs, with the Chief Guest always someone who had distinguished himself nationally if not internationally.

He would be received at the main porch by the Principal and the entire Staff,
having walked through a phalanx of Boy Scouts and Cadets. The Principal always insisted that the graduate teachers should wear their academic gowns: he would brook no exemption or excuse. Thus it was indeed an impressive sight to see the ranks of black – owned graduate teachers – the symbol of the academic prowess of Zahira.

The emphasis placed on the academic side of College life did not mean that sports activities were relegated to the background. On the contrary, sports activities were given the necessary fillip; every sphere of sport, cricket, soccer, athletics etc received the necessary encouragement; the Principal himself was present at the sporting events and personally treated the students to a sumptuous meal when they were winners. Swimming was introduced in the 1950's with boys being coached at the St. Joseph's pool. These swimmers also brought credit to their College.

Scouting and Cadeting too received new impetus; especially Scouting, which earlier had receded into the background. The Scouts and Cadets excelled at the various competitions as for example when Zahira gained fame with the winning of the Queen's Cup by Cadet M.H.M. Ameen.

The Annual Exhibition, "Crescent Lights", held from 1951 onwards helped to highlight the multi-faceted role of Zahira. Many an Old Boy remembers the "Cavalcade" which depicted the history of Zahira as well as its many achievements in concrete terms in the form of prints, photographs, charts, writings, newspaper clippings as well as old books and papers. The numerous trophies donated for College activities and those won at inter-school competitions and national events were also displayed at the "Cavalcade.

Azeez's view of Zahira

Azeez's view of Zahira had three aspects, each evolving from the other. The three stages could be systematically arranged thus :-
Zahira as a National School.

Zahira as a college for Muslims from other countries. Zahira as a specialist college for Islamic higher studies.

It should be remembered that on all these matters Azeez was creating the solid

foundation on a plan laid down by his predecessor Dr. Jayah, for which the Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake, in 1948, called him the "Architect of Zahira".

By the 1950's the status of Zahira as a National School was well established. Zahira, in the first instance, depended on the large number of Muslims who lived in the environs, for its student population. Secondly it drew on its feeder schools such as Hameediya and Slave Island Zahira; thirdly, Zahira was also the upper school for those students who lived in towns close to Colombo, such as Malwana and Panadura, and sometimes from all over the island. Although Zahira Colleges wereestablished at Gampola, Althgama, Matale and Puttalam, many affluent Muslims preferred to send their sons to Zahira College Colombo. As stated earlier, the College had also won the acceptance of students from other colleges.

The second aspect of Zahira, as a school catering to Muslim students from other countries was to be realized in the 1950's. Several students came to live in the hostel and study at the College. There were a large number of students from the Maldives and Pakistan. The Alwie brothers from Singapore, and the lone student from from Nigeria, – Abdulla Salim will long be remembered by their contemporaries.

Throughout Mr. Azeez's thinking, there ran the recurrent idea of making Zahira one among the leading educational institutions of the Muslim World. The political events in the country and the fact that he was in touch with many leading personages of the Muslim World dictated the realisation of this aim. Sinhala and Tamil had become important in the country and were given a prominent place in the syllabus. The events in Egypt in 1952 had caused a resurgence of Arab consciousness and the Islamic view – point. Many Muslim countries such as Egypt, Iran and Iraq had their embassies here, while the newly emergent Asian countries, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia also formed diplomatic ties. A result of all this (with regard to Zahira) was that Arabic received greater significance. The College received several books including books on Islam and Islamic culture from the various Muslim countries, as well as from European countries that had some involvement with Muslim nations. In 1958 Zahira received books published by the famous Research Institute Oriente Moderno, in Rome, including the complete work of the Italian Arabists C.A. Mallino and L. Caetani.

Sinhala and Tamil were given their due importance. In the Prize Day Report of 
1952, Mr. Azeez states, "Knowledge of one another's languages should in our country tend to promote greatly inter-communal understanding and harmony and thereby ensure that there will be no conflict in our midst between the ideal of political unity and political cultural diversity". Sinhala was taught to the Tamil language students from Form I upwards and visa-versa, and soon Zahira students were tri-lingual! At a later date he said, "……………. we cannot be unmindful of the "bread-and butter" value of the Sinhalese and English languages in the scheme of things and the due weightage should be given to acquiring a high degree of proficiency in these two languages, while providing adequate facilities for the study of Tamil and Arabic".

The Sinhala and Tamil Literary Unions were given all encouragement and became very active. Arrangements were made, with the help of qualified members of Staff, to translate into Sinhala the biography of the Holy Prophet by Abdul Raheem. Some of the members of the Sinhala Literary Union have today become famous men of letters.

The Tamil Literary Union progressively widened its scope of activities. The members produced plays, gave regular broadcasts over Radio Ceylon and invited notable men of letters to address them in Tamil. These personalities included those of South India as well. Among them were the novelist and editor, Mr. Kalki Krishnamurthy and Ma. Po. Sivagnana Gramaniar who was not only a scholar but a notable political figure. In 1958 a seminar was held in the College, on the “Role of Tamil as the medium of instruction.”

Increasingly the concept of Zahira as a “radiating center of Islamic thought and activity” was being brought to the fore. This was more a process of inward growth; than a concentration of events.

One of the instruments of this approach was the formation of the Iqbal Society in the early 1950's. (4) From a review of its activities, it is possible to delineate four aspects of its functions:-  

1.    The preservation of the Islamic heritage of Sri Lanka.

2.    The introduction of the world Islamic heritage to Sri Lanka.

3.    The publication of Islamic literature.

4.    The advancement of Arabic studies.

The Iqbal Society was presided over by the Principal, the secretary was usually a young Muslim graduate teacher; in fact the success of this society was dependant on services rendered by the young graduates who taught in the upper forms. Distinguished scholars spoke at the meetings and their lectures were published. The public was invited to these meetings. Among the activities of the society was the micro-filming of the entire run of Siddi Lebbe's periodical, Muslim Nesan for which a team was sent to the National Archives at Nuwara Eliya.

A collection of Arabic Qasidat was recorded and a course of Arabic lessons (based on Kapilawatsky's Grammar) was prepared and published for free distribution to would-be students. In the Prize Day Report 1954, Mr. Azeez states that Zahira College has an obligation “to foster our distinctive culture as it is our conviction that we best serve Sri Lanka not by the abandonment of our culture but by its preservation and promotion.”

It was only a short step from the Iqbal Society to Zahira as center of higher learning. All the requisites were there; the research material, an extensive and well-stocked library and an adequate staff. Teaching space and hostel accommodation were also at hand. By 1959 the plan for an Islamic University as part of Zahira had crystallised in the mind of Mr. Azeez. Physically it was to be housed in separate premises set apart but within the boundary of Zahira; even architectural niceties such as Spanish gardens, were contemplated! Scholastically, it was to have a Chair of Arabic, a Chair of Islamic Studies and a Chair of Islamic literature as well as other related disciplines. It was to be a Cultural University catering to Muslims here and abroad.

The Assisted Schools and Training Colleges Act of 1960, precipitated events. The then Government proposed to take control over all educational institutions denominational or otherwise. Any denominational school could opt to stay out but the Government would not give grants – in-aid and those schools would not be permitted to charge fees. It is true to say that these measures did cause some anxiety in educational circles!

It was perhaps the concept of an Islamic University that found favour in Zahira going private. On January 1st 1961, Zahira became a Private School. Most critics contended that the decision of Zahira to go private was a pre-mature decision. In the first place, Zahira never did have any substantial endowments; it did not own shares or property. The only source of support which could be relied on was to get covenants or “ promises” from interested persons that they would contribute monthly a certain sum of money – this was the scheme that was adopted. It proved to be a non – starter from the inception. Zahira needed at least Rs. 1 million every year. Such a sum could not be obtained for any length of time. On the 21st of August 1961, Zahira became a “Director managed Schools.” The Principal resigned.

Mr. A.M.A. Azeez was awarded posthumously, the Degree of D.lit (honoris causa) in 1980 by the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka.


1.    The writer was asked to work through the file of the Ceylon Observer of the last phase of the 19th Century to gather information regarding Siddi Lebbe.

2.    A.M.A. Azeez “The Muslim Tradition” in Education in Ceylon: A Centenary

Volume, Colombo 1969 cited in    Ethnological Survey of  the Muslims of  Sri

Lanka 1986 Page 117.

3.    The writer was asked to hunt down a Greek quotation and had to refer to Bartleet, Familiar Quotations, Brewster's Dictionary and others.!

4.    C/f chapter on College Societies.

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