Role of Zahira College in Promoting Communal Harmony

The FOUNDERS’ DAY ORATION 2019 of the ZAHIRA COLLEGE was held recently. The speech was delivered by M.U.M Ali Sabry PC, at Gaffoor Hall- Zahira College.

Zahira College …has a historic role to play today
Sri Lankan Muslims have had a great history in this country

I consider it as a great honour and privilege to address this gathering at this hallowed institution renowned as the centre of Sri Lankan Muslim education revival and renaissance, our beloved mother Zahira. I must thank the principal Trisviiy Marikkar, the Chairman of the Board of Governors Mr Fouzul Hameed, the fellow members of the board and all those who had decided to bestow me with this great honour to address you and deliver the Founders’ Day oration of my alma mater.

Since it is the Founder’s Day it is our bounden duty to remember our forefather and founders who made this establishment of Zahira College their vision and pause for a moment to ponder whether we have achieved what they have expected us to.

Zahira College was founded in the year 1892 by visionary Sri Lankan Muslim civil society activists and leaders who thought the Muslim community at that point in time was indeed in need of education to change the fortunes of the community and thereby contribute to the nation-building as an equal partner.

Zahira College commenced as Al-Madrasathul Zahira and then renamed as Zahira College in the year 1913. During that era, there were around 61 colleges of repute in the country, 50 out of which were established by American missionaries, Methodists, the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics with the patronage of the British Empire. Buddhists had by then established 6 schools including Ananda College and Hindus had managed 4 schools leaving Muslims without hope.

At that point in time, the Muslim community was backward, reluctant to pursue secular education, theologians and religious scholars not entirely surprisingly resisted English education stating that it could lead to many Muslims converting themselves into Christianity. Nevertheless, men with vision, courage, knowledge and education who were mainly civil society leaders decided otherwise and with dedication established this institution in a small way which has become the Zahira College of today. Therefore, it is our duty to remember those great forefathers, Marhoom Siddi Lebbe, Wapiche Marikkar, Orabi Pasha, N.D.H. Abdul Ghafoor, his brother M.H.M. Abdul Ghafoor, I.L.M. Abdul Azeez, Careemji Jefferjee and P.B. Umbichy and many others who had the vision, courage and dedication then to stand up and deliver Al-Madarasathul Zahira to the Muslim community. May Allah accept their deeds, forgive their sins and give them aboard in the esteem ed jannathul-firdous.

In order to identify the contribution and the historical role played by Zahira College in changing the destiny of our community, we need to pause for a moment and have a look at the pathetic situation the community was in leading up to the establishment of Zahira College and the initial period during which Zahira was seeing gradual progress.

In 1875 there were only 2 Muslim teachers in the whole country. In 1878 there were no Muslim students found in the list of examinations or scholarships. In 1879 the whole country had only 1233 Muslim students, a bare 2.2% of the total population. Royal College, then known as the Colombo Academy had just one Muslim student in 1880.

The literacy rate amongst males was 32% whereas barely 2% of the Muslim females could read and write. By 1900 there were only 3 Muslim schools in the entire island including Al-Madarasathul Zahira.

In the said background Zahira College was a game-changer for the Muslim community. No discussion on Zahira and its founders is complete without referring to the Golden Era of Zahira College and architects of the era, the two most reputed principals of Zahira College, Marhoom Dr T.B. Jayah and A.M.A. Azeez.

The period from 1921-1948 could be well described as an era of establishment and consolidation during which Dr Jayah gave leadership to the transformation of an ordinary school into a great and hallowed institution. Dr Jayah made some significant achievements during his tenure as the principal, he started the classes up to matriculation level increased the number of teachers from 6 to 30 almost immediately, expanded sports facilities, opened a science library, a canteen, a hostel, a dental clinic and a free night school, considered as the first in the country. He established a college extension fund and developed the infrastructure. Hence, the student population grew from 59 to 1000 within 4 years. By the time he handed over the school reins to his successor, the legendary A.M.A. Azeez, there were 3500 students and 150 teachers at Zahira College. It was science, logic, vision and education at work at Zahira College. Dr Jayah did not rest with his laurels at Zahira College but used the success of Zahira College as a catalyst to transform the story of Sri Lankan Muslim education forever. Instead of confining his efforts to Zahira College, he created many branches of Zahira all over the country including Gampola, Puttalam, Aluthgama, Kalmunai, Matale, Slave Island etc. and laid the foundation for community’s progress. Did he leave our Muslim girls without education? The answer is No, he opened the doors of Zahira College for Muslim girls too, and was instrumental in Muslim girls’ school and redirected the Muslim thought process to establish a chain of teachers. He was instrumental in establishing two teacher training schools, one at Aluthgama and another one at Addalachenai. So, it is nothing new for Zahira College to play the role of the game-changer for the Muslim community.

As a hallmark of a great leader Dr Jayah did not leave Zahira College until he found an equally able and visionary leader to lead this great institution. It is in that context he managed to convince A.M.A. Azeez, the first Muslim civil servant to take up the mantle of Zahira. During the Azeez era from 1948-1961 Zahira slowly became a centre of excellence in studies and being the visionary he was Senator Azeez knew Sri Lanka could not proceed with confidence and achieve her true potential unless we make a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country. He did not leave it to anyone else, he started with Zahira.

Zahira became an all community national school catering to Muslims, Sinhalese, Tamils alike and even students from the Maldives, Malaysia, Kenya and Pakistan did find aboard at Zahira.

“Zahirians must always keep in mind as we have always done; we are proud of Sri Lankans and patriots. We are not just Muslims in Sri Lanka but we are Muslims of Sri Lanka”

The Zahira transformation from a solely Muslim school to a national school and its academic excellence could be easily understood by analyzing the college university entrants during his era. A total of 138 Zahirians found entry to faculties of Ceylon universities during this golden era including 26 medical students and 23 engineering students. Out of those 138 lucky Zahirians who gained entry into the Ceylon University, 80 were Muslims, 37 were Sinhalese and 21 Tamils, percentage-wise 58% Muslims, 27% Sinhalese and 15 % Tamils. A truly Sri Lankan representation of an institute which is primarily Muslim owned and operated.

The most significant analysis from the history of the establishment and progress of Zahira College is that secular education had played a vital role in transforming the destiny of the community and the fearless Muslim civil society leaders shrugging off conspiracy theories and conservative backward tactics advanced by certain segments of the society that had managed to give leadership without fear, favour or prejudice.

Muslims generally in the world and particularly in Sri-Lanka are at crossroads at the present juncture. It is our duty to understand that knowledge is power and to impart knowledge on each and every Muslim child and impart to them with love, mercy, brotherhood and understanding, the need to be and live as a global citizen amongst people of different races, religions and cultures standing with each other with dignity and respect. As Muslims and Zahirians we must understand our Prophet was a scientist of his era, a meticulous planner and an analyst when he undertook hijrath, he planned the journey with precision, the route the timing, role of each member, the food and supply etc. When the Prophet reached Madinah, one of the first things which he conducted was to carry out a survey and statistics of the inhabitants of the Madinah city. Therefore, science has been a part and will always be a part of our great religion and great faith and hence, it has to be understood in the context and apply to our day to day life today.

If you analyze the Quran carefully the words “Dunya” (world) and the word “Al Akkhirah” (hereafter) had been mentioned 115 times each. Thus, Allah himself wants us to have a healthy balance between the world and the hereafter. So, one cannot ignore the world and only think about the hereafter and similarly, one cannot only live thinking of the world and forgetting the hereafter.

It is in light of this historical background that we must look at our present-day context as to how the members of the Muslim community in general and Zahirians, in particular, could contribute towards the promotion of communal harmony.

When we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural society like that of Sri Lanka, each and every one of us, particularly the Zahirians shall understand that we represent a particular faith, and we are the ambassadors of our faith, our school and our country. The brothers and sisters of other faith will rarely read the Quran or analyze the hadiths but they will look at the Muslims as to how we conduct ourselves, as to how we profess our faith and draw a picture in their mind about the Muslims and Islam. Hence, it is a great burden that we shoulder, to paint the right picture in the minds of fellow human beings of Islam as a great social leveller, a religion of tolerance and religion which promotes co-existence and religion which denounce violence and compulsion in faith. In order to identify this role, Islam has to be understood and practised in the context where we live. Islam does not support extremism of any form or facet.

Islam teaches us to be moderate and balanced in all aspects of life, whether it is religion, worship, relationships, ideas, or daily activities. Principled moderation is one of the defining characteristics of good character in Islam.

In the said context Zahira College has always been a game-changer in its establishment in the year 1892, in transforming from 1921 to 1948 and changing it from an Islamic institution to a national institution from 1948-1961, has a historic role to play today in bridging the differences among the communities, dispelling suspicions and doubts amongst the communities and in creating an inclusive plural Sri Lanka where all Sri Lankans are safe, secure and dignified.

To do so, the Sri Lankan Muslims should have a balanced education consisting of modern secular scientific education with true religious foundations based on honesty, integrity and piety but not so much on rituals and outer appearance. It should create an environment where students are given that balanced education with extra-curricular activities, art, culture, languages, sports cadetting and scouting, so a product of Zahira College could be a proud Sri Lankan in any given circumstance. To do that I propose, Zahira like in the 1950s and 1960s must open its doors for a significant number of non-Muslim students, set up a brand of education and learning which could be used as a model by other Muslim students and institutions to lead a balanced student life.

“Islam teaches us to be moderate and balanced in all aspects of life, whether it is religion, worship, relationships, ideas, or daily activities. “

As I always advocate, Sri Lankan Muslims have had a great history in this country well over 11 centuries as a peaceful and law-abiding community. Unfortunately, the image of the Muslims was shattered after the horrific terrorist attack carried out by certain extreme elements who bore Muslim names. Responsibility rests on the community to win back the trust and confidence of our fellow citizens and to create a mechanism within the community which will serve as a deterrent against extremism which will catalyze to identify the extremists and work with the law enforcement authorities to preserve peace and harmony in this nation. The first step towards achieving a level playing field for all is to move out of isolation and work alone with the rest of the communities in the country and build bridges of friendships, brotherhood and relationships with each other.

Zahira College and Zahirians could lead the way as it has always done in the past to promote a new brand of education which promotes coexistence and co-relationship among various communities. Zahirians must always keep in mind as we have always done; we are proud of Sri Lankans and patriots. We are not just Muslims in Sri Lanka but we are Muslims of Sri Lanka, we are equal partners and not temporary settlors or resident permit holders, so we have a great responsibility to contribute towards the well-being and welfare of our great nation as our forefathers have done over a long period of time. Similarly, we should stress and stand up for equal rights of all citizens, including Muslims without allowing a few self- centred individuals and entities to divide our communities through spreading fear, favour and prejudice.

Recently I was fortunate to listen to one of the most respected war heroes of our time who commanded the battalion which conquered the last bastion of the LTTE and confronted it’s leader himself, and he mentioned that the greatest intelligence officer Sri Lanka has ever produced was Colonel Tuan Nisam Mutalif and one of the greatest war heroes in the battle field was Colonel Fazly Laphir who laid his life to protect our motherland. So, Muslims like any other community had stood by the nation and our mother land during the good times and bad times.

So, let us as Zahirians in honour of our founders and forefathers determine ourselves to create a culture of excellence in our school which promote friendship and brotherhood with rest of the communities and which promote a Sri Lankan identity and which would serve as a catalyst for the progress of the community and thereby the nation.

Let us always remember when we live in a country like Sri Lanka, we cannot and should not live in isolation but we ought to work with different communities in order to exchange views, clear doubts and build bridges, that is the challenge of the hour and in doing so we should not and we cannot leave it only to a certain segment of the society to decide our destiny, but civil society of Muslim community led by Zahirians as it has done in the past has a great role to play.

Therefore, we shall not make our faith or religion a burden to the younger generation, too heavy to carry which shall more often than not push the members of the community to either an extreme, that is, forget about the world and live in isolation, thinking only of the akhirah or forget about the akhirah and live only about the world. But Islam demands as I have stated above, a justly balanced society.

May Allah give Zahira and Zahirians the courage, the strength, the vision, the knowledge and the foresight to create that justly balanced society which would be a catalyst for the transformation of the Sri Lankan Muslim community which will be looked upon with respect, dignity and equality by rest of the members and eventually will lead to a true Sri Lankan identity where diversity will be celebrated not considered as a threat to the nation’s progress.
Alhamdulillah Rabbil Alamin

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