In the history of Muslim education in Ceylon, 1892 will always remain a memorable year. It was then that the Muslim Educational Society achieved its cherished object of establishing a school, under its own management, to impart English education. The inauguration and organization of this Society were almost wholly due to Proctor Mohamed Cassim, son of Proctor M.L. Siddi Lebbe – M.C. Siddi Lebbe – who in the previous year had delivered an inspiring address, on the Maradana Mosque Grounds, which, by impelling the Muslims present to engage themselves in a self agonizing reappraisal, produced results. This address opened indeed the eyes of the Muslims, the entire community of them, to the parlous state to which the Community had been brought through their neglect of modern education which in the context of their age was English education. It was very fortunate for the Community that at this time there was found in Wapche Marikar the man to translate Siddi Lebbe’s ideals into action – the able administrator and wise philanthropist to assist the profound thinker and educated leader. Their efforts soon resulted in the creation of a school, in close proximity of the Maradana Mosque, Viewed in the light of present day educational trends, it is not without interest to observe that the object of the new institution was “to impart free education in the English, Arabic and Tamil languages to the children of Mohamedan parents in Colombo.”
On Monday, 22nd August, 1892, a largely attended meeting was held in the newly built school hall. It was specially noteworthy that the chair on this occasion was taken by Ahmad Orabi El Misri – Arabi Pasha – the Father of the Egyptian Independence Movement.
The Ceylon Muslims were thrice blessed that their Land of birth was chosen as his Land of exile. He had reached Colombo on the 10th of January 1883, and within twelve days of his arrival was met by M.C. Siddi Lebbe. At the long interview which followed, Arabi Pasha was acquainted with the educational backwardness of the Muslims of Ceylon and the efforts that were being made to educate them through the Tamil Weekly – ‘Muslim Naisen’ – founded by Siddi Lebbe in the previous year. He sought Arabi Pasha’s active assistance for the creation among the Muslims of Ceylon of an elite, educated on modern lines, who would provide leadership for the community. Arabi Pasha, it may be observed, belonged to that group of Egyptians who did not fear the impact of Western thought and languages on Islam. He therefore readily responded to the call of Siddi Lebbe. During the nine subsequent years whenever a good opportunity presented itself Arabi Pasha had exhorted his correligionists to pay special attention to the promotion of education. His presence therefore in the school hall at this meeting to which he gave prestige could not have been either strange or unexpected.
The meeting was a grand success and a very encouraging message was read from the 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-Madrasat-uz- 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, apart from the schools in Kandy and Colombo started by M. C. Siddi Lebbe himself, there were other Muslim schools of this type during this period in various parts of Ceylon. In addition to several boys’ schools, is there an account of the establishment of a Mohammedan Girls’ School at Kurunegala as far back as December, 1891. Many of them owed their existence to the efforts, direct or indirect, of M.C. Siddi Lebbe. For wherever he went and whenever he spoke, he had been ever harping on the theme of English education in Muslim environment. Thus some at least among his contemporaries had reacted favourably to his words of admonition. But unlike Al-Madrasat-uz-Zahira, which blossomed into the present Zahira College, Colombo, the other schools either did not long endure or failed to attain full stature.
With the establishment of the new school ended the period of Muslim non-co-operation with Modern Education that had characterized the previous seventy five years of the Nineteenth Century. This attitude was the result of many factors. Modern education during that period was naturally synonymous with English education. So long as the Government was itself directly engaged in the promotion of English education, Muslim saw in such education only one danger, viz: the danger of the impact of a foreign culture on Islam. – a kind of cultural aggrandizement, under the patronage of the ruling power, unpalatable to the Muslims who had not so far been either psychologically or spiritually conquered. There was therefore sufficient reason for them to view the new education with suspicion. This hostility 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 the Government 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 to a boycott o English Schools. By this, the Muslims showed that 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, or joining the learned professions. Such was their zeal for the ancestral faith.
Through 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 realization on their part that the lack of English education in their midst not only involved a renunciation of lucrative Government employment and positions of power and prestige but also barred the way to all progress whether in the political, commercial or 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 or Western education. If they were not prepared to receive their education in an alien atmosphere. They solved the problem in the only satisfactory way possible – namely, by establishing institutions of their own where English could be imparted without jeopardizing their faith or their culture. There is no doubt that the example of the Buddhists and the Hindus had a considerable influence on Muslim opinion. It became evident that English language was not necessarily synonymous with Christianity. Incalculable also was the effect of the establishment by (Sir) Syed Ahmed Khan in 1875 of the Aligarh Anglo-Mohamedan College.
Siddi Lebbe had for many years been preaching these truths and advocating a reorientation of views. He was born on the 11th of June 1838 and belonged to an educated family when education was an uncared for commodity and an unsaleable article in his Community. As a lawyer he followed in the footsteps of his father M.L. Siddi Lebbe, who probably was the first Muslim Proctor of Ceylon. His elder son was an Alim of piety and learning, who was keen – and he was successful – that his younger brother M.C. should not succumb to the non-Islamic and anti-Islamic influences he was subject to in the Society he moved in, as a practicing Proctor and prominent personality. To his brother he owes his taste for Islamic philosophy and his fondness for the writings of El-Ghazzali. His sister was singularly learned for her generation. In later years, for service’s sake, she became the Head Teacher of the Muslim Girls’ School started by M.C. Siddi Lebbe in his home-town of Kandy. He was fairly affluent but felt no special urge to augment his inherited wealth or increase his professional work. For nearly seven years he was a member of the Kandy Municipal Council. Circumscribed here by the power of the bureaucracy he had no zest for municipal administration. The major portion of his time and money were all spent in the service of his community in finding cures for its ills.
He found that one of the best methods of educating his correligionists and persuading them to his progressive views was the publication of a periodical. For this purpose he began on December 21, 1882 a Tamil Weekly – ‘Muslim Naisen’, which with difficulty he sustained for over six long years, despite the agonizing apathy of his friends and the aggressive antipathy of his foes.
In his first editorial he reminded his readers of the glory that was Islam when their Arab forebears were renowned and respected for their virtues and victories, industry and intellect, all born of a piety unalloyed. In contrast the Muslims of his day were woefully deficient in education through which alone could knowledge be enlarged, mind broadened and intellect sharpened. As Tamil did not possess a sufficiency of books for the purpose he proposed to give his readers the benefit of the knowledge gathered by him and the learned alims and others from books written in the English and Arabic languages. Besides, Muslim Naisen would provide news and views on all important matters, cultural economic and political, pertaining to the Community. He ended his first editorial with a well known quotation, extolling education:

~~nts;sj;jh yopahJ ntq;fdyhy;
NtfhJ Nte;juhYq;> nfhs;sj;jhd;
KbahJ nfhLj;jhY epiwnthop
af; FiwNtapy;iyf; fs;sh;f;Nfhkp
fthpJfhtYNkh kpfntspJ fy;tp
nad;DKs;sj;Nj nghUspUf;f
t+nuq;Fk; nghUs;Njb aiyfpd;
The objectives thus set out he pursued diligently. He did succeed to an appreciable extent in rousing the social consciousness of his people who had, for several decades preceding, became so demoralized and dispirited that they had so long remained without any plan for the recovery of their lost position and prestige.
M.C. Siddi Lebbe was conscious that the Muslims belonged to a world wide fraternity. Therefore he kept his people in touch with the affairs of the Muslim World – e.g. Pan Islam as practiced by Turkey with its repercussions in the British and Russian Empires, Independence Movements of Egypt and Sudan, Wahhabism in Arabia, Educational Renaissance among the Indian Mussalmans, Events in North Africa. Thereby did he wean the local Muslims from their cultural isolation.
Arabi Pasha therefore naturally received special prominence in Muslim Naisen. He was vigorously defended against those in Ceylon, who were more loyal than the king. Siddi Lebbe pointed out that Arabi Pasha was no ordinary rebel but a national hero and that there were several patriotic Englishmen who shared this point of view which found unfettered expression in the Mother of Parliaments itself.
Siddi Lebbe exhorted the Muslims, though his Weekly, to give up those habits and customs, time-wasting, energy consuming and wealth-dissipating, which though not inherently connected with Islam were yet intimately associated in the minds of his people, with their faith. He therefore advocated changes in burial-customs, ziyarat-visits, head-wear, marriage ceremonies and jumma proceedings. He explained that tareeks were founded for the intensification of religious life and that their adherents would prove traitrous to the Saints concerned if their names were to be invoked to promote strifes and dissensions.
Political and economic problems were not beyond the ken of Muslim Naisen. In its columns Siddi Lebbe agitated strongly for Muslim representation in the Legislative Council. By he rejoinders he promptly issued, he countered the findings contained in “The Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon” – Paper  read on April 26th, 1888 by the Hon. P. Ramanathan at the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon). Siddi Lebbe was also able to forecast the future of the Colombo harbour and anticipate serious competition from foreign businessmen in those spheres of commerce, which the local  Muslims considered their own. He therefore wanted them to undertake timely reforms in their methods, including company-formation for the special benefit of those not blessed with large capitals.
Through the columns of Muslim Naisen, we are able even at this distant date, to have a glimpse of Siddi Lebbe, his character and capacity, his creed and career, his pious spirit, his pioneering mind, and his penetrating intellect. In his writings Siddi Lebbe stands forth in the full power and eloquence of his outstanding role as a farsighted leader, who having examined in the long perspective of the past, the current problems of the Muslims – economic stagnation, political apathy, cultural isolation and educational backwardness, prescribed the sovereign remedy of modern education in Muslim environement, with more education and better education – the master key which alone could unlock all the doors of progress.
And yet 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 22, 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. The champion of the new order had convinced the Muslim public of the necessity of modern education for the progress of the Community. This is now axiomatic. Thus did Siddi Lebbe pioneer Muslim Education in Ceylon and bequeath to his Community its Premier Institution – Zahira.

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