Dr. A. M. A. Azeez ó a visionary of his time
by Prof. Achi M. Ishaq

24th November, 2005 marks the thirty second anniversary of the demise of Dr. A. M. A. Azeez.

Eminent educationist, brilliant scholar, visionary and dedicated social worker, Aboobucker Mohamed Abdul Azeez was born in Vannarponnai in Jaffna on 4th October, 1911. He was educated at the Allapichai Quran Madrasa, Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and Jaffna Hindu College. The diversity of his early education ingrained in him a liberal outlook that barred no race or ethnicity. Instead it instilled the notion that there would be nothing that would succeed a good education ó a motto he maintained throughout his professional and personal life.

First Muslim Civil Servant

Although the major part of his life was spent outside Jaffna, his pride of his birth place had a great influence in his later life. Azeez was born to a distinguished and well-to-do family. His father, S. M. Aboobucker, was a leading lawyer, a quazi, a member of the Jaffna Urban Council and the first outstation President of the All Ceylon Muslim League. Azeez entered the University College in 1929 and graduated with honours in History from the University of London. He was awarded the coveted Ceylon Government Arts Scholarship and proceeded to St. Catherineís College, Cambridge. However, he discontinued his post-graduate studies in 1935 upon his appointment as the first Muslim Civil Servant ó a distinction awarded through merit in the Ceylon Civil Service examinations. This achievement symbolizes what Azeez ultimately stood for ó a representative of the minority Muslim community, serving to address and eliminate the problems that retarded its progress.

Azeez held many important positions in public service. He began his career as a young cadet at Matale. During World War II he was attached to the Customs Department as the Additional Landing Surveyor. In 1942 he was selected by Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake, and transferred to Kalmunai at short notice as the Assistant Government Agent to set up the Emergency Kachcheri, with specific orders of accelerating the food production of the Southern region of the Eastern Province from Batticaloa to Kumana (todayís Ampara District). All supply lines of rice and other food items to Ceylon suffered blockades.

Farmers remember Azeez

Many acres of jungle land were cleared and given for paddy cultivation and Azeez also transformed landless Muslim farmers to owners of paddy lands. It was reported that 12,270 acres were cultivated for paddy while a number of goat and poultry farms were also established. Soon the region was transporting rice to other areas in the country. To this day Azeezís memory has been preserved by the farmers of the area in a section of land called "Azeez Thurai Kandam". A model farm of 475 acres with a labour force of 1000 was established in Sengatpadai to train farmers to grow various crops using modern agricultural methods. A Harvest Festival was held on the farm in March 1943 for the first time to celebrate the accelerated production. The event which was graced by D. S. Senanayake and other top officials, were in a procession of carts drawn by elephants. With the highest productivity in the region, the district was transformed into the granary of the East. This is true of the situation even today, the Ampara district contributes to 62% of paddy cultivation from the Eastern Province. There are many who attribute this achievement as one of Azeezís greatest, surpassing his successes in the CMSF, Zahira College and the YMMA.

Concerned about higher education

Azeez was aware of the fact that education would play a pivotal role in uplifting the socio-economic conditions of the Muslim community in general. He gave particular attention to those in the Eastern Province. He founded the Kalmunai Muslim Educational Society in 1942 and ensured that greater priority was given to higher education. In 1945 he initiated the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund (CMSF) ó an ingenious scheme, which has helped over 2,000 poor Muslim students pursue higher education over the past 60 years. Many of the recipients hold eminent positions in their respective fields, a number have received national honours. The scheme can be considered as a landmark in the history of Muslim education.

In January 1944 Azeez was transferred from Kalmunai to Colombo as Deputy Food Controller, and after a month assumed duties as the A.G.A. in Kandy. Later he served as Information Officer and as the Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Health where he played a key role in the establishment of rural and cottage hospitals, which today form an important link in the health service network.

Principal of Zahira College, Colombo

In 1948, he gave up his career in the Civil Service to take over as the Principal of Zahira College, Colombo. His decision was influenced by his interest to educate and alleviate the Muslim community. To Azeez, Zahira College was more than just a school. It was the "radiating centre of Muslim thought and activity". With his intellectual acumen, imaginative vision, sincerity, dedication and administrative skills, Azeez strove to make Zahira one of the finest public schools in Sri Lanka and the leading Muslim institution in the island. The 13 years of his stewardship have been referred to as the "Golden Era of Zahira". The school excelled in studies, sports, scouting, cadeting, elocution, oratory and debating. Nearly 100 students entered the University of Ceylon. The standards of education and discipline Azeez built up at Zahira have yet to be surpassed. When he relinquished his office, Zahira had a well-stocked library and an excellent laboratory.

He encouraged the development of Tamil studies through the Tamil Manram where distinguished scholars were invited to address the students. A result of this was that a fine crop of Zahirians, who in the 1960ís and later were to dominate the fields of Tamil literature, including journalism, drama, oratory, classical literature and fiction. He visited the U.S.A. in 1952 on a Smith-Mundt Scholarship for six months and introduced models of education that applied to Zahira.

Encouraged by Swami Vipulananda

Azeezís reflections on education, Tamil culture and Tamil literature was influenced through his connection with a number of families in the Eastern Province. His friendships with Swami Vipulananda of Karaitivu and the poet Abdul Cader Lebbe illustrate this point. The Swami was an eminent scholar, educationist and the founder of Sivananda Vidyalayam. He had wide experience and knowledge of the cultural norms as well as the educational culture of the East. They met frequently and discussed wide ranging matters. When the Swami resigned from the Annamalai University and took over as Professor of Tamil at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya in 1944, he stayed with Azeez for 12 days in his official bungalow in Kandy. Azeez confessed that the inauguration of the CMSF and his acceptance later as Principal of Zahira College were encouraged by Swami Vipulananda. Indeed, this recognition of intellect by both the Swami and Azeez enabled them to fuse their ideas towards progressive education that was beneficial to all students in that generation. The Swami also had emphasized the importance of an Arabic-Tamil dictionary and offered to assist in writing one. The dictionary did not materialize and neither has this line of thinking.

Azeez advocated that the Muslim community should acquire four languages, the scripts of which were all different. He felt that without Arabic the Muslims of Sri Lanka would become culturally removed from their heritage. Tamil was a mother tongue to the Muslims, Sinhala was the language of the majority of the population and English ó a world language. He identified that language would end up being an isolating factor for the Muslims of Sri Lanka and suggested that the curriculum in the Muslim schools should include all four languages. His plans to establish a Cultural Centre and a Muslim Cultural University at Zahira were to flounder because of disgruntled individuals in the Muslim community.

Azeez promoted social harmony between the various ethnic groups in the country. Admittance to Zahira College was not restricted to just Muslim students. In fact, a number of non-Muslim students entered the university into the professional faculties from Zahira College. Many have achieved great eminence in their respective fields. The ethnic divide today would have broken Azeezís heart. He would never have dreamt of Muslims being slaughtered by terrorists in their places of worship, or the displacement of individuals in either community by the other. The author is aware of his commitment to integration and promotion of harmony of the two communities. He believed that both communities had much to learn from each other.

had vision ahead of his time

He had a vision that was far ahead of his time. He firmly believed that higher education should be accessible to women. His concern for the welfare of the Muslims, particularly those in the East, made him explore innovative ways of uplifting their social, economical and educational conditions. In this regard, it must be mentioned that the idea of a port in Oluvil was first mooted by Azeez, way back in 1962, long before the idea sprung in any politicianís mind. Such progressive thought should be recognized and celebrated by those who have reaped the benefits from it. This can be done in a number of ways, for example, through the dedication of the port in Azeezís name.

Azeezís participation in cultural and educational institutions such as the membership in the Court, Council and Senate of the University of Ceylon, President of the All-Ceylon Union of Teachers and the Headmastersí Conference, provided him with the opportunity to contribute to school curricula and teacher training, enabling him to represent Sri Lanka in international conferences and seminars. His authorship of a number of thought provoking articles in both English and Tamil address issues surrounding education, Arabic-Tamil literature, Islam, cultural and historic themes.

Some of these contributions to academia include: "Ceylon" in the Encyclopaedia of Islam; "Muslim Tradition" in the Centenary Volume on Education in Ceylon; "Islam in Ceylon", for which he received the Sahithya Award in 1963; "West Reappraised". In recognition of his contribution to education he was honoured with a "Golden Shawl" at the Tamil Nadu Muslim Educational Conference, in Madras, two months before his death in 1973. During his last years, Azeez compiled material for the history of the Muslims of Sri Lanka in the last two centuries.

He founded the All Ceylon Young Menís Muslim Association Conference in 1950. It now thrives with numerous branches and endeavours to create a new generation of men worthy of the highest traditions of Islam and promote inter-communal amity. The founding of the Jamiah Naleemiah in Beruwela should be considered as a fruit of Azeezís concept of a higher seat of Islamic learning. His role in the formative stage of this Institute was instrumental in the success of this Institution.

His role as a Muslim public figure has been sealed in Sri Lankan history. In 1952 he was awarded the M.B.E. for his services to the community. In the same year he was appointed to the Senate. In 1963 he was appointed as a Member of the Public Service Commission. Azeez was honoured on a commemorative stamp in 1986. In recognition of his contribution to literature and education the University of Jaffna at its first convocation in 1980, conferred upon him a posthumous Doctorate of Letters.

Azeezís sudden death on 24th November, 1973 at the comparatively young age of 62 years, left a vacuum in the Muslim community. In the three decades that have passed since his death, the society that he knew has undergone many changes. It is perhaps Just as well that Azeez never lived to see the senseless and cruel dismembering of the community, which he was born into and helped shaped his personality. There is definitely a great need for some of his line of vision to return to intellectual and academic circles. He fervently believed that all communities in this country could and should live in amity through not Just understanding and tolerance but by learning from each other. "We best serve Sri Lanka not by the abandonment or neglect of our culture but by its preservation, protection and promotion".

He is sorely missed.

(Professor Ishaq hails from the village of Nintavur in the Eastern Province and was a prominent student excelling in studies and sports during the Azeez Era of Zahira College. After graduating from the University of Ceylon in Colombo in 1962, and after his initial training in the Survey and Irrigation Departments, he proceeded to Holland on a Nabuta Fellowship where he specialized in Aerial surveys and hydraulic engineering. As a Fulbright Fellow he proceeded to the US and obtained his Masterís Degree and PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Universities of Washington, Seattle and Madison, Wisconsin respectively. Dr. Ishaq was a Professor at Michigan State University and the prestigious King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals for the past thirty years. He is a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a Chartered Civil Engineer. He was also consultant to several international agencies and a honorary consultant to the Ministry of Ports and Shipping in Sri Lanka. He is presently an honorary consultant to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources).


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