Article on 109th Birth Anniversary

The 4th of October marks the birthday of AMA Azeez. If he had lived he would have been well past a century, 109 in fact, this year. Born in the early years of the twentieth century in Vannarponnai in Jaffna, he was to become an icon in the Muslim community – a leader in the field of education, a Tamil scholar who espoused multilingualism as a means of unifying the country, a visionary who wanted to see his country and his community flourish.

Azeez’s career has often been documented but the story of his life is worth repeating because he is a rare example of a man who short-circuited his own chosen path to follow another because he felt it was more important to do his duty

to his country and community than to fulfill his own wishes. His scholastic career reveals that he was an achiever. He qualified to enter University College but had to wait one year to actually enter the university because he was underage. He graduated with Honours in History from the University of London and was awarded a Government Arts Scholarship to St Catherine’s at Cambridge. His career as a postgraduate student however was short-lived for he abandoned Cambridge and returned to Sri Lanka on hearing that he had passed the Civil Service examination – the first Muslim to have achieved this distinction. As an officer of the Ceylon Civil Service, he worked in a number of fields – Health, the Customs, the Treasury- but it was as the Assistant Government Agent in Kalmunai that he surpassed himself. Selected by the then Minister of Agriculture, D S Senanayake and sent to the Eastern Province to accelerate food production in the island, Azeez worked tirelessly to establish practical measures to help the farmers of the area. These measures included providing land for landless farmers, rehabilitating abandoned village tanks and irrigation channels, establishing a model farm to demonstrate modern methods of cultivation and establishing poultry and goat farms. Azeez took over the AGA post in 1942. One year later, in 1943, his efforts to help the farmers were so successful that a Harvest Festival was held to celebrate their achievements.  The Observer of 29th March 1943 describes Azeez’s efforts as

“A very shining example as to how careful planning, encouraging guidance and consistent efforts could contribute to the success of accelerated growth of food production…” 

The Eastern Province has continued to be a major centre of rice production in the island and Azeez’s name is enshrined in 500 acres of paddy land known as Azeez Thurai Kandam in Sagamam near Akkaraipattu.

Thirteen years later Azeez relinquished yet again one chosen sphere – a bright career as a public servant – to dedicate himself to another cause – education for Muslim youth. He became the celebrated Principal of Zahira College and heralded what was to be described as the ‘Golden Age’ of Zahira.

In addition as is well-known, his practical turn of mind recognizing that education needs financial support, Azeez established a Scholarship Fund to help needy scholars. Another major contribution was the amalgamation of Muslim youth associations under the banner of the Young Men’s Muslim Association Conference.

These achievements, rightly celebrated as they are, seem to highlight one particular aspect of AMA Azeez and underscore only a commitment to the Muslim community. Azeez however was a man with a greater vision. His life experience, his extensive reading, his travels, the many posts he held all made him a leader with a cosmopolitan view of the world, one that did not draw solely from the narrow confines of his own religion and his own small community of co-religionists. As a child he attended a Muslim madarasa but went on to become a star pupil and highly respected Old Boy of Vaidyeshwara Vidyalaya and Jaffna Hindu College. In the Eastern Province, through his agricultural schemes, he drew Tamil and Muslim farmers together. The ‘Golden Age’ of Zahira is worthy of celebration not merely because it made Zahira into a recognized national school but because through its reputation, the school attracted students from all communities.

In the Senate Azeez consistently uphold the ideal of Sri Lanka as a multi-religious, multicultural country as is evidenced for example in his speech on the Official Languages Bill:

We best serve Sri Lanka not by the abandonment of our culture but by….aiming at unity in diversity.”

Azeez’s reputation as an educationist is often focused on his achievements at a boys’ school- Zahira College and it is only in the rare instance that mention has been made of his attitude to Muslim women’s right to education. His writings reflect his personal philosophy of education as being founded on a symbiotic reconciliation of the values of Islam with the contemporary ideas of the West. Azeez saw no difficulty in recognizing that this kind of education could be shared by men and women alike, and that one could achieve this ideal within the confines of an Islamic institution in as much as one could also find it in the educational institutions of other religions. As a leading personality in the Muslim community, he helped to convince others that educating girls was as necessary as educating boys persuading others with his own actions. His daughter Marina was sent to a Christian school, Ladies College and given freedom to graduate from the University of Ceylon. Today when Muslim women are holding their own in many fields, it is fitting that his encouragement of education for women of his community is acknowledged.

In 1973, AMA Azeez passed away at the comparatively young age of 62 and was hailed posthumously as a national

hero. His achievements bear testimony to the fact that he reached out of the small village he was born in and worked for the betterment of the people of the country. Those who knew him in his private persona remember him as a warm, genial personality, ever willing to help. To me –he was Azeez Maama, Uncle Azeez, my mother’s cousin. He and Aunt Ummu and my parents were bound not only as kin but also as close friends and trusted confidantes who shared every family dilemma, joy and sorrow. And he was, of course, the advisor on our education. As I moved from Ladies’ College to the University of Peradeniya and into academia, I know that my journey was made a reality because of the encouragement of AMA Azeez ”a man of vision and sensitivity”.

(Prof. Ryhana Raheem is Professor Emeritus, Open University of Sri Lanka and Founder Director of the Post Graduate Institute of English, Open University of Sri Lanka)

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