Azeez in B.A. Cloak and cap

Aboobucker Mohamed Abdul Azeez, an eminent educationist, erudite learned scholar in English and Tamil, brilliant orator, efficient administrator, writer, visionary and dedicated community worker, was born on 4th October, 1911 to a traditional elite family of Vannarpannai in Jaffna. His father S.M. Aboobucker J.P. was a leading lawyer, Quazi, Vice-Chairman of the Jaffna Urban Council and the first outstation President of the All-Ceylon Muslim League. His mother died when he was just seven years old, and his father re-married. He was then petted and pampered by his maternal grandparents and aunt. They encouraged him in his studies and Azeez studied late into the night, with the aid of a flickering oil lamp.

Azeez joined the Allapichchai Quran Madrasa in 1916 where he learnt to read the Quran. After passing the Standard III examination in Tamil medium in 1920 at the Mohammadiya Mixed School, he joined the Hindu school R.K.M. Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam in 1921, Jaffna Hindu College in 1923 and studied there until 1928. It was at these schools that he gathered a good grounding in the Tamil language and nuances of Hinduism. His training under distinguished teachers had stood in good stead in his later years. This was particularly true in respect of his invaluable contribution to the community in many spheres, his forte being education of the Muslims. The environment in these schools and the influence of his teachers instilled in Azeez the phenomenal value of education. Azeez’s contemporary at Jaffna Hindu College and the University College, later Professor of Civil Engineering, had stated that Azeez excelled in the study of Hinduism at school, but was denied the prize because he was not a Hindu.

As a boy Azeez was a near prodigy, having been always one jump ahead of the age limits during his academic career, so much so that when it came to entering the University College in 1928 he had to wait for a year as he was underage. So he spent this year at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo.

On his days spent at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam Azeez had stated, “I now feel thrice-blessed that I did go to Vidyalayam and nowhere else. My period of stay, February 1921 to June 1923, though pretty short quantitatively was extremely long qualitatively. It was at Vidyalayam that I became first aquainted with the devotional hymns of exquisite beauty and exceeding piety for which Tamil is so famed through the ages and throughout the world”. Azeez was a scholar in Tamil and for a Muslim he had a deep knowledge of Tamil literature and he would quote the Kural, the masterpiece of the poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar, with the best of the pundits. Azeez’s speeches were fluent and in pure Tamil and were a treat to listen to. In later years his routine every morning was to listen to Hindu devotional songs (thevarams) over the radio. He relished the beauty of Tamil in these songs, and reading Tamil in ola leaves as well with a close friend and high ranking public officer. His admiration for Tamil activated the Tamil Sangam to greater heights at Zahira College, Colombo when he was Principal.

With his abiding interest and love for Tamil, Azeez put his elder son, Ali, in the Tamil medium from the kindergarten at Ladies’ College in 1946 until he switched to Science subjects for the S.S.C. examination in 1957 at Royal College, which at that time were taught only in English. The other Muslim boys opted for the English medium from inception. On an amusing note, it was revealed by Marhoom Justice M. Jameel at a public meeting to remember Azeez, that when he was A.G.A. Kandy Azeez had requested his friends to avoid speaking to Ali in Tamil lest he spoiled his speech in Tamil. Ali recollects that he spoke Tamil in three different accents at home, Jaffna Tamil with his father, Eastern style with driver Ibrahim from Kattankudy and ‘sonaha’ Tamil with his mother.

Having been a distinguished student and a respected old boy of the two Jaffna schools, Azeez was honoured, by being invited to declare open the Diamond Jubilee Carnival at Jaffna Hindu College in 1951 and to deliver the Golden Jubilee Address at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam in 1963.

Azeez was an Exhibitioner in History at the University College and graduated with a Second Class (Upper Division) in History from the University of London in 1933. He joined the Colombo Zahira College hostel as a resident tutor and registered as a student at the Law College, but left shortly afterwards when he was awarded the Government Arts Scholarship in 1933. He proceeded to St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge University in 1934 to prepare for the History Tripos Part 2. Before leaving, he appeared for the Ceylon Civil Service Examination (C.C.S.).

His sojourn at Cambridge was short-lived and he returned after one term on passing the C.C.S. examination, abandoning his post-graduate studies. Nine members were selected to the prestigious C.C.S. namely, K. Kanagasundaram, A.M.A. Azeez, H. Jinadasa, V.S.M. De Mel, S.B.L. Perera, M. Rajendra, D.G.L. Misso, C.P. De Silva and L. Jayasundara in order of merit. Azeez was the second in order of merit and was the first Muslim Civil Servant, and he preferred to follow an administrative career in the public service. He joined as a young cadet at Matale as Office Assistant in 1935. Thereafter, he held the posts of Administrative Secretary, Department of Medical and Sanitary Services; Secretary to the Minister of Health (Hon. Dr. W.A. de Silva); Additional Landing Surveyor, H.M. Customs; Assistant Government Agent (Emergency), Kalmunai; Deputy Food Controller; Assistant Government Agent, Kandy; Information Officer; Additional Controller of Establishments, Treasury; Assistant Commissioner of Parliamentary Elections and Additional Secretary, Ministry of Health and Local Government (under Minister Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike).

Azeez was very interested in the education of girls, even at a time when Muslim girls did not have any form of schooling. He encouraged his cousin, Sithy Kathija, in her education and to sit the University of London Matriculaton Examination. She passed in 1940 and was placed in the Second Division. It was a happy day for him when she became the first Muslim girl to pass this exam.

Azeez’s great achievement, if not the greatest, was his contribution to food production while serving as A.G.A. in Kalmunai. During the Second World War a shortage of food was looming and the Government had to find ways and means of accelerating food production. One of the areas selected was the Southern region of the Batticaloa District from Paddiruppu to Kumana, the present Ampara District. For this purpose Azeez was specially selected by the Minister of Agriculture, Hon. D.S. Senanayake, and was transferred at short notice to set up the Emergency Kachcheri in Kalmunai.

During the short span of two years, from April 1942 to January 1944, Azeez travelled the length and breadth of the areas under his purview and worked long hours to put the district in the forefront as a leading producer of food and the granary of the East. At the successful Harvest Festival in Kalmunai in 1943, Hon. Senanayake in his address, while commending Azeez and others of their achievements, said that “I felt that a Muslim in the Civil Service would be able to get the co-operation of the Tamils and Muslims”. Later as Prime Minister and Chief Guest at the Prize Day at Zahira College in 1949 he reiterated that, “During the war when there was a shortage of food, the present Principal, Mr. Azeez, was one of those who helped me considerably in the food drive. From that time I had developed a great affection for Mr. Azeez. He was then a member of the Ceylon Civil Service but he worked really as a citizen of the country”. The grateful farmers named a mass of paddy lands of about 500 acres in Sagamam, situated 5 miles away from Akkaraipattu, as “Azeez Thurai Kandam” which perpetuates his memory to this day.

It was in Kalmunai that Azeez cultivated a close relationship with the renowned Tamil scholar and educationist Swami Vipulananda and the poet Abdul Cader Lebbe. Azeez had confessed that the formation of the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund and his accepting the post of Principal at Zahira College, Colombo were due to the encouragement given by Swami. In August 1948 Azeez retired from the Civil Service to succeed T.B. Jayah as Principal of Zahira College, Colombo sacrificing a brilliant career in order to serve his community. Zahira continued to excel in every field during his tenure until December 1961, which was referred to as the “Golden Era of Zahira”, and Zahira emerged as one of the finest public schools in the country. Over 150 Zahirians entered the University of Ceylon during this period. In 1962 Azeez was a visiting lecturer in History at the Vidyodaya University.

Azeez’s vision was to establish the Ceylon Muslim Cultural Centre and a Muslim Cultural University at Zahira College premises as proposed in the Throne Speech in 1961. Due to political changes these did not materialize, and he was disappointed. However, he had an opportunity to implement his ideas when his assistance was sought in the establishment of Jamia Naleemiah in Beruwela in 1973. With great enthusiasm he embarked on this venture until his demise.

When he was the Assistant Government Agent in Kalmunai and later in Kandy, he observed the poverty and illiteracy among the Muslims. In order to assist needy Muslim students to pursue higher education, he founded the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund in 1945. Over 2,000 students have benefited to date some holding and held high positions in Sri Lanka and overseas.

He also founded the leading youth organization, the All-Ceylon Young Men’s Muslim Association Conference in 1950, which is rendering yeoman service today with over 100 branches.

Azeez held many positions of importance in cultural and educational organizations. He was a member of the University Court, Council and Senate for over 10 years from 1953. He was President of the All-Ceylon Union of Teachers and the Secretary of the Headmasters’ Conference. He was awarded the title of Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on 1.1.1949 in recognition of his achievements in the Ceylon Civil Service. He was honoured as a National Hero and a stamp in his honour was issued on 22.5.1986. He was appointed as a Member of the Public Service Commission on 1.4. 1963.

Through Azeez’s writings and fluent speeches in both English and Tamil, on Education, Language, Community and on Muslim themes, by way of articles appearing in local and foreign publications, speeches and radio talks, he played a role in the intellectual enrichment of this country. With his basic training in history, he was interested in the history of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. His contributions “Muslims of Ceylon” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1961) and “Muslim Tradition in Education” in the Centenary Volume of Education (1969) contain in-depth information on Muslims of Sri Lanka.

Azeez’s only book in English “West Reappraised” (1964) on ten well known personalities in nation building are of interest to researchers.

It was after his busy life at Zahira College that he emerged as a Tamil writer of significance. He had the luxury of more leisure and with reawakened interest in his cultural roots, he began to write in Tamil, the language within which he grew up in Jaffna. His first book in Tamil “Islam in Ceylon” (1963) received the Sahitiya Award in 1963. The other books were “Art of Translation” (1965) and “Arabic-Tamil” (1973). His interest in Arabic-Tamil was influenced by his paternal uncle Asana Lebbe Alim Pulavar, who was a scholar in Arabic and Tamil, a renowned poet and an expert in Arabic-Tamil.

Azeez made a name for himself as a travel writer in Tamil. His travelogues “Splendour of Egypt” (1967), “East African Scene” (1967), “African Experiences” (1969) and “Tamil Journey” (1968) were of great interest to readers. He had the intention of publishing another book “Towards Cambridge and European Glimpses”, which was not published but the hand written script in English is available.
Azeez was well respected by the Tamil community, the climax of which was that the University of Jaffna conferred a posthumous Doctorate of Letters at their first convocation in 1980.

Azeez was appointed as a Senator on 21st June, 1952, on the demise of Senator Sir Mohamed Macan Markar, and was re-appointed in 1953 and 1959. He resigned on 28th March, 1963 on being appointed as a Member of the Public Service Commission.
He travelled widely attending numerous Islamic and other conferences, including Parliamentary Conferences and his presentations were well received. During all his visits he took the opportunity of visiting numerous schools and educational institutions.

Azeez has been honoured by his inclusion in the “100 Great Muslim Leaders of the 20th Century”, published by the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, India in 2005. He was the only Sri Lankan featured in this publication.

There have been many turning points in Azeez’s life, which he never regretted. It has been said that when Azeez registered as a student of the Law College he could have been a brilliant lawyer. He gave this up when he was awarded the Government Arts Scholarship and proceeded to Cambridge University to prepare for the History Tripos Part 2. On being successful at the Ceylon Civil Service Examination he abandoned his post-graduate studies and returned home to pursue an administrative career. There was an alluring career for him in the C.C.S. Being the first Muslim to enter the coveted service did not sustain him for long, for he found that much more rewarding work could be done in other spheres. He retired prematurely to accept the post of Principal of Zahira College, Colombo, to help his community in the sadly neglected sphere of education. He resigned when Zahira was taken over by the State, and was disappointed that his vision of a Muslim Cultural University did not materialise. His pioneering work at Jamia Naleemiah were in progress when he passed away.

His sudden demise on 24th November 1973 at the comparatively young age of 62 years no doubt left a vacuum not only in the Muslim leadership but in the country at large. His wife Ummu Kuluthum (granddaughter of M.I. Mohamed Alie J.P., the first Persian Vice-Consul and first Muslim Justice of Peace) pre-deceased him. His daughter is Marina and sons are Ali and Iqbal. Iqbal passed away in 2003.

One of the best tributes paid to Dr. Azeez was by Dr. M.A. Nuhman, who retired as Professor of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya and an academic of repute. In his Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Memorial Oration delivered in 2013 he stated that “After Siddi Lebbe, Azeez was the most influential intellectual that the Muslim community ever produced”.

In his excellent Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Memorial Oration in 2009, Mr. Susil Sirivardana portrays Azeez as an Iconic Nation Builder and covered practically all spheres of his life.

There were many tributes paid to Dr. Azeez; one on his personality was “He is a Muslim, he is from Jaffna, he looks like a Burgher and acts like a Sinhalese”. He lived a true Muslim and a Sri Lankan.


Certificate of Sithy Kathija’s success at the Matriculation Examination of the University of London 

Award of Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on 1.1 1949

Award of Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on 1.1 1949

Award of Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on 1.1 1949

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