Today, November 24, 1993, is the 20th anniversary of the death of A.M.A. Azeez. In the two decades that have passed since his sudden death, society as Marhoom Azeez knew it has undergone cataclysmic changes.
And it is perhaps just as well that A.M.A. Azeez never lived to this day – to see the senseless and cruel dismembering of the Jaffna Muslim community, the community that he was born into 82 years ago, and which helped shape the personality that he was to become.
The story of his steady progress from primary education in Jaffna to a postgraduate scholarship to Cambridge has often been outlined. However, it seems significant that when Marhoom Azeez decided to write of the institutions, ideas and men that inspired him, the seat of learning that he chose to praise was not Cambridge but his old school in Jaffna, Vaidyeshwara Vidyalaya,
The school was chosen not because of reasons of prestige but because of its proximity to his grandfather’s house. At that time, a Muslim boy in a Hindu school run by an orthodox Brahmin would surely have been an anomaly, but Marhoom Azeez writes of his schooldays, not as alien outsider, but with pride and great affection stating very positively; “I now feel thrice blessed that I did go to Vidyalaya and nowhere else”.
He even traces two major epochs in his life – his life-long interest in the Tamil language, and the encouragement of his scholarly abilities – to his early beginnings in Jaffna, at Vidyalaya and later at Jaffna Hindu College. Marhoom Azeez’s work in the field of Tamil studies is especially marked by his interest in Arabic-Tamil, the written variety of Tamil used for Islamic publications.
In his research on this variety, Marhoom Azeez brought to light literary and journalistic writings both in South India and Sri Lanka. And by contributing to prestigious publications such as the ‘Encyclopaedia of Islam’, Azeez helped to create wider recognition of this little-known but culturally individual variety of Tamil.
His further work in Tamil included the book “Islam in Ceylon”. Azeez gained national recognition as a literary figure when he was awarded the Sahitya Award for this book. An even more appropriate reward for his work in Tamil was the posthumous Doctorate bestowed upon him, fittingly enough by the University of Jaffna.
Azeez’s public reputation however lay not in the area of Tamil studies, but in his work as an educationist, and it is here that his commitment to his community manifests itself most clearly. In his desire to serve his people, Azeez short-circuited his own academic career, abandoning post-graduate studies in Cambridge to take up a Civil Service appointment – the first Muslim in Sri Lanka to be so appointed.
Thirteen years after this historic appointment, Azeez relinquished yet again a bright career – this time as a public servant – to dedicate himself to the cause of Muslim education. As the Principal of Zahira College, Azeez was to guide the school through an era which has been described as the ‘Golden Age of Zahira’.
During this time, the school gained a reputation unsurpassed to this day, both in studies as well as sports. Although Zahira College flowered under his stewardship, his plans to establish a Muslim Cultural University at Zahira College were to flounder and never materialized.
But though the fulfillment of a lifelong dream was to be denied to him in his country, Azeez’s contribution to education was to be recognized in neighbouring India. Just two months before his death, he was invited to inaugurate the Tamil Nadu Muslim Educational Conference in Madras, and honoured there with a ‘Golden Shawl’.
Although much has been written about Azeez’s contribution to Muslim education in general, it is only in the rare instance that mention has been made of his attitude to Muslim women’s right to education. And as with many of Azeez’s ideas, it is not surprising that his views on this subject were ahead of his time.
Although not explicitly stated in his public writings, he firmly believed that women had as much a right to modern education as men. This he espoused in his own wide circle of relatives and friends, persuading others with examples set in his own family.
His own personal philosophy of education 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 on an Islamic institution in as much as one could also find it in the educational institutions of other religions.
His view of education was therefore neither parochial nor confined to one sex alone, and as a leading personality in the Muslim community, he helped to convince others that educating girls was as necessary as educating boys. Today when Muslim women are holding their own, especially in the field of education, it is fitting that we acknowledge our debt to Azeez, and his firm encouragement of education and professional fulfillment for Muslim women.
As an educationist, a man with a vision of what education could do for his community, Azeez created institutions that would help to make this vision a reality. The Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund, the YMMA movement, the Muslim Cultural Centre at Jamiah Naleemiah are among the institutions that he left behind. In addition are his achievements as a public servant; he served his country in many a capacity – as a Senator, a member of the Public Services Commission, a member of the Senate, the Court and the Council of the University of Ceylon and on numerous national committees.
He was to be rewarded for this dedication with an MBE, and honoured as a National Hero with the issue of a commemorative stamp.
The twin strands of his concern for his community are perhaps best illustrated in his interest in the Muslims of the East coast. It was in the early forties while he was serving as an A.G.A. at Kalmunai that Azeez was directly confronted with the plight of the community which had made little progress economically and socially. To help the East coast Muslims Azeez not only established a fund for needy students, the Kalmunai Educational Fund, but also helped agricultural interests in this area by alienating jungle lands and freeing them for cultivation, an act which served not only the Muslims but all the communities living in the province.
Throughout his life, Azeez was to bear a special affection for the Eastern province which he regarded as his second home, and for the Muslims of this region whom he helped in every way that he could.
In the recent past, the East coast Muslims, like Muslims elsewhere in the country have made great strides, but the Muslim community still remains the most disadvantaged of all communities in the country where education is concerned. The many-faceted contributions made by Azeez to Muslim learning and progress therefore shine all the brighter.
Born in Jaffna, he lived the greater part of his life in Colombo, but his work and vision was to benefit all Muslims everywhere in Sri Lanka. 

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