The lives of Great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of Time
                                         Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

Whereas every year the Death Anniversary of Dr. A.M.A. Azeez was commemorated on the date of his death, namely 24th November, this year the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation has decided to commemorate Dr. Azeez’s centenary year by timing the commemoration on his birthday, 4th October. I consider it a privilege to write this article about a person who was my Principal and in several respects a legend in my time.

Having spent my first five years of primary education in the Sinhala language at Siddhartha College, Balapitiya, my parents took me for English education to Zahira College Colombo in September 1946 and lodged me in the Hostel. The timing was perfect for many reasons in that Ceylon, as it was called then, had survived World War II which ended in 1945 with little damage. In 1946 Dr. T.B. Jayah was still the Principal of Zahira College Colombo. So, I was at the College in the post Primary Classes for two years before Dr. Azeez assumed duties as Principal in 1948.

I had, therefore, the good fortune of being a student of the College both at the tail end of the Jayah period and also in the first five years of the Dr. Azeez’s Golden era, which for me ended in 1953. Although I was only a teenager at that time, I still recall distinctly the enormous fanfare that accompanied the changeover of the Principals at the College when Dr. Azeez took over from Dr. T.B. Jayah. The event is recorded in beautiful photographs displayed at the Zahira College Principal’s Office, when the first Prime Minister of newly independent Ceylon, Hon. Don Stephen Senanayake visited the College for the event.

Whereas Dr. T.B. Jayah enjoyed enormous bonhomie of the Students, Teachers and Parents of the College, Dr. Azeez from day one, by virtue of his height, personality and charisma cut an awesome figure that commanded everybody’s attention and respect. We as Zahirians of that time just loved to look at him, to watch him step down from his big American limousine when he arrived at the College portico and walk erect with so much confidence, enthusiasm and earnestness. It was indeed a joy for us young men at that time to behold a man whose every move, every look and every word attracted so much attention. He was very fair in complexion, dapper, always upright and immaculately dressed in light coloured suits. To us up and coming young lads at the College he was the total embodiment of a charming ever smiling leader under whose leadership we were ready to follow. His excellence which was radiating wherever he went was like a fever that affected the audience. The boys simply adored the electric atmosphere and there was an all round feeling of expectations of things going to happen. In the early Jayah to Azeez period we witnessed “Luther hatching the Erasmian egg”.

Born in 1911 in Jaffna, Dr. Azeez joined the Allapichchai Quran Madrasa in 1916 where he learnt to read the Quran. He passed the Standard III examinations in the Tamil medium in 1920 at the Mohammadiya Mixed School. He joined the Hindu School, R.K.M. Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam in 1921 and the Jaffna Hindu College in 1923 and studied there until 1928. Dr. Azeez was a child prodigy having always been one year ahead of the age limits during his academic career, so much so that when he came to entering University in 1928, he had to wait for a year as he was underage. He spent that excess year at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo. In the formative years of his life, the socio culturally religious mixed education moulded the future of the young man who learnt a great deal from his Maulavis at the Madrasa, and the Teachers at the predominantly Hindu Schools. It was during that time that the foundations were laid for a good upbringing and education in the Tamil language which was one of his strongest suits in his later years. Dr. Azeez as a matter of routine every morning listened to Hindu devotional songs (Thevarams) over the radio as a result of which he relished the beauty of the Tamil language in those songs. He had an abiding interest and love for the Tamil language.

Dr. Azeez completed the 1933 examinations of the University of London which were conducted in Ceylon finally achieving a Degree with Honors in the subject of History. The excellent performance at University Degree level won him a Government Scholarship to the Cambridge University in England to pursue a Post Graduate Degree. However, just before he left Ceylon, he sat for the competitive Ceylon Civil Service Examination in an attempt to embark on a solid career in Government Service.

While Dr. Azeez was at Cambridge, the Civil Service Examination results were announced in Ceylon with Dr. Azeez being second out of the chosen nine in the order of merit in the Island, whilst at the same time being the first Muslim to successfully complete the Ceylon Civil Service examinations. That was indeed quite an achievement in that day and age and a prized one at that. He then had to make a choice between terminating his post graduate studies prematurely and returning to Ceylon immediately to take up the appointment in the Civil Service or alternatively to give up the Civil Service career and get on with his Post Graduate Studies at Cambridge. He opted for the first choice and never regretted it.

Having started as a Cadet in 1935 Dr. Azeez was recognized as a very capable Administrator and a relentless worker whose ability to get things done were soon spotted and rewarded. From Matale where he started he was transferred to the AGA’s Office in Kandy and thereafter he held the post 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, AGA (Emergency), Kalmunai, Deputy Food Controller, AGA Kandy, Information Officer, Additional Controller of Establishments, Treasury, Assistant Commissioner of Parliamentary Elections and Additional Secretary to the Minister of Health and Local Government (Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike), all in a short space of 13 years – an exemplary record for any Government Servant.

It was in Kalmunai in the early forties while working as the AGA during World War II under the Emergency Regulations that Dr. Azeez realized the utter hopelessness of the poor Muslims of Kalmunai, which in a way inspired him to dedicate his life to help the needy and the poor. Kalmunai stood to benefit from his period there, and today the people of Kalmunai stand grateful to Dr. Azeez for his relentless efforts to turn that part of the country into the “Granary of the East” which people of those days remember as “Azeez Thurai Kandam”. It was indeed a brilliant career in the Government which he sacrificed when the call came to take up the post of Principal of Zahira College, Colombo in 1948.

When one studies Dr. Azeez’s history, one factor that becomes very self evident is his outstanding ability to plan, re-plan and execute. It is more than conceivable that Dr. Azeez was guided by the famous saying “failing to plan is planning to fail:” (which incidentally helped the author of this article too significantly in his life). He seems to have had simple plans, medium term plans and grandiose long term plans such as setting up Zahira as the “Radiating Centre of Islamic Culture”

History also tells us that although there are Muslims who had excelled in various fields, by the beginning of the twentieth century in Ceylon there were virtually no intellectual giants in the Muslim community to match the calibre of Dr Azeez.   In addition to God given intelligence, Dr. Azeez also was endowed with rare talents and the ability to communicate in the written and spoken medium in both Tamil and English. His senior students in the College had always looked forward to the weekly Assembly, especially to listen to the articulate deliveries.  He was not only a handsome leader to behold but he was also a great speaker who kept the audience spellbound. For us as young men at that time his rhetoric was a treat.         

The pursuit of excellence in all spheres was more than evident to all of us HSC students at College during that time, as the visible efforts of Dr. Azeez our Principal spread like wildfire.  His mere presence inspired in the students a promise of hope, faith and confidence.

Even in the Zahira College Hostel where I was boarded for six years, under the tutelage of the very capable Warden, Sheikh Abdul Cader Issadeen (nicknamed Bulldog), we had a very unforgettable upbringing under strict disciplinary rules which benefited us for the rest of our lives. In all those years the visits of the Principal, Dr. Azeez to the Hostel was an event to look forward to. His customs and mannerisms at table, where we had to partake in a Dinner in his presence and his speeches left indelible marks in our minds. Dr. Azeez always led from the front. For us it was an unforgettable experience.    

Being a man who had enormous vision, Dr. Azeez set himself targets that automatically established his missions in life which were to improve the  education of Muslim children, (a hitherto neglected subject at that time) setting up  the Ceylon  Muslim Scholarship  Fund in 1945 to offer financial assistance to needy brilliant up and coming Muslim youth whose parents could not afford their higher education, achieving hitherto unprecedented levels of success at Zahira and widening the  scope for employment of young Muslims in the Island by setting up youth organizations such as the Y.M.M.A in 1950. These were all simultaneous efforts, well thought through, meticulously planned and painstakingly set up so that each institution flourished on its own. That was the brilliance of the man – a master planner, a master achiever.

Dr. A.M.A. Azeez having served the Civil Service for thirteen years retired prematurely to accept the post of Principal of Zahira College at a time when the total College student population did not exceed 1,500. Dr. Azeez quickly realized that one of the biggest drawbacks of the Muslim community was the very little attention paid by the leadership to educate the future generations in appropriate ways to meet the challenges that were ahead after the end of World War II in 1945. So, Dr. Azeez took the challege in 1948 to succeed Dr. T.B. Jayah who left the School to take up an appointment as a Minister in the first Cabinet of Independent Ceylon. Being a man with tremendous capacity for administration, Dr. Azeez quickly set up the plans for the improvement of education standards starting with Zahira College Colombo. At Zahira the results of examination passes and Sports achievements in Cricket, Rugby, Soccer, Boxing and Wrestling were indeed legendary. Zahira during Dr. Azeez’s time gained an overnight reputation for excellence and I experienced that in my time as an HSC student. The demand for school admissions from both Muslim and non Muslim children from Colombo and all parts of the Island were to say the least unprecedented

A man of erudite scholarship with matching capacity to perform and deliver, Dr. Azeez was also a great team builder who having identified a goal, was equally   dexterous to build a team of players under him to fulfill selectively the human resources needs to achieve success.  At Zahira he soon had  a brilliant team  consisting  of individuals  like the Deputy  Principal Mr D.S. Wijeratne, MA Oxon, Vice Principals Caldera and Shuhaib, Head Master Anif Doray, , Administrator par excellence  Mr. Awoof and Sportsmen in charge of games of the calibre of  Bahar (Snr) (Cricket), David (Boxing), Yesudian (Wrestling & TT) , Muhular (Cadeting & Rifle Shooting) Samad (Rugby and Soccer).  Equally noteworthy were some of the unforgettable teachers that we were blessed with including the late Hon. Stanley Thilakaratne, Speaker and MP for Kotte, who actually taught us the subject of Government at the HSC level.   

On the occasion of the thirty fourth Dr. A.M.A. Azeez commemoration when my good friend the late Prof. Sivathamby wrote the commemoration article, he recalled the names of some thirty three old boys of Dr. Azeez’s era at Zahira who had achieved name and fame in the academe. Siva guardedly did say they were only a few. Perhaps a hundred entered the portals of the academic world. There are yet another twenty such as E. Pararajasingham, M.Y Mohamed, Dharmadasa Banda, Farook Saleem, A.C.M Thassim, Late M.Ajward Hashim, Hussain Hashim, M.Azhar, Vaas Gunawardene, M.Bakir, Late M.S. M. Nalim, M. Zackariya, Razik Zarook, M.R Thassim, S.B.C Thassim, Jauffer, Kanaka, M.T. M. Hamza, Rishard, Irshard, Mowjood and political heavy weights such as A.H.M Fowzie, Alavi Moulana, Azwer and Hussain Baila of the same vintage that I can recall. I hope those whose names were not mentioned will forgive Siva and I. In addition to that, many of the products of the Azeez era who did not pursue the academe entered the world of business and also politics and achieved tremendous success. All in all in the thirteen years from 1948 to 1961 – the Golden Era of Zahira where Dr. Azeez set the pace and gave encouragement to each and every one who appeared to be promising at that time, Zahira’s countless heavyweights in the fields of Education, Sports, Enterprise, Politics and Leadership are ample testimony to his greatness.

The awesome records will show beyond doubt that over a hundred Scholars, not to mention the numerous top class Business Entrepreneurs, Politicians and Sportsmen were generated from the Azeez era – all in a space of thirteen years. That should, once and for all put an end to the debate as to which exactly was the Golden Era of Zahira.

In the immortal words of Shakespeare “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”, Dr. Azeez certainly fell into the second category in that by virtue of his intellect, his enormous contributions to mankind – the Food Programme in the Eastern Province during World War II, setting up of the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund, the Y.M.M.A and a host of other institutions, his period as a Senator in the first Parliament of Ceylon and the greatest contribution of all being the multiplier effect educational developments that he contributed at Zahira and elsewhere are lasting monuments to a great man who has left his footprints on the sands of time. His story for generations to come will always recall him for the remarkable record he has left behind.

Heights by Great men achieved and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
They, while the companions slept,
Were toiling upwards in the night

The Ceylon Government and the British Empire awarded Dr. Azeez  the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1951. Surely, Allah will have a special place for him in the Jennath. Ameen.

(The writer who is currently the Chairman of the Confifi Group of Companies and the Bairaha Group was at one time Professor of Management Accounting at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura. He was also a Member of the Finance Commission of Sri Lanka and the National Police Commission of Sri Lanka. He was awarded the title Deshabandu in 1987 and elevated to Desamanya in 2005 by the Presidents of Sri Lanka.)   

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