DR. A.M.A. AZEEZ – HE PLACED SERVICE BEFORE SELF BY RAJINDRA CLEMENT RATNAPULI, C.ENG

I am privileged to write the commemorative article on late Dr. A. M. A. Azeez to mark his 37th death anniversary on November 24, 2010. This article is a way of expressing my gratitude to this outstanding Sri Lankan who made a difference to the quality of life of so many of his fellow countrymen, especially the underprivileged minority Muslim community. I write as an old Zahirian, and as one among many others who had benefited immensely from the school’s educational system back in the 1950s when Dr. Azeez was Principal.

Detailed accounts of the life and works of Dr. Azeez are well documented in published literature. In this article I have presented some high points of his life in order that we may reflect upon some of his unique personal traits and achievements, which I believe, can be of great inspirational value. Dr.Azeez was born to an upper middle class family in Jaffna in 1911 and died 62 years later in Colombo. In this short time frame he managed to squeeze in an impressive curriculum and an enviable career full of accomplishments and successes as an academic, administrator and educator.

As a child Dr. Azeez was brought up within the Islamic faith. He studied the Quran and Muslim culture at a traditional madrasa in Jaffna, where he acquired a profound knowledge of the history and teachings of Islam. Evidently his religious convictions have had a significant influence on shaping his adult life. He was an ardent believer in discipline, generosity and community service which are three of the key precepts of Islam.Again, true to the faith, throughout his life he had maintained a personal character and integrity that were beyond question, and as a family man he was considered to be a faithful husband and a model father.He was married to Ummu Kuluthum (grand-daughter of M.I. Mohamed Alie J.P., the first Persian Vice-Consul in Ceylon) and had three children, sons Ali and Iqbal and daughter Marina.

Dr Azeez had his early schooling at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and later at Jaffna Hindu College which at the time were well respected Hindu schools. They provided him the inspiration and the intellectual environment that gave a head start on his academic pursuits. At school he developed a passion for Tamil literature and culture. He raised this passion to such great heights which eventually won him recognition and respect as a Tamil scholar, in Sri Lanka and abroad. His language skills did not stop at that. He had also acquired proficiency in the English language, he read Arabic and had a working knowledge of Sinhalese. He was noted for his excellent writing skills and also as an eloquent speaker, in both Tamil and English.

Interestingly, the early schooling phase of Dr. Azeez gives us a glimpse of some of the cultural values that prevailed at the time in the country’s school system. It seemed that ethnicity and religious background were not relevant criteria in the admission process of candidates to most schools. Also the working environment within the school and the relationship between students those days had been extremely cordial and amicable. At this point I may draw a parallel with my own experience when I as a Buddhist could study at Zahira College, Colombo without ever feeling a stranger amongst the majority Muslims. That was in the 1950s. I am not too sure however, if we can relive this situation anywhere today with all the antireligious and ethnic rhetoric that is floating around us.

In 1933 Dr. Azeez graduated from the University of London with an Honours Degree in History. This won him the Government Arts Scholarship to Cambridge University, England, to do post-graduate studies. His stay in England did not last long though. He terminated his post-graduate studies prematurely and returned to Sri Lanka to become a member of the Ceylon Civil Service. That was in 1935 when Sri Lanka was still under British Colonial rule and the Ceylon Civil Service was practically dominated by the British. This was a remarkable personal achievement for Dr.Azeez and it was also a morale booster to the country’s minority Muslim community. He was the first Muslim to enter the Civil Service. Dr. Azeez’s new post in the civil service marked an important milestone in his professional career. He was aware of the challenges that came with the job and was prepared to face them with confidence.

Early in his career, as Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Health he was already in charge of challenging assignments. That was the time when the Kandy district was ridden with a malaria epidemic. It was a crisis that demanded swift and decisive action. Dr. Azeez responded promptly to the situation by mobilizing whatever human and material resources that were available to him in the Ministry. Within a short period of one year or so he managed to bring the epidemic to a stable condition. On many occasions he had even gone beyond the duties of a civil servant to show his support, by personally attending to the poor and destitute in a spirit of community service. This experience was a huge success and a good starter to his career in the civil service.

Perhaps the most demanding tasks he had to face on the job arose in the early 1940s when he was Assistant Government Agent in Kalmunai, Eastern Province. That was a crucial period globally, marked by the ongoing Second World War. The country was facing the prospect of a food shortage due to interruptions in foreign food supplies. The then Minister of Agriculture, Mr. D. S. Senanayake had taken quick action to avert any serious food shortages in the country during the war period. He created an emergency food drive project centered in Kalmunai. The man selected to lead the project was Dr. Azeez who had been hand picked by the minister himself. That did not come as a surprise though, considering that Dr. Azeez had already established a reputation within the civil service for his crisis management talents. Within two years on the job he had restructured the entire food production and supply chain in the region with amazing results. He had effectively converted the district into the granary of the East. This was another star addition to the list of accomplishments he had collected while in the civil service. But then, he had his disappointing moments too. His stay in Kandy had left him with a disturbing image of the dire poverty of the region’s rural population. In Kalmunai he was struck by the social deprivation and backwardness of his Muslim brethren living in the Eastern Province. They were people who had been thrown into the margins of society and caught in a no-win cycle of poverty and lack of education, sort of a catch 22 situation.

Dr. Azeez’s term of office in the civil service contributed immensely to his professional and personal development, and formed a crucial part of a continuing learning process. It offered him the opportunity to enhance his administrative talents and people skills. These basic management attributes came in handy later when as Principal, he was trying to implement the teaching process at Zahira College, Colombo.

In Kalmunai Dr. Azeez had made friends with two inspiring intellectuals from the region, Swami Vipulananda and Abdul Cader Lebbe. The first was a Hindu teacher and scholar and the second an author and poet. Both were strong opinion formers and social reformers. They believed that a community-integrated education system was the only hope of a better future for the country’s under privileged classes, a view that was also shared by Dr. Azeez at that time. The ideas and strategies of these two intellectuals formed to a great extent the basis of Dr. Azeez’s master vision. His vision was to establish a free and fair democratic society in the country and to upgrade the quality of life of the underdeveloped Muslim community.

In 1948 Dr. Azeez retired prematurely from the civil service to assume the post of Principal, Zahira College, Colombo, to succeed Dr. T.B. Jayah who was appointed as a Minister in the first cabinet of independent Ceylon. This gave Dr. Azeez the best opportunity of improving the education of the Muslims which was his vision. His decision shocked the Muslim community as they never expected a Civil Servant to sacrifice a bright career to take up the cause of Muslim education. This was an eye-opener to the rich community of the value of education. He took office at Zahira with great enthusiasm and high hopes of realizing his mission. His mission was to transform Zahira College into a Centre of Excellence in Education and Muslim Studies and Culture. A few years later in 1952 he was appointed a Senator in the House of Parliament. Consequently, in the subsequent years he had to divide his time between these two functions.

I joined Zahira College in 1952 having completed my secondary schooling at St. Thomas’ Preparatory School, Kollupitiya. We were a lower middle class family living in Kollupitiya. My mother was a devout Buddhist and very conservative while my father was unpredictable. I had a wide mix of friends from various ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. Most of them were politicized and ambitious, and attended some of the leading schools in Colombo. There were also those friends who had no schooling and made a living by doing petty jobs. As a youth group we devoted part of our spare time to neighborhood community work and were also involved in small time local government politics.

In the 1950s Zahira College enjoyed a high ranking in the league of leading schools of Colombo. I am glad that some of the finest years of my student life were spent at Zahira. I found the school system very affordable and liberal. It was community oriented and opened to any deserving student independent of ethnicity, religion or socio-economic status, although of course the majority was Muslim. This cultural diversity was also reflected on the school staff. The system ensured a very comfortable academic and social environment in the school, which fostered discipline, friendship, mutual respect and tolerance between students and between students and teachers. It was a very inter active society in keeping with Dr. Azeez’s open minded management philosophy. A strong point of the system was its highly motivated and dedicated teaching staff. The teachers were specialists in their areas, very communicative and friendly. As a mark of respect I take this opportunity to pay homage to all of my teachers who supported and encouraged me during my learning process at Zahira. I am especially indebted to my science teachers Mr. Natesan (Pure Maths), Mr. Selvanayagem (Applied Maths), Mr. Ghaffoor (Physics), Mr. Balasubramanium (Physics) and Mr. De Mel (Chemistry). Of course there were many others who deserve my gratitude, for example teachers like Mr.Gomez, Mr. Aliossen and Mr. Wijeratne. I remember the time when Dr. Azeez and Mr. De Mel personally took the trouble to coach me for the University entrance interview.

The most enjoyable place in the school was the classroom. The classes were very informal and participative, and the student-teacher relationship was extremely cordial. There were even moments of laughter and innocent acts of mischief during the class, which were all taken up in a sporting spirit. I had a large number of friends at school and had always felt at home in their company. Even as a small group my classmates were multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, as were the teachers. We were a united lot, well disciplined with full of fellowship. We treated our teachers with great respect and they in turn willingly shared their values with us. Academically however, I did not come out as a brilliant performer at the time; most likely an above average student. In sports I was more of a cheer leader. I was a strong cricket fan and played soft ball cricket. One of the major school events that drew my attention was the annual science exhibition in which I had participated several times. Those were my good old school days at Zahira, an experience that will stay for ever with me.

Dr. Azeez’s thirteen year tenure (1948-1961) as Principal came to be known as the ‘Golden Era of Zahira’. During this period the school reached peak performance at a national level in studies, sports and cultural activities. It excelled in cricket, soccer and rugby as well as track and field events. The school had also earned a reputation for cadetting, scouting, target shooting and interschool quiz competitions and debating. Over one hundred Zahirians had entered the University during this period. I entered University of Ceylon in 1956 together with a record number of twelve others namely, A. Jabbar, Haja Mohideen, M. Ismail, I. Haniffa, A. Ariyaperuma, M. Hussain, W. Bandularatne, Tuley de Silva, S. Ramachandran, K. R. L. Perera, A.G.A. Barrie and P. Goonetileke. Sadly some of my colleagues are now deceased. On a much happier note however, they became great achievers and exemplary citizens, or perhaps world citizens, who had done well in life. Among them were well known University dons, leading professionals and administrators as well as high ranking officers in the armed forces, the navy and the air force. The high quality of the alumni was indeed a good measure of the exceptional standards and efficiency of the teaching process implemented under Dr. Azeez’s leadership.

As a person Dr. Azeez was well liked by the students and staff. His charismatic personality and ability to connect with people won him a large number of friends within and outside the school. He had a portly figure. He was tall and had a fair complexion and had always carried a slight smile on his face. He was smartly dressed, usually in coat and tie. In the back of my mind it was quite likely that I had identified him with some of my western film idols. Dr. Azeez was well known in academic and political circles for his oratorical skills. We as students had the privilege of listening to him at the weekly school assembly. His speeches were powerful and convincing and the messages he transmitted were profound and thought provoking. They would sometimes reflect his religious ideals and often tended to have an ethical slant.

He worked consistently to fulfill his mission which was to upgrade Zahira College to a Muslim University dedicated to Islamic studies and Muslim Culture. The ground work to the project was laid by building The Ceylon Muslim Cultural Centre in the premises of Zahira College. The Centre was equipped with only the basic needs, a library and a publication bureau. It lacked the facilities conceived in the original project, such as an up-to-date convocation centre, a fully fledged reference library and qualified staff. These were essential requirements to raise the Centre to the status of a University capable of supporting Islamic Research. Efforts were made also to establish academic and cultural partnerships with foreign Muslim educational institutions. This took Dr. Azeez to several countries in the Middle-East and Asia such as, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. As a means of fostering better integration and understanding between countries, he even encouraged students and teachers to participate in cultural exchange programs. Despite all these efforts and to his great disappointment the mission failed to materialize due to unexpected changes in the country’s political scene at the time. Being the optimist he was, he was not beaten by failure. He still had hopes. Later in 1973, 12 years after his retirement from Zahira College his ideas began to resurface and turn into reality. Much to everyone’s satisfaction and largely through Dr. Azeez’s assistance the Jamiah Naleemiah in Beruwela, was inaugurated in the same year. This was the closest he could get to his dream. This Institute has since grown to become a well equipped and highly recognized Research Institute for Islamic Studies and Muslim Education and Culture in the country.

In the 1950s some landmark changes to the country’s political history were in the making. The first Social Democratic Party was elected to power at the 1956 elections defeating the governing United National Party. The political paradigms began to shift and with the new government the country took a turn to a more nationalistic course of action. Dr. Azeez was then affiliated to the UNP. He continued as a Senator committed to his social programs and ethical principles, as always defending the rights and welfare of the underdeveloped. He had no political agenda for himself, and stayed away from irresponsible and opportunistic politics. A hotly debated issue at the time was the new regime’s proposed swabasha bill to make Sinhala the official language of the country. Dr. Azeez vehemently opposed the bill which he thought would divide the country into ethnic factions and moreover, damage the growth and integration of the Tamil speaking Muslim communities. In his brilliant speech in the Senate he made a last minute passionate plea on behalf of the minorities. Nevertheless, the bill was eventually passed in the House of Parliament with the support of the UNP. This left Dr. Azeez with no options but to resign from his party. He carried on with his duties as an independent Senator maintaining his usual dedication and enthusiasm until his resignation from the Upper House in 1963 on his appointment to the Public Service Commission. More information on Dr. Azeez’s Senate debates can be found in “A.M.A. Azeez – Senate Speeches” compiled by S. H. M. Jameel and M. Ali Azeez, published by the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation, November 24, 2008.

Among the numerous services he rendered to the Muslim community there are two projects that call special attention. He founded The Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund in 1945 to help financially needy students to pursue higher studies. Over 2000 students have benefited from this programme so far. In 1950 he inaugurated The All Ceylon Young Men’s Muslim Association aimed at providing social assistance to the youth. This entity now has around 100 branches throughout the country.

Dr. Azeez had a profound knowledge base in a wide range of disciplines, especially history, politics, Tamil language and culture as well as Islamic studies and Muslim culture. In fact he was often referred to as a walking encyclopedia. Some of his ideas, beliefs and thoughts on these areas have been vividly expounded in the many articles and books he published over the years. His first English publication “The West Reappraised” has become a popular reference book among history scholars studying 20th century Sri Lankan history. Some of the more sought after books written in the Tamil language include “Islam in Ceylon” (which won the Sahitiya Award in 1963), “Spell of Egypt”, “East African Scene”, “South African Scene” and “Tamil Travelogues”. He had been a contributor to the Encyclopaedia of Islam published by E. J. Brill. In addition he had also presented several papers on language and cultural and religious themes in national and international conferences.

His incessant efforts and services rendered to uplift the lives of fellow countrymen were duly recognized and acknowledged by the people and the government at that time. He was awarded the prestigious title of Member of the British Empire in 1951. In 1986 the Government issued a stamp in his honour as a National Hero of Sri Lanka. The University of Jaffna awarded him a posthumous Doctorate of Letters at its first convocation in 1980. He won global acclaim when he was included, quite deservingly as one of the 100 Great Muslim Leaders of the 20th Century, published by the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, India.

Dr. Azeez’s life experience has been an inspiring journey full of accomplishments and successes. There were also moments of disappointment and failure. But he was never taken back by failures, for he had the knack to convert failures into successes and a challenge into an opportunity. He seems to have conducted his life as a series of planned and organized events, more like a strategy worked out to meet his objectives. He was in fact working for a great cause, towards a national purpose to bring social and economic justice to all concerned. Dr. Azeez’s achievements and successes did not come by accident. His success came through self motivation, high self esteem, sincerity and enthusiasm. His simple and ethical lifestyle gave him credibility which was also another contributory factor. Evidently his life has been driven by an acute sense of social consciousness; he looked beyond himself. As Gandhi was to the Indians Dr. Azeez was to the Muslim community of Sri Lanka.

Mr. Azeez died on 24th November 1973, and that marked the end of another chapter in 20th century history of Sri Lanka. But he will be remembered for ever as a gentleman who had always placed service before self.

(Mr. Rajindra Clement Ratnapuli was a student of Zahira College, Colombo during the Azeez era. He entered the University of Ceylon in 1956 and graduated in Physics (Honours) in 1960. He obtained a First Class Honors degree in Metallurgical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1966. He is a Chartered Engineer (UK) and a Member of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (UK). He is also an Associate of the Institution of Works Managers (UK) and a Member of the Brazilian Institute of Metals. He started his Metallurgical career with the Ceylon Steel Corporation (1962-1969). He moved to the UK in 1970 and worked as a Products Research Investigator with British Steel Corporation. In 1980 he joined the Brazilian Steel Industry as a Project Leader in Steel Processing and Product Development. After his retirement in 2002 he has been working as a Visiting Lecturer in Metallurgy at Unileste University Brazil and as a Consultant Metallurgical Engineer to the Petroleum and Natural Gas related industries.

He has published several papers including a few award winners and made presentations in International Conferences. He holds two Patents. He is a Rotarian keenly involved in community service.
He is married with two children and lives in Canada).

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