A.M.A. Azeez, a great scholar and an eminent educationist was born on the 4th October, 1911 in Jaffna, the main city in Northern Sri Lanka, where Tamil was the spoken language of the Muslim community. Education was considered to be of prime importance in his family – his father being a lawyer and his paternal uncle, Asena Lebbe Pulavar, a poet and an authority on Arabic-Tamil.
The young Azeez began his schooling at the Allapichchai Madrasa and then attended the Mohammediya Mixed School. He studied in the Tamil Medium until Standard lll, and then for the first time studied English. From this school he entered the Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and later Jaffna Hindu College, from which institution he graduated to enter the University College (in Colombo) affiliated to the University of London. He graduated in 1933 with Honours in History and won a scholarship to follow a post-graduate course in History at the University of Cambridge. Before he could complete his studies, he returned to the Island to join the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service; having passed the examination, which he had sat after graduation.
His career in the Ceylon Civil Service was noteworthy. During the World War ll (in 1942) he was specially selected with the designation Assistant Government Agent (Emergency) to head the Accelerated Food Production Programme in the Eastern Province. In later years this province became the main rice producing region in the country. After this he served in many important positions in the Civil Service, but in the midst of a successful career he retired pre-maturely in 1948 to become the Principal of Zahira College, Colombo.
Accepting the post of Principal, Zahira College was not surprising as Azeez had always been interested in education and especially in the education of Muslims. At Kalmunai, while serving as A.G.A. he was able to observe the backwardness of the Muslims; similarly in the Kandy district he noticed the poverty and illiteracy prevailing among the Muslims. The information he was able to gather from other areas also pointed to the same situation. He came to the conclusion that if the Muslims were to progress as a community, the foundation had to be education. At the same time he noted that many boys did not continue their schooling owing to poverty. Accepting the Principalship of Zahira College was to him an opportunity to serve the community in the sphere of education.
While at Kalmunai he had befriended the renowned Tamil scholar, who later became Professor of Tamil at the University of Ceylon, Swami Vipulananda. With his support and that of the poet Abdul Cader Lebbe and leading Muslims in the area, the Kalmunai Muslim Educational Society was formed to assist needy Muslim students. This Society was later established in 1945 as the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund with its unique system of granting funds to needy students, whereby they returned the money when they were in a position to do so – this enabled other needy students to benefit.
Throughout his career as a Civil Servant, Azeez kept alive his interest in education. He read and studied learned works on education, cultivated the friendship of leading educationists here and abroad and gained much from their ideas, research and treatises. In short he made himself knowledgeable in all aspects of education. This helped him to mould Zahira into a leading boys’ school in the country. Many educationists, Islamic scholars and historians visited the College during Azeez’s term as Principal (1948-1961) and were very impressed by the College. Among these distinguished visitors were Prof. G.E. von Grunebaum (University of California, U.S.A.), Prof. Wilfred Cantwell Smith (McGill University, Canada) and Dr. K.G. Saiyadain (Adviser on Education to the Government of India). During this time Azeez was asked to contribute to the Encyclopaedia of Islam by the Board of Editors headed by Prof. Bernard Lewis, a reputed Islamic scholar and historian. As a recognized educationist in the country, he was invited to contribute to the Centenary Volume of Education in Ceylon. He was recognized as an eminent personality even in South India, where he presided at the Tamil Nadu Muslim Educational Conference in 1973 (just months before his death) and was honoured with the ‘Golden Shawl’.
With his interest in the importance of education, he had a special concern for the education of Muslim women and girls. Unfortunately there are no scholarly articles written by him on this topic, however, it was a well known and accepted fact that he was an ardent champion of higher education for women. In the early years, in the 1920s when Muslim girls stayed at home and prepared themselves for housekeeping and marriage, Azeez encouraged his cousin, Sithy Kathija, to attend school and somehow sit the London Matriculation examination. It was a great achievement for him as much as for her, when she was successful at the examination, because others were encouraged to attend school and gain at least a secondary education.
In the 1950s, a handful of Muslim girls owe their University education to the encouragement given by him, while many more should be grateful for being permitted by their conservative parents to train as teachers and successfully follow a teaching career. Azeez supported the establishment of teacher-training colleges in places such as Alutgama, Addalaichenai and Jaffna peninsula, areas where Muslim females could follow courses without being too far away from parental control.
The articles published in this book have been written in the period 1941-1959 and cover many aspects of the Muslim community and education; the attitudes, the problems of language, the backwardness and in some cases the solutions to these. Some of the articles deal with the State and education. The views expressed here are thought-provoking and some of the concepts have had a far-reaching impact on the Muslim community. It must be mentioned here that in the 1950s Azeez introduced the teaching of all three languages, Sinhalese, Tamil and English into the curriculum at Zahira College – this system has been adopted into the present day education policy of the country.
Azeez was not only an educationist but also a scholar. He attended many conferences and seminars and presented papers on education, Islam and the Muslims. He has also published many books and travelogues, one of which “Islam in Ceylon” in Tamil won him the Sahitiya Award in 1963. In 1980, the University of Jaffna conferred the degree of Doctor of Letters (posthumously) at their first Convocation. In 2005 he was given the honour of being the only Sri Lankan to be included in the book “100 Great Muslim Leaders of the 20th Century” published by the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi.

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