I am grateful to the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation and its organisers for inviting me to deliver the prestigious lecture organised to honour a noble son of Sri Lanka. “Honour those to whom honour is due” is a traditional virtue of Sri Lankan culture, and by our presence here this evening we are showing our gratitude and paying our respects to an exemplary man of rare virtue, who rose to great heights in the field of education and administration but never lost the common touch; a gentleman of rare calibre who studied at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, the stronghold of elitism, but was happiest in the company of the farmers of Kalmunai. Though he received many awards and honours and Honorary degrees, he remained modest and self effacing; an extremely pleaseant and genial person, who was a pleasure to know and pleasure to talk to.


Azeez had his early education in Jaffna Hindu College. In 1929 he entered the University College and received prizes for his scholarship in History. In the University he won the Ceylon Government Arts Scholarship awarded to the best student in the Arts stream and was sent to Cambridge for post-graduate studies. He was one of very few Sri Lankans to enter the exclusive portals of this renowned seat of learning. However, his success in the CCS in 1935 brought him back. He was not only the first Muslim but one of the very few Sri Lankans to gain entry into this elite club.


Azeez held many important posts in the Public Service and served in many districts. During the war in 1942 Azeez was posted to Kalmunai as AGA. This posting influenced his actions for the rest of his life; here he realized the plight of the Muslims in the Eastern Province, many of them landless and lacking in modern education. In Kalmunai he realized that, for the uplift of the Muslims, education is the answer. He initiated the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund, the beneficiaries of which for over 54 years number over 2000. Many of them have fulfilled the aspirations of the benefactor. In 1948 he abandoned a brilliant future in the CCS and took over the Principalship of Zahira College. This was indeed a great sacrifice on Azeez’s part, for the CCS was the apex of the administrative structure and a glamorous one too, which at that time had much social prestige and many perks. This shows Azeez’s commitment and dedication to the cause of education and betterment of the Muslims. His acceptance of this post through which he could help humanity was the result of his Kalmunai posting. His stewardship at Zahira was a glorious chapter in its history where the young men it produced shone in all fields of human achievements.


“Education is the key to unlock the doors to progress”.


The Arabs had been known in Asia as traders even before the birth of Islam and pre-Islamic Arab traders had settlements in the ports of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was the emporium of trade, the collecting and distributing centre where distant mariners and those from neighbouring India could exchange their wares. Chinese ships sailed into Sri Lankan ports with rich cargoes of silk and ceramics, while Persians brought merchandise from the west. This is proved by archaeological and numismatic sources. The emergence of Islam added a fresh dynamism to the commercial activities of the Arabs. By about the tenth century there were Arab trading communities well established in Sri Lanka, specially in the island’s coastal towns enjoying the favour of the rulers and maintaining cordial relations with the local inhabitants. Sri Lanka is mentioned several times as Serendib in the oldest work of Arab show that there were commercial as well as cultural relations between Sri Lanka and Arab world. It is seen that Sri Lanka rulers were keen to cultivate the goodwill of the Islamic world since this was essential for the continuance of commercial pursuits. By the 9th and 10th centuries sizeable Muslim coastal settlements had emerged along the coastal towns. Special mention should be made of Mantota (Mahatitha – modern Mantai) which was the chief port of the Anuradhapura Kingdom and there was a highway connecting it to the Capital.


That Sri Lanka benefited immensely from this trade is evident from the observations of Sir A. Johnstone: “The Arab trade was vital for the country’s economy and the surplus wealth necessary for the maintenance of magnificent and crowded monasteries and also the stupendous irrigational system came from this source”.


Although there is no evidence  of large scale Muslim settlements in the interior of the island, yet from the 9th to 14th centuries Sabaragamuwa provided a dual attraction to the traders and pilgrims, for apart from the fact that precious stones were plentiful in this area. Adam’s peak had become the focus of pilgrims who considered Adam as their forefather.


By the 12th and 13th centuries the Muslims had established a network of agents and sub agents so as to collect all the marketable produce in the island of export from Trincomalee, rice and indigo from the East Coast, from Jaffna the Chaya root, black palmyra wood for rafters and chalk shells for ceremonial purposes in temples, from Kudiramalai pearls, from Puttalam arecanut and betel leaves, satin and calamander wood. From Colombo cinnamon and precious stones, from Beruwala coconut and coir and from Galle ivory and elephants.


Till the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505, there were scattered communities of Muslims wielding influence in their places of residence in the coast. They had won the confidence of the rulers who were beholden to them in many ways. They supplied the court and nobles with foreign luxuries  and gave the best of price for the country’s produce while the custom duty they paid enriched the Treasury. Hence they were given considerable freedom in the management of their own affairs, Trade Tribunals and marriage laws. Two factors favoured the relationships. No political ambitions and large scale proselytization.


The Muslims with their traditional business acumen, international contacts and navigational skills supplemented the needs of a peasant society.


This peaceful scenario was completely disturbed with the coming of the Portuguese in the sphere of religion, politics and commerce, the Muslims were their bitterest enemies. The Portuguese expelled the Muslims from Colombo and forbade the worship of any other religion.


The result was that the Muslims who were a coastal trading company were gradually drawn into the Kandyan Kingdom where they could practice their religion and they were welcomed by the Kandyan Kings. As traders they strengthened the economy and they were the ears and eyes of the Kings of Kandy.


Muslims served the King as envoys. Thanapathi Mudiyanselage Gedera Uduma Lebbe son of Maula Muhandiram was sent by the Kandyan King to Muhammed Ali, Nawab of the Carnatic to negotiate for British help. Maula Muhandiram was sent to Madras to look for military help against the Dutch. Dutch reports that the Muslims are corrupting the King of Kandy. A land grant in the British Museum reveals the fact that the King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe sent his favourite physician Gopala Mudaliyar to Pondichery to solicit French help against the Dutch. Al-Haj Abu Uthman was sent to the court of Egypt in the 13th century to negotiate trade relations.


Although it is generally believed that the Muslims were versed in the art of trading there were other areas in which they excelled, one of which was medicine. Certain Sri Lankan Muslim families had distinguished physicians among their members, who rose to pre-eminence in the professions. Those Hakeems as they were called traced their ancestry to Arab migrants who came in the 13th and 14th centuries, bringing with them the Medical and Scientific knowledge prevalent in centres of Islamic learning in the West. The Unani system of Medicine which they practiced was prevalent from ancient times. The most renowned among the Medical Practitioners were the Gopala Moors of Gatakeriya in the Kegalle District, the Gopala Moors of Galaberiya have remained staunch supporters of Sinhala Royalty serving not only as physicians but also as Counsellors and Generals. Their descendents are still known as Baythge Udayar Nilames. The head of the King’s Baythge was the Baythge Muhandiram and one of them was Vaidyathilaka Rajakaruna Gopala Mudaliyar. It was one of the Baythge Muhandirams who saved the King’s life when his Nobles plotted against him by divulging the plot. One of them functioned as Judge of the High Court in the time of the last King of Kandy.


Contribution to education – the arrival of Orabi Pasha


The charisma of Orabi Pasha, the energy and organising ability of Siddi Lebbe and the wealth of Wapuchi Marikkar, philanthropist, all combined to give birth to the Boys’ school which later blossomed into Zahira imparting modern education in an Islamic environment. Closely related to the educational revival was the appearance of newspapers and journals specifically catering to the Muslim reading public. The first Muslim controlled paper in English was “Ceylon Muhammedan” in 1900 which wrote on subjects of special interest to Muslims and published themes on Muslims abroad.

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