A.M.A. Azeez was born on October 4, 1911, into a distinguished family from Jaffna. He received his early education in leading Hindu schools and in later years, Azeez would gratefully acknowledge that he was deeply indebted to these institutions, Vaidyeshwara Vidyalaya and Jaffna Hindu College, for his sound and deep knowledge and understanding of Hinduism and Tamil.
This background helped him to cultivate a tolerant attitude towards different religions in his life and work.
Azeez entered the Ceylon University College in 1929 having earned the enviable distinction of an Exhibitioner in History. In 1933, he was awarded the Ceylon Government Arts Scholarship because of his outstanding performance in undergraduate studies. Azeez then entered St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, to pursue advanced studies in History.
However, when he gained the coveted distinction of being the first Muslim to enter the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service in 1935, he returned to the Island. Afterwards, he held such posts as Assistant Government Agent in Kalmunai in the Eastern Province, the responsible and high position as Administrative Secretary of the Medical Department, and finally as Information Officer. Azeez retired prematurely from the public service in 1948 to serve his community and country.
While he was in the public service, especially at Kalmunai, he noticed that the Muslims were lagging behind others in education. Therefore, throughout his life, Azeez would emphatically exhort his fellow Muslims to seek learning and literacy; and the furtherance of education became his mission.
He functioned as the principal of the leading Muslim educational institution in the country, Zahira College, Colombo, for thirteen years. He successfully guided the destinies of this college during the post-independence years when owing to the changes and innovations that were then being introduced, the schools had to go through a period of severe stress and strain.
At the beginning of his new career, Azeez had to contend with the challenges that were posed to many of the educational institutions following the introduction of a scheme of free education. Towards the latter part of his principalship he had to cope with the demands made on school administrators following the switch-over from education in English to Swabhasha.
During his stewardship, Azeez built up the standards of education and discipline in Zahira College, and many fondly remember him today as a principal of a school rather than as one who had been an exemplary and efficient administrator in the public service.
Azeez had an avid interest in academic work and contributed several articles that were published both locally and abroad. An interesting research contribution made by him was presented at the first international conference-seminar on Tamil studies held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in April 1966.
Before this, he had already brought out another publication in 1964, “The West Reappraised”. This volume contained a collection of essays on diverse subjects. He has discussed Anagarika Dharmapala, Arumuga Navalar, Mahatma Gandhi and Mohamed Ali Jinnah among others. It is reliably informative and also affords an insight into the interests that Azeez had.
Of special interest and value are his lucid discussions on Orabi Pasha and M.C. Siddi Lebbe and their roles in a renaissance among the Muslims, while his studies of Pan-Islam and Allama Iqbal are equally fascinating to a reader.
Azeez, despite a busy and demanding life, contributed substantially as a writer on Islamic subjects of which the people in Sri Lanka then knew little. He gave a brief but clear exposition of the religion and its position in the Island in his Islam in Ceylon published in the Voice of Islam in Karachi, Pakistan. Moreover Azeez had gathered together in three volumes (in typescript) a number of learned articles written by him on the Muslims of Sri Lanka, their pursuits and contributions.
He deals in these studies with the period 1938-1955 and one is struck by the cogent and concise way in which Azeez had presented to us the results of his diligent scrutiny and solid scholarship.
Recognition naturally followed, Azeez was awarded the illustrious Sahithiya Award for Islam in Sri Lanka (written in Tamil) and the distinctive honour of a Doctorate at the first convocation of the University of Jaffna.
Similarly, Azeez wrote in the Encyclopaedia of Islam in 1965 a vivid outline of the Muslims. A particularly valuable piece of historical scholarship is his concise recapitulation of the Muslim Laws that had been used in Sri Lanka from 1806 to 1956. The graphic account given by Azeez of the Muslim Tradition in Education in Ceylon: A Centenary Volume retells the story of Muslims and education in Sri Lanka. In the context of today, the incisive analysis made by Azeez that he presented to the Majlis at the University of Peradeniya (published in 1959-60) of Problems of Minorities with Reference to Ceylon, is worth reading. Azeez points out that through a policy of cultural co-existence, two cultures could flourish side by side without one being subordinated to the other.
Of the many useful contributions which Azeez had made in the progress of Muslim education, special mention should be made of the provision he outlined in May 1945, for educating the poorer Muslim children who could pursue primary, secondary, higher, university, religious and vocational learning. This beneficial scheme (Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund) that was commenced under the inspiration of Azeez endured, and many Muslims profited much by it. To him education appeared to be the basis on which the advancement of Muslims lay; and it was no surprise that he gave great attention to the growth of education in Muslim society.
Along with this scheme designed for the needy, Azeez founded the Alumni Association of Zahira College, Colombo, in Pakistan. He wanted to draw upon the resources of the old students in that country and in the Island to improve the state of Zahira College. In various ways Azeez reinforced the idea of an Islamic community among those who had attended the school, to get them to contribute their services to improve the lot of the less privileged Muslims which was a noble task indeed.
Azeez lived a full life. He entered national politics through the United National Party, of which, owing to his singular abilities and experience he became a member of the Working Committee in 1952, His contribution to the Muslim community and to national public life was acknowledged when he was appointed to the Senate in the Parliament of Ceylon in 1952.
Already because of his prominent services to education and culture, Azeez had been chosen as a member of the Court, Council and Senate of the University of Ceylon for over ten years. His contributions to the higher bodies of the university and later in parliament, were sober, eminently acceptable, and well appreciated.
In 1956, he disagreed with the leadership of the United National Party over the Official Language Bill as the rights of the minorities were not being recognized, and quit the party. Azeez demonstrated the rare quality of statesmanship which is now notoriously lacking in public life.
However, the invaluable services of Azeez to public life did not end with this role in politics; he was appointed as member of the Public Service Commission, where he served his country admirably by rendering yeoman service in that august body.
Azeez will be remembered in history as a sound scholar, an able administrator, an eminent educationist and, above all, as a man of unquestionable integrity and deep faith in Islam. Yet, he was modest and self effacing, and by nature he was a genial and pleasant person, a gentleman of rare calibre. His life and deeds should serve as an example to present day personalities of any community.
Above all, Jaffna can be justly proud in having produced and nursed such a distinguished public personality, but today, it has also to be unfortunately apologetic about what happened to the Muslim community that had enriched the society in the peninsula. Azeez transcened the narrow confines of a community to end up as an eminent national figure.

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