November 24th, 1991 is the eighteenth anniversary of the demise of Dr. A.M.A. Azeez – the first Muslim civil servant; a Principal of Zahira College, Colombo; educationist; scholar; founder of YMMA; Senator; social worker and visionary.
Born in Jaffna on 4th October, 1911 to a family where intellectual pursuits were encouraged, he was determined to follow an academic career. He started schooling at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and then proceeded to Jaffna Hindu College. He entered University College in 1929 and obtained an honours degree in History. He was awarded the Government Scholarship to follow post-graduate studies at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, but could not do so as he had been successful in the civil service examination – the first ever Muslim civil servant – and decided to return home and embark on an administrative career.
From 1936 Dr. Azeez served as A.G.A. in many districts, Matale was his first and Kandy was his last. Whilst working in many areas he collected all relevant information regarding the Muslims in these places – no doubt with the idea of helping them in the educational and economic spheres. It was at Kalmunai in the early forties while working as Assistant Government Agent in the Emergency Kachcheri during world war II, that he came face to face with the sad plight of the landless poor Muslims. That prompted him to devote his entire life for the upliftment of the community. Many acres of jungle land were alienated and given for cultivation. Today these lands are part of the granary of the East, and the memory of Azeez lives in ‘Azeez Kandam’ and in the hearts of grateful farmers.
At a later stage he was appointed Secretary to the late Dr. W.A. de Silva, the then Minister of Health in the State Council, while holding the post of Chief Administrative Secretary of the Department of Medical and Sanitary Services. It is well known that Dr. Azeez played a key role in the establishment of rural and cottage hospitals, which today form an important link in the health services network.
With a brilliant career and a bright future ahead in the civil service, one would wonder why Azeez suddenly gave it up and became Principal of Zahira College, Colombo. The answer is clear – he was always interested in the betterment of the Muslim community, which at this time was still backward educationally, economically and socially. He felt that the community “due to educational backwardness is handicapped not merely in the educational sphere but in all spheres of life and that any attempt to improve this situation must give priority A to education”.
With a sincerity of purpose and dedication to perfection, assisted by his intelligence and administrative skill, Azeez strove to make Zahira one of the finest public schools in Sri Lanka and the leading Muslim educational institution in the Island, which he achieved during his stewardship. Dedicated and highly qualified teachers of all communities joined hands in this task and Zahira was able to produce many scholars, professionals, sportsmen and businessmen. During this time Zahira excelled in studies and in the field of sports and in scouting and cadetting when students obtained high honours. This record of Zahira has yet to be surpassed. Azeez’s plans to establish a Cultural Centre and a Muslim Cultural University did not materialis.
Azeez’s contribution in the sphere of general education was equally outstanding. His attitude towards the education of Muslim girls was forward thinking. He found time to write numerous thought provoking articles relating to educational policies, Arabic-Tamil literature and Islam gained much recognition. His contributions to the Tamil language and literature saw the admiration of even renowned Tamil scholars. In 1973 when he inaugurated the Tamil Nadu Muslim Educational Conference at Madras, he was honoured with the ‘golden shawl’ in recognition of his services to education. In 1963 he won the Sahithiya Award for his book (in Tamil) “Islam in Ceylon”.
Education was not Dr. Azeez’s only concern. Formulating policies he felt was insufficient – education must be made available to those who wish it. He with other philanthropists established the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund, the objective of which “is to see that no Muslim scholar, capable and deserving in any part of the Island is deprived of the education he or she deserves for want of money”. An unique feature of this Fund is that the money is given as a loan to the student which he must pay back when he is in a position to do so. Numerous poor students benefited by this Fund are in very high positions today here and abroad – a tribute to the vision of A.M.A. Azeez.
As a social worker he felt that training in leadership was essential for youth if they were to stand alongside other communities in working for the progress of their country. Thus he founded the Young Men’s Muslim Association movement, its ideal “is to create a new generation of men worthy of the highest deeds to serve their country in every branch of modern life” (YMMA constitution). Today it has several branches in all parts of the country and trains young people in leadership in giving service to others and national integration.
Azeez was awarded the M.B.E. in recognition of his services to the community. In 1952 he was appointed to the Senate, and later in 1963 he was appointed as a member of the Public Service Commission. During this time he busied himself with helping in the establishment of Jamiah Naleemiah at Beruwela.
With all these achievements to his credit A.M.A. Azeez was always an unspoilt personality deeply religious. Glory and honour, publicity and fame meant little to him. Dedication and sincerity and happiness at having accomplished what he set out to achieve were what he considered important. What he has achieved indicate that the Muslim community can contribute immeasurably to the Nation’s well being and prosperity while maintaining its religious identity and preserving its cultural traditions.

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