A.M.A. Azeez, a reputed Sri Lankan Muslim intellectual was born in Vannarponnai, Jaffna on 4th October 1911. He received his primary and secondary education in two leading Hindu schools in Jaffna and his BA degree in History from the Ceylon University College in 1933. He joined the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service in 1935 as the first Muslim civil servant and worked in various administrative positions in different parts of the country for 13 years.He resigned from the Civil Service in 1948 to undertake the responsibility to serve as the Principal and to develop the Colombo Zahira College. He established the Colombo Zahira as one of the leading schools in the country during his period of more than a decade. He was also appointed as a Senator in1952 and his speeches at the Senate are witnessing his genuine concern about the betterment of his country and its people. He was very much respected by both Muslims and Tamils and also by the Sinhalese for his services to the communities and to the nation.


SusilSirivardana correctly portrays Azeez as an ‘Iconic Nation Builder’ as his thinking and activities were to promote our country as a multi ethnic, multi religious and a multi lingual nation. He had plenty of opportunities to work closely with other community leaders, intellectuals and professionals to promote social integration.

Azeez was a social critic and a critical thinker but he never had been an antagonist. I consider Azeez as one of the makers of Sri Lankan Muslim mind. After SiddiLebbe, he was the most influential intellectual that the Muslim community ever produced. He was more modern than any of the Muslim leaders of his time not in appearance but in thinking and action. He tried to meaningfully integrate modernity with tradition. He was a realist, a pragmatist and a rational thinker who wanted his community to be continuously in progress.

He thought that modern education is the only tool for the progress and upward social mobility of the Muslim community from its backwardness. When he was in Kalmunaias Assistant Government Agent, he established the Kalmunai Muslim Education Society in 1942 and later he formed the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund in 1945 that helped thousands of needy Muslim students to pursue higher education and still continues to serve.

Azeez also thought that choosing a proper language for education is essential for the advancement and integration of the Muslim community. He has extensively written and spoken on the subject of language and education of Sri Lankan Muslims, continuously for more than three decades from the early 1940s. Even after forty six years of his demise in 1973, I think, most of his writing on this subject are still relevant to the Muslims, as they could not overcome the dilemma of language and education that they have been experiencing for the last hundred years.

Language and education are inherently related. We receive our education and accumulate our knowledge through a language. Language is closely related to the socio-cultural and political life of a community. Education is an important indicator of the social and cultural advancement of a community as a whole. It equips peoples to solve their problems and to lead a better life. Azeez’s contributions in the field of language and education are immense.

Sri Lankan Muslims, who have at least a thousand years of continuous history in this country,speak Tamil not only in the North and East but also in the isolated villages surrounded by predominantly Sinhala speakers in the South. However, the Colombo based Sri Lankan Muslim elite have been more reluctant to accept Tamil as their mother tongue from the late 19th century obviously for political reasons. They wanted to assert their separate ethnic identity in order to differentiate themselves from the Sri Lankan Tamils whose mother tongue is also Tamil. Therefore some of the Muslim elitespropagated to adopt Arabic as their Mother tongue, while some of them advocated for Sinhala or English.


However, A.M.A. Azeez vehemently argued for Tamil as the mother tongue of the Sri Lankan Muslims. He wrote an article in 1941 on the subject entitled “The Ceylon Muslims and the Mother Tongue: Claims for the Tamil Language.”


He defines mother tongue as “the language in which the mother speaks to the child….the language in which the wife and husband address each other and both of them talk to their children”, and he adds, “Ordinarily there should be in a community no doubt as to what its mother tongue is. But in the case of the Ceylon Moors, confusion in some quarters has arisen as a result of many of the Moors being bilingual and some of them being dissatisfied with the present position and wanting to go after a new mother tongue….some are tempted to advocate Arabic as their future mother tongue and others Sinhalese and still others English. These advocates do not, however, come from the Northern or Eastern parts of Ceylon where no doubt of any kind is entertained as regards to the future status of Tamil.”


He also says that “it is unfortunate that there should be some amount of doubt and confusion in a vital matter of this nature with which the cultural and educational future of this community is inextricably involved.”  And he goes on to say, “To answer to the question, what is the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors, should not be difficult. It is certainly Tamil. The Moors who occupy the Northern and Eastern parts of Ceylon speak no other language. If any of them know another language it is in addition to Tamil, and not in place of it. The Moors occupying the remaining portions of Ceylon speak both Tamil and Sinhalese, and a good number of the male members are equally fluent in both languages. But even in these parts no Ceylon Moor is found whether male or female, who cannot speak Tamil. And all of them use Tamil as their home language. Broadly speaking, the women in these parts are less fluent in Sinhalese than the men. This is a clear indication that Tamil is the mother tongue of the Moors.”He was not supportive of the idea of switching over to another language.


At this point it is appropriate to focus on the problems of medium of education of the Muslims. Although nearly 75% of the Muslim students learn in Tamil medium, there is a growing tendency among the Southern Muslims to switch over to Sinhala as the medium of instruction during the last few decades for various reasons and at present nearly 25% of the Muslim students are in Sinhala medium. It is also an indication of a shift in their mother tongue, leading to divide the community into two linguistic groups namely Tamil speaking and Sinhala speaking that was anticipated by Azeez as far back as in 1941. Azeez continuously argued that Tamil should be the mother tongue and the medium of education of Sri Lankan Muslims. However, history takes us in its own path against the will and wishes of individuals. After fifty years of gradual shift in the medium of education, now we have a Sinhala speaking younger generation within the Muslim community and we can anticipate a clear linguistic division after another fifty years.Sri Lankan Muslims are the victims of their population distribution and their sociolinguistic conditions determine their choice of language.


The contribution of Azeez in establishing Muslim identity as against Moor identityis also veryimportant in the history of Muslims in modern Sri Lanka, although Azeez himself  was using the term ‘Moors’ in his earlier writings.The word ‘Moor’ is supposed to be of Phoenician origin and was borrowed by Europeans to denote the Muslims of mixed Arab origin found in Western Spain and in North Africa. The ‘Moor’ identity, a colonial invention, was imposed upon the Muslim community by the colonial rulers, first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch and the British. During the British period the word gained currency and was widely used in colonial administration and the other domains. A section of the Colombo based Muslim elite adopted this word and persistently used it to refer to the Muslim community to serve its own class interest during the colonial period and also after independence, in order to differentiate themselves from the Indian Muslims and Malays.


It was this elitist group who formed the Moors Union in 1900 in the process of consolidating their ethnic identity. I. L. M. Abdul Azeez was the founder president of the Union. Later in the early 1920s they established the All Ceylon Moors’ Association and in the early 1940s Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home to promote the Moor identity.


However, there was another group of Muslims who did not want the Moorish identity. Instead they preferred an all-inclusive Muslim identity and formed an organization called All Ceylon Muslim League, which was earlier known as Young Muslim League. They wanted to refer to themselves as Muslims and not as Moors. The Malays and the Coast Moors were able to align under this Muslim Identity label.


In the 1940s and even in the ‘50s, Sir RazikFareed was the leading proponent of the Moor identity. He was the longtime chairman of All Ceylon Moors’ Association and he was the founder of the Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home in 1944. When D.S. Senanayake , the first prime minister in 1949 proposed to replace the term ‘Moor’ with ‘Muslim’ in the electoral register, RazikFareed opposed it as a threat to their racial identity.


The Moor-Muslim controversy continued for decades within the Muslim elite.A.M.A. Azeez, a strong proponent of the Muslim identity argued against the protagonist of the Moor identity in 1949, when he spoke as the chairman of the inauguration of the Ceylonese Muslim Union. About five hundred representatives from all parts of the Island participated at the inauguration. The Union seems to have been formed mainly to unite the Muslims under inclusive religious identity as against RazikFareed’s move to promote the Moor identity in the late 1940s. Azeez strongly argued against the use of the term ‘Moor’ to denote Muslims and said that “We lose nothing by calling ourselves Ceylon Muslims instead of Ceylon Moors; on the other hand we gain appreciably by refusing to permit the dethronement of religion and the introduction of racialism in our community.” After independence, the Muslims gradually dropped the word Moor to refer to themselves. Now the term exists only in some official documents, already established institutions like All Ceylon Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home, street name – Old/New Moor Street and in some academic writings on Sri Lankan Muslims.


A.M.A.Azeezwho passed away on 24th November 1973, was honored posthumously awarding him honorary D.Lit. for his intellectual contribution by the University of Jaffna in 1980. He gave a strong intellectual leadership to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka for more than three decades from the early 1940s and he will be remembered forever.


(Dr, M,A, Nuhman, who hails from Kalmunai, is a retired Professor of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya. He is a leading academic well known in Sri Lanka and abroad. He has published many books in Tamil and English apart from a large number of articles and poems in various journals and magazines).


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