by Saleem Marsoof, PC, Additional Solicitor General  – Island Monday 30 Dec 2002

Extracts from the Marhoom Dr. A. M. A. Azeez Memorial Oration delivered at the Mahaweli Centre auditorium on 10th December, 2002 on the invitation of the Dr. A. M. A. Azeez Foundation and the All Ceylon YMMA Conference.

Marhoom Senator Abubakkar Muhammad Abdul Azeez, better known as A. M. A. Azeez, was an illustrious son of our soil who is worthy of emulation.

He was born on 4th October, 1911 into a fairly well to do family in Jaffna. His father, Janab. Abubakkar, was a leading lawyer who also served the community as a Quazi. It will be recalled that Janab. Abubakkar entered the political arena as a Member of the Jaffna Urban Council, which Council he also served with distinction as Vice Chairman, and was at the time of his demise in 1946, the President of the all Ceylon Muslim League, in fact the first ever Muslim resident out side Colombo to hold this important position.

Like most other Muslim children of that era, Marhoom Azeez began schooling in an Arabic Tamil school, but after 3 years of this he changed over to Vaithiswara College where he spent two fruitful years. He then joined Jaffna Hindu College with a view of mastering Science and Latin, which he thought would stand in good stead when he eventually entered an institution of higher learning. Marhoom Dr. Azeez was a brilliant student whose progress in school was propelled by double promotions and the like, resulting in him being underage to enter the university when he did qualify for admission.

He entered the Ceylon University College in 1929 where he was an exhibitioner in history. He graduated in 1933 winning the Ceylon Government Arts Scholarship, and proceeded to St. Catherine's College, Cambridge for further studies in history. His stay in Cambridge was short-lived as he decided to return to the island after only one term at St. Catherine, when he was informed of his success at the Ceylon Civil Service Examination. He departed from an academic career of singular distinction and even more promise to become the first ever Muslim to enter the Ceylon Civil Service. This no doubt was the beginning of his extremely service minded, exemplary and selfless public life, which can serve as a model to any contemporary social worker, public officer or politician.

Although it is difficult to divide the life of any individual into strict compartments, the public life of Marhoom Dr. Azeez lends itself into a three-fold classification, namely of Civil Servant, Muslim educationist and politician. What is remarkable is that in each of these successive but sometimes overlapping roles, Dr. Aziz exhibited his concern and commitment for the welfare of the Muslim community and a willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for the cause of his people and nation. He also believed in one Ceylon, for all her people.

The first thirteen years of his public life commencing in the year 1935 portrays him as a devoted, hardworking and enthusiastic public servant in the Ceylon Civil Service. He held many responsible positions ranging from Information Officer, Administrative Secretary and Emergency Government Agent, which gave him ample opportunity to interact with the Muslims all over the Island, and in particular in the Eastern Province where he held the post of Emergency assistant Government Agent. During his tenure of office in the East, he was able to study, analyze and assess the problems of the Muslims of that region, and he will be long remembered for his dedicated service he rendered to the people of the Eastern Province.

Even during his stewardship in the Ceylon Civil Service, Marhoom Azeez showed a great deal of interest in Muslim education and scholarship, pioneering in 1938, the Muslim Scholarship Loan Fund, which was the forerunner of the Muslim Scholarship Fund established by him in 1945. As he stated in the course of his presidential address at the Muslim Educational Conference organized by the educational branch of the all ceylon Muslim League held in Kalmunai in May 1949, his position as AGA (Emergency) in the Eastern Province helped him to come into intimate contact with the people of Kalmunai. To quote the words of Marhoom Azeez: "….. it was in this area that I became fully aware of the importance of education. I realized that education, and education alone, is that master key that could unlock all the doors to progress and in any social programme of the Muslims the first and foremost place should definitely and distinctly be given to education."

It was probably this line of thinking that persuaded Marhoom Dr. Azeez to take over as the Principal of Zahira College from his illustrious predecessor Marhoom Dr. T. B. Jayah in the year 1948. This was indeed a great sacrifice, as Dr. Azeez was at that time steadily heading towards the pinnacle and plums of public service, which he opted to give up though he was not even an old boy of Zahira.

As Hon. H. H. Basnayake, Attorney General of Sri Lanka who later became the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, when he presided over the prize giving at Zahira College, Colombo in 1955 commented:-

"Two names loom large in the history of Zahira College. They are Jayah and Azeez. In the era of Jayah, Zahira emerged from childhood to youth. In the era of Azees it passed from youth to manhood."

The Jayah-Azeez period, also called the 'Golden-era of Zahira' witnessed the blossoming of may a brilliant product that made enormous contributions for the development of this nation in various fields. They came from all communities and races of this country, not just Muslims. Under the Leadership of Azeez, Zahira became one of the best schools in the Island. Zahira flourished in education, sports and other extracurricular activities and good number of children entered university from there.

Like his illustrious predecessor Dr. Jayah, Dr. Azeez put a great deal of emphasis on the indivisibility of spiritual and material education. As Dr. Aziz himself has explained.:

"In this context, learning was always Qur'an-centred: that indeed is the special feature of the Muslim tradition. The Holy Qur'an occupies a place in Islam that finds no parallel in other religions of the world; for, to the Muslims the Holy Qur'an is not a mere book of religious maxims or a collection of devotional hymns; nor is it of human or prophetic origin; instead it is a code of life laying down the correct pattern of conduct. It is the Word of God revealed to His last Prophet. Eduction in Islam therefore begins and ends with the Holy Qur'an. All branches of knowledge, whether strictly theological or broadly scientific, thus derive their inspiration from the Holy Qur'an."

Dr. Aziz made every endeavour to provide technical education to the students and in fact made use of an offer by the Education Department to grant an interest free loan of Rs. 80,000 in 1956 which was utilized for putting up a building for practical education.

Being an erudite Tamil scholar, Dr. Aziz also commenced parallel classes in Tamil in 1949 beginning with a Tamil Lower Kindergarten.

While being Principal, he established the 'Thamil Sangamam' together with the likes of Professor Sivathamby and Professor Sivagurunathan, both eminent scholars and distinguished old boys of Zahira. Marhoom Azeez was widely responsible for nurturing the Tamil Language and published many important titles in Tamil. One of his many acclaimed books, 'Ilangaiil Islam' (Islam in Sri Lanka) won the Ceylon Sathiya Academy award in the 1960s.

His English publication 'The West Appraised' (1964) provides valuable insights into the contribution of freedom fighters of Sri Lanka and India such as Anagarika Dharmapala, Dr. W. A. de Silva, Arumuga Navalar, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, Seyyed Ahemd Khan (founder of Alighar University India), Orabi Pasha, M. C. Siddhi Lebbe and many others. A. M. A. Azeez was in fact a great thinker, reformer and prominent educationist. His works and thoughts bear comparison to the great Islamists of the late 19th Century such as Moulana Jalaludeen Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Allama Iqbal. It was in fact Azeez who introduced the works of Iqbal to the Ceylonese and established the 'Iqbal Institute' at Zahira College. The Islamic College 'Jamiah Naleemiyyah' of Beruwala, which has produced many Islamic Scholars was a brainchild of Azeez. The great Muslim Philanthropist Naleem Hajiar who has donated immensely for the devolvement of Zahira including construction of the magnificent hostel building, made Azeez's dream a reality. In the field of education Dr. Azeez also stressed the importance of English education for Muslim students.

The goal of Dr. Aziz was to make Zahira the radiating centre of Muslim thought and activity. With a view of realizing this dream, he activated the Muslim Scholarship Fund, established Old Boys Associations in Karachi and other capital cities, streamlined the administration of the school and attracted the support of wealthy and educated Muslims of enhancing the content and quality of education and sports at Zahira. Sometimes Dr. Azeez had to adopt strong arm tactics to meet challenges arising from the foolishness of parents and greed of others having vested interests in Zahira which often manifested itself in unruly behaviour and violence. Marhoom Azeez was so successful that the number of Zahirians gaining admission to the universities increased rapidly during the Azeez era from almost zero in the early 1950s to 11 in 1958, 14 in 1959 and 15 each in 1960 and 1961, at a time when the country's student population was far less than what it is now and university admissions were countered in hundreds and not thousands. Zahirians also excelled in sports such as Cricket, Soccer, Rugby Football, Boxing, Shooting and Cadetting and were dreaded by mighty opponents such as Royal, Trinity and S. Thomas'. In 1956 M. H. Ameen won the coveted Queens Cup for Best Marksman of all ages, and in Cricket, Zahira amassed the highest score for the season – 536 runs for 2 wickets. The very next year Zahira became Schools Champions in Soccer, which is a trend that continues to this day.

Let me now turn to what I consider the most important facet of Marhoom Azeez's illustrious career, his political life. It is here that one encounters a statesman of the highest order who was lost to our community due to its lack of vision. With the establishment of the YMMA conference, Dr. Azeez began to play a significant role in the political arena of Ceylon. He joined the United National Party, and in 1952 was elected into the working committee of the party. He was also appointed into the Upper House of Parliament, better known as the Senate, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister late Dudley Senanayake.

It was while he was a Senator that the Official Language Bill was presented to the Parliament. The decision of the UNP to support the 'Sinhala only' policy at a UNP Parliamentary meeting was vehemently opposed by Senator Azeez. Not only was he vociferous in his dissent to it, but he went a step further and resigned from the party which he loyally served. He endorsed the thinking of the late Dr. Colvin R. De Silva that the recognition of both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages will preserve Ceylon as one nation, whereas the adoption of Sinhala only will create two nations. Senator Azeez's main misgiving in regard to the 'Official Language Bill' was that, he thought that it posed a challenge to the separate identity of the Muslims as an ethnic group distinct from the Tamils, which the Muslims had been trying to preserve even during the pre-independence period. He also foresaw the division of our community into Tamil speaking and Sinhala speaking Units. In his own words,

" ….. the abandonment of Tamil by the Muslims of the South and Central Ceylon would almost cut them off from the Muslims of the East and North Ceylon; ….. would deny them the benefits of the Muslim-Tamil literature produced in South India; ….. would make it difficult for the theological institutions in Ceylon to function effectively ….. (but) ….. Sinhalese cannot also be neglected in the present context of affairs in Ceylon ….. and the abandonment of Tamil would definitely destroy the solidarity of the community and considerably weaken its political power."

Unfortunately the events that unfolded after 1956 have proved the predictions of Senator Azeez to be very prophetic indeed. Not only did the implementation of the Official Languages act cause the two major communities of our country to drift far apart, it also has resulted in a deadly civil war bringing with it utter misery and hardships to the people of this country, some of whom are still refugees in and out of the country.

As far as the Muslims are concerned, the emergence of the Muslim Congress with its power base in the east has brought into focus the sharp differences in the aspirations of the Muslims of the Northeast vis-a-vis their brethren living in the rest of the country. Ironically, the present leader of the Muslim Congress, who himself hails from outside the Northeast, has the responsibility of reconciling these apparently contradictory needs and aspirations, and going through the peace negotiations with a sense of balance which will avoid any kind of future disharmony between these two units of our community. Mercifully, our present leaders, who have had the benefit of the wisdom of the hindsight, have come to the realization that Marhoom Senator Azeez was right after all, and his resignation from the party and the Senate was not in vain.

I conclude my address on this Founders Day praying to Almighty that Marhoom Senator Azeez be rewarded in the hereafter for his great service to the cause of Islam and the Muslims of Sri lanka, and may he and all those great men we commemorate on this Founders Day attain Jannathul Firdows.

I am deeply grateful to the President and members of the Dr. A. M. A.  Azeez Foundation and President and other office bearers of the All Ceylon YMMA Conference, for inviting me to participate in today's function, and I also thank Almighty Allah for giving me this opportunity.


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