This is the forty-fifth year since Aboobucker Mohamed Abdul Azeez passed away. With his demise Sri Lanka lost a patriot and the Muslim community a brilliant scholar and an eminent educationist.
Azeez is best remembered for his dedication to the development and prestige of Zahira College, Colombo - the premier educational institution of Sri Lankan Muslims. Between 1948, when he became the principal of Zahira, and 1961, when he left, Zahira not only produced successive batches of successful young men who entered the University of Ceylon and graduated as doctors, engineers, scientists and civil servants, but also became in Azeez’s own words, “the radiating centre of Muslim culture, thought and activities”. In short, those thirteen years mark the golden age of Zahira College.
He was responsible for the administration of Zahira, but to carry out the teaching activity, he had a special talent in recruiting the best staff available in the market
He was responsible for the administration of Zahira, but to carry out the teaching activity, he had a special talent in recruiting the best staff available in the market. In the upper school, which prepared students to enter the university, Azeez by being a member of the University Senate, had the first choice to pick the brightest of graduates passing out each year.
On Mondays, when he used to deliver his weekly address to Zahira students, one could see the galaxy of young graduate teachers standing behind him in a semicircle and digesting quietly Azeez’s outpouring intellectual gourmet. His forty minutes assembly address on Mondays gave the students a mixed dose of Islamic spiritualism and secular intellectualism. Being an avid reader himself Azeez was totally dedicated to build the best college library in Colombo at Zahira. This is without any doubt, one of the permanent legacies of Azeez’s principalship at Zahira.
Not many Muslim politicians understood at that time the long term ramifications of the switch from Tamil to Sinhalese as the medium of instruction in Muslim schools
In the field of education, the Muslim community was served by four leading personalities, whom I would call, the awesome foursome: M. C. Siddi Lebbe (1838-1898), Razik Fareed (1893-1984), Badiuddin Mahmud (1904-1997) and A. M. A. Azeez (1911-1973). Among them, Azeez’s contribution was unique in the sense that he focused entirely on producing a class of Muslim thinkers and intellectuals, like himself, who would not only master the English language but also acquire the voluminous knowledge produced in that medium particularly on Islam and Muslim civilization. He was aware of the flood of path-breaking thoughts and research on Islam that was coming out in Western languages, and especially in English. Azeez was an Iqbalian visionary and an admirer of Muslim leaders and educationists such as Sir Seyed Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Abul Kalam Azad. As such, he realised the crucial role that Zahira College had to play in sowing the seeds to germinate and bring forth a new generation of Muslim luminaries in Sri Lanka who would lead the community along a modernist path. To him, it was an uphill struggle given the then context of the local Muslim community which was buried in commercial pursuits and rigid religious conservatism that refused to entertain modernist thoughts on Islam and its civilization. This aspect of Azeez’s life is an unwritten chapter in any of his biographies. A critical analysis of his speeches and writings would bear witness to this argument.
With an Honours degree in history from the University of London and as the first local Muslim to successfully complete the Ceylon Civil Service Examination he started his service to his country as the Assistant Government Agent in Kalmunai in the Eastern Province between 1942 and 1944. The country was afflicted with war time shortages in food at that time. In the agricultural kill of the Karavakupattu Muslims, Azeez found the answer to solve at least part of the food problem. He took the liberty to issue land permits to those Muslims to bring barren crown lands under paddy cultivation. Even today Muslims of that area fondly remember the services of Azeez, and the area known still as “Azeez Thurai Kandam” is a silent testimony to his crucial role in turning that part of the country into the national rice-basket.
His friend Abdul Cader Lebbe convinced him through correspondence that it would be too damaging for Islamic culture in Sri Lanka if Tamil were to be sacrificed in the interest of political expediency
During his short spell in Kalmunai, he came into contact with two other personalities of whom, one, Poet Abdul Cader Lebbe, a teacher serving in the same region at that time, became Azeez’s lifelong ideological companion, schooled in Iqbal’s reconstruction of Islamic thought; and the other, Swami Vipulananda, a Hindu devotee and intellectual savant, drew Azeez further into the deep ocean of Tamil language and literature. Introduced already from a very young age by his sinna periappa (uncle) Asana Lebbe, and nurtured by the Tamil environment of Vannarpannai, the birth place of that great Tamil scholar Arumuga Navalar, Azeez’s thirst for scholarship in Tamil language and literature grew even more voracious. His love and affection to that language and its importance for the Muslim community to promote and protect it became evident when he argued against the Sinhala Only Bill in the Senate. In this, he was taking a contrary path to that of other Muslim leaders in the Parliament. His approach to the language issue went beyond political populism and into long term analysis of Islam’s future survival in Sri Lanka.
Not many Muslim politicians understood at that time the long term ramifications of the switch from Tamil to Sinhalese as the medium of instruction in Muslim schools. It is no exaggeration to register here that it was the intellectual arguments of Azeez and his lifelong friend Abdul Cader Lebbe that convinced even Minister Badiuddin Mahmud, who at that time was vehemently supporting that Bill.
Azeez’s contribution to Tamil and Tamil writing deserve separate research. In this respect, A. M. Nahiya’s publication, Azeez and Tamil, is a valuable contribution to the memory of this brilliant mind. In the field of literature, Azeez developed a nostalgic love toward Arabic-Tamil, a unique contribution by the Tamil-speaking Muslims to both Tamil and Arabic as well as to Islam. His essay, “Arapuththamil Enkal Anpuththamil” yearns for a revival of this somewhat ‘sacred’ dialect written in a modified Arabic script with a mixture of Tamil and Arabic vocabulary. For some time, he even wondered during the Official language controversy whether Arabic-Tamil should be an option to choose for Sri Lankan Muslims. His friend Abdul Cader Lebbe convinced him through correspondence that it would be too damaging for Islamic culture in Sri Lanka if Tamil were to be sacrificed in the interest of political expediency.
The Young Men’s Muslim Association (YMMA) and the Muslim Scholarship Fund associated with it are the twin products of Azeez and his poet friend. The idea of starting YMMA and providing financial assistance to poor but deserving Muslim students originated during their days in Kalmunai. Hundreds of bright students from different parts of the country benefited from this fund and became professionals and senior civil servants to serve their country. Surprisingly, the first YMMA branch was started in Badulla by his poet friend when he was transferred to the Muslim School there in 1943. It is an irony that the branch predated the head office in Colombo.
The solitary palmyrah palm that Azeez planted and nurtured at the entrance of his ‘Meadow Sweet’ home in Barnes Place, Colombo, constantly reminded visitors of his Jaffna heritage. Hailing from a very prestigious and highly educated family in Jaffna, Azeez was a proud product of Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and Jaffna Hindu College. His early education in a Hindu environment enabled him enormously to acquire not only an expertise in Tamil language but also great familiarity in Hindu philosophy and traditions. This explains why the University of Jaffna decided to award Azeez an honorary Doctorate of Letters posthumously at its first convocation in 1980.
Azeez was an institution and a walking encyclopaedia.
His thoughts and vision were far ahead of his time. The visionary who introduced Iqbal to Sri Lanka, the educationist who produced a whole generation of English educated Muslim specialists and professionals, the public servant who rendered yeoman service to the struggling Muslim farmers in the east, the author who won recognition in national and international writers forums, and the patriot whose dedication to his country was beyond party politics is no more with us.
It is a fitting tribute to this great intellectual and visionary that his name has been included in the 100 Great Muslim Leaders of the 20th Century, published by the Institute of Objective Studies in India. His demise was a great loss to his country and the intellectual space he has vacated will remain vacant for years to come.
(Dr. A.C.L. Ameer Ali hails from Kattankudy and is the son of the well known poet Abdul Cader Lebbe.
He was a student of Zahira College, Colombo during the Azeez era, and graduated with Honours in Economics from the University of Ceylon in 1964. He obtained an M.Phil. Degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Doctorate from University of Western Australia. He is a trained economist and has taught thousands of students in the University of Ceylon, the University of Brunei Darussalam, the University of Western Australia and Murdoch University.
His services were obtained by the South Eastern University, Sri Lanka as an academic adviser. He is now a senior academic in Murdoch University of Western Australia. He has published many research articles and presented papers at several international conferences. In Australia he is a leading personality in the Muslim community holding various positions.)