Remembering Senator Azeez on his 110th birthday- 4th October 2021- brings memories of a great Muslim visionary. He was a great intellectual, an able administrator, an erudite scholar and an accomplished educationist whose multiple services to the nation and to the Muslim community in particular, are well documented.
I must refer to the beautiful story of how I came into contact with him.
My association with Senator Azeez deserves to be written in gold. I was sixteen years old when I first came to know him. I studied at Jaffna Hindu College (JHC). Senator Azeez too was an old boy of this College. He was born in the same village as mine - Vannarponnai, Jaffna – the citadel of Arumuga Navalar, the beacon of Saivaism.
Being a resident of Vannarponnai, his knowledge and understanding of the teachings of Arumuga Navalar were unbelievably high. It is here he imbibed his excellent knowledge of Jaffna Tamil customs and key insights into Tamil cultural mores and traditions. Being a Jaffna Muslim of impeccable background and character it obviously came naturally to him.
Senator Azeez was educated at two reputed Hindu schools, Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and Jaffna Hindu College. He excelled in Tamil and Hinduism.
He entered the University College in 1929. He was an Exhibitioner in History and graduated with Honours in History from the University of London in 1933. On being awarded the Government Arts Scholarship, he went to Cambridge, but returned after a term on his success at the Ceylon Civil Service examination - the first Muslim recruit to the Civil Service.
My mother passed away in 1948 and my father who was everything to me then wanted me to join the Jaffna Hindu College Hostel after my Senior School Certificate (SSC) results to pursue Higher School Certificate (HSC) studies - this was largely aimed at weaning me away from grieving and depressing thoughts at home. Soon after I joined the JHC hostel I was elected as the secretary of the HSC Hostel Union. In that capacity I invited Senator Azeez as the Chief Guest for our annual hostel union dinner in 1952.
After the ceremonial speeches and address by the Chief Guest he called me to a side and asked whether I have relations in Colombo and if so why I should not join Zahira College to continue my HSC studies. I told him that my father would not be happy to be separated from his only son. He insisted that he would like to speak to my father. I introduced my father to him. He told him to send me to Zahira to complete the second year of HSC from where he thought I would be able to enter the university. This brought me to Zahira College where I did my HSC and entered Peradeniya University.
I completed my degree in 1959 and went to pay my respects to Senator Azeez. He asked me to join the College as a teacher. I told him that I would be sitting for the Ceylon Civil Service Examination and may require some free time. His response was amazing-he said that it would be great and encouraged me to teach while preparing for the examination.
The turning point in my life came with my shift to Zahira College.
My association with him continued till his death.
Senator Azeez was a remarkable human being who sacrificed the power, glory and fame associated with the then Ceylon Civil Service for uplifting the cause of Muslim education - this is unparalleled in Sri Lankan history.
During the 13 years he served as Principal of Zahira, the College achieved significant elevation in educational standards and university admissions.
He was instrumental in promoting and establishing Young Men’s Muslim Associations (YMMA) throughout the country.
He was an enthusiastic sponsor, supporter and participant of Tamil and Muslim conferences to propagate the essence of key Tamil literary master pieces.
I dedicate this piece to a great scholar and humanist who served as a great mentor, trusted friend, a close guide, and a well-wisher for several years until his untimely death in 1973. Cherished memories of him will live forever in the hearts and minds of all who loved him unreservedly.
(C. Narayanasuwami was a student and later a teacher at Zahira College during the Azeez era. He entered the University of Ceylon from Zahira and graduated in 1959. In 1960 he joined the Ceylon Civil Service and later worked for the UN and the Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines in senior capacities. He retired as a director level professional of the Asian Development Bank in 1996).