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. His life provides stimulating examples of challenges and successes in varied areas of human development. I will have occasion to refer to his notable achievements in the subsequent paragraphs. Before doing so I must refer to the beautiful story of how I came into contact with him and how he became an ardent sponsor and supporter of my educational journey.
My association with Senator Azeez deserves to be written in gold. I was 16-years old when I first came to know him. I studied at Jaffna Hindu College (JHC) where I did my primary and secondary schooling. 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 so as to enable him to pontificate on the teachings of this great saint at popular seminars. 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, where he proved to be a brilliant student. He was proud of these schools and with the guidance and training received under distinguished teachers he excelled in Tamil and Hinduism. He had this to say about his days at Vaidyeshwara, “I now feel thrice-blessed that I did go to Vidyalayam and nowhere else. My period of stay, February 1921 to June 1923, though pretty short quantitatively was extremely long qualitatively. It was at Vidyalayam that I became first aquainted with the devotional hymns of exquisite beauty and exceeding piety for which Tamil is so famed through the ages and throughout the world”.
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. Being the only son he wanted me to pursue my higher studies without interruption. Soon after I joined the JHC hostel I was elected as the secretary of the HSC Hostel Union because of my long connections with the school from 1943.
In that capacity I invited Senator Azeez as the Chief Guest for our annual hostel union dinner in 1952. It has been the practice of the HSC hostel union to invite distinguished old boys of JHC to officiate as chief guests. It is interesting that I was able to find a copy of the invitation for the dinner in one of my personal folders safely locked away with cherished documents pertinent to my educational and professional career – I discovered this by chance when searching for documents after I received a request from Ali Azeez, the illustrious son of a great father, to write about my association with Senator Azeez.
Senator Azeez readily agreed and came and conquered! 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. Taken aback at this sudden and unexpected proposition 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 and asked me to arrange a meeting with him. I agreed and introduced my father to him. He spoke to him in excellent Tamil and 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.
My father was taken aback but finally agreed because he was unable to resist his request. This brought me to Colombo Zahira College where I did my HSC and entered Peradeniya university as a direct entrant; during those days there was a two-tier entry procedure for university admission-students who did well were granted direct entry without going through a viva voce and those who performed at medium level were subjected to a viva voce process. Senator Azeez was extremely pleased at my performance and made special mention of it at the school assembly.
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 (CCS) 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. In March 1960 I was selected as one of the eight successful CCS candidates. It is difficult to express in words the satisfaction and happiness that Senator Azeez displayed on hearing his college student’s achievement. He organised a special school assembly and congratulated me in the presence of all his staff and the entire student community. It is rarely that you find such a dedicated, adorable and affectionate humanist and educationist.
I have often wondered how fortunate I was in having known and associated with such a wonderful human being who displayed so much empathy, kindness and love. I am reminded of the great philosopher, scholar and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell who said, “The most valuable things in life are not measured in monetary terms. The really important things are not houses and lands, stocks and bonds, automobiles and real estate, but friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith”. Among others, Senator Azeez believed in cultivating good friendships and fostering love and trust among all communities in Sri Lanka.
In retrospect, the turning point in my life started with my shift to Zahira College leaving a reputed Hindu institution in Jaffna which had earned a name for high university admissions. This had kept me wondering why the events moved so fast in this direction and what the magnetic appeal that Senator Azeez had in converting me and my father to a life changing decision. To this day I cannot find an answer except to hypothesise that intellectual outlook, empathy and trust as stated by Bertrand Russell, as well as mesmerising approaches to human relationships, influence people, leaving an enduring impact on their lives.
My association with him continued till his death. His thirst for knowledge and interest and proficiency in both English and Tamil literature drew him closer to me. I had a special liking for him for his excellent knowledge of Jaffna Tamil customs and traditions. His spoken and written Tamil represented the pure Jaffna Tamil dialect which was the envy of even Tamil professors who considered him a scholar of high repute. His oratorical skills, whether in Tamil or English, attracted many followers. What was significant was his ability to articulate clearly and effectively his ideas and thoughts on important subjects in both English and Tamil.
I have had many discussions with him on selected subjects in both English and Tamil literature and Hinduism. Unbelievably his knowledge of Hinduism was thorough as he would recite Thiruvasagam like a Hindu. Late Sivagurunathan, (editor, Thinakaran), late Prof. Sivathamby (both past students of Zahira) and I used to visit his house at his request for various discourses and discussions on scholarly subjects. I vividly remember those days when he would meticulously argue his case for a certain position in literary criticism and expect all of us to agree with his stand. When we disagreed he would slowly mellow down and accept an agreed stand. While healthy debates went on, his lovely wife and children entertained us, not to mention the delicious ‘wattalappam’ served during Ramadan days! His scholarly approaches to analysing Islam, Arabic/Tamil religious literature and his contribution to Muslim culture were indeed exemplary.
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. Being the first Muslim civil servant he had before him a glorious future in the public service, but the call of duty to his community and more specifically, to their educational and cultural renaissance, propelled him to assume the leadership of Zahira College. This decision elevated him to the position of a community leader with intrinsic interest in uplifting their place in the larger multicultural society of Sri Lanka.
During the 13 years he served as Principal of Zahira, the College achieved significant elevation in educational standards and university admissions. One does not need additional proof to show his dedication and commitment to building up Zahira if one considers the circumstances under which he scouted for students of all communities based on their prospective educational accomplishments – my case is an example. He had the intuition, charisma and foresightedness to build a premier Muslim college which he in his later years wanted to transform into a cultural university-unfortunately this did not materialise due to petty jealousies and rivalry which always hinder progress in any society. Sir Razik Fareed, another great Muslim leader, had this to say, “I am personally aware that Azeez has done more for Zahira than any other single individual. He sacrificed his CCS job for the sake of the community and for the sake of Zahira”.
As Principal of Zahira, Senator Azeez’s leadership, following the successful tenure of Dr. T.B. Jayah, was unrivalled as he rode like a Colossus to make the College excel not only in education, but sports, including Rifle shooting, and other socio-cultural activities. The painstaking efforts he made to build a sound library was evident when I prepared for the university entrance and the CCS examinations. He built up a dedicated team of teachers and succeeded in sending over 150 students to the one and only university in Sri Lanka then. With such accomplishments it is no surprise that his period as principal was hailed as the golden era of Zahira.
Senator Azeez’s zeal for Muslim education took different paths. His multi-pronged attempts to lift the quality of education among Muslim children is borne out by the initiatives he took to establish the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund. The success achieved in building up this Fund for future generations, which is well documented, was a worthwhile and indispensable effort greatly appreciated by succeeding generations of Muslim children. He did not stop with this. He was instrumental in promoting and establishing Young Men’s Muslim Associations (YMMA) throughout the country.
Senator Azeez’s services were well recognised by the country, and even before the time of the first prime minister, D.S. Senanayake, he played a pivotal role in government’s development activities, including food production programs commenced during war times, public services and institution building. He was rewarded when he was nominated to the Senate where he served three terms and was subsequently appointed as a member of the Public Service Commission.
As a Tamil with no racial bias or cultural inhibitions, I am proud to state that Senator Azeez stood high and tall as a trusted statesman and an erudite scholar among all communities. While fostering education of the Muslims he encouraged the admission of children from other communities to Zahira. He was an enthusiastic sponsor, supporter and participant of Tamil and Muslim conferences to propagate the essence of key Tamil literary master pieces such as Thirukkural, Thiruvasagam, Kamabaramayanam, Purananuru and Silappadiharam, in the wide world of Tamil literature. His interest in Arabic-Tamil publications was somewhat unique as there were few in his time who had the knowledge and interest in this area. His interest in literary pursuits resulted in a number of publications which have been listed elsewhere.
Senator Azeez was a jewel of a human being. 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).