I consider it felicitous to be at this assembly, gathered to honour the memory of one who made a significant contribution to the educational upliftment of the Muslims of this country in recent times.  The image of Mr. Azeez is neither dim or distant to most of us present here, as in diverse ways we came under his sway and influence. As an educationist he kept ablaze the relentless struggle carried on before him of his intellectual forebears from Siddie Lebbe to T.B. Jayah. And he was never weary of acknowledging the services of those who preceded him in the field of Muslim education. Personally, most of us who came in contact with him were moved by his obvious sincerity and were caught up in educational, cultural and social activities relating to our community.  Much more than all these, he correctly oriented the Muslim elite and youth to grow in the amulence of an Islamic ethos in this baffling and abrasive world of entrancing material culture and non-transcendental humanist values of the Euro-centred  civilization. In other words he taught us how to live in this cosmopolitan society of conflicting ideologies and seductive charm, yet retain the singularity of being Muslims oscillating between the Quran and the Traditions.

Human societies, always remember their heroes and heroines by erecting memorials, inaugurating commemorative events and founding institutions to perpetuate their lingering memories. But unlike the strident trend for man-worship in the anthropocentric tradition of Europe which is dissonant with the spirit of Islam, it is our bounded duty to activate the youths to serve the community of holding aloft the examples of our illustrious leaders of the past. But we find the conspicuous absence of such glorification in the early social history of Islam as none but Allah alone is to be glorified. Nevertheless, in the dynamic and homogeneous world of cultural values it has been found necessary in order to motivate youths that we recall and remember our past. We envisage the future by interpreting the present with reference to the past. In fact, well over twenty five years ago, Mr. Azeez himself, while addressing the MICH, on the occasion of I.L.M. Abdul Azeez Memorial Day observed thus: “It has  been rightly stated, and I believe it has proved true, that a community which fails to honour its heroes tends to lose its capacity to nurture heroes in its midst”.

So in cherishing the memory of Mr. Azeez and thereby honouring him, we do not wish to eulogise him. To do so would be to deprive him of his humanity. So let us bleach him of the prefixes and suffixes of the honorific titles of academic and social distinction which enshroud him and evaluate his role in the recent cultural history of this country. Much has been written about Azeez the man, Azeez the humanist and Azeez the educationist of this multi-faceted personality. We propose in this paper to narrow down the focus of our portrayal of him in his distinct contribution to Muslim Education in particular, and his contribution to learning and scholarship. In doing this, I crave the indulgence of the audience for any unavoidable digressions which needless to say would exemplify the main theme of this paper.

Azeez the youth, who entered the University College in 1929, read History for the Degree obtaining Honours, maintained a brilliant academic record, passing out with a class and was appointed to the Department of History of the University College, which he declined on being awarded the Government Scholarship to Cambridge. But under the British Raj the Civil Service had its seductive charm of power, prestige and influence. Hence Azeez had a fling at the civil service examination and set sail for Cambridge. But he was not destined to stride along the Gothic vestihules of Cambridge for long. On his successful entry into the administrative elite –  the C.C.S., he turned back from Britain. He not only went on record as the first Muslim to enter the civil service in 1935, but a decade later he turned out to be the first civil servant to relinquish his prestigious post to become the Principal of a school. Such was his concern for Muslim education. During his seventeen years of intellectual odyssey of academic pursuit and professional duties his mind appears to have settled on what we may call his vocation or inner calling – to dedicate himself to the service of his community in the sphere of education. Hitherto, he might have put his talents into his profession, but by the time this country was achieving its independence he had resolved to place his genius at the disposal of his community. And that marked the end of a phase and the beginning of another in his life.

His contribution to learning and scholarship

Azeez in his zeal to serve the community realized the importance of education as the rudimentary stage of learning which would eventually lead man to Quranic Wisdom. In the tertiary stage of the learning process, a child is taught the alphabet and the numerals, both of which are acquired and not inherited. Apparently these two vital elements in the formative period are taken for granted. A teacher who fails to evoke in the growing child a feeling for words and numerals is a decided failure.  A child should be made aware that these two elements are the result of millions of human effort and constitute the keys that unlock the secrets of man, the world and Allah. Once a child has mastered the alphabet and the numerals and moved on from there to the traditional “THREE R’s”, the child feels the awesome beauty and splendour when education itself develops to learning.  Learning and philosophy which are treasured as the ultimate end of Euro-centered education was, to Azeez and our Intellectual predecessors in the Islamic tradition the beginning of education. To Muslims, unless education and learning, painfully acquired over the ages lead him to the wisdom of the Quran in the footsteps of the Messenger would be a tragedy. We can observe this tragedy all around in this world despite the tremendous achievement in learning by way of science and technology.  Despite his amazing knowledge, man has not arrived at wisdom. These three phases in the enlightenment and illumination of man as Education, Learning and Wisdom were grasped in their clear cut demarcation and Interdependence by the Muslim educationists. And the first stage in this sequence, that is education, due to reasons of history was discovered to be Achilles’ heel of the Muslim community of this country from I.L.M. Abdul Azeez to A.M.A. Azeez. The founding of the Colombo Muslim Education Society in 1891 and of the precursors of Zahira College, namely the Anglo Muhammadan School 1884 and Al-Madrasathul Khairiyathul Islamiah – a name chosen by Arabi Pasha mark the initial beginnings. Upshot of the educational Society’s activities was the founding of Al-Madrasathul Zahira in 1892 – which institution during our time came to be inextricably linked with the twin names of Jayah and Azeez. The subsequent developments of Muslim schools for boys and girls and the agitation of the Muslim legislators for a better deal to the Muslims in educational matters and the subsequent activities of such organization as the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund to sustain the education of those who could ill-afford education at higher levels was an acknowledgement of the realization of Muslim educationists upto A.M.A. Azeez.

Azeez admirably succeeded in evolving a rapport with the Muslim youths. During his stewardship at Zahira, he would, in between work, pinch time, to enter into informal colloquium with the students aspiring to enter higher educational institutions. In the course of these talks, we sometimes observed the sudden quivering of his lips and knitting of eye-brows, then he would lament the dissipations of present day youths in alcoholism, gambling and many forms of vices; and almost instantly with a gentle and cheerful countenance, he would harangue us about the rich heritage of Islam and of the unlimited possibilities that await the educated Muslim youth. With those who were at thirst for knowledge and understanding, he established a meaningful resonance bringing about a catharsis of self transcendent emotions.    

He would thus, in passing give us a resume of the intellectual and cultural achievements of Islam in a stylistic verve which was precise, clear and touching. He would give us a profile of the pre-Renaissance Islamic Encyclopaedist such as Al Kindi, Al Farabi, Al Biruni and Ibn Sina; and of the great moments in the history of medicine with Al Rhazes, Ibn Al Nafeez and Abulcasis. He would narrate movingly the life of Jabir Ibn Nayyan, the great chemist, whom the latest researches in the United States have established him as the “Father of Modern Chemistry”. [1]/  He would within the brief intervals he could pick up unveil to us a pageantry of Muslim heroes who made specific contributions to physics, mathematics and astronomy; navigation shipping and geography; to historiography  or the art of writing history; to the compilation and composition of the Law and the Hadhis and  the exposition of the Quran (Tafsir). Almost with a gracious sense of piety he excited us to the aesthetic delights of Saracenic architecture, calligraphy, Arabesque and of Indo-Persian poetry from Ghalib to Allama Iqbal. He would go into raptures over the lyrical beauty of Persian Heroic poetry from Firdowsi to Omar Khayyam. And he would recite his own selections (in English Translation) from the dynamic poetry of one, whom he admired most, namely Iqbal (1873–1938).  Iqbal being a contemporaneous poet, with the eloquence of a Mayakovsky, dynamism of Hristo Botey and the faith of a Rumi  had a histrionic impact on his sensibility. Though Iqbal was not unknown to the Muslim elite in this country, it may be said that Azeez went a long way to popularize Iqbal the poet, the philosopher and concept giver of Pakistan. His ideas, perhaps with such informal discussions, veered away the Muslim youths in a purposive direction in a cultural milieu of their own.  Most of us in different walks of life in different parts of this country and world are beholden to Azeez to this initial intellectual situation. Though the Muslims constitute a significant segment of the world population, since the commencement of European activities in the sixteenth century Dar-ul-Islam had been destabilized politically and under its tendentious system of education we have been even besieged culturally and the growing Muslim youth was in a state of indecision and dilemma. It is in this context that Azeez’s formal writings and informal speeches restrained us, and imparted to our intellectual strivings and Islamic orientation. Most of his students, who pursued studies in the humanities and the sciences are today engaged in various occupations and following different professions find themselves on the terra firma of an Islamic ethos. 

Considering the Arab origin of the Moorish community in this country in the light of literary evidence [2]/ which is conclusively confirmed today by epigraphic evidence, [3]/ Muslim education in this country goes back to the early centuries of Islam. Education and learning, among the Muslims should be as old as Islam. More than any other religion, Islam almost in unequivocal terms calls upon its votaries to pursue learning. In fact the very first revelation that rent asunder the silence of the night in the case of Hira called upon men to Read and refers to human ability to write :


                  “  Read in the name of  thy Lord to createth,

                     Read : And thy Lord is the most bounteous

                     Who teacheth by the pen

                     Teacheth men that which he knew not.”

Thus the Madrasah system of education goes back to the Medinite community, and the Prophet is acknowledged as our first teacher. Islamic education commenced in the Masjids even in this country. It was at the request of the early Arab settlers – the ancestors of the Moors that the Caliph of Baghdad dispatched Abu Bakya, an eminent savant and divine in the ninth century, as the Arabic epigraphic evidence 1/ conclusively confirms. But then, the life of the early Muslims and their system of education were disastrously affected from the beginning to the fifteenth century with the commencement of Portuguese rule in 1585 right upto 1796 when the Dutch rule came to an end. The travails that the Muslims endured under the Portuguese rule may be clearly perceived from the detached observation of Prof. Malalasekera: “Every stage of their progress was marked by a rapacity, bigotry, cruelty and inhumanity unparalleled in the annals of any other European powers” 2/. This persecution followed by Dutch cruelty of another century and a half incapacitated the Muslims educationally  3/ so much so that, when enlightened British rule began in 1815 under unified rule, the Muslim community appeared to be the most backward educationally. Accordingly, they were unable to take advantage of the many opportunities that were offered at the decisive levels of socio-political and economic life of this country. We are still not free from the traumatic shock of the Portuguese and Dutch misrule in this country. Muslim educational landscape in this country however, bleak and dreary during the gruesome centuries begins to pick up its bearings towards the last decades of the last century. Hence, in retrospect, Azeez’s contribution to Muslim education in particular to be intelligible should be viewed against the background of educational development in this country during the previous 100 years stretching from 1890 to 1990.The pioneers of Educational Reforms commenced their activities towards the end of the last century not altogether uninfluenced by similar reformist movements on the sub-continent and activated by the arrival of Arabi Pasha in the Island.  Since all the Muslim Leaders, educationists, reformers and politicians began to direct all their activities with a singleness of purpose at educational regeneration of the Muslims, it was clear that education was our deficiency. Following in the footsteps of Siddi Lebbe and I.L.M. Abdul Azeez and subsequently Jayah, A.M.A. Azeez bemoaned the plight of the Muslim youths and education. 

With perceptual speed, Azeez grasped the significance of modern education as the sine-qua-non towards the advancement of the Muslim community in modern Sri Lanka and soon after the assumption of duties following Jayah as Principal of Zahira College, he crystallized all his energies towards education and youth activities of the Muslims. With acumen and acuteness he set out to meet the challenges posed by the times and began his educational experiment at Zahira.

Zahira College and Azeez’s contribution to Education

Let  us take our minds to the year 1891, when at the request of Wappichi Marrikar, Siddi Lebbe returned from the hills to address a jumma gathering at the Maradana mosque to urge the Muslims of Colombo of the imperative need for modern English education. Among the audience was the youthful I.L.M. Abdul Azeez, who was  subsequently to carry on the crusading spirit of Siddi Lebbe in the sphere of education. The latter’s Address was a resounding success. Unclouded by passion and prejudice, yet with persuasive eloquence be appealed to the reason of those present. The audience was captivated by his plea for English education for Muslims. I.L.M. Abdul Azeez was elected Secretary of the Colombo Muslim Educational Society. Due to the effort of this new society, in the following year – 1892 Al Madarasathul Zahira was founded. Since then, the Muslims of this land continued to follow the growth and development of this institution with great solicitude as it draws nigh towards its centenary.

Zahira is, to us redolent of many things. It is reminiscent of the heroic rule of those early pioneers nearly a 100 years ago, who against all odds dedicated themselves to the cause of education of generations to come, thereby rescuing us from the educational and cultural lag to which we had fallen, especially from 1505 to 1796, under Portuguese and Dutch rule. A.M.A. Azeez, in remembrance of whom, we are holding this commemorative event was inspired by these pioneers.  They were not sunk in romantic delusions of a “Golden Age”, of the past, but they had the vigour of mind to come into accord with the reality of a changed world which is continuing to change in a dynamic way. Looking around for a philosophy of education, they sought inspiration from the strident revivalism of Jamaldeen Afghani – the stormy petrel of Islamic revivalism in the 19th century, to his disciple Sheikhu Abdu and to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of the Aligarh movement on the sub-continent. Azeez, to steer his educational zeal in the modern direction added something vibrant.  In addition to others, he was inspired by Iqbal.

Of his lifetime collection of books and manuscripts a substantial number has reached the Jamiah Naleemiah library. He seems to have paid special consideration in the choice of the books presented to the Jamiah, as they  belong to philosophy, history and Islamic culture; and a significant number on educational philosophy, theories and methodology. We have found that most of the books relating to education he appears to have come to possess belong to a period before he relinquished his administrative post. From this any discerning mind should be able, not only to follow his intellectual odyssey, but his relentless quest for his vocation to serve his community.  Having resolved to serve his community in the footsteps of Jayah at Zahira, he linked himself into that strand of reformists, revivalists and educationists to serve his community. For nearly a decade before he assumed his duties he had scanned the educational philosophies of the East and West to incorporate whatever was useful and necessary within the Islamic tradition. Educational theories from Plato to Bertrand Russell studied by him as the profusion of annotations and marginal comments on the pages of these books show how persistent he was. He did not mind the pragmatic approach and judicious utilization from any educational system so long as the Islamic values remained unimpaired. He appears to have avidly followed the educational experiment from the Academy of Plato to the experimental school run by Bertrand Russell and Dora Black twenty three centuries later at Beacon Hill in Sussex. That this experiment of Russell which proved to be an abysmal failure [4]/ should have come as a relief to Azeez as the Russellian system of education was based on a non-transcendental vision of life. Nevertheless, he was able to incorporate some of the useful elements in the Western system of education. He soon discovered all Western systems of education, despite their remarkable appeal lacked the bifocal Islamic vision of the Muslim educational system which links our existence in this world (Dunya) to the world beyond (Akhir), as a consequence of which education in Islam becomes an act of worship (Ibadah) as in no other system.

When Azeez took over from T.B. Jayah as helmsman of the premier Muslim educational institution, it was a little over fifty years old.  Many men of dedication and scholarship had contributed to make Zahira what it was. T.B. Jayah, during his period from 1921-1948, almost with religious ardour applied himself to make it as it came to be – the pride of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. To Azeez it was something more than a school; it was indeed a “radiating centre of Muslim life and activity”. With distinction and charm, beauty and imaginative power, Azeez infused Zahira with a new style of world to command the education of other communities, loyalty of the parents and set ablaze the student’s imagination to struggle at all levels of life from scholastic pursuit to sports and athletics, elocution, oratory and debating.  True to the Islamic spirit of internationalism and cosmopolitanism, Zahira both at the level of alumni and tutors were composed of members of all the communities of the island.  Many were those belonging to different faiths, ethnicities and speaking different languages who distinguished themselves both in studies and extra-mural activities and are today, holding responsible positions in this country. It would smack less urbane at this auspicious moment to mention the names of those fine specimens who made Zahira a colourful institution.  This communal harmony as it obtained at Zahira, especially during the time of Azeez, is we should consider, of particular significance today, as people seem to have lost their sangfroid and life at all levels has become more abrasive among the many communities that make the Sri Lankan nation. 

In his meandering quest to impart substantially to the Islamic educational  philosophy, as advertered to, he had even probed the Soviet system as some of his books reveal. Besides perusing the Madrasah system of India, he had also followed the educational experiment of Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan. Eventually, his intellectual kinship with the Aligarh movement on the sub-continent and the satiety he gained from the lyrical ghazals of Indo-Persian poetry of Iqbal, and from his Reconstruction of Religious thoughts in Islam and from most of his Essays he gleaned them, Azeez arrived at the unequivocal direction that the Muslim world in general and Muslim education in particular should take.

All theories of education from the East and West reflect the given stage of socio-economic development of those societies. Slave societies as in ancient Greece considered manual labour the insolence and the theories of Plato aimed at “Philosopher Kings” whose main preoccupation was to create a symmetrical harmony of brains and brawns to contemplate the idea. Feudal ages aimed at producing men and women who would enjoy the refined delights of a patrician society living on the toil and travail of the serfs. Modern society’s educational philosophy has been, through their public schools and universities to produce gentlefolk who were admired for their refined behaviour and accomplishments in the arts, music and the sciences. While not denying the relative reality of the aims of the many theories of education, Azeez’s discernment went beyond to the Islamic convention and desired education to relate human life of this world to the life beyond.  In his own words: “Education of a child should enable him to unfold all the faculties he is endowed with such as physical, moral, intellectual aesthetic and spiritual.” In fact this concept of “unfolding”, has a meaningful propinquity to one of Allah’s attributes, namely, Al-Taththahu – The Opener – one who unfolds the hidden potentialities.

To Azeez modernity in education, if by that is meant, science and technology and all that is implied by them, was not something we should recall from in horror, because it comes from the materialistic West. As Iqbal maintains in the Reconstruction, present day science that is coming from the West is our rightful inheritance which is coming back to us. Europe inherited its sciences and philosophy from the Muslims, as we inherited them from the Greeks. In the Islamic vision of things, as Iqbal viewed and Azeez imbided, Science has no nationality. It is outright chauvinism and bigotry to speak of Muslim science; though undoubtedly Muslims have made and continue to make significant contributions to Science. “In this matter of science and civilization Europe has not always been the master and we, the pupils.”

The sum of human knowledge and the complexity of human problems are perpetually increasing; therefore, every generation must overhaul its educational methods to grapple with the dynamics of change.  Following as it were, the tradition of the Messenger: “Go even unto China in search of knowledge”, Azeez travelled vicariously through different times and climes to enrich Islamic education. The humanistic elements in education incorporated into ours should remain, but they must be sufficiently simplified to be sublimated and made subservient to the main categories of Islamic thought. Without those peripheral elements which the modernist in our education incorporated it would not be possible for our growing youths to render possible the world which science and technology have unleashed.  We do not wish to suggest that the humanistic elements in education, which Jayah, and Azeez after him incorporated on to our inherited Madrasah system based on the study of the Quran, Hadith and Arabic are of less importance and could be dispensed with. To know something of great literature, something of world history, something of music, painting and architecture, and of the antiquity of man and the world of inter-galactic space is essential if the life of imagination of our children is to be fully developed. Let us not forget the ever recurring these of the Quran, which calls upon man to ‘ponder, reflect and think’. And it is only through imagination based on facts that man would become aware of his lowly origin and high destiny, which the Quran refers to.

Over the 100 years of recent educational history of the Muslims of this country, we observe broadly three periods, during which, by way of stimuli, the educational process in the country exerted a pressure to which we have been and are contriving to respond with adjustments and compromises. In the last quarter of the 19th century under British rule we resolved to give our children an English education to enable them to make the best advantage of colonial rule.  Secondly, towards the middle of the 20th century, commencing at Zahira with Jayah and Azeez, we imparted a scientific and modern basis to our education. By the year 1958, since the passing of the Official Language Act, which made Sinhala the official language, it was a matter of time that Swabasha would replace English from its officially entrenched position. So once again, this stimuli is a challenge to which we are called upon to respond. As to how we are responding and in what ways we should evolve our educational strategy is a matter for Muslim educationists of today and we, presently prefer to leave it at that.

When our posterity nostalgically look back to their recent past they will not fail to acknowledge the specific contribution of Siddi Lebbe and Azeez to Muslim education in this country, as they will not also fail to record the ardour with which I.L.M. Abdul Azeez and Sir Razik Fareed battled for the identity of the Moors of this country and of their Arab ancestry. We should also recall at this moment the munificence and magnamity of many men, specially Wappichi Markkar and N.D.H. Abdul Ghaffoor which encouraged and sustained the efforts of the pioneers of Muslim education.  With the passage of time, the frills and trappings that go to make a personality are forgotten. The most remarkable element of human personality is the individual’s voice, and we do not hear the voices of the heroes and heroines of the past. But their respective virtues persist in our lingering thoughts. As we recollect our reminiscences of Azeez, his virtue turns out to be Muslim Education, which in his mature years became his forte, was really, an implication and reflection of his scholarship. It is well for us to remember, his studies, speeches before the Upper House of the Parliament (Senate); his speeches before many learned assemblies and the University of Ceylon and before many international gatherings and conferences of academic distinction. His contribution to the Encyclopaedia of Islam is indeed a monumental achievement. His research findings as they appear in the Proceedings of the International Seminar on Tamil Studies [5]/ would continue to stimulate the future researchers of our community in various aspects of their cultural history and ethnic origins. His ‘The West Reappraised’ (1964 Colombo) is really a compendium of the catholicity of his taste. Devoid of sectarianism it discloses a breadth of vision and depth of understanding of the revivalism and resurgence of this country.  The contents of this book, of men who belong to a wide spectrum of cultural and religious background, epitomizes the Islamic WELTANSCHAUUNG or outlook which goes beyond the narrow confines of linguistic, racial and national ethnicities which are the bane of the world today. When the government of this country called upon him to contribute to the ‘Centenary Volume on Education’ of this country in 1965 [6]/ it came as a recognition of his scholarship. Most of us who are present here would remember his affable charm and debonaire ways which would be denied to posterity. To them he would be silhouetted in the cultural landscape of the Muslims of this country as a scholar and educationist.  This profile, we hope considering his immense contribution on record, would be delineated in bolder relief with time.

The Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund

About half a century after pioneering efforts in English education, it was discovered that despite the notable advancement at the primary and secondary levels of education made by the Muslims, they had not still obviated the cultural and educational snags imposed on them by colonial oppression and were not on par with the other communities of the country at the higher levels of education. Consequently, they were remarkably unrepresented at the decisive levels of administration, judiciary services, banking and finance and the key professions of law, medicine and engineering. Hence higher education now appeared to be the weak point of the Muslims.  Quite contrary to the customary belief of Muslim opulence, the bulk of the Muslims were penurious – another relic of colonial oppression. In the course of his investigations Azeez ruefully observed that most of the poorer parents did not have the resources to sustain a 4 to 6 year period expenditure which higher education entailed.

“He who leaves his home in quest of knowledge, walks the path of Allah.”  So Azeez, almost with religious zeal, set out to speak, plead, write and even to badger the affluent individuals of the community to an awareness of this educational lag and limitation and to consider it a social responsibility to confront and surmount them. When he was crusading for the cause of the poorer students of our community even before he took over responsibilities at Zahira, he reiterated that it is a behest of the prophet to help our unfortunate students. Thus the year 1945, saw the realization of another of his cherished dreams – the inauguration of the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship fund (C.M.S.F.). During the last 45 years of its existence, the C.M.S.F. has helped over two thousand scholars during the most crucial moments of their educational career. Today, we take great pride in the fact that this Fund did produce members of the Civil Service and of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, the Judicial Service and members of the key professions, university dons and many graduates who work in different capacities in this country and abroad.

We are thus beholden to Azeez and all our leaders of the past, who dedicated themselves to serve the community in many ways. If we have in the course of this review looked back, it was only to look forward.  We will have no clarity in our understanding of the present without a knowledge of the past. Even if future generations disagree about the achievements of our past leaders, we are sanguine, that they would admire them for what they attempted. They were motivated by the noblest spirit of Islam to follow the Prophet for the greater glory of the Lord. So in all seriousness, on a day such as today, when we remember them, let us emulate their virtuous conduct in relating thought to deed and word to action.

Young Men’s Muslim Association

Another concern of Azeez was the problem of Muslim youth, especially of those who were gainfully employed and the early school leavers. He was contemplating to channel their energies in a purposive direction and to find satisfaction for their inner urge for social contact, intellectual discourse, cultural activities and to be of service to their community. After all, the Quran always refers to “Those who believe and do good deeds.”  In Islam service to mankind is not a mere pastime to break the tedium and drudgery of life, but an integral part of our Faith.  The Y.M.M.A.s have been existing even before he stepped into this field. Around 1950, on his initiative a convention of the existing Y.M.M.A.s was held in Colombo. He institutionalized it, gave it definite configuration by way of a meaningful constitution and infused into it a vigour and a flair for organized activities. And its motto, ‘Faith, Unity and Discipline’, with semantic valency symbolizes the thought and aspiration of all Muslims. Today, the Y.M.M.A. is an island-wide organization.  This is the age of nuclear fission, so in keeping with the times the Y.M.M.A. we knew fissioned.  But unlike in nuclear fissioning  it leaves no nuclear waste. The two streams of the Y.M.M.A. may at times march separately, but is delightful indeed to note, that they are marching in the same direction activating and stimulating each other. Very much analogous to the fusion process on the basis of E=MC2, which releases more energy than fission process, the Y.M.M.A. should generate more results, as I am told that they arrived at some sort of fusion and accord.

Like all men of ideas, Azeez began to dream dreams. But he was a dreamer whose dreams were in fact realized during his lifetime. During the final stage of his life he was toying with the idea of a Muslim Cultural Centre. His mind sizzling with ideas, envisaged to centralize all books, manuscripts, maps and charts and illustrations and even family genealogies; all relating to Muslim culture and civilization for the convenience of the scholar, the student and the general reader.  Keeping close to the Islamic tradition, he hoped that such a cultural centre as Bait-ul-Hikmah – the House of Wisdom would harmoniously stand with a masjid and merge into a Madrasah to become a higher centre of learning. A masjid always flanked by a Library (Maktab) and a school (Madrasah) was his persistent image. Creation of  anything ex nihilio is a privilege of Allah. His purse was too thin to relate word to deed. The take-over of Zahira College by the Government in 1961, and the subsequent controversy that ensured reduced his dream to impressionist fuzziness.  But then Allah is all merciful. The vision which remained an empty reverie like an uncut stone in the hand of a lapidarist was made entrancingly beautiful La Cabochon when it caught the discriminating eye of Al Haj M.I.M. Naleem. This transaction proved to be the greatest encounter in the history of Muslim Education in the Island. Thus was born, the Jamiah Naleemiah at Beruwela in 1973.

Jamiah Naleemiah

Jamiah Naleemiah which is nearly seventeen years young and growing vigorously is, we should say one of the enduring manifestations of Azeez’s anxious thoughts about his community. And it is undoubtedly an ideological, much more than institutional patrimony that we have inherited as his cultural progeny, as he had inherited Zahira from Siddi Lebbe, Wappichi Marikkar and I.L.M. Abdul Azeez. Hence a brief reconnaissance of this institution may be considered to be in keeping with today’s commemoration to recall and recount Azeez’s contribution to Muslim education and scholarship. The genesis of the idea of Jamiah Naleemiah owes its origin to the interaction of two trends of thought in the field of education all over the Muslim world, consequent primarily, to the impact of European activities in Afro-Asian countries. The learned (Ulema) among the traditionalist, resisted all modern influence from Europe and contemplated a return to the Islamic past; while some of the modernists among Muslim educationists opted   for an uncritical emulation of the West. This bifurcation in the Muslim educational thought impaired the progress of the Muslim community. In any case the Muslim educationists could not remain in a state of ambivalence for long. Azeez arrived at a harmonious blend of these two trends. Jamiah Naleemiah which he helped to set in motion is a reflection of this blend in our educational outlook.  Here we are trying to bring about a balanced integration of the rich cultural heritage of Islam with the modern disciplines and methodologies in education. The progress this Institution has made justifies the speculations and anticipations of Azeez. I do not wish to expunge the gracefulness of the gathering by demographic details about the Jamiah. But be it noted that, successively for many years this Institute has produced 100% results in the degree finals conducted by the University of Ceylon.  Some of them entered the administrative service and still others obtained scholarships to foreign universities to continue their post graduate studies. Following the pattern of Islamic learning, today, by Allah’s grace the Jamiah has one of the finest collections of books to keep upto our great tradition of intellectual pursuit. In addition to all the possible rendition of Tafsir and Hadith literature and books in the science and the humanities in English, Tamil and Sinhala, we have been accumulating literature in the Islamic languages besides Arabic, namely in Urdu, Persian and Turkish, the last of which is still in English translation as we have the least familiarity and contact with that language in this country. The Naleemiah library as an integral part of the Jamiah has been growing attuned to the intellectual rhythm of Islamic passion for knowledge. Here too we have been guided by the monographs: “Islam has many claims upon the admiration and gratitude of mankind. Much has been written of the contribution made by the Muslim peoples to art, literature, science and politics. None of these achievements would have been possible but for that devotion to learning and education which has characterized these people throughout their history; men and women who obeyed implicitly their Prophet’s command, to seek knowledge even if it be in China.” (The Muslim Tradition. A.M.A. Azeez. 1965. Colombo).

As a researcher with academic distinction, his plea for original research on the part of the new generation to meet the challenges of the times from other communities remained a strangled cry.  His attempts to establish some sort of communication at this higher stage of learning in intellectual investigation found fulfillment in the Naleemiah Institute of Islamic Research. It has too, grown up in faithfulness to the sprit of Azeez. At an International seminar held on the  Muslims of Sri Lanka and South and South East Asia in January 1984, under the aegis of the Research Institute of the Jamiah in collaboration with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, twenty five well researched papers were taken for discussion. These papers being produced by men and women of academic distinction, belonging to different religious and cultural background and hailing from difference universities of this country, Malaysia, Australia and the United States turned out to be the comprehensive, detached and objective investigation of the very many segments of the Muslims of this country. Of those papers fourteen, relating to the Muslims of this island were edited by the Jamiah Research Institute, and published by the Bureau of Publications of the Jamiah as a 500 page volume.  [7]/

Azeez took an acute interest in the growth of Arabic-Tamil an ingenuity of the Moors, which when philologically viewed commences as a dialect to evolve into a language in its own right. It continued to be the language of the Moors – a language which was broadly Tamil with a profusion of Arabic conceptual terms, which were indispensable to have the Islamic thoughts and feelings. It was indeed a dialectical synthesis of Semitic Arabic and Dravidian Tamil, written in Arabic script. It remained the tool of Moorish intellectual discourse right upto the end of the 19th century. Azeez even suggests in his research paper [8]/ that, even in the east coast of Africa, a combination of Swahili and Arabic and the native language led to analogous development. These are indeed fine themes to stimulate our young men and women, to stimulate them in their researches. In fact with this in view, the Research Institute at the Jamiah Naleemiah has an organized collection of Arabic-Tamil manuscript and are making a systematic effort to retrieve many of these valuable manuscripts which should be falling into disintegration, through neglect in many homes.

Initially under Azeez’s intellectual impulse the Naleemiah Institute of Research began a hesitant, yet a steady growth and we should say, monitored its presence among other such institutions in this country, when the Government of Ceylon in connection with the Centenary Celebrations of Archaeology in this country (1890–1990) published the two research treatises the Jamiah produced as (i) Islamic Perspectives on Archaeology, and (ii) Sri Lankan Archaeology and its Contribution to Humanism and Culture, in their official publication ANCIENT CEYLON (Volume One and Three) which has been reviewed by British archaeology, Azeez’s wish as it were, for the Muslim elite to drive a dent into research, was once again fulfilled when the Archaeological Department of this country called upon the Naleemiah Research Institute, to edit nearly 27 Arabic Inscriptions in this Island on the pattern of Edward Muller’s Vols. I and II (1883) and of Paranavitana’s Volumes I and II of the Inscriptions of Ceylon  (1970). These two volumes are in the final stages of preparation at our Research Centre and would be published by the Department of Archaeology. 

We crave the indulgence of the audience for our unavoidable digression. It is neither desirable or necessary at this stage to delve into the very many facets of Islamic culture and civilization to which we focused his insatiable curiosity nor to review his services at length. May I venture to state at this juncture, that a worthy epitaph to his memory should be, for us  to continue the quest  of his ideals –  service to our community, pursuit of scholarship and learning and finally the engendering of that understanding with other communities in the midst of whom we live.

The word humanism, whatever its etymological roots and lexicographical connotation may be, is as elusive as the words, democracy and socialism. But for a moment if we concur, with E.M. Foster’s definition [9]/ that humanism is compounded of intellectual curiosity, good taste, free thought and love of mankind, then Azeez was undoubtedly one of the finest humanists of this Island home of ours.

Learning and Scholarship was his penchant – his natural inclination. From this rises his clear perception of his community’s imperative need – EDUCATION  and Youth Leadership. When he was nominated to the Senate – the Upper House of the then Legislative and the University Court, he utilised his position in these two institutions, to advance the cause of his community with the goodwill of the members of the other communities. His four primary behests which we have inherited, by which he aspired to evolve a modus vivendi is an Islamic ethos for our growing generation are the CMSF, the YMMA, Zahira College and Jamiah Naleemiah – all of which have been, and are being directed with undeviating determination to promote education, learning and scholarship, which would finally guide them to the austere simplicity and divine wisdom, as contained in the Word (Quran) and the Deed (the Prophet). If Muhammed Mustapha bin Al-Abdullah was his worthy master, then Abdul Azeez bin Aboobucker has not proved to be an unworthy pupil. His corporeal self has ceased in keeping with “Mullu Nafsin Zayakathul Mouwth  but his unostentatious and virtuous ways by which he served his compatriots, his literary productions and scholarship are more edifying than the evanescence of wealth, power and ephemeral glory of this Dunya.

“Verily, we are from Allah, and unto Him we return”   

(Dr. Shukri hails from Matara and was a student at Zahira College, Colombo during the Azeez era. He entered the University of Ceylon in 1961 and graduated with First Class Honours in Arabic in 1965. In 1973 he was awarded the Commonwealth Scholarship and obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1976. He is the Director of Jamiah Naleemiah since 1981. He is a well known leading Islamic scholar and has contributed immensely in this field). 


  1. The Golden Path – Richard B. Lyttle 1983.  New York p.74 – 77
  2. Vide I.L.M. Abdul Azeez’s  reply to Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s in the Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon, and the introduction to the Muslims of Sri Lanka 1986, Colombo.
  3. The Dept. of Archaeology has undertaken to make an official publication of Arabic Inscriptions discovered in different parts of the Country.
  4. Against the Faith – Jim Herrick 1985. London. P.224-225 
  5. Proceedings of International Conference – Seminar. 1968. Kualar Lumpur. pp.746 – 762
  6. Education in Ceylon.  A Centenary Volume. 1. 1969 pp. 1145 – 1167
  7. Vide Proceedings of International conference on Tamil Studies. Vol. 1.
  8. Vide Proceedings of International conference on Tamil Studies. Vol. 1.
  9. Two cheers for Democracy – an autobiographical tract. 1965 London.



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