Dr. A.M.A. Azeez: Muslim community’s intellectual leader | Sunday Observer

Dr. A.M.A. Azeez: Muslim community’s intellectual leader

A.M.A. Azeez, a reputed Sri Lankan Muslim intellectual was born in Vannarponnai, Jaffna on 4 October, 1911. He received his primary and secondary education in two leading Hindu schools in Jaffna and his BA degree in History from the Ceylon University College in 1933.

He joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1935 as the first Muslim civil servant and worked in various administrative positions in different parts of the country for 13 years. He resigned from the Civil Service in 1948 to undertake the responsibility to serve as the Principal and to develop Zahira College, Colombo. He established the Colombo Zahira as one of the leading schools in the country during his period of more than a decade. He was also appointed as a Senator in1952 and his speeches at the Senate are witness to his genuine concern about the betterment of his country and its people. He was much respected by the Muslims, Tamils and the Sinhalese for his services to the communities and to the nation.

Susil Srivardana portrays Azeez as an ‘Iconic Nation Builder’ as his thinking and activities were to promote our country as a multi ethnic, multi religious and a multi lingual nation. He had plenty of opportunities to work closely with other community leaders, intellectuals and professionals to promote social integration.

Azeez was a social critic and a critical thinker, but he had never been an antagonist. I consider Azeez as one of the makers of the Sri Lankan Muslim mind. After Siddi Lebbe, he was the most influential intellectual that the Muslim community produced. He was more modern than any of the Muslim leaders of his time and tried to integrate modernity with tradition. He was a realist, a pragmatist and a rational thinker who wanted his community to be continuously in progress.

He thought that modern education is the only tool for the progress and upward social mobility of the Muslim community. When he was in Kalmunai as Assistant Government Agent, he established the Kalmunai Muslim Education Society in 1942 and later he formed the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund in 1945 that helped thousands of needy Muslim students to pursue higher education and still continues to serve.

Azeez also thought that choosing a proper language for education is essential for the advancement and integration of the Muslim community. He has extensively written and spoken on the subject of language and education of Sri Lankan Muslims, continuously for more than three decades from the early 1940s. Sri Lankan Muslims, who have at least a thousand years of continuous history in this country, speak Tamil. However, the Colombo based Sri Lankan Muslim elite have been reluctant to accept Tamil as their mother tongue from the late 19th century. They wanted to assert their separate ethnic identity in order to differentiate themselves from the Sri Lankan Tamils whose mother tongue is also Tamil. Therefore some of the Muslim elites propagated to adopt Arabic as their Mother tongue, while some of them advocated for Sinhala or English.

However, A.M.A. Azeez vehemently argued for Tamil as the mother tongue of the Sri Lankan Muslims. He wrote an article in 1941 on the subject entitled The Ceylon Muslims and the Mother Tongue: Claims for the Tamil Language.

He defines mother tongue as “the language in which the mother speaks to the child, the language in which the wife and husband address each other and both of them talk to their children”, and he adds, “Ordinarily there should be in a community no doubt as to what its mother tongue is. But in the case of the Ceylon Moors, confusion in some quarters has arisen as a result of many of the Moors being bilingual and some of them being dissatisfied with the present position and wanting to go after a new mother tongue, some are tempted to advocate Arabic as their future mother tongue and others Sinhalese and still others English.”

He said that “it is unfortunate that there should be some amount of doubt and confusion in a vital matter of this nature with which the cultural and educational future of this community is inextricably involved.” He adds, “To answer to the question, what is the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors, should not be difficult. It is certainly Tamil. The Moors who occupy the Northern and Eastern parts of Ceylon speak no other language. If any of them know another language, it is in addition to Tamil, and not in place of it. The Moors occupying the remaining portions of Ceylon speak both Tamil and Sinhalese, and a good number of the male members are equally fluent in both languages. But even in these parts no Ceylon Moor is found whether male or female, who cannot speak Tamil. And all of them use Tamil as their home language. The women in these parts are less fluent in Sinhalese than the men. This is a clear indication that Tamil is the mother tongue of the Moors.”

The contribution of Azeez in establishing Muslim identity as against Moor identity is also very important in the history of Muslims in modern Sri Lanka, although Azeez himself was using the term ‘Moors’ in his earlier writings. The word ‘Moor’ is supposed to be of Phoenician origin and was borrowed by Europeans to denote the Muslims of mixed Arab origin found in Western Spain and in North Africa. The ‘Moor’ identity, a colonial invention, was imposed upon the Muslim community by the colonial rulers, first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch and the British. During the British period the word gained currency and was widely used in colonial administration and the other domains. A section of the Colombo based Muslim elite adopted this word and persistently used it to refer to the Muslim community to serve its own class interest during the colonial period and also after independence, in order to differentiate themselves from the Indian Muslims and Malays.

It was this elitist group who formed the Moors Union in 1900 in the process of consolidating their ethnic identity. I. L. M. Abdul Azeez was the founder president of the Union. Later in the early 1920s, they established the All Ceylon Moors’ Association and in the early 1940s Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home to promote the Moor identity.

However, there was another group of Muslims who did not want the Moorish identity. Instead they preferred an all-inclusive Muslim identity and formed an organisation called All Ceylon Muslim League, which was earlier known as Young Muslim League. They wanted to refer to themselves as Muslims and not as Moors. The Malays and the Coast Moors were able to align under this Muslim Identity label.

Azeez strongly argued against the use of the term ‘Moor’ to denote Muslims and said that “We lose nothing by calling ourselves Ceylon Muslims instead of Ceylon Moors; on the other hand we gain appreciably by refusing to permit the dethronement of religion and the introduction of racialism in our community.” After independence, the Muslims gradually dropped the word Moor to refer to themselves. Now the term exists only in some official documents, already established institutions like All Ceylon Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home, street name – Old/New Moor Street and in some academic writings on Sri Lankan Muslims.

A.M.A. Azeez who passed away on November 24, 1973, was honoured posthumously awarding him honourary D.Lit. for his intellectual contribution by the University of Jaffna in 1980. He gave a strong intellectual leadership to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka for more than three decades from the early 1940s.

Dr. M A Nuhman

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