Dr. A.M.A. Azeez : An intellectual leader of eminence
A. Mohamed Nahiya -
Daily News Tue Dec 10 2002
This great leader of the Muslim community Aboobucker Mohamed Abdul Azeez hailed from a very respectable family in Jaffna. He was born on 4th October 1911 and passed away on 24th November 1973.
During this period he had contributed tremendously to the nation in general and his community in particular. A.M.A. Azeez was one who was an all-round intellectual - may it be Education, Religion, Language, Literature, History or Sociology. He followed the footsteps of late leader and the father of Muslim Education, Proctor M.C. Siddilebbe, Egyptian exile Orabipasha, I.L.M. Abdul Azeez philanthropist Wapichchi Marikkar and Dr. T.B. Jayah and did yeomen service specifically in the field of education for the children of the Muslim community.
He began his early education at the Allapichchai Quran Madrasa and then proceeded to Vannarponnai Vaidyshawara Vidyalaya in Jaffna and then to Jaffna Hindu College in the Northern Sri Lanka. He entered the University in 1929 and obtained a Special Degree in History in the year 1933. At the University Dr. Azeez won the exhibition prize in History and later he was awarded the Ceylon Government Arts scholarship and proceeded to St. Catherine's College of Cambridge University for further studies. But he had to cut short his studies in Cambridge and return to Ceylon to take up a Ceylon Civil Service appointment. Though he had abandoned the Postgraduate studies he had the distinction of being the first Muslim to enter the Civil Service in Ceylon.
He served as a Civil Servant for 13 years in various positions. During the World War II in 1942, he was sent as an Assistant Government Agent to the emergency Kachcheri established at Kalmunai, Mainly for food production. It was there he got to know the plight of the Muslims and their being backward in education. Throughout his life, Azeez was to bear a special affection for the Eastern Province which he regarded as his second home. He helped the Muslims of this region in every way. Many acres of jungle land were cleared and given free to the poor Muslim farmers of this area for cultivation.
This helped not only the Muslims of the area but all communities that lived in the Eastern Province at that time. 12,270 acres of land had been distributed in this area for this purpose. Those grateful farmers still call the land area given by him as, "Azeez Thurai Kandam".
Some of the posts he held in the public Service were A.G.A. Kandy, Administrative Secretary of the Dept. of Health, Information Officer and Additional Landing Surveyor. of Customs.
It was in Kalmunai, when he was the A.G.A he realised the importance of education for the uplift of the backward Muslim community and together with leading local personalities of the area. Azeez had formed the Kalmunai Muslim Education Society in 1943. This society confined its activities to the Kalmuani area. This was the initiative of his famous project the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund that was inaugurated on 19.5.1945 by him in Colombo.
This inaugural meeting was chaired by Late Dr. T.B. Jayah. The aim of the CMSF was spelled out thus, 'To see that no Muslim scholar capable and deserves in any part of the Island is deprived of the education he or she deserves for want of money. This fund was incorporated by Ordinance No. 19 of 1946. Very few are aware that the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund has helped over 2000 poor Muslim students to pursue their higher education over the last 57 years. This fund helped several men to acquire professions like Civil Servants, Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Trained Teachers etc.
Dr. Azeez advocated for his community to acquire knowledge of Arabic, Tamil, Sinhala and English. These four different languages are with four different scripts and each of them with different background of religion and history.
He felt that without Arabic language, the Muslims of Sri Lanka will become culturally isolated, and shall lose entirely the rich heritage. Tamil is the home language of the majority of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Sinhala is the language of the vast majority of the population in this country. English is the world language and the language of Commerce, Science and Technology with a wealth of literature and resources without any parallel so far. In these circumstances, the curriculum of Muslim schools and of every school where there is a considerable Muslim boys or girls should include all these four languages - according to Azeez.
Dr. Azeez also did show special interest in establishing separate schools for Muslim girls and a separate Tamil Teacher's Training College for Muslim female teachers. The Training College which was established at Aluthgama in 1941 was re-named as Muslim Female Teachers Training College in 1954, following his agitation alongwith Al Haj M.M. Ibrahim (M.P.) and others.
After General Election in 1947, the then Government invited Dr. T.B. Jayah to join the Cabinet of the Ministers. Dr. Jayah tendered his resignation from the post of Principal Zahira College, Colombo, having served devotedly in the above post for a period of 27 years. The mantel fell on A.M.A. Azeez whose Golden Era as Principal at Zahira College continued till August 1961. Dr. T.B. Jayah and Swami Vipulananda had to persuade Dr. A.M.A. Azeez to accept the post of Principal. A.M.A. Azeez, on his part took it as a challenge giving up the Civil Service appointment where he had a bright future.
Under the Leadership of Azeez, Zahira blossomed out as the radiating centre of Muslim thought and activity. He had made Zahira, during his period, one of the best schools in the Island. Zahira flourished in education, sports and other extra curricular activities and good number of children entered University from there.
"Two names loom large in the history of Zahira College. They are Jayah and Azeez. In the era of Jayah, Zahira emerged from childhood to youth. In the era of Azeez it passed from youth to manhood."
This was said by the late Hon. H.H. Basnayake, Attorney General of Sri Lanka who later became the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka.
The Ceylon Muslim Cultural Centre, which was built by A.M.A. Azeez in the premises of Zahira College, Colombo, had an Islamic Library, a publication Bureau and an Islamic Research Centre. But the work was not completed, as Azeez had to leave Zahira.
Actually, Azeez's plan to establish a Cultural Centre and Muslim Cultural University at Zahira College never materialised, the absence of which are felt today.
Azeez contributed several articles to Publications in Sri Lanka and abroad. His publication called Islam in Sri Lanka (in Tamil) won the Sahitya award. His article Titled History of Sri Lankan Muslims' has been recognised and it was included in the encyclopedia published by H.J. Pril & Co. Another of his well-known contributions is 'The West Re appraised' as English publication.
On the 6th February, 1955 he presided over the 'Tamil poet day' organised by the South Indian Muslim Educational Association in connection with its Golden Jubilee celebration. He also presided at the Islamic Tamil-Research Conference held in Trichi in May 1973 where he was honoured.
(The writer is Director, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of the Ministry of Eastern Development and Muslim Religious Affairs)
Dr. A. M. A. Azeez's contribution to Muslim education
by Saleem Marsoof, PC, Additional Solicitor General - Island Monday 30 Dec 2002
Extracts from the Marhoom Dr. A. M. A. Azeez Memorial Oration delivered at the Mahaweli Centre auditorium on 10th December, 2002 on the invitation of the Dr. A. M. A. Azeez Foundation and the All Ceylon YMMA Conference.
Marhoom Senator Abubakkar Muhammad Abdul Azeez, better known as A. M. A. Azeez, was an illustrious son of our soil who is worthy of emulation.
He was born on 4th October, 1911 into a fairly well to do family in Jaffna. His father, Janab. Abubakkar, was a leading lawyer who also served the community as a Quazi. It will be recalled that Janab. Abubakkar entered the political arena as a Member of the Jaffna Urban Council, which Council he also served with distinction as Vice Chairman, and was at the time of his demise in 1946, the President of the all Ceylon Muslim League, in fact the first ever Muslim resident out side Colombo to hold this important position.
Like most other Muslim children of that era, Marhoom Azeez began schooling in an Arabic Tamil school, but after 3 years of this he changed over to Vaithiswara College where he spent two fruitful years. He then joined Jaffna Hindu College with a view of mastering Science and Latin, which he thought would stand in good stead when he eventually entered an institution of higher learning. Marhoom Dr. Azeez was a brilliant student whose progress in school was propelled by double promotions and the like, resulting in him being underage to enter the university when he did qualify for admission.
He entered the Ceylon University College in 1929 where he was an exhibitioner in history. He graduated in 1933 winning the Ceylon Government Arts Scholarship, and proceeded to St. Catherine's College, Cambridge for further studies in history. His stay in Cambridge was short-lived as he decided to return to the island after only one term at St. Catherine, when he was informed of his success at the Ceylon Civil Service Examination. He departed from an academic career of singular distinction and even more promise to become the first ever Muslim to enter the Ceylon Civil Service. This no doubt was the beginning of his extremely service minded, exemplary and selfless public life, which can serve as a model to any contemporary social worker, public officer or politician.
Although it is difficult to divide the life of any individual into strict compartments, the public life of Marhoom Dr. Azeez lends itself into a three-fold classification, namely of Civil Servant, Muslim educationist and politician. What is remarkable is that in each of these successive but sometimes overlapping roles, Dr. Aziz exhibited his concern and commitment for the welfare of the Muslim community and a willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for the cause of his people and nation. He also believed in one Ceylon, for all her people.
The first thirteen years of his public life commencing in the year 1935 portrays him as a devoted, hardworking and enthusiastic public servant in the Ceylon Civil Service. He held many responsible positions ranging from Information Officer, Administrative Secretary and Emergency Government Agent, which gave him ample opportunity to interact with the Muslims all over the Island, and in particular in the Eastern Province where he held the post of Emergency assistant Government Agent. During his tenure of office in the East, he was able to study, analyze and assess the problems of the Muslims of that region, and he will be long remembered for his dedicated service he rendered to the people of the Eastern Province.
Even during his stewardship in the Ceylon Civil Service, Marhoom Azeez showed a great deal of interest in Muslim education and scholarship, pioneering in 1938, the Muslim Scholarship Loan Fund, which was the forerunner of the Muslim Scholarship Fund established by him in 1945. As he stated in the course of his presidential address at the Muslim Educational Conference organized by the educational branch of the all ceylon Muslim League held in Kalmunai in May 1949, his position as AGA (Emergency) in the Eastern Province helped him to come into intimate contact with the people of Kalmunai. To quote the words of Marhoom Azeez: "..... it was in this area that I became fully aware of the importance of education. I realized that education, and education alone, is that master key that could unlock all the doors to progress and in any social programme of the Muslims the first and foremost place should definitely and distinctly be given to education."
It was probably this line of thinking that persuaded Marhoom Dr. Azeez to take over as the Principal of Zahira College from his illustrious predecessor Marhoom Dr. T. B. Jayah in the year 1948. This was indeed a great sacrifice, as Dr. Azeez was at that time steadily heading towards the pinnacle and plums of public service, which he opted to give up though he was not even an old boy of Zahira.
As Hon. H. H. Basnayake, Attorney General of Sri Lanka who later became the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, when he presided over the prize giving at Zahira College, Colombo in 1955 commented:-
"Two names loom large in the history of Zahira College. They are Jayah and Azeez. In the era of Jayah, Zahira emerged from childhood to youth. In the era of Azees it passed from youth to manhood."
The Jayah-Azeez period, also called the 'Golden-era of Zahira' witnessed the blossoming of may a brilliant product that made enormous contributions for the development of this nation in various fields. They came from all communities and races of this country, not just Muslims. Under the Leadership of Azeez, Zahira became one of the best schools in the Island. Zahira flourished in education, sports and other extracurricular activities and good number of children entered university from there.
Like his illustrious predecessor Dr. Jayah, Dr. Azeez put a great deal of emphasis on the indivisibility of spiritual and material education. As Dr. Aziz himself has explained.:
"In this context, learning was always Qur'an-centred: that indeed is the special feature of the Muslim tradition. The Holy Qur'an occupies a place in Islam that finds no parallel in other religions of the world; for, to the Muslims the Holy Qur'an is not a mere book of religious maxims or a collection of devotional hymns; nor is it of human or prophetic origin; instead it is a code of life laying down the correct pattern of conduct. It is the Word of God revealed to His last Prophet. Eduction in Islam therefore begins and ends with the Holy Qur'an. All branches of knowledge, whether strictly theological or broadly scientific, thus derive their inspiration from the Holy Qur'an."
Dr. Aziz made every endeavour to provide technical education to the students and in fact made use of an offer by the Education Department to grant an interest free loan of Rs. 80,000 in 1956 which was utilized for putting up a building for practical education.
Being an erudite Tamil scholar, Dr. Aziz also commenced parallel classes in Tamil in 1949 beginning with a Tamil Lower Kindergarten.
While being Principal, he established the 'Thamil Sangamam' together with the likes of Professor Sivathamby and Professor Sivagurunathan, both eminent scholars and distinguished old boys of Zahira. Marhoom Azeez was widely responsible for nurturing the Tamil Language and published many important titles in Tamil. One of his many acclaimed books, 'Ilangaiil Islam' (Islam in Sri Lanka) won the Ceylon Sathiya Academy award in the 1960s.
His English publication 'The West Appraised' (1964) provides valuable insights into the contribution of freedom fighters of Sri Lanka and India such as Anagarika Dharmapala, Dr. W. A. de Silva, Arumuga Navalar, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, Seyyed Ahemd Khan (founder of Alighar University India), Orabi Pasha, M. C. Siddhi Lebbe and many others. A. M. A. Azeez was in fact a great thinker, reformer and prominent educationist. His works and thoughts bear comparison to the great Islamists of the late 19th Century such as Moulana Jalaludeen Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Allama Iqbal. It was in fact Azeez who introduced the works of Iqbal to the Ceylonese and established the 'Iqbal Institute' at Zahira College. The Islamic College 'Jamiah Naleemiyyah' of Beruwala, which has produced many Islamic Scholars was a brainchild of Azeez. The great Muslim Philanthropist Naleem Hajiar who has donated immensely for the devolvement of Zahira including construction of the magnificent hostel building, made Azeez's dream a reality. In the field of education Dr. Azeez also stressed the importance of English education for Muslim students.
The goal of Dr. Aziz was to make Zahira the radiating centre of Muslim thought and activity. With a view of realizing this dream, he activated the Muslim Scholarship Fund, established Old Boys Associations in Karachi and other capital cities, streamlined the administration of the school and attracted the support of wealthy and educated Muslims of enhancing the content and quality of education and sports at Zahira. Sometimes Dr. Azeez had to adopt strong arm tactics to meet challenges arising from the foolishness of parents and greed of others having vested interests in Zahira which often manifested itself in unruly behaviour and violence. Marhoom Azeez was so successful that the number of Zahirians gaining admission to the universities increased rapidly during the Azeez era from almost zero in the early 1950s to 11 in 1958, 14 in 1959 and 15 each in 1960 and 1961, at a time when the country's student population was far less than what it is now and university admissions were countered in hundreds and not thousands. Zahirians also excelled in sports such as Cricket, Soccer, Rugby Football, Boxing, Shooting and Cadetting and were dreaded by mighty opponents such as Royal, Trinity and S. Thomas'. In 1956 M. H. Ameen won the coveted Queens Cup for Best Marksman of all ages, and in Cricket, Zahira amassed the highest score for the season - 536 runs for 2 wickets. The very next year Zahira became Schools Champions in Soccer, which is a trend that continues to this day.
Let me now turn to what I consider the most important facet of Marhoom Azeez's illustrious career, his political life. It is here that one encounters a statesman of the highest order who was lost to our community due to its lack of vision. With the establishment of the YMMA conference, Dr. Azeez began to play a significant role in the political arena of Ceylon. He joined the United National Party, and in 1952 was elected into the working committee of the party. He was also appointed into the Upper House of Parliament, better known as the Senate, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister late Dudley Senanayake.
It was while he was a Senator that the Official Language Bill was presented to the Parliament. The decision of the UNP to support the 'Sinhala only' policy at a UNP Parliamentary meeting was vehemently opposed by Senator Azeez. Not only was he vociferous in his dissent to it, but he went a step further and resigned from the party which he loyally served. He endorsed the thinking of the late Dr. Colvin R. De Silva that the recognition of both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages will preserve Ceylon as one nation, whereas the adoption of Sinhala only will create two nations. Senator Azeez's main misgiving in regard to the 'Official Language Bill' was that, he thought that it posed a challenge to the separate identity of the Muslims as an ethnic group distinct from the Tamils, which the Muslims had been trying to preserve even during the pre-independence period. He also foresaw the division of our community into Tamil speaking and Sinhala speaking Units. In his own words,
" ..... the abandonment of Tamil by the Muslims of the South and Central Ceylon would almost cut them off from the Muslims of the East and North Ceylon; ..... would deny them the benefits of the Muslim-Tamil literature produced in South India; ..... would make it difficult for the theological institutions in Ceylon to function effectively ..... (but) ..... Sinhalese cannot also be neglected in the present context of affairs in Ceylon ..... and the abandonment of Tamil would definitely destroy the solidarity of the community and considerably weaken its political power."
Unfortunately the events that unfolded after 1956 have proved the predictions of Senator Azeez to be very prophetic indeed. Not only did the implementation of the Official Languages act cause the two major communities of our country to drift far apart, it also has resulted in a deadly civil war bringing with it utter misery and hardships to the people of this country, some of whom are still refugees in and out of the country.
As far as the Muslims are concerned, the emergence of the Muslim Congress with its power base in the east has brought into focus the sharp differences in the aspirations of the Muslims of the Northeast vis-a-vis their brethren living in the rest of the country. Ironically, the present leader of the Muslim Congress, who himself hails from outside the Northeast, has the responsibility of reconciling these apparently contradictory needs and aspirations, and going through the peace negotiations with a sense of balance which will avoid any kind of future disharmony between these two units of our community. Mercifully, our present leaders, who have had the benefit of the wisdom of the hindsight, have come to the realization that Marhoom Senator Azeez was right after all, and his resignation from the party and the Senate was not in vain.
I conclude my address on this Founders Day praying to Almighty that Marhoom Senator Azeez be rewarded in the hereafter for his great service to the cause of Islam and the Muslims of Sri lanka, and may he and all those great men we commemorate on this Founders Day attain Jannathul Firdows.
I am deeply grateful to the President and members of the Dr. A. M. A. Azeez Foundation and President and other office bearers of the All Ceylon YMMA Conference, for inviting me to participate in today's function, and I also thank Almighty Allah for giving me this opportunity.
Ananda W. P. Guruge
In the hectic transitional age in the progress of Sri Lanka from a British crown colony through a period of semi-self-rule to a free and independent nation, a few names stand out as leaders of undisputed versatility. They made lasting contributions and offered leadership in a variety of fields at one and the same time through their multiple talents. One of the spectacular icons in that comity of rara avis was A. M. A. Azeez who was recently selected to be appraised in a prestigious international publication as one of the hundred Muslim leaders of the world in the twentieth century. His unique record of achievements in provincial administration and rural development, national food drive during war years, expansion of high quality education especially of the Muslim youth, community leadership in the political scene and legislation, and promotion of scholarship through research and publication do certainly merit this remarkable honour.
I met Senator Azeez in 1954 at the request of the then Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala. It was to invite him to be a speaker at a public ceremony in October 1954 to inaugurate the national celebration of Buddha Jayanti to mark the 2500th anniversary of the death of the Buddha and the founding of the nation. It was the Prime Ministerʼs idea that the national event should involve all segments of the population and Senator Azeez was the obvious choice to represent the Muslim community. He saw me in his study in the Barnes Place residence and this little cozy corner had been the venue of many hundred meetings we had as we cooperated in many fronts over nearly two decades. The ever-deepening friendship with the Azeez family has been a most enriching experience for me and my family.
Born in Jaffna and assigned to the Eastern Province as Assistant Government Agent of the Ceylon Civil Service, he had a first-hand knowledge and understanding of the problems, which the Muslims faced, and was deeply committed to solving them.
His wife Ummu, the most charming, compassionate, hospitable and loving person she was, hailed from an affluent family descending from a distinguished Iranian diplomat accredited to Ceylon. Tall, fair, handsome and cheerful, Azeez had a genial and charismatic personality, enhanced by his exemplary humility and inimitable sense of humour. Their three children, Marina, Ali and Iqbal shared the parentsʼ affability and generosity. Their lovely home had thereby been the meeting place of people of all walks of life invited to social, religious, cultural and public events. It was a veritable beehive of activity.
In three areas in particular we ensured the cross-fertilization of our ideas and insights by sharing experience for mutual benefit. They were history, literature and education. Azeez was not only well-read and well-informed but also an intellectual giant on his own right. His superior skills as an orator in both English and Tamil and his facile pen made him a delightful communicator. There was no aspect of a subject on which he had no clear-cut views or an innovative approach and these had been developed through thorough reflection, critical examination and open-minded consultation. He was always ready to learn. He was never rigid or stubborn. He loved a good discussion and more controversial the better.
Once he presented his observations on colonialism highlighting how nationals of colonies responded to their contact with foreign powers. Using a series of alliterative adjectives as dazzling, disillusioned, and disenchanted to the point of dispelling, he traced the history of colonialism with specific examples. So brilliant and thought provoking was his analysis that I persuaded him to expand on it as a chapter of a book, which would deal with the Sri Lankan experience. The result was his first book, The West Reappraised which I had the privilege of seeing through the press. Fitting skillfully to his theory and demonstrating his intellectual inclusivity, he added thumbnail sketches of the lives and careers of Arumuga Navalar, Siddi Lebbe and Anagarika Dharmapala. With this he became an author and to me it had been a rewarding experience to cooperate with him in his literary career. In turn he has played a similar role with my publications. From English, he switched to Tamil with the conviction that the new generation of young readers could be reached only through the mother tongue.
It was in the field of education that we were deeply involved because he was the foremost Muslim educator holding the prestigious position of Principal of Zahira College - a position of service for which he relinquished his career as a highly placed Civil Servant. My responsibilities "in the Ministry of Education necessitated us to take some very difficult decisions and to justify them through long-drawn legal battles. Eventually Azeez was vindicated as his unswerving dedication to the cause of Muslim education was beyond doubt or question.
We also collaborated in developing legislative measures and plans for the establishment of a Muslim University on the lines of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara. It was a pity that the political will dwindled with the change of Ministers and the project fell through. His concept of a center of higher learning deriving inspiration from the remarkable history of Muslim contribution as an intellectual bridge between South Asia and Middle East would have enabled Sri Lanka to play a special role and gain leadership. His efforts, however, were not in vain as, among others, he inspired young Muslim scholars like Professor Uwise of Vidyodaya University to achieve some of the objectives.
What has been most noteworthy in Senator A. M. A. Azeezʼs career is that change of governments did not affect the position of leadership that was universally recognized. Thus in later years, he was appointed to the Public Service Commission wherein his multi-dimensional experience made him a tremendous asset. His role was to ensure that justice and fair play were the foremost considerations affecting every decision pertaining to public servants. I have personally observed the effective manner in which he argued to safeguard the welfare and interests of the downtrodden and the disadvantaged.
This is an exceptional quality for which he had been always remembered by all who came to know him. Once I was amazed to see how enormous crowds of people in the Eastern Province attended the election meetings he addressed on behalf of some candidates because they recalled the unforgettable services he had rendered to the Province as a young man two decades earlier.
So Marhoom Dr. A. M. A. Azeez, Civil Servant, Educator, Senator, and Public Service Commissioner, is truly a leader to be long remembered and strongly recommended for emulation. While shining as a bright star in the galaxy of hundred Muslim leaders of the world in the twentieth century, his contribution to national development reminds us that his legacy in Sri Lanka extends beyond linguistic, religious or communal boundaries.
Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge was a junior colleague of Senator Azeez in the Ceylon Civil Service until his retirement on its abolition after serving as Acting Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs. After having served UNESCO in Paris , New Delhi and Bangkok , and been Sri Lanka ʼs Ambassador to UNESCO, France and the USA as well as Spain , Algeria and Mexico , Dr. Guruge is now a leading Buddhist. scholar in California , USA .
Daddy, by Marina Azeez
Childhood memories, especially those of a happy childhood, linger throughout one’s life and bring moments of much joy and contentment. My father who had such a fortunate childhood spent in his hometown of Jaffna, often shared his reminiscences with us, his three children. He wished to impress on us that the simple way of life with love, affection and understanding among the family members which he had experienced, was far superior to all the wealth in the world. He also wanted to emphasise that life was not all a bed-of-roses for him and that he had to work hard to achieve his ideals which made his life meaningful.
One of my father’s treasured memories of his early childhood was the happy atmosphere in his home at Mohideen Mosque Lane off Moor Street in Jaffna town. As was traditional and popular at that time the married daughters and their families lived with the parents, and this pattern was followed in my father’s family.
The head of the family was ‘Appa’ (Mohamed Sultan Abdul Cader) a pleasant old ‘gent’ who owned a shop selling a variety of goods. His wife ‘Ummamma’ (Sultan Abdul Cader Nachchia) we remember as a petite lady with twinkling eyes and a ready wit. Their two daughters, I was told, were totally different from each other in looks and character, the older one (Mohamed Meera Mohideen Nachchia), who was my grandmother, was said to have been tall and fair while the younger was smaller and not so fair. When the elder daughter married, she and her husband, a budding young Proctor (Sultan Mohideen Mohamed Aboobucker), lived with her parents, and continued to do so after their son, my father, was born on the 4th October, 1911.
When my father was nine years old his mother passed away and changes took place in the household. His father re-married and went to live some distance away, but he regularly visited his son who continued to live with the grand-parents. Soon ‘Ummachchi’, (Meera Mohideen Nachchia) my father’s aunt, married and she, her husband (Mohamed Meerasahib Mohamed Ibrahim Sahib) and later their three children (Shahul Hameed, Sithy Kathija and Noorul Jezeema) became part of the household. However, there was no lack of affection towards my father, he was greatly pampered and therefore became a little self-willed. Any mischief or slight disobedience on his part was often excused and ‘Ummamma’ would emphatically state, ‘after all he is only a small boy without a mother!’
The house where my father spent his happy childhood he always remembered with great feeling. We would often talk of the yard spread with white sand kept spotlessly clean by Ummachchi. Around this was stone-paved verandah into which the surrounding rooms opened out. On our frequent visits to this house my father would never fail to show us the room where he was born. In the compound was the famous woodapple tree. I have never as yet tasted sweeter woodapples and we were informed that when my father was young, the fruits of this tree were never plucked, Ummachchi would wait until the ripe fruits dropped off the tree and then give them to her young nephew.
Recollections of a girl-cousin portray my father as having a strong personality who always had his own way and had others follow him. She related an incident which we found very entertaining. She said that in this home there was a large bed with a kind of railing similar to a baby’s cot. My father would shove his three cousins into it and shout, ‘I am the keeper and you are the animals in the zoo. Now do as I command you!’ He would wave a stick and order them to sit, stand, crawl or sleep. These cousins loved him and looked to him as their chosen leader and helped greatly to dispel any kind of loneliness felt by an only child. They called him ‘Ponnik Kakka’ (Golden brother).
down Mohideen Mosque Lane played, learnt their lessons and prayed at
mosque. The boys regularly attended prayers dressed in checked sarongs,
shirts and the distinctive white skull-cap. Much time was spent in
instruction at the Allapichai Madrasa which later became the
School, and it was at this early stage that my father began to have a
respect for religion, a respect he instilled into us.
In the cool evenings after a hard day at school and at the mosque, my father recollected how his cousins and he gathered with other children and played ‘catches’ and ‘hide-and-seek’. The lane was their playground. During the rainy seasons they had a wonderful time just running about in the rain and feeling the refreshing raindrops on their faces. The puddles that formed in the middle of the lane were grand to splash in and they had mock battles . The thick, slimy mud churned up by many passing feet was ideal to ‘down’ one’s enemy who was then covered with the sticky mud.
The rains also brought the ‘thumbi’ and these insects provided another form of amusement. The boys would try to catch them with a ‘thondu’ and then dissect them limb by limb. This sport was repulsive to my father and he shied away from it.
He also mentioned that the rainy season was the time when some type of worm known as ‘rathe’ appeared in plenty. They would be found curled up in dry corners inside the house. My father could not bear to see cooked prawns at table for he said that they reminded of those ugly worms.
My father was exceptionally fond of Ummachchi. He often spoke of what an expert she was in the culinary art. As she was also very fond of him she was ever willing to prepare any dish he wanted. His favourite food which he requested often was ‘paladai’. He described it to us as a kind of ‘roti’ made of rice-flour and coconut milk, but had to be thin and paper-like to be really tasty. According to him this simple meal of paladai together with Ummachchi’s tasty meat curry outdid all the elaborate dishes served at any famous hotel!
Recollections of school were as happy as those of home. My father began schooling in 1921 at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and then proceeded to Jaffna Hindu College. He learnt his lessons in Tamil and did not learn a word of English until he was in Standard III. He remembered his teachers with great affection, appreciation and respect.
The grandfather was well-to-do and could have afforded to send his grandsons to school by buggy cart, but my father had to walk the one-and-half miles to and fro from school every day. This was indeed an enjoyable trip for all the boys walked together laughing and chatting.
One contemporary of my father recollected that these boys on their way to school was a sight worth seeing – there was Azeez in his typical Muslim attire complete with white skull-cap in the midst of his Hindu friends.
During his schooldays my father’s very close friends were Senathirajah and Subramaniam. Senathirajah, who joined the Income Tax Department later, and my father were lifelong friends. The Founder of Vaidyeshwara Vidyalaya T. Nagamuthu’s son Manicka Idaikkadar and my father were colleagues in the Ceylon Civil Service and close friends.
Having been a distinguished student and a respected old boy of the two Jaffna schools, my father was honoured to open the Diamond Jubilee Carnival at Jaffna Hindu College in 1951 and deliver the Golden Jubilee Address at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam in 1963.
On his days spent at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam my father has stated, “I now feel thrice-blessed that I did go to Vidyalaya and nowhere else. My period of stay, February 1921 to June 1923, though pretty short quantitatively was extremely long qualitatively. It was at Vidyalaya that I became first acquainted with the devotional hymns of exquisite beauty and exceeding piety for which Tamil is so famed through the ages and throughout the world.”
to his early introduction to the Holy Quran, the importance of
and education, which Islam advocates was deeply ingrained in him. It
mother who was a strict disciplinarian, he would say, who first
strong faith in Allah and the necessity of having a good education. He
remember her powerful voice relating stories of the Prophets to him. It
encouragement that made it possible for him to read fluently works in
Arabic-Tamil. Of an evening he recollected reading extracts from ‘Noor
Abbas Nadagam’ and ‘Seera Puranam’ in addition to extracts from the
and the ‘Asma-ul-Husna’ the Ninety-nine Glorious Names of Allah. The
sat around and listened attentively.
‘Seek knowledge from cradle to grave’ (The sayings of Prophet Muhammad) and ‘Knowledge is Power’ (Bacon) were two of my father’s favourite quotations. He would tell us, ‘Intelligence is not enough to get you to pass exams, you must burn the midnight oil’. He would study late into the night with the aid of a flickering oil lamp, while Ummamma feeling concerned about him and wishing to keep company, sat nodding away in a corner.
My father’s cousin, Sithy Kathija, mentioned how he made her promise that she would sit the London Matriculation exam. She had solemnly promised not fully aware of what it implied, for it was a time when Muslim girls did not attend school or at most studied only up to Standard III. She continued her studies at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalayam and later at Holy Family Convent, Jaffna. It must have indeed been a grand occasion for my father when this cousin did sit the exam and became one of the very first Muslim girls to pass.
Another amusing recollection, though not strictly a childhood one, concerns the marriage broker who began to plague my father during his student days, everytime he came to Jaffna for his holidays. They were of all types from old hags to ‘lebbes’ and distant relatives. They offered brides with handsome dowries. He would have nothing of this, so one day in order to stop them worrying him, he had stood on a table, danced a kind of jig and shouted, ‘Can the bride dance like this? If so I will marry her at once.’ The marriage brokers did not trouble him any more.
Although my father lived the greater part of his life in Colombo he never forgot Jaffna and the happy times he spent there. Nor did he forget the many teachers and friends of his childhood. Recollections of his childhood and his life in Jaffna had a special place in his heart and he wanted to share with us these happy memories. The Palmyrah palm at our house “Meadow Sweet” at Barnes Place in Colombo was a memorable symbol.
Reflecting on what my father told us about his happy childhood and early upbringing within a close-knit family, it appears that in later years his ideas on the necessity of education for the advancement and well-being of the community, the importance of female education, his deep respect for Islam and for other religions and his liberal views grew from these early days.
An Advocate of Women’s Rights to Education
As a scholar and educationist, much has been discussed, debated and written about my father’s education policies and his ideas for the advancement of Muslim education. However, nothing, or rather very little, is mentioned about what he felt about the education of Muslim girls and the much talked of status of Muslim women.
Having benefited from his ideas concerning these two themes, let me share a few thoughts – interesting because they were far, far advanced for those times.
The education of girls was something he was very interested in; even at a time when Muslim girls did not have any form of schooling. In the 1920s, he encouraged my aunt (his cousin) to sit her London Matriculation Examination. It was a happy day for him when she became the first Muslim girl in Jaffna (possibly in the whole island) to pass this exam. Needless to say I was also encouraged in the pursuit of knowledge.
To my father, reading was the first step towards gaining knowledge and he felt that the reading habit must be fostered among children from a very young age. My brothers and I were encouraged to read books, to buy those which we particularly liked and taught to look after books. I am ever grateful to him for instilling in me the love and respect for books and for the wonderful library of books that he helped me to collect.
At a time when Muslim girls, especially those of well-to-do families, stopped attending school when they attained age, my father would not hear of me staying at home and learning to sew and to cook. At this stage there was no problem – my mother was also keen to allow me to continue my schooling. The real problem arose when it was time to decide whether I should go to University. I must admit that my mother was in favour of a university education but was reluctant to encourage me because of what the family elders would have to say.
keen to follow a
varsity career and thanks to my father’s insistence I was able to enter
University campus at Peradeniya.
When I was leaving home for the first time to follow this much desired varsity career, my father gave me a piece of advice which I will never forget. I should be happy with my studies; one should not think in terms of material benefits but read the subjects one liked and try to do one’s best.
My mother complemented these sentiments – she told me to enjoy myself and not to study too hard! I did just that and my years spent at the Peradeniya Campus were the happiest of my student life, especially because I was given the freedom to choose my friends and take part in campus activities.
Both my parents advised me not to become (in my words) an Intellectual Snob! I should not look down on those who were less educated than myself – in short, to keep my head. I should also learn those feminine arts of good home-making. Thus during the holidays I attended sewing classes, cookery and cake-decorating courses, which were my hobbies.
The time I entered my teens was one when the Purdah system was rigidly followed. Young girls led secluded lives until they were married off. I remember the married Muslim ladies wearing long black coats, often made of rich velvet, black head-dresses and black face-veil when they attended weddings and other functions, even the cars had curtained windows.
My father did not approve of this “purdah garb”. I remember my mother always in favour of compromise, wore the black coat but discarded the head-dress and merely covered her head with the saree. Many Muslim ladies in those days followed this style. As for me, I did not have to wear the coat or cover my face.
I may have broken this “Purdah” rule in the Muslim society of that time, but had to dress modestly and simply. No sleeveless blouses or short skirts for me. At a very young age I wore the Salwar/kameez, Punjabi, as it was termed then.
My parents had very definite ideas about the dowry system which was prevalent to a very high degree among the Muslims. This system, where the bride’s parents must give a dowry of cash, jewellery and property to the bridegroom before the marriage took place, is not mentioned in the Holy Quran or the Hadiths (Traditions). My parents disapproved of it. In fact, a statement made by my father stressing his views on the dowry system is recorded in Hansard of the late ‘50s. Fortunately for me, the young man I decided to marry came from a family who equally disapproved this system.
Islam gave women a rightful place in society; even today much discussion and argument takes place regarding the status of women in Islam. What my father said to me when we were leaving for Scotland where my husband was to read for his Ph.D. at St. Andrew’s University, comes vividly to my mind when I hear these discussions. He said that my place was not to compete academically or career-wise with my husband, but to help him to do well in his career, so much for Women’s Lib! Needless to say, this was the relationship that my parents had.
My mother may not have been academically qualified, but she stood alongside my father – she ran a beautiful home where anyone was welcome, entertained official guests, travelled to foreign countries with him – in short, she was the understanding companion that a wife, even a highly educated one, should be.
My parents instilled in me that one must live according to the teachings of Islam, however, they were broad-minded and did not over-do this. A favourite comment of my father was that we should live according to our religious traditions, but at the same time we must also understand and respect the religious and cultural traditions of other communities in this country. Maintaining a frog-in-the-well mentality would be disastrous.
Throughout the centuries the Muslims have contributed to the welfare of this country whilst upholding their religion and culture – in the future too they can work towards the prosperity of their country while preserving and maintaining their religious and age-old traditions.
(Marina started schooling at Carmel Girls’ English School, Kalmunai and St. Scholastica’s Convent, Kandy when her father served as AGA in Kalmunai and Kandy respectively. She completed her education at Ladies’ College, Colombo, graduated with Honours in Geography from the University of Ceylon in 1960 and obtained a M.Phil. from the Colombo University)