A man of monumental achievements
Dr. A.M.A. Azeez, the legendary Principal of Zahira College, Colombo,
was one of the celebrated intellectuals of his generation, who not only
led the premier Muslim educational institution to new heights of
excellence - both in studies and sports - but also served as a Senator
and a member of the Public Service Commission (PSC) back in the 1950s
As a cub reporter for the then ‘Ceylon Observer’, I had the privilege
of watching him in a vibrant verbal battle with a feisty newspaper
editor at a diplomatic reception in Colombo in the late 1960s. When the
editor criticized the PSC for “not living up to its ideals,” Azeez shot
back: “Nor is the Press”, (which at that time was a political tool in
the hands of the ruling party). And he was dead on target.
Born on the October 4, 1911, Azeez passed away on November 24, 1973 –
at the relatively young age of 62. But he left behind a lifetime of
memories – and an intellectual legacy that has stood the test of time.
There were many events in Azeez’s journey, which are milestones in
Zahira’s history. But covering the entire spectrum of his achievements
could well be the subject of a future doctoral thesis.
So, a tribute to his achievements in a single article will fail to do
justice to his enduring legacy. But then, a journey of a thousand miles
has to begin with a single step.
When Azeez went on a three-month educational tour of the United
States in 1952 – on a Smith-Mundt Leadership Grant—he spent time in some
of most prestigious American Universities, including Harvard, Columbia
DR. A.M.A. AZEEZ
42nd Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Commemoration Meeting and the Memorial
Oration will be held on Thursday November 26, 2015 at 4.30
p.m. at The Excellency, 4, Charlemont Road, Wellawatte,
Prof. M.S.M. Anes, Retired Professor of
Philosophy, University of Peradeniya and Chairman, All
Ceylon Muslim Educational Conference, will deliver the
Oration on the subject ‘Muslim Modernism and Reformative
Process in the Field of Education, a Sri Lankan Experience’.
The Meeting will be chaired jointly by
Khalid M. Farouk, President, Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation and
Sadique Saleem, National President, All Ceylon YMMA
Two books will also be released on this
occasion namely, ‘Islamic Banking – An Alternate Approach to
Finance’ by A.I. Marikar and ‘A.M.A. Azeez – Milestones to
All are welcome to this public meeting.
Perhaps, not in the wildest of my dreams would I have imagined that
20 years later I would find myself as a graduate student at Columbia
University in New York reading for my Master’s Degree in Journalism -
perhaps the only old Zahirian of the Azeez and post-Azeez era. But,
regrettably, I didn’t get the opportunity of telling him that I followed
in his footpath.
During my undergraduate days at Peradeniya, I never missed visiting
him at his Barnes Place residence whenever I was in Colombo during my
vacation break. We had endless discussions on politics, economics,
philosophy, religion and international affairs.
I was amazed at his repository of knowledge and the intellectual
depth of his arguments proving that he was a voracious reader – and
where the walls of his home library were lined up with books stacked to
While I was still a student at Zahira, he returned from the United
States with first hand information both of the American school system
and teacher training institutions.
His itinerary included visits to several US public, parochial and
private schools, and schools exclusively designated for Native American
children in Indian reservations. And this was also the time when he was
President of the All Ceylon Union of Teachers.
By the late 1950s, he set up the first-ever Students’ Council at
Zahira – a direct result of his visit to the US – in which the students
stood on an equal footing with the Principal in offering ideas and
proposals for the betterment of the College.
The Council, perhaps the first of its kind at that time, met every
fortnight to interact with the principal, the deputy principal and the
vice principal. Azeez, who was taking his students into his confidence,
not only entertained ideas and suggestions but was also receptive to
Clearly, it was a concept far ahead of the times and was perhaps one
of the few or the only College to have a strong rapport between the
Principal and the students. We met in his office, at least once or twice
a month, for an animated discussion over tea and coffee – on subjects
ranging from an evaluation of the school’s curricula to the performance
of Zahira’s sports teams. We found ourselves in a comfort zone being
recognized as part of a team to help accelerate Zahira’s progress.
He also encouraged the publication of ‘Az-Zahira’, a monthly college
newsletter – cranked out on a Gestetner machine – to tap the latent
writing skills of Zahirians. The newsletter was written and edited
largely by two editors, A.R.M. Zuhair and myself – both of whom had the
privilege later in life to be contemporaries at the University of Ceylon
Speaking of Peradeniya, one of the academically spectacular
achievements of the Azeez era was the 1958 batch to the University’s
Arts Faculty – the largest single batch at that time. A record number of
Zahirians – nine in all – gained entrance to the then University of
Ceylon, outdistancing some of the leading public schools in the country.
During Azeez’s tenure as Principal over 150 Zahirians entered the
University of Ceylon.
And all of these achievements were shadowed by the overwhelming
figure of Azeez, still the Principal of Zahira at that time and also a
member of the University Senate.
As a team, the Zahirians at Peradeniya were affectionately called
‘the Arab League’.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the Zahirians maintained a high profile
at the University Campus. The editor of the University Sports Magazine
in 1960-1961 was a Zahirian. So was the editor of the University Muslim
At a popular radio quiz show matching the intellectual wits of the
compere against the contestants, the only one to crack the jackpot – a
minor fortune of Rs. 1,000 at the time – was a first year Zahirian, who
beat a slew of professors and lecturers lined up on stage at the
University Arts Theatre, poised to grab the prize money and display
their intellectual prowess.
But the Zahirians who entered the University in the late 1950s and
early 1960s did not confine themselves only to intellectual pursuits.
The 1958 batch of Zahirians produced a University captain of boxing,
M.S.M. Nalim; a two time winner of the first-ever ‘Mr. Campus’ physique
contest Hilmy Manzil; a captain of wrestling Hamza Haniffa; and a
captain of athletics Farook Saleem. Joining Farook, both in athletics
and rugby, was Rizwy Abdurahman.
Nalim, one of the most accomplished boxers in the campus had a
devastating left hook which floored many an opponent. As a result, he
reigned supreme as an unchallenged boxer. Derek Raymond, the University
boxing coach at that time, who also doubled as a coach for the boxing
team at St. Sylvester’s College in Kandy, was an Empire Games boxer.
End of an era
When he couldn’t find a challenger for Nalim, Derek was forced to
hold exhibition bouts between Nalim and some of the reputed Stubbs
Shield boxers from St. Sylvester’s. And that was until the arrival of a
versatile boxer from Christian College, Kotte who decided to take on
Nalim. Surprisingly, he went two rounds with Nalim – and on the third
round, Nalim knocked him out cold and he had to be carried out of the
ring on a stretcher— feet first.
The campus was stunned. So, was the Director of Physical Education
Leslie Handunge, himself an Olympics boxer of a bygone era. But that
devastating punch by an old Zahirian also made history because shortly
after that bout, the University decided to ban boxing from its sports
curricula. It was an end of an era in the history of sports at
However, that did not deter the Zahirians because they were equally
accomplished in a sport that replaced boxing: Wrestling. Collectively,
the Zahirians helped Marrs Hall win the annual Gold Cup for exceptional
all-round athletic performance, an achievement whose celebrations
reverberated throughout the Peradeniya campus. To be introduced as a
Zahirian at that time was a moment of pride and glory. These were all
Zahirians nurtured and bred in the Azeez era.
Besides the achievements of Zahirians at Peradeniya, the athletic
glories under Azeez were legion: the first student to win the Queen’s
Cup for rifle shooting; winners of the Tarbat Shield for soccer and
public schools championship in wrestling, among many others.
When Azeez came to Zahira, the Muslims were known to be lagging far
behind in higher education – in Arts, Medicine and Sciences. Just as
Britain was once dismissed as a “nation of shopkeepers”, the Muslim
community was being offered a back-handed compliment as a community of
A man of vision
But Azeez wanted the community to go far beyond trade, commerce and
industry. As a man of vision, he knew the community was in need of
professionals, including doctors, engineers, accountants, writers,
scientists, civil servants, architects, diplomats, scholars, journalists
And he reached these goals long before he left Zahira.
When he quit the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) to take over
Zahira College, Colombo, back in 1948, he sacrificed a potentially
bright professional career in the cause of his community. If Al Haj T.B.
Jayah, the first Principal, laid the foundation for Zahira, Azeez built
Outside Zahira, Azeez fathered the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund and
the All-Ceylon YMMA Conference, two of his other legacies to the Muslim
community. In public life, he was appointed Senator in 1952 and was
bestowed with the title of Member of the British Empire (MBE).
At the same time, he was a member of the Public Service Commission (PSC)
and was also elected to the University Senate. In national politics, he
was a member of the working committee of the United National Party, only
to quit in 1956 over the Official Language Bill.
But his monumental achievements were at Zahira, which prompted a
former Sri Lankan President to describe Zahira as “one of the greatest
public schools in our country”.
(Thalif Deen was a student of Zahira College, Colombo during the
Azeez era. He graduated from the University of Ceylon with a Bachelor’s
Degree in Economics in 1962. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia
University, New York and obtained his Master’s Degree in Journalism. He
has won many awards in journalism and shared the Gold Medal for coverage
of the humanitarian and development work of the United Nations in 2013.
A former military editor of Jane’s Information Group in the US, he is
presently the UN Bureau Chief & Regional Director for Inter Press
Service (IPS) news agency)