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Conversations with a Muslim saint

Humanitarian leaves trail of good as legacy

  • edhivigil

    Members of the Pakistani Hindu community hold lamps during a tribute to Pakistan's legendary philanthropist, Abdul Sattar Edhi, in Karachi, Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people attended the state funeral for Mr. Edhi, who died in July at age 88.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • edhimusharraf

    Abdul Sattar Edhi, left, presents the annual report of his organization to General Pervez Musharraf, retired general and president of Pakistan in 2000. Many reforms resulted from the report.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • edhifeedschildren

    Abdul Sattar Edhi feeds recovered children at his Edhi Childcare Center in Karachi, Pakistan. His center encouraged parents, who were too poor to care for the infants, to place them in his shelter instead of kill them.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

Abdul Sattar Edhi, a noted Pakistani philanthropist and humanitarian, died last month at the age of 88 in Karachi. Through his work he touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

The passing of the marginally educated, poor, humble, and unassuming man was noted by the leading publications of the world. Variously called a Muslim saint, an angel of mercy, Pakistan’s Mother Teresa, and Messiah of Karachi, he was all that and much more. His story is not of rags to riches, but of a humble man who collected tens of millions of dollars and used them to bring relief from poverty, deprivation, hunger, and disease.

Born in 1930 into a Muslim Memon family in the state of Gujarat in British India, his family migrated to Pakistan soon after its creation in 1947. The family settled down in the southern port city of Karachi where a large Memon community had formed.

Memons are a close-knit community, and its members are known for self-reliance and helping each other.

Mr. Edhi started work as a street vendor peddling pencils, clothes, and beetle leaves, or paan, in Karachi. He then worked for his father, who had established a small currency-exchange business. The turning point in his life took place in 1957 during a flu epidemic, where the poor and destitute were dying on the streets of Karachi for want of shelter, food, and medicine.

With borrowed money he rented a few tents and turned them into makeshift emergency centers. He arranged the burials of the dead who had no relatives. After that, there was no turning back.

Years later my family also would be the recipient of his kindness and his charity.

In the winter of 1990 I happened to see him in the departure lounge of Karachi Airport. He was wearing his usual dark charcoal-colored cotton shalwar kamees, a fake lambskin hat, and cheap sandals. As I approached him he gave me his signature smile and opened his arms to give me a hug. We had not met before.

I introduced myself and thanked him for extending much needed help to my family when, a few years earlier, my young niece had died after a heart operation in Karachi. His organization had collected the body from the hospital, prepared it for Muslim burial, and delivered the coffin to the family at the airport to take her home to Peshawar. Of course he did not remember, but he said he appreciated my comments.

He was traveling to the United States with his wife, Bilquis, and two small children. He offered me his seat in the congested lounge, but I sat on the floor by his side. I told him I always wanted to sit at the feet of a living saint. He laughed dismissively as if I were joking. I meant what I said.

After exchanging a few pleasantries with him and his wife, I asked about their marriage.

“There were other girls that I was interested in, but all of them turned me down,” he said. “They were discouraged from marrying me because of the hard work I do. Then I proposed to Bilquis, who was working as a nurse in our clinic, and she accepted. Her friends tried to dissuade her by saying she was marrying a monster — a djinn [genie] — but she did not change her mind.”

He looked at her lovingly and said, “In the [proverbial] two-wheeled marital cart, I am just half a wheel, she is wheel and a half.”

Mr. Edhi was always eager to talk about his mission and the plans for its expansion. While boarding the plane, I asked if we could continue our conversation during the flight. He said he would be pleased.

Over two meals, we talked for hours about his philosophy of service and the scope of his work. Throughout our conversation he was engaging and talkative. I wondered what made him change his focus from serving his own clan to serving the larger community.

“We Memons are good at helping each other, but we don’t go beyond our own braderi, meaning clan. To me it is very restricting. I had to break away from that frame of mind and help everyone. I think humanity is more important than just our own braderi,” Mr. Edhi told me.

It was his mother’s crippling illness after a stroke that prompted the then-17-year-old son to respond to people in similar situations. He could not find medicine for his dying mother, and that personal tragedy launched an unusual career that spanned more than 70 years.

In an interview with the Washington Post in 1987, he explained how it felt to pick up crippled and dirty men and women from the streets of Karachi and take them to a safe and clean environment: “I used to take care of these people myself, thinking that once again I was being offered an opportunity to serve my mother.”

As such he was reinforcing an old Islamic teaching that says heaven lies under the feet of one’s mother, and the path to salvation leads through serving one’s mother.

What started as providing refuge to the destitute, the ill, and the dying grew into a countrywide conglomerate of clinics, highway emergency services for trauma, homes for abused women, and asylums for the mentally ill. Add to the list maternity homes, dispensaries, hospitals, blood banks, nursing schools, shelters for drug addicts and for the unwanted elderly, and you have a full spectrum of medical and social services. And they are all free.

The Edhi Foundation also has a unique program to save the lives of unwanted babies. Outside most Edhi centers are cradles where these infants can be left for the Edhi volunteers to care for. A sign by each cradle says: “Don’t kill your babies, leave them here for us to take care of them.”

When I talked to Mr. Edhi in 1990, his foundation had taken care of 5,500 babies.

Babies come from unwed mothers and from parents who, because of abject poverty, are not able to care for them. The babies are later available for adoption. The number of such infants cared by the Edhi Foundation is much higher now.

Back in the late 1980s there was talk in Pakistan about an ambitious scheme that Mr. Edhi was trying to put in place.

Called the 50-kilometer scheme, Mr. Edhi planned to build emergency first-aid stations every 35 miles along the 1,000-mile Pakistani national highway that connects Peshawar in the north with Karachi in the south. 

He had envisioned that an ambulance would be dispatched from the nearest first-aid station to pick up trauma victims on the highway, provide first aid, and take them to the nearest hospital. I thought it was a pipe dream, and given the pervasive corruption in the country, it was next to impossible to accomplish.

But he had a point. “Look Dr. Sahib,” he began. “In Pakistan a man driving the most expensive car gets into an accident and dies because a life-saving medicine costing a few rupees is not available. The emergency first-aid centers are desperately needed to reduce the deaths due to roadside accidents. We will stock such centers with these medicines.”

When we talked many centers were operating, and according to him, already a reduction of 60 percent in deaths had taken place in areas where the emergency aid system was in place.

His approach to building emergency aid stations was unusual. In the 1980s it cost a few thousand dollars to build one center. He appealed to people to build such stations near their villages along the highway. Mr. Edhi provided the design and supervision. Then he extended the concept to build similar centers along other major roads in the country.

He also envisioned a trauma hospital every 200 miles along the national highway. Parts of that vision still have to be realized.

I always wondered about his personal faith and how it drives his work. “You are a religious man — where do you put religion in all that you do?” 

His reply startled me.

“The devotion is a combination of worship and service,” Mr. Edhi told me. “The mullah or an imam merely shows the path to salvation through prayer. I say serve humanity and pray when you have time for it.”

Elsewhere he had said that no religion is higher than humanity. In saying this he was reinforcing the old Islamic concept of man’s obligation to God — prayers — and obligation to humanity — service. Because he embraced and welcomed all comers, regardless of religion, he was not the favorite of the orthodox Muslim clergy.

“Do you follow the tenets of Islam?” I asked.

“As best as I can. But I please Allah by serving His creation,” he said.

Mr. Edhi lived in a two-room apartment with his wife and children in a century-old building in the Methadur neighborhood of Karachi. He told me he got up early each morning to pray.

During the night he said his staff often woke him to seek his advice on emerging issues. His breakfast consisted of sweetened milk and flat bread, and then he left for the center a few minutes walk from his home. About noon his wife brought him a simple lunch of bread and curry. Dinner was often leftovers from lunch.

Mr. Edhi did not take any salary from the organization and instead used income from his meager savings for his living expenses.

“The international press has called you Pakistani Mother Teresa. Does that please you?” I asked him.

“I have never met Mother Teresa, but I admire and respect her. I have corresponded with her. We both have used our respective religions to serve humanity.”

“How about being nominated for Nobel Peace Prize?”

“I have no desire to be win Nobel Prize. That my countrymen appreciate my efforts is a reward in itself.”

“Are you satisfied with how things have worked out?”

“Yes, I am very satisfied. When we started, it was very hard. It took me 29 years to convince my country that it was a worthwhile cause. Since then the donations keep coming. The hard work has borne fruit, and I and very happy.”

The mission that he began with an old pickup truck converted into an ambulance now has a fleet of 1,800 ambulances that are dispatched within 10 minutes of receiving a call. The Edhi foundation owns two fixed-wing small Cessna airplanes and one helicopter. The airplanes were courtesy of a wealthy Pakistani businessman from England, and the helicopter was donated by USAID.

Mr. Edhi proved that small ideas can lead to big successes.

He was a hands-on man. He kept the finances in his hands and most decisions were made by him and his wife and were discussed with some of his closest advisers. He thought it was the only way he could keep tabs on how money was spent. In a decentralized system in a country known for the propensity for corruption, nothing much would have reached the lower rungs of the society.

The comparison of him to Mother Teresa of Kolkata is true, but only up to a point. He did much more than taking care of the poor living on the streets and by providing shelter and burials.

Mr. Edhi’s work encompassed all aspects of human welfare, and his work was not limited to Pakistan. He sent relief missions to Ethiopia, Canada, United Kingdom, Bangladesh, and Japan. His agency donated $100,000 toward relief efforts during in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He was honored and widely admired by Pakistan while he was alive. After he died the country gave him a state funeral — the third in the country’s history — and announced the minting of a new 50-rupee coin in his honor.

Ejaz Rahim, a Pakistani poet extraordinaire, sums up Abdul Sattar Edhi and his work in a long poem titled Edhi Sahib. In part it says:

You had no time for words,

No leisure for pathos-seeking,

Or kudos-hunting sport.

There were human beings waiting

To be saved,

From endless conflagrations.

The orphaned and ill-starred,

The waifs and strays of the land,

The scum of the streets,

The wretched of the earth.

Wasted lives, plundered souls,

Thrown into the dark night,

By salesmen of light.

The mentally wounded

The sadly adrift.

Even hurt animals, injured beasts,

Whelping in pain.

S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net.

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