Memories of a living saint

The scale and devotion of Abdul Sattar Edhi’s philanthropic foundation were matched by his personal care-giving to the needy.

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

Published - July 11, 2016 12:16 am IST

In a land of many saints and Sufis, notions and terms which have now been appropriated by western academics working on Pakistani Islam to denote any construction of Islam which disassociates itself with either the Wahabi or Deobandi variant, ‘Maulana’ Abdul Sattar Edhi, born in Bantva, Gujarat in colonial India in 1928, was considered by all denominations within Islam, and by non-Muslims as well, as a living saint, till his death on Friday. His funeral and particularly his namaaz-e-janaza represented much more of what Pakistan is today, and none of the saintliness of a faqir, which Edhi had become.

A conspicuous contrast Edhi’s namaaz-e-janaza was held at the National Stadium in Karachi, once renowned for many a cricket match but now an abandoned memorial to international cricket in Pakistan, and was attended by the most important individuals in the country today. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, after spending seven weeks in London following a heart by-pass, was on his way back to Lahore, and did not attend. The President of Pakistan and the three heads of the armed forces, along with the Chief Minister of the Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif's brother, and the Chief Minister and Governor of Sindh, along with many other officials, were all present. With these very, very important people in attendance, in terrorism-inflicted Pakistan, security was at the highest level imaginable, which basically meant that the aam awam , the common people to whom Abdul Sattar Edhi had devoted his life, were not able to participate as effectively as they may have wished.

Equally important, women were not allowed to enter the National Stadium to pay their last respects. Not only did Edhi do so much for women in Pakistan, helping them in so many different ways, whether they were considered destitute or had unwanted babies, his wife Bilquis Edhi was an equal participant in the world that he had created, that of the Edhi Foundation. The Government of Pakistan gave him a state funeral, but this was not the first time that someone like this people’s man, the “iconic” and “world famed” social worker, “Pakistan’s messiah”, as the newspapers called him, “Pakistan’s most loved person”, was appropriated by Pakistan’s civil and military elite, taken away from the people amongst whom he worked and who loved him in return. Just a few hours after his death, looking from above, Sattar Edhi would have abhorred this usurpation and the creation of this divide.

A trailblazer

Sattar Edhi migrated to Karachi after Partition, and was the son of a small-time Gujarati Memon businessman. Edhi helped his father in his work, but by 1951 had decided to take a very different path from most Pakistanis. According to reports, he set up a small dispensary for poor people in the old part of Karachi where he lived, which eventually gave rise to his life-long humanitarian mission. By 1974, the Edhi Foundation had come into existence, and by the time he passed away some 40 years later it had become one of the largest philanthropic institutions in Pakistan. It is said to have mobile dispensaries, orphanages, shelter homes, an animal hostel, maternity homes, morgues and graveyards. There are estimated to be 335 Edhi centres or similar institutions across Pakistan, with hundreds, if not a few thousand, ambulances. The Edhi Foundation is said to run the largest free ambulance service in the world. The Foundation has even set up branches internationally, wherever Pakistanis lived and recognised Edhi’s mission. All the work done by the Edhi Foundation is based on voluntary contributions, and Edhi himself was seen in the streets collecting chanda from anyone who wanted to contribute. Children were most enthusiastic about the old man walking across the country collecting contributions, but so were businessmen and the common people.

Even Pakistan’s Left, otherwise so critical of “social work”, gave him a surkh salam and claimed him as one of their own, a fellow comrade. The Awami Workers Party in its eulogy of Edhi stated: “For Edhi, the wretchedness that he was fighting against was infused with the same sense of injustice that permeates a politics of the Left. He combined communist thought with stories of the weak battling the powerful in Islam, and the rich enslaving the poor in the streets he worked on.”

Leading by example Abdul Sattar Edhi did not run a corporate empire in the sense one usually imagines, even though he created a large enterprise, for he was seen in the worst possible, most difficult and devastated places himself, dirtying his hands wherever required. He picked up mutilated bodies from the killings fields of Karachi and washed and buried such victims of political or daily violence — he is said to have given the last ghusl to as many as 58,000 people personally. He was found traipsing over mountains after earthquakes hit Pakistan or after floods displaced people. He was seen in Bosnia, in different parts of Africa; wherever he felt a humanitarian crisis occurred, the Maulana was to be found.

In 2015, it was eventually through the help of the Edhi Foundation that the deaf and mute Geeta was sought to be united with her family in India after spending 13 years involuntarily in Pakistan. The Dawn newspaper reported that Geeta had built a private temple in the Edhi Foundation shelter she was housed in, “with posters of Hindu gods: Lord Krishna, Lord Rama and Sita, goddess Durga, Shiva and Parvati and a small statue of Lord Ganesha resting on a table, alongside with earthen lamps and incense”. Once asked why he picked up Christians and Hindus in his ambulances, Edhi is said to have famously replied: “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”

While we mourn the passing of someone who stood above and beyond caste, creed, belief, gender or denomination, especially in such a divided city such as Karachi, or a country such as Pakistan, the need for a saint such as a Sattar Edhi represents the failure of the Pakistani state at so many levels, at its inability to even deliver basic social services to its people. The only time the state works, is through its pomp and force of power, as witnessed by its exclusionary politics at Edhi’s funeral.

The contrast between the man’s life and his death, could not be more stark.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi.

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