Edhi: The humble idealist whose religion was humanitarianism

He rendered unparalleled, unique and unforgettable services for the welfare and betterment of human beings with complete dedication and commitment for over 60 years of his life

The legendary philanthropist and celebrated humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi, who devoted his life to the poor and the destitute, died on Friday night at the age of 92 in Karachi following a prolonged illness. Buried with national flag wrapped around his coffin and guard of honour after thousands of crying eyes offered his funeral prayer, he left behind irreparable memories.

In reality, the demise of a great servant of humanity, an irreplaceable gem and the real manifestation of love for socially vulnerable, impoverished, helpless and poor who called him Abu, is an irreparable loss for the people of Pakistan.

A world renowned social activist and humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi, once said ‘my religion is humanitarianism’, which is the basis of every religion in the world. He rendered unparalleled, unique and unforgettable services for the welfare and betterment of human beings with complete dedication and commitment for over 60 years of his life in the country.

Born in 1928 in a small village of Bantva near Joona Garh in Gujarat district of then British-ruled India, arriving in Pakistan in 1947, Edhi was deeply affected by the death of his mother when he was 19. He never finished school but later said the world of suffering became his tutor. It is said that the state’s failure to treat properly his mother – paralysed and suffering from mental health issues – was his painful and decisive turning point towards philanthropy. He, full of idealism and hope, opened his first clinic in the sticky streets in Karachi in 1951, starting a long journey of philanthropic work.

Founded six decades ago by this noble person, motivated by a spiritual quest for justice, with an initial sum of Rs 5,000 and his unrelenting struggle, Edhi Foundation is the largest welfare organisation in the country. It has over 330 welfare centres in rural and urban areas operating as orphanages, food kitchens, rehabilitation centres for senior citizens and drug addicts, nursing homes, shelter homes for abandoned women, clinics for treatment of injured animals and hospitals for the mentally handicapped poor people – all offering services free of charge.

Since its inception, the foundation has rescued over 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitated over 50,000 orphans and trained over 40,000 nurses so far. The most prominent symbols of the foundation are 1,500 ambulances – Pakistan’s largest ambulance service.

Beside these services, Edhi Foundation also provides technical education to the disadvantaged, religious education for street children, consultations on family planning and maternity services, as well as free legal aid, financial and medical support to prisoners and the handicapped.

As his work spread across the country, Edhi remained involved practically in the Edhi Foundation, from raising funds to helping with ritual bathing of the dead bodies of the deceased poor. He also personally drove one of the network’s ambulances across Karachi to help anyone in need. “I drove no vehicle in my life but the ambulance,” he once recounted.

His services, rendered to humanity, earned him many of the awards at home and abroad, including the 1986 Ramon Magsaysay Award, in 1989 Nishan-e-Imtiaz from the government of Pakistan, the Lenin Peace Prize, the Balzan Prize, in 2006 a honoris causa degree of Doctor of Social Service Management by Institute of Business Administration Pakistan, the Gandhi peace award, the 2007 Unesco Madanjeet Singh prize, the 2008 Seoul peace award and the Hamdan award, in 2010 an honorary degree of doctorate by the University of Bedfordshire and the 2011 London peace award. According to opinions of many people, in recognition of his services for human beings, he should have been given the Nobel Prize, which he deserved.

Edhi came from humble origins and remained a quiet and modest man all his life, which in part was what inspired the nationwide love for him among the people. Before his death, Edhi wished his eyes be donated to a person in need after he dies. Despite the vast sums of money that passed through his foundation, Edhi lived modestly with his family in a two-room apartment with no window adjacent to the headquarters of his foundation.

Shaikh Abdul Rasheed is a social activist and researcher. Follow him on Twitter