Saints of Pakistan

Abdul Sattar Ehdi and Bilquis Edhi, who are often praised as Muslim equivalents of Mother Teresa, run what is perhaps the world’s largest volunteer organization

Jay Dunn | November 2004 issue

Chetan Kumar began to suspect he had cancer a year ago, but kept pushing himself through the dizzy spells. At age 23 knew full well the importance of his small income. From a family of farmers in Pakistan’s Sindh province, he had worked his way into a good job as a journalist with the Ibrad News Daily. When a definitive diagnosis came, the newspaper let him go, in spite of the very public protests of his colleagues. When it became clear there would be no more money, what remained was a shaken young man with the immense love of his family but little hope for the future.

But for the last fifty years, many of the poor, the desperate, in Pakistan have had a place to turn. Slowly, steadily, and with the help of many volunteers from all walks of life, Muslim social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife Bilquis have created a vast network of social services for the common people where anyone, regardless of faith or social status, can find help.

Fuelled by a fierce conviction that the only way out of poverty is through self-help, Edhi has created perhaps the world’s largest volunteer organization, which is funded entirely by donations, and exists without logistical or monetary help from the government. In Karachi alone, a sprawling city of fifteen million, Edhi Foundation clinics take care of thousands of people every day. The destitute, the homeless, the handicapped, and the mentally ill are housed in Edhi Centers. To women fleeing abuse and children who run away, shelter and counsel is given. Soup kitchens feed the hungry, volunteers tend the sick. Even unwanted babies can be left in “jhoolas,” cradles provided by the centers, to save them from being abandoned. Medicine is free, treatment is free.

In a country where only three percent of GDP is spent on public health (fifteen percent is the norm in the West), Abdul Sattar is looked upon as a national hero. But for Chetan Kumar, who is now on a second course of therapy at Edhi’s Free Cancer Research Hospital, Abdul Sattar Edhi is a saint. Comparisons with Mother Theresa abound, yet Pakistanis proudly point out that Edhi is a native son, that he doesn’t proselytize, and that his doors are open to everyone.

Edhi’s mission goes beyond just the living. Over the past 40 years, his organizations have given a proper burial to more than 375,000 people who would otherwise have been forgotten. They are buried if they are Christian, burned if they are Hindu, or washed and shrouded according to Muslim tradition. When the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered, the Pakistani government asked Edhi to keep his body at the foundation’s morgue while awaiting positive identification.

Edhi’s ambulances cover the country, and are often first on the scene, at highway crashes on and natural disasters, at bomb blasts and ferry accidents. The Edhi Foundation provides free lawyers to the accused, aid to the stranded, protection to the victims of domestic violence, and emergency relief to millions of drought, famine, and flood victims—not just in Pakistan but throughout the world. Emergency relief supplies have been sent to refugees and war casualties in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Bosnia, and earthquake zones in Iran, Armenia, Egypt and Japan. In a moving ceremony in India recently, Bilquis Edhi accepted a humanitarian award presented by the Dalai Lama, and with the proceeds purchased new saris for the hundreds of women in New Delhi’s notorious Tihar Prison.

I meet Abdul Sattar and Bilquis Edhi at their home, which is also the foundation’s office in Karachi’s teeming Saddar Bazaar—in the same building housing the original medical dispensary Abdul Sattar opened at age 23, beneath a banner that read, “Those who give to charity are blessed, those who cannot are also blessed.”

Though their headquarters have now expanded to include the whole building, the Edhis still live in the same rooms just off the first floor. Upstairs from their office, the sound of infants could be heard in the nursery for abandoned babies. As we began our interview, an older gentleman rushed in, gave Edhi a big hug, and departed without a word. It turned out the man, somewhat mentally challenged, lives at the center. He’s been making this same greeting every day for the last forty-five years.

Edhi was born in 1928 in the west Indian state of Gujarat, and learned about charitable work early, joining with his mother to help others in their village. He became so committed to community service that it consumed more of his time than formal schooling. In 1947, after the trauma of Partition, the family migrated to Pakistan, with many thousands of other Muslims.

Edhi also showed an entrepreneurial spirit, which earned him a coveted position as an agent in a Pakistani cloth market. But from the start he did not find this work wholly satisfying, and he grew involved with a charity organization working in his neighborhood. Feeling they were not devoting enough of their time to actually serving the needy, Edhi struck out on his own and in 1951 invested most of his savings into a small shop, which he stocked with medicines he sold for less than retail prices.

News of his dispensary spread quickly, and volunteers appeared as frequently as patients. Within two years Edhi had hired a female doctor, opened a maternity unit upstairs, and was offering nursing courses. To a man with wide hopes and a sincere devotion to Allah, the path led clearly away from the narrow confines of standard religious education and toward an all-encompassing sense of personal responsibility. For Edhi, the realization that he didn’t need to be a religious scholar to honor the tenets of Islam was an epiphany. “Islam is a prescription for helping, “ he says.

In 1957, when a flu epidemic sickened thousands of people, Edhi set up free medical tents across Karachi offering immunization shots to help control the outbreak. Outside each was a small box with a familiar label: “Pay what you can, don’t if you cannot…” At official donation centers all over Pakistan today, volunteers receive charitable offerings of money or goods from a remarkable cross-section of the populace. In part due to public recognition of his work with the epidemic, Edhi received his first major donation, with which he bought his first van. He has rarely looked back.

Although she probably didn’t expect to become as renowned as her husband when she married him in 1966, Bilquis Edhi is as indefatigable, opinionated, and well-respected as Abdul Sattar . The determination she showed in her early career as a nurse has served her well in the myriad roles she has undertaken.

Although widely admired for their humanitarian work, Bilquis and Abdul Sattar meet frequent resentment and resistance toward their efforts to promote women’s rights in a traditionally male-dominated society. Bilquis Edhi is adamant when asked if there has been much progress in this area: “Men don’t want to give women any rights at all. They use Islam and religion to suppress women.” Abdul Sattar is slightly more upbeat: “Our society is very narrow-minded. It is very difficult. But we are not disappointed. We are hopeful that there will be change…”

Today, at the age of seventy-six, Abdul Sattar Edhi is probably the most famous man in Pakistan, yet he is little known outside the country. This is in part because he refuses aid from either governments or international agencies like the World Bank, out of his belief that dependence on handouts weakens people’s will to solve their own problems. Edhi also avoids almost every kind of public event that is not directly involved with fund-raising for his foundation.

Much of Edhi’s funding comes from the traditional practice of “Zaqat,” one of the five pillars of Islam, which deems that money be given to the religious establishment for the public good. Many Muslims in Pakistani give donations to Edhi foundation instead, because they have little faith these funds will be well-used by the religious authorities. Edhi has alienated some mullahs by accepting it, and several powerful religious figures have publicly opposed Edhi’s self-help philosophy. They are not only unhappy that many Pakistanis have found somewhere beyond established Muslim leaders for their zaqat donations, but resentful that Edhi is providing an alternative to strictly religious education.

Edhi has other critics, too. Some Pakistanis are just plain skeptical that all the money coming into the foundation gets spent on worthwhile projects. A few people also question the bleak conditions in some of Edhi’s facilities, and wonder whether in such dire circumstances, if it would not be better to be dead.

When asked about the future of these charities after they are gone, Abdul Sattar and Bilquis Edhi looked at each other and smiled. “Yes,” he said, “they will go on. We have prepared my family for this time, also. From here on, we are only watching them do the work…” The Edhis have four children, three of whom have taken up the family enterprise with great vigor.

To understand the genuine impact Edhi’s work is to watch some of the thousands of children not part of his family that he has brought up. In a class at a shelter for women, kids work on their math or their ABCs. They laugh and cry and play like any others given the same opportunity. Edhi has pointed out, humanitarianism is the basis of all religions, and so it’s not surprising these children are from different faiths. Outside these walls, the hard realities of disease and poverty and ethnic turmoil prevail, but inside is a model of what Pakistan—and the worl—could be.

Edhi

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