“No religion is higher than humanity” - Abdul Sattar Edhi

Sheila Musaji

Posted Apr 1, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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“No religion is higher than humanity” - Abdul Sattar Edhi

by Sheila Musaji

It was reported this week that a French video documentary on Abdul Sattar Edhi titled “The Kingdom of Mr Edhi” has won two prestigious awards in France.  It was also reported that Sean Penn had recently visited Edhi in Pakistan. 

Obviously, Abdul Sattar Edhi is a person of significance, and yet, I doubt if most people outside of Pakistan, or outside of the Pakistani immigrant community in the West have ever heard of him.

Edhi, like Abdul Ghaffar “Bacha” Khan, who organized non-violent resistance to British rule among the tribal people of what is now Afghanistan gets little mention.  Most people have heard of Mother Theresa (a counterpart to Edhi) or Gandhi (a counterpart to Khan), but Muslims who serve humanity just don’t get much publicity.

You can view a touching video of Edhi himself explaining his life’s work here.

Moral Heroes has an entry on Edhi which gives a good overview of his life


Edhi is one of the most active philanthropists in Pakistan, a premiere example of a life of compassion, perseverance and patience.  Born January 1st 1928 in British India, Edhi grew up taking care of his mother who suffered from paralysis and diabetes. She taught him a daily lesson by giving him two paisas, one to spend on himself, and one on someone less fortunate. This simple lesson shaped him into the great man that he is today. In a region that had faced great turmoil after the dismantling of the British Empire, where millions of Hindus and Muslims were uprooted and became refugees, it wasn’t hard to find someone less fortunate.

“I had accepted at the outset that charity was distorted and completely unrelated to its original concept. Reverting to the ideal was like diverting an ocean of wild waters. Another major obstacle in the promotion of welfare was exposed…the disgust of man towards mankind. There was only one expression, one reaction from everyone…cringing.

…We could not reduce suffering unless we rose above our own senses…cringing was the first and the greatest hindrance that blocked our way, the most brutal, but also the most understandable.”        Abdul Sitar Edhi

Around the age of 20, Edhi and his family migrated to Karachi, Pakistan. Here the conditions were not any better, infants were discarded on roadsides and adult corpses baked in the sun. Edhi began to realize the dire need for medicine and saved up his money to open a charitable clinic. Despite not having a formal education, he applied himself to learn basic medical care from a friend who was a doctor. He was a simple man with a simple philosophy, and he would sleep on the concrete outside the clinic so that he was available to anyone who needed help anytime.

In 1957, there was a major flu epidemic in the city of Karachi. He quickly began setting up tents on the outskirts of the city and distributing free immunizations. Due to his efforts and the public outpouring of financial support he was able to purchase the entire building that his small tiny clinic was on. He then established the Edhi foundation, which continues today, and is run completely by public support. Government, religious and political money is always cheerfully returned so they organization can remain independent and react to any social needs as they come.

His Deeds:

As the years went on, and the public funding grew, Edhi was able to expand his humanitarian reach. He bought an ambulance that would drive himself. Then set up a free maternity center and a nursing school. Expanded the number of clinics, and began mental health institutions and homes for the physically handicapped. Always aware of the needs around him, Edhi set up orphanages, adoption centers, blood banks, maternity centers,  soup kitchens, and shelters for children and battered women. His extraordinary social welfare network continues to grow today.

The Edhi foundation is now the largest in Pakistan, having over 300 clinics, 2000 ambulances over the country, 8 hospitals in Karachi alone, a cancer hospital and mobile clinics, a legal aid department with free services and doctor visits for inmates. Over 20,000 abandon babies have been saved through the Edhi foundation. The Edhi orphanages have served over 50,000 orphans, and their nursing school have educated and trained more than 40,000 nurses.

Yet even now, Abdul Sattar Edhi spends many sleepless nights and days ministering to the needs of his fellow Pakistanis, traveling with the ambulances to calls for help, personally bathing the handicapped and spending time playing with and educating the orphaned street children he comes across. Each evening Edhi spends his dinner dining with the hundreds of poor at the “Langar” (free community meals) his organization provides.
It is amazing how great of an impact one dedicated and determined individual can have on the world around them.

A Washington Post article by Pamela Constable adds some interesting details about this great man

... I asked whether he was a religious man, and he shook his head. “My religion is humanity. It is the only religion that matters,” he said. This was a startling statement to hear in an Islamic republic. Later, I learned that some Muslim clerics had banned mosques from helping Edhi, but that admirers greeted him as “maulana sahib,” a term of religious respect.

There were other contradictions: Edhi was the product of a prominent business clan, but he had been drawn early to a humbler calling. After serving briefly in Parliament, he grew disillusioned with politics and rejected organized charity as placating rather than empowering the poor. In the 1960s, he turned full-time to his fledgling mission in the slums.

“I decided not to knock on the door of the industrialists and the landlords, because they are the root cause of all our social problems,” he told me. “The rich have deprived the people of their rights, and the state does not take responsibility for their welfare. It is my dream to build a welfare state in Pakistan, but I have not seen it come in my lifetime.”

The leftist tinge of his speech suggested that Edhi was more complex than a saintly do-gooder. He was a self-appointed conscience of the nation, seeking to shock the comfortable and galvanize the afflicted. And he got away with it, year after year, because he lived what he preached.

That Edhi is serious about not taking funds from any but ordinary individuals was also reported by Richard Covington

Starting in 1951 with a tiny dispensary in Karachi’s poor Mithadar neighborhood, Edhi has steadily built up a nationwide organization of ambulances, clinics, maternity homes, mental asylums, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks, orphanages, adoption centers, mortuaries, shelters for runaway children and battered women, schools, nursing courses, soup kitchens and a 25-bed cancer hospital. All are run by some 7000 volunteers and a small paid staff of teachers, doctors and nurses. Edhi has also personally delivered medicines, food and clothing to refugees in Bosnia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. He and the drivers of his ambulances have saved lives in floods, train wrecks, civil conflicts and traffic accidents. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, he donated $100,000 to Pakistanis in New York who lost their jobs in the subsequent economic crisis.

Remarkably, the lion’s share of the Edhi Foundation’s $10-million budget comes from private donations from individual Pakistanis inside and outside the country. In the 1980’s, when Pakistan’s then-President Zia ul-Haq sent him a check for 500,000 rupees (then more than $30,000), Edhi sent it back. Last year, the Italian government offered him a million-dollar donation. He refused. “Governments set conditions that I cannot accept,” he says, declining to give any details.

Edhi has received recognition, but is not as well known outside of Pakistan as he should be.  In 1985 he received the Nishan-e-Imtiaz from the Government of Pakistan in recognition of his services. In 1986 he received the Ramón Magsaysay Award for Public Service from the government of the Philippines.  In 2000, he was awarded the International Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood. In 2002, he joined former us President Bill Clinton, Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel and others as an honorary board member of the newly founded Daniel Pearl Foundation, created in honor of the murdered Wall Street Journal correspondent.  In 2011 the Pakistani Prime Minister recommended that Edhi be nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Edhi is loved by the poor, and trusted by ordinary people.  The Citizens Archive Project of Pakistan included an interview with Edhi in their archive.  The reporter who was sent to do the interview wrote this about his meeting with Edhi:

We just walked into the Edhi office in Mithadar. We had no precise address and no phone number we could reach easily, but this didn’t turn out to be a problem at all. Every single person we stopped in the congested streets knew where Edhi sahib’s office was and they were able to direct us so accurately we arrived twenty minutes early. Nobody asked us why we were early or how long we planned to stay. We were ushered into a room decorated with posters from campaigns for a drug free Pakistan, a tolerant Pakistan, a compassionate Pakistan. Several honorary degrees were displayed under the glass top of a table we sat on (a table we learned was “older than this country”). A large red sticker was on the door behind me. “LOVE HUMANITY,” it proclaimed in gaudy yellow lettering. I wondered at the man who had stuffed honorary PhDs under a glass top and chosen to frame and display a sticker like that. That’s all you can do with Edhi. Wonder.

I was nervous about meeting him. I’ve wanted to meet him since I was eight years old. I doubt there is a single man alive who commands as much respect, trust and gratitude as Abdul Sattar Edhi. Beggars, dacoits, philanthropists and society aunties alike feel safe depositing their zakat, their sadqas, their khairat, their earnings, their bread into his fund, knowing that it will reach whoever needs it most. Personally, I am not an especially spiritual person, but when I think of prayer I recall being nine years old and trying very hard to send blessings to the mysterious Edhi who seems to be keeping our country afloat singlehandedly. I don’t know what I expected of him today, but I did not expect him to walk into the room while we were all setting up our equipment and hearing him say “Assalam Alaikum” unassumingly, as if he wasn’t Edhi himself but simply a random person strolling into the room.

Once I had recovered from being tongue tied and begun the interview, I learned many things I didn’t know about Edhi, but many more I hadn’t realized about society. I learned that he describes himself as a Sheikh Chilli who never dreams small. I learned that he despises maulanas who choose Islamism over humanity, but equally disparages those who despise criminals without understanding their motives. I learned that his inspiration for placing a cradle outside every welfare center was his experience of picking maggot-ridden babies out of the trash and seeing an illegitimate infant stoned outside a mosque. I learned that he deeply loves his wife, doesn’t understand why people don’t choose to adopt daughters and employs mostly women because he believes they do God’s work better than men. I learned that he has met Gandhi and befriended Bacha Khan in his youth. More than anything, I learned that nothing disgusts him more than people who see humans as anything but humans. “Insaniyat” is the only religion, he told us. I asked him what inspired him to start working for all of us the way he does. “I am a Muslim and I do what God has asked me to do. The only message of religion is that humanity is one. Nowadays, the world has become so big that we find ways to divide it up, but that’s what destroys us-divisions, divisions, divisions.”

I don’t think any of us knew that Edhi has worked for humane causes in no less than 73 countries. I don’t think any of us expected him to well up with sadness when he told us that India, the country of his birth, is one of the only two countries in the world that has denied him a visa for his work. That alone speaks volumes about who and what we are today. A world which denies the champion of transcending divisions a visa to cross the border.

Edhi is not a favorite of the powerful, rich, and influential.  As Peter Oborne reported after spending some time with Edhi, this is not surprising:

Over time, Mr Edhi came to exercise such a vast moral authority that Pakistan’s corrupt politicians had to pay court. In 1982, General Zia announced the establishment of a shura (advisory council) to determine matters of state according to Islamic principles.

Mr Edhi was suspicious: “I represented the millions of downtrodden, and was aware that my presence gave the required credibility to an illegal rule.”

Travelling to Rawalpindi to speak at the national assembly, he delivered a passionate denunciation of political corruption, telling an audience of MPs, including Zia himself: “The people have been neglected long enough.

“One day they shall rise like mad men and pull down these walls that keep their future captive. Mark my words and heed them before you find yourselves the prey instead of the predator.”

Mr Edhi did not distinguish between politicians and criminals, asking: “Why should I condemn a declared dacoit [bandit] and not condemn the respectable villain who enjoys his spoils as if he achieved them by some noble means?”

This impartiality had its advantages. It meant that a truce would be declared when Mr Edhi and his ambulance arrived at the scene of gun battles between police and gangsters.

“They would cease fire,” notes Mr Edhi in his autobiography, “until bodies were carried to the ambulance, the engine would start and shooting would resume.”

Edhi is also not loved by those with a narrow-minded interpretation of religion.  Shazia Ali wrote an article with a collection of quotes from Edhi himself, which also make it clear why this is also not surprising:

His enlightenment can be seen in his views regarding various aspects of religion and general human behaviour. In his autobiography, “Abdul Sattar Edhi – A Mirror To The Blind”, while describing his trip to Madinah, he narrates:  “Here again they (the devotees at the grave of Prophet Muhammad s.m) pushed and shoved each other…they preferred to remain ignorant despite the Islamic demand of ilm, the knowledge of life, they came empty and left with nothing.”

At the time of the stoning of the Satan, one of the rituals of the pilgrimage (Hajj), Edhi recollects:  “We halted at Mashar, collected our pebbles and departed for Mina where the ritual of stoning Satan is ordered. I refrained from symbolically throwing stones at Satan and gave some pebbles to a travelling companion to throw on my behalf, keeping a few with myself. Stoning of selfish desires is the demand. I stone mine all the time. I will throw stones in Pakistan where there are many satans.”

During Hajj, while Edhi was distributing medicines from his ambulance, his wife said to him:  “Standing here before the house of God, you have an opportunity to be with Him, but you are still involved with your dispensary. Why don’t you pray all the time?”  To which he replied:  “I am praying.”

He goes on to explain in his autobiography:  “More than ever before, I was praying now. Working for Him with the labour of mind and body. By submitting to His demand of practical devotion, I was becoming worthy of having been created…Public service is the only meaningful way to pray and the most perfect interpretation of Quran.”


[]What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. ~ Talmud, Shabbat 3id

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. ~ Matthew 7:12

No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. ~ Sunnah




Aging philanthropist is Pakistan’s Mother Teresa , Chris Brummitt http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38903962/ns/world_news-south_and_central_asia/t/aging-philanthropist-pakistans-mother-teresa/

The day I met Abdul Sattar Edhi, a living saint, Peter Oborne http://www.illumemagazine.com/zine/articleDetail.php?The-Day-I-Met-Abdul-Sattar-Edhi-a-Living-Saint-13540

Documentary detailing life and works of Abdul Sattar Edhi wins French awards http://tribune.com.pk/story/357486/documentary-detailing-life-and-works-of-abdul-sattar-edhi-wins-2-french-awards/

Abdul Sattar Edhi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdul_Sattar_Edhi

Abdul Sattar Edhi, uneducated yet enlightened, Shazia Yousuf http://www.paradigmhouse.net/2011/04/perspective-abdul-sattar-edhi.html

Edhi Foundation Website http://www.edhifoundation.com/

Good News About Muslims 2012 http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/positive-news

Humanitarian to a nation, Richard Covington http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200406/humanitarian.to.a.nation.htm

Interview with Abdul Sattar Edhi (video and transcript), Fred DeSam Lazaro http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/august-19-2011/pakistani-humanitarian/9311/

Muslim Voices Promoting Islamic Non Violent Solutions - TAM article collection http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/promoting_islamic_non_violent_solutions

Pakistan’s only true living hero, Pamela Constable http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/pakistans-only-true-living-hero/2011/08/24/gIQAj6cRgJ_story.html

Serving Humanity: Abdul Sattar Edhi, Salma Hasan Ali http://theislamicmonthly.com/issues/1/article/11/serving_humanity_abdul_sattar_edhi.html