In a country where religious intolerance and sectarian extremism are rife, Abdul Sattar Edhi was an embodiment of humanism and secular values. He devoted literally his whole life to the welfare of his countrymen, rising above ethnic and religious dogmas and prejudices. In fact, he was the 'Mother Teresa' of the Islamic country sans religion, a fact that puts him a notch above the legendary Roman Catholic nun. For Edhi, who called himself a secular person, humanity was more important than anything else, and he proved it by working relentlessly for people of all faiths, including the religious minorities and the downtrodden, without caring for the worldly or heavenly rewards.
That is why the news of his death on July 8, 2016, confirmed by his family in Pakistan and reported by Pakistani media, shocked the entire nation. Pakistan's most humane and most respected person is no more.
The Edhi Foundation, which the late Pakistani activist had run for six decades, has revolutionized charity work not only in Pakistan but in all of South Asia. The foundation operates "a large ambulance service, free nursing homes, orphanages, clinics, women's shelters, food kitchens, and rehabilitation centers for drug addicts and mentally ill individuals all across the country," according to the Edhi Foundation website. In Pakistan, people often say that in the face of a calamity, the Edhi ambulances reach the affected long before the state officials do.
"An average Pakistani is known all over the world because of terrorism, religious militancy and sectarianism. Edhi represented the country's 'soft image.' It's been people like him who reassured us that not everything is bad in Pakistan," Dr. Mehdi Hasan, a Lahore-based professor and intellectual, told DW.
"Edhi started his work from a small house, and today his foundation is running the largest network of ambulances in South Asia. Unlike Pakistan's most politicians and activists, Edhi lived a simple life, and that's the reason why people always showered him with donations. They knew their money would be spent for the country's welfare," Hasan added.
Senator Taj Haider shares Hasan's view: "In Pakistan, where the state is not ready to fulfill its responsibilities, two phenomena emerged — one, the private sector, which is out there to make money, and two, the selfless people like Edhi, who filled in the vacuum created by the state's apathy."
A posthumous Nobel for Edhi?
With Edhi's demise, the campaign to get him a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize, which is given on rare occasions, is getting stronger in the country. Most Pakistanis believe that if there was a person who truly deserved to win the prestigious award, it was Abdul Sattar Edhi.
Pakistani Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai said in January that she had nominated Edhi for the Nobel Peace Prize 2016 as she believed he was the "most deserving person for this award."
"Abdul Sattar Edhi's services and sacrifices are unparalleled. He has been serving humanity irrespective of class, creed or gender," she had told reporters in Birmingham.
But Edhi was not a big fan of awards and often said that the work he was doing was bigger than any accolade.
"My job is to serve humanity. The work inspires and satisfies me," he once had said.
It's not that Edhi did not get any international recognition for his work. In 1986, he and his wife, Bilquis Edhi - also a charity worker - received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service. He was also the recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize and the Balzan Prize. In 1989, the Pakistani government conferred on him the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, one of the country's highest civilian awards.
Edhi was largely an apolitical person, but in some interviews he had said he was inspired by socialism. He was definitely against religious and sectarian politics and opposed military dictatorships.
"The anti-democratic forces in Pakistan did not like him because he believed in a social revolution and hated military governments," Senator Haider said.
Despite his fondness for socialism, Edhi was liked by many religious leaders as well.
"Edhi is known for his great services for humanity. He was like an institution who worked tirelessly for the most underprivileged people of Pakistani society. He faced difficult times during his mission, but he kept on working with great consistency," Syed Munawar Hassan, former chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami party, told DW.
Though Edhi is now dead, his family and the activists working for his charity have vowed to continue his mission. Edhi made sure he would leave behind an institution which would serve humanity even after his death – a way to live beyond life.Shamil Shams