It was the first state funeral since the 1980s. Inflected with pomp, a 19-gun salute and set in the imposing grounds of Karachi’s National Stadium. Pakistan’s elite and thousands of others had finally united for a brief moment to pay somber homage to one of their own. The crowd surged forward to bear his coffin. And so it was that arguably the world’s greatest humanitarian was laid to rest.
At the age of 88, Abdul Sattar Edhi had succumbed to kidney failure at a medical center in Karachi, after dedicating more than 60 years of his life to serving others. The loss is keenly felt by many.
Known in Pakistan for his humility, empathy and respect for all, it is only now, in death, that his name and story is being told and heard around the world. Edhi worked tirelessly to help the people of Pakistan, and his charitable organization—the Edhi Foundation, set up in 1951—also came to the aid of people living around the world, in countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Haiti.
“Edhi is a way of life. If you follow his way, the way he taught you, you saw how to be a better human being,” Tariq Awan, head of operations in the U.K. and Europe for the Edhi Foundation, told Newsweek Middle East.
Edhi was born in Gujarat, western India, in 1928 and moved with his family to Pakistan during the partition of 1947. He began his work with the community at 19, after losing his mother—a loss which greatly impacted him and encouraged him to pursue a life of philanthropy. He set out with the ambition of simply helping those in need—the sick and the poor, who had little or no access to medication and healthcare.
What began as a vision of a young 20-year-old determined to change life for the better for Pakistani people became, over time, Pakistan’s largest free healthcare organization.
Starting out as a market trader, he soon set up a basic medicinal dispensary on Karachi’s streets, handing out free medication to those in need. When a flu epidemic hit the city, Edhi recognized the need for basic sanitation and medication, and the lack of an ambulance service. He dreamed of a welfare state for the Pakistani people.
Determined in his work and focused on his goals, Edhi’s presence on Karachi’s streets was met with confidence and respect, and gradually donations started to appear. His first mission was to acquire an ambulance, which he planned to make available to all. Scraping together what money he had, Edhi bought his first private ambulance. This solitary vehicle was the beginning of what would become not only Pakistan’s largest fleet of private ambulances, with a network running across the entire country as well as the world.
Today, the Edhi Foundation has more than 1,800 ambulances across Pakistan, which are often the first responders at scenes of devastation, to help victims of natural disasters and terror attacks.
His humble demeanor saw him dressed in the same clothes every day, with his signature hat—the same style as that worn by Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. He famously owned only two sets of clothes and wore the same pair of shoes on his feet every day. He lived with his family in very modest accommodation next to his headquarters in Karachi.
What marked Edhi apart from his peers in a country filled with prejudice, corruption and poverty, was his desire to be all-inclusive and to ensure there were no divisions or discrimination against those in need. This was a mantra by which he lived, and which he strove to teach and pass on to others. He once hectored General Zia, Pakistan’s former dictator, in Rawalpindi thus: “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.”
The last time Awan spent time with Edhi was in 2013, when he went to London to oversee operations. This was another remarkable trait; despite his advancing age and infirmity, he continued to work as the head of the foundation and was hands on in every aspect. He always insisted on driving an ambulance in Karachi whenever it was needed.
“He was the definition of humanity, and saw people without any religion, race, politics or color. He did not discriminate, not even one percent. That’s the best thing he taught us,” said Awan. “Last time he came to London, in 2013, we had lunch together in the office, and he sat on the floor with the rest of us,” Awan remembered. “As a boss, he was an amazing man. He was never angry, always helping and smiling. He was a good teacher. As a humanitarian, there is no one like him in the world. He was the man that gave hope to the nation, and to the world.”
Edhi had given strict instructions to his employees on how to conduct themselves and continue with the day-to-day operation of the foundation after his death. His work ethic was unmatched and he ensured healthcare was available to all, at all times. “Even on the day of his death, we were in the office and did not close. That was his wish. As he instructed, we will continue to serve the community as he did,” said Awan. “He did not accept any government grants either. He always received donations from ordinary people.”
Today, the Edhi Foundation has a network of offices across Pakistan, as well as branches in America, the U.K. and Australia, all coordinating their efforts for a mutual cause. It is run with the support of around six thousand volunteers, all working around the clock in Pakistan’s 335 centers. Alongside the fleet of ambulances, the foundation also runs a limitless number of other initiatives, including running orphanages, overseeing adoption, burying the dead if they are unclaimed or unidentified, rehabilitating those with addiction, training nurses, providing food and shelter for women and children, and looking after the physically and mentally disabled.
One cannot talk of Edhi without mentioning his family, all of whom worked alongside him, as he instilled in them the importance of humanity, humility and inclusion of all. His wife, Bilquis, a nurse, worked alongside him, committing her life to the same noble path her husband had chosen. Their children, two sons and two daughters, grew up learning about the foundation and today assist in its running. Bilquis, with her daughters, runs the side of the organization which looks after women and children, overseeing the care of newborn babies and nursing.
His eldest son, Faisal Edhi, has been described as Edhi’s right hand, and was always consulted by his father in decision-making. Awan described how charitable work was in the Edhi blood. “Since he was born, Faisal has been doing humanitarian work. Whilst he studied and after, he saw it and learned about it. They grew up with it,” he said. “He will now be Mr. Edhi to us.”
All who crossed paths with Edhi were touched by his wisdom and outlook on the world. Shabina Mustafa, founder of Garage School in Karachi, a non-profit organization empowering underprivileged children through education, spent time with Edhi just two weeks before he died. “I went to visit him a little over two weeks ago. While I was holding his hand he gestured that I should pray for him and tears rolled down my eyes. I thought to myself what can I do to help this frail man, lying in the corner of a small room devoid of all luxury in his home in Mithadar?” she told Newsweek Middle East.
“A man who could have lived in luxury chose to serve humanity. He was visible in places where no one dared to tread. Everyone is talking about naming a street after him or an airport. Why can’t we as individuals roll up our sleeves and just do a drop of what he did for the sake of humanity? Even half an hour of volunteer work with his organization can change a man’s mindset and effect the world. This is the best way we can remember It was a life to be thankful to his noble cause.”
Mustafa also recalled a tale she once heard about him with great fondness. A rich man went to visit Edhi and told him about his daughter’s ambition to set up a trust in India to help its Muslim community. Edhi’s response was hard-hitting, and illustrated exactly the man he was. On hearing the man’s request, he said: “Don’t talk to me about helping Muslims. Go and serve humanity. If there are two dead bodies on the road, will you pick up the Muslim body and leave the Hindu one there to rot? If you want to serve the cause of Islam, then go out and serve humanity without any discrimination at all. Once the word goes around about the good work you are doing, everyone will ask who is this kind, god-fearing person who is selflessly serving the poor and the needy? Who is he, where is he from, and what is his background? When they will find more about you, they will appreciate that this is what his religion teaches him. You can’t do greater service to Islam than that.”
Notable members of Pakistani society have spoken since his passing, on the impact Edhi had both in life and death. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his sorrow on hearing the news, honoring Edhi with a Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the highest honor given out by the state, for his contribution to society and a national day of mourning.
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy also told me of the legacy he left behind. “Edhi Sahib was not just a man. He was an institution. He instilled a sense of ‘Edhism’ in everyone he encountered. He exemplified a Pakistan we all wish we can create—a Pakistan that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or gender,” she said. “Our biggest test as a nation will be if we keep his legacy alive through Edhism.”
Edhi is only the third person in Pakistan’s history to have been honored with a state funeral, after Jinnah and Haq. Edhi had expressed his wish to have his organs donated but due to ill health, his final request could not be met. But, with eyes in good order, his corneas were donated to the blind. He was buried at the Edhi cemetery in the outskirts of Karachi, and was buried in the clothes in which he died, in a grave he had dug for himself years prior.
But Edhi was also dealt his fair share of critics, facing skepticism and suspicion from certain groups within society. Religious factions questioned his sectarian approach and his refusal to make religion a central focus in his work.
In October 2014, as he slept in the backroom of his headquarters, a group of dacoits broke into the office and demanded cash and valuables be handed over. They took five kilograms of gold, and millions of rupees.
Public support for Edhi and outrage towards such a callous crime meant within hours, donations had poured in and matched the amount stolen. And still, Edhi refused to be protected by security personnel, insisting he was just like any other citizen and did not need special treatment.
For a country mired with constant troubles, internal conflict and societal divisions since its creation, Edhi provided a sense of hope, love and acceptance of all. The transcendent legacy he leaves behind should not be forgotten, and the remarkable way in which he treated others without prejudice is a lesson we should all take away with us. It was a life to be thankful for, to be celebrated and to learn from.