“No religion is higher than humanity.” This was the most often repeated line that Facebook and Twitter users from Pakistan posted on Friday night immediately after news broke out that the country’s beloved humanitarian and philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi had died. I have no doubt that most of them actually knew the full meaning and scope of what Edhi was saying, but I have to admit that I personally did not.
Years ago, Abdul Sattar Edhi gave an interview in which he appeared to be endorsing former president General (r) Pervez Musharraf, which I found extremely hard to get over. In the interview, he said Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari had both made billions by looting public money and that politicians had given Pakistan nothing but poverty and inflation. He said that instead of pulling each other’s legs, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari should cooperate with Pervez Musharraf in running the country. He said that in the national interest, Pervez Musharraf should be allowed to remain president of the country. Another report said that when Edhi was told there was a petition in the court asking Musharraf to be tried as a traitor, he said that the ruling general was not a traitor.
“He’s a good man and he loves the country,” Edhi said. “If the three of them do not work together, it will push the country further into poverty.”
Let’s just say I wanted to see Musharraf being tried as a traitor and worse and I did not think it was Edhi’s place to say he’s a legitimate ruler or to endorse military rule in any way. The idiocy of youth, right?
But what I didn’t understand and perhaps many others didn’t either was that Edhi lived in a different world than us. To him, politics didn’t matter, rule of law, democracy and constitution — none of it mattered if the humanity was suffering. His was a purer brand of religion — one that saw no prejudice and brooked no hatred. I mean, the man would stand on the side of a road and beg money for the people who were under his care. It does not get purer than this.
He was not a man of grand gestures either. Nor did he do symbolism. He got down to work and he kept working, for decades. No muss, no fuss. That was his superpower. The man drove an ambulance for 48 years and he never drove any other vehicle. He had set up over 375 centres but he never owned a house of his own. He never had more than two pairs of Shalwar Kameez. How incredible is that?
The only thing that was non-negotiable to him was helping those who needed him. “If you see anyone who needs help, it is your duty to bring him to one of our centres, no matter the race, no matter the religion. We have never turned anyone away,” he said in one of his video messages.
“There is a crib outside every Edhi Centre across the country. If you have a child you don’t want, leave them in the crib. No question will be asked of you.”
That is who Edhi was. He never said he won’t judge you like many of the other do-gooders who may think it is as important to not make people feel bad for asking for help as it is to help them. Indeed, he wanted people to take care of their own. He was ready to judge people to the extent that it might persuade them to do good for others even at their own expense. He would say it is a sign of deterioration in society that we have become more educated but also less concerned for each other’s welfare. He criticised the fact that old people are increasingly being accorded less respect which is why they are falling on hard times more often. Even his judgment was a tool he could use to get people to help the less fortunate. But once someone came to him, he would never turn them away. That was his promise.
My next argument, I am pretty certain very few people will like, but to me, that is what ‘no religion higher than humanity means’.
Ahmadis are a highly persecuted minority in Pakistan. They have been declared non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment. They face discrimination at every step and when one or more of them are killed, the general reaction in the society ranges from ‘good’ to ‘when are we killing the rest of them’. There is a thin minority in the country, I suspect, which does not want them to be persecuted but even they have to make sure nobody knows they don’t hate Ahmedis as much as others do. Even while writing this, I have to make sure I say nothing that can be construed as siding with Ahmedis. That is how toxic this issue is in Pakistan.
Indeed, to me, the conversation about Ahmedi rights is a non-starter in Pakistan. It will remain a non-starter for the next 1,000 years. If the Day of Judgment is farther than 1,000 years, then that is how long this issue is a non-starter for in Pakistan. Both the Ahmedi rights and the blasphemy law are lost causes. To all the liberals and humanists in Pakistan who want to accomplish anything of substance, let me just sincerely tell you: Move on; this fight has already been lost. To all the Ahmedis, all five million of them: Leave.
But what do you say to a man who believes no religion is higher than humanity? In 2010, Ahmedi community gave him a humanitarian award and while anyone else in Pakistan would have run away as far as possible as soon as they realised they had picked up a call from the Ahmedis, but that’s not who Edhi was. He received the award and thanked the community because the man was not bound by the prejudices of his society.
“I’m grateful to the Ahmadiyya Jamaat for giving me this award for the sake of humanity,” he said. “It will be used for the welfare of the people… I’m happy that someone makes a bond with me on the basis of humanity. I do not believe in recreation. My work is not a hobby or a pastime. My work is about humanity, and humanity is the most important religion… So many people come here for help, I never ask them what their religion is. I consider everyone a human being.”
Edhi never cared who Pervez Musharraf was or Asif Zardari or Nawaz Sharif or the Ahmedis. On the day that he died, the government and the opposition were bickering over the cost of a Boeing 777 of the PIA that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his family and his ‘camp office’ were to board to come back home after his treatment from a London hospital — a procedure that could easily have been performed at one of the hospitals in the country itself. This was a few months after Pervez Musharraf, after whining to the court for months that he had a severe back pain which could send him into paralysis at any moment, had secured permission to leave the country. Only after he had left did it become apparent that he never needed treatment and probably never had back pain but had wanted to leave the country to avoid facing charges of treason. This was also a month after Edhi himself had declined an offer from Asif Zardari for treatment abroad (coincidentally Zardari himself has been ‘receiving treatment’ for an unspecified disease that can only be cured from abroad, I’m not kidding). Edhi told Zardari at the time he would be treated only at a government hospital in Pakistan. That is who Edhi was, and that is who we mourn today. (Courtesy: PakistanToday)