‘People prefer a familiar suffering due to fear of the unknown,’ Thích Nhất Hạnh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist)
Liberal, secular and logical are among the most hated and misunderstood words in Pakistan, used particularly by those who like to call themselves religious to condemn anything rational and alien. They forget or more likely have not considered that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (PBUH) preached a religion which was astonishingly liberal for that and all other times, a way of life with rationally logical systems that when applied, worked towards improving the secular existence of man as well as his hereafter.
Although Christianity and Judaism existed, Islam’s stress on monotheism was a startling step away from the polytheism that was the mainstream religion of the society it was born in the midst of. Its insistence on tolerance and kindness towards those with differing views was not a common aspect of society at the time, and not everywhere even now. Its injunctions on dealings with women, on treating them with kindness and consideration in general as well as in marriage and in case of divorce had no parallels in the contemporary society. With regards to treatment of the elderly, children, the disabled and sick, its views on education, the search for wider knowledge, economics, charity, courtesy, tolerance, justice, there was nothing about this religion that was not liberal if liberal is defined as a respect for people and opinions at variance with oneself, which is how it is generally defined. Islam, in short, has no place for the Tehreek-e-Talaba-e-Pakistans (TPP) and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamats (ASWJ) of this world, not for their divisive views or their violent practices. Islam does not discriminate against people based on their religion, race, sex or age.
It is because Islam is not taught from a balanced standpoint, and so much that is taught as supposedly Islamic is not in the religion at all that these terms (liberal, secular, logical) are so reviled. It is why that aspect of Islam is feared and therefore rarely debated, so we lose out on that point of view. In a male chauvinist, feudal society like ours egalitarianism is a threat, and so it is actively challenged. As Thích Nhất Hạnh said, ‘People prefer a familiar suffering due to fear of the unknown.’’ It is why feudalism still exists, infanticide is very much alive, and honour killings and other threats to women in society remain firmly entrenched, and why ‘outsiders’, people of other faiths and sects are so threatened.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was one of those deeply spiritual men who well understood the familiar. He preferred to dispel the suffering around him rather than live with it, and he worked tirelessly towards that end. Perhaps it is through him that we can understand what it means to be liberal, secular and logical which may allow us to study Islam and the teachings of Muhammad (pbuh) from that point of view.
Today, when we celebrate the life of this greatest of Pakistan’s humanitarians we must understand his work for what it was, as liberal, secular and logical as Islam itself. Edhi went about his work in the most logical way by simply doing what had to be done when he made up his mind to do it, trusting in God and people’s generosity to help him along the way and he had this help all along. The Edhi Foundation was supported by more private donations than any other charity. Edhi never accepted donations from any government, either his own or another.
Outside most Edhi centres there is a small baby cradle in mute appeal against the infanticide which is so tragically common in Pakistan. ‘Do not kill (the baby),’ the sign beside these cradles reads. ‘Leave (the baby) in the cradle.’ The cradles are often used, host to innocent babies who may otherwise have been killed or abandoned as a result of poverty, or social stigma following an illegitimate birth. These children are brought up in the Edhi Foundation’s orphanages.
Unfettered by narrow exclusionist views, Edhi extended a helping hand to anyone who needed it regardless of the religion, race, sex or age of the person he was helping. Not for Edhi the hatred associated with this country’s sectarian bias. His homes sheltered Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Shia, Suni or Ahmadi men, women and children alike and there was no preaching or attempt at conversion. Once asked why his ambulance service was available to non-Muslims as well, he responded, ‘Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.’
His tireless work has made Pakistan a better place for those who live here. The tremendous outpouring of love and grief at Edhi’s death is more eloquent than words of several things, of the appreciation the people of this country have for this man’s work. It also speaks better than any critique or analysis of the contrast between the people’s esteem for Edhi and for any other public figure in existence. It’s a lesson that wise persons would do well to note and learn from.
Edhi was not threatened by poverty, hard work or illness. He did not allow himself to be treated abroad for his last illness although the offer was made. Edhi was not threatened by his wife Bilquis who worked as hard right alongside him all their married life. Edhi was not threatened also by those who considered him an infidel because he was ‘liberal’. Many of those who fear the term and all it stands for admired Edhi for just those qualities which he possessed, although they have not succeeded in joining the dots. This may be the time for doing just that.
Edhi belonged to us in a way that nobody, and definitely not those who have property in Park Lane and public airlines at their disposal do. Edhi gave, and if he took anything from us it was always used for us, never for himself. Edhi belongs to us. We love you, Abdul Sattar Edhi, and thank you. You live on in our hearts.