Last year, Pakistani singer and actress Komal Rizvi, who shot to fame after performing at Coke Studio, took a selfie that went viral perhaps mainly because it was panned on social media for being disrespectful.

The selfie shows a youthful Komal Rizvi smiling widely at the camera as she takes a photograph with the aged Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, who was on a hospital bed, and wasn’t looking at the camera.

The internet went crazy. Komal was abused, threatened and humiliated for taking the photograph. In their exaggerated and uncalled for opposition to the selfie, Pakistanis made it clear that they had no sense of humor when it came to Edhi, the country’s most prominent humanitarian.

Edhi died Friday night at the age of 88, after having been ill for several weeks.

This 2015 selfie by Pakistani singer and actress Komal Rizvi with philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, who was in hospital at the time, was panned for being disrespectful.
This 2015 selfie by Pakistani singer and actress Komal Rizvi with philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, who was in hospital at the time, was panned for being disrespectful.

Pakistani icon

Edhi and his wife Bilquis were the co-founders of a social welfare organisation called the Edhi Foundation. Set up in the 1950s in a single room in Karachi, the organisation now has over 300 centres all across Pakistan. It holds the record for being the largest volunteer ambulance organisation with over 1,800 private vehicles. The foundation also owns a couple of private jets, a helicopter and 28 rescue boats. It runs eight free hospitals and several medical units and also provides legal aid to women, children and innocent prisoners.

Almost always dressed in a simple grey shalwar kameez, Edhi was a short, frail man, who has a long white beard and trimmed mustache. He also regularly sported a Jinnah cap, which is usually worn by an older generation of Pakistanis.

Edhi had become an icon in Pakistan who has the ability to rally the entire country behind him. This is rare feat in a country that sees a conspiracy behind every event.

In February, when the Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won a second Oscar for her movie, A Girl in the River, some Pakistanis celebrated, but others saw a western agenda behind her win. The film is about honor killing in Pakistan.

While some criticised Obaid-Chinoy for catering to western stereotypes about the country, others accused her of riding the tides of success on a negative image of Pakistan. The filmmaker’s first Oscar was for a movie called Saving Face, which highlighted the plight of women who had acid thrown on their faces.

But Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzi, who was shot in the head by the Taliban, was criticised even more harshly than Obaid-Chinoy in the country even as her bravery was celebrated worldwide. Yousafzi, now perhaps the most recognised Pakistani in the world, was called a western agent and accused of defaming Pakistan with her alleged anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam comments. Many said that the Taliban hadn’t shot her, and that the shooting was simply an excuse to get her out of the country.

The All Pakistan Private Schools Management Association banned her book, I am Malala, from their schools. Later, another private school association called the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation released a book titled I am not Malala to counter what they called was the propaganda by Yousafzi against Islam and Pakistan.

Interestingly, when both Obaid-Chinoy and Yousafzi were being criticised, Edhi’s name would come up. Compared to the two women, Edhi was held up as a patriotic Pakistani and a devout Muslim.

When Yousafzi got the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 many criticised the committee for ignoring Edhi and awarding the Nobel instead to someone who had brought disrepute to the Muslim world. Similarly, when Obaid-Chinoy won the Oscar many felt that she should focus instead on positive stories from Pakistan, and suggested that she make a documentary on Edhi.

Ironically both these women have been at the forefront of a petition asking that Edhi be awarded the Nobel prize.

The Edhi foundation

In addition to its work in Pakistan, the Edhi Foundation has also been active in providing international emergency relief. It gathered funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005 and provided relief to the victims of the Gulf War in 1991. In May 2015, the foundation sent a team of experts to Nepal to assist with earthquake relief and rehabilitation.

One of the most memorable statements made by Edhi was when he was asked why he picked up Christians and Hindus in his ambulances.

The question relates to the false concept of purity that many Muslims practice in Pakistan – they believe that any contact with non-Muslims will make them impure. But the Edhi Foundation makes no distinction between people it helps. It also extends its services to gutter cleaners, who were once Hindu untouchables who converted to Christianity, but have continued to be treated as pariahs.

To the ambulance question, Edhi is reported to have retorted: “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”

Here was a deeply religious man, a practicing Muslim standing up for the rights of minorities in Pakistan. Here was a Pakistani who cuts across class, cultural, ideological, and political differences and could be owned by everyone.

Cradle project

Among the many Edhi Foundation initiatives is the jhoola (cradle) project, which is headed by Bilquis Edhi. Most Edhi centres around Pakistan have a cradle outside their buildings, which allows people to leave their unwanted infants there. No questions are asked and no one is identified.

The project has played a pivotal role in curbing infanticide. “Do not kill," reads a sign on top of each cradle. The foundation tries to locate willing parents for young and healthy infants. The foundation has strict adoption criteria and its founders monitor the family even after adoption to ensure that the child is provided with a safe environment.

For the kids who are not adopted, Edhi and Bilquis Edhi signed on as their adoptive parents. According to an estimate, the couple have over 16,000 children whose education and vocational training is looked after by the foundation.

Donation model

A remarkable feature of the foundation has been its ability to steer away from controversy.

The Edhi Foundation has never accepted any money from political personalities, religious groups or governments, only accepting personal donations.

In October 2015, Edhi turned down an offer of Indian Rs 10 million from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the foundation ensured the return of Geeta, a speech-impaired Indian girl, who had crossed over the border accidentally several years ago. She was about seven or eight years old when she was found by the Pakistani Rangers, and was adopted by the Edhi family. The foundation looked after her for 13 years till she returned to India.

In June, Edhi was admitted to a government hospital in Karachi after trouble with his kidneys. That was when the former President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, offered to send him abroad for treatment. Edhi turned it down. His refusal cames at a time when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in London, recovering from open-heart surgery. This only enhanced Edhi’s image.

Edhi may be the only person in the country who was loved and respected by all groups. He was used as a symbol, a gauge with which everybody’s patriotism was judged. He was the biggest humanitarian in the country, but more than that he was a national icon unlike any other Pakistan has had.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities