Abdul Sattar Edhi devoted his own life to saving other lives. It started when his mother fell fatally ill and his family received zero support from the state. He first took to the streets of Karachi in 1951, asking for donations to set up a modest network of clinics and ambulances. By the time he died in the summer of 2016, his work had expanded to 335 Edhi Centres (where emergency and rescue services are provided throughout the year) and 1,800 ambulances across Pakistan.
His welfare projects encompass rehab centres, maternity homes, clinics, homes for the disabled and the elderly, orphanages, shelters for runaway children, schools and a small hospital — all run by a small staff with the help of around 7,000 volunteers. He raised about 20,000 abandoned babies, trained 40,000 nurses, provided homes to 50,000 orphans and facilitated one million deliveries at Edhi maternity homes. And he did not make any distinction between the recipients of his help on the basis of their caste, creed and colour even though the mullahs did not approve of this.
He also set up offices in Afghanistan, Nepal, the Middle East, Bangladesh, Canada and the United States. When Hurricane Katrina hit the American city of New Orleans in 2005, he donated 100,000 US dollars for relief efforts there.
He also dedicated himself to giving the unclaimed, the unrecognised and the dispossessed dead a proper and dignified burial.
“I … brought back bloated, drowned bodies from the sea. Black bodies that crumbled with one touch. I picked them up from rivers, from inside wells, from roadsides, accident sites and hospitals. I picked them up from manholes and gutters, from under bridges, from railway bogies, from tracks, watersheds and drains ... When families forsook them and authorities threw them away, I picked them up and brought them home … spreading the stench in the air forever,” Edhi said in his biography, A Mirror to the Blind. A graveyard that his organisation maintains on the outskirts of Karachi has about 80,000 graves, most of them marked by a number rather than a name.
But the more he wanted to be among the ordinary, the more we wanted to put him on a pedestal. “I come from ordinary people. And to find me, look among the ordinary people. My story is there,” he said in a 2013 documentary, These Birds Walk, which also shows him giving a bath to a little boy.
Even after his death, we want to make a celebrity out of the self-effacing humanitarian that he was. His image adorns advertising billboards, commemorative coins and postage stamps, office walls and Facebook profile photos. Last year when the Herald ran its annual ‘Person Of The Year’ segment, many of our readers were indignant that we had not included Edhi in it. Contrast this with a revelation by his son, Faisal Edhi, that donations to his charitable foundation dropped after his death, endangering some of its life-saving activities. Edhi would have hated his exaltation at the cost of his work.
He did not like it when he could not do what he always did. In 2008, immigration officials detained him at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport and seized his passport. “I am a man of emergencies; I need to be on the move, to be where the suffering is but here I have been sitting idle for 20 days … ,” he told the BBC at the time.
Edhi won about 17 international awards, including a Guinness record for running the world’s largest voluntary ambulance service, but he did not work for awards and recognition. He would have instead said: the best way to remember me is to ensure that my life’s work is never disrupted.
For all these reasons and more, Abdul Sattar Edhi is the Herald’s most influential Pakistani after Muhammed Ali Jinnah, topping a list also comprising three assassinated prime ministers, two military dictators, a poet, a performer, a human rights campaigner and a sports star-turned-philanthropist-turned politician.
Imran Khan has nearly 6 million followers on Twitter, more than any other Pakistani, more than the entire population of Singapore. His party polled the second highest number of votes in the 2013 general elections — nearly eight million. Yet more than 75 per cent of Pakistanis did not vote for him in the same elections and his electoral support starts going down as we move back in time. He could be the most famous Pakistani of the current era but what about the rest of our 70-year history?
A research project at the MIT Media Lab declared Jinnah the most popular Pakistani based on internet searches and Wikipedia entries. Imran Khan was not even near the top. Allama Iqbal came second even though he died nine years before Pakistan came into being, which also explains why the Herald did not include him in a list that uses Jinnah’s 1948 death as a departure point. Iqbal also did not come after Jinnah — temporally as well as politically. As our greatest poet-thinker, he has a stature equal to that of Jinnah’s.
The person who came fourth on MIT’s list was Dr Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel Prize winner in a scientific discipline, a rare honour in a country that does not pride itself on either science or education. So why is he not on the Herald’s list? The reason: many Pakistanis are loath to accept him, an Ahmadi, as one of them, let alone be influenced by him.
But what is the measure of influence? Here is our criterion: anyone who treads a new path (consider Noor Jehan who mothered children while also being a movie star way back in the 1940s-50s); anyone who sets the direction for the future (like Liaquat Ali Khan did by envisioning Pakistan as a modern Muslim democracy); anyone who changes that direction (as Ayub Khan did by staging the first military coup in the country).
In short, anyone who has determined or changed the course of Pakistan’s history in a way that has been difficult, if not entirely impossible, to reverse, and has spawned copycats, fans and followers (also foes) in the process.
Even this criterion will admittedly lead to different lists depending on who is making them. The Herald’s list, for instance, does not include Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the physicist whom many Pakistanis credit for making Pakistan a nuclear power.
To us, his role in inventing our nuclear bomb is as much a matter of debate as his subsequent role in an illicit nuclear proliferation network (for which he apologised on national television). Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme was the brainchild of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who is included in our list) and Munir Ahmad Khan, the founding head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (whose contribution has received a short shrift in military-approved official histories).
Intizar Husain is arguably one of the finest Urdu fiction writers in the second half of the 20th century but we have left him out of our list because he only perfected what others before him had been practising already. Notwithstanding his excellent craft, his encyclopaedic knowledge and his syncretic cultural sensibility, his writings never had as big of a following as those of Qudratullah Shahab, Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia. Or of Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul A’la Maududi does not get a place in our list because his influence has manifested itself through others — most notably through Ziaul Haq. The influence of religious personalities remains restricted anyway due to sectarian and political factors.
This has been most pronounced in Maududi’s case. Though his books were read widely by the first two generations of middle-class Pakistanis, he has never had a mass political, or even religious, support base.
Three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has failed to make the cut for an opposite reason — for being a carrier of someone else’s influence. He was a protégé of the establishment and a champion of Ziaul Haq’s (and Jamaat-e-Islami’s) right-wing conservatism in the first half of his career and a reluctant and inconsistent follower of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s anti-establishmentarianism in the second half.
Pervez Musharraf falls in the same category. His dealings with politicians were carbon copies of actions taken by previous military-led administrations and his pursuit of seemingly opposite strategic objectives vis-à-vis India, Afghanistan, the United States and religious extremist elements at home had past precedents, though in his era its consequences were far more lethal than ever before.
G M Syed, who has spawned two generations of Sindhi nationalists with his writings and politics, is not included because of being overshadowed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Baloch nationalist triumvirate of Ataullah Mengal, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo and Khair Bakhsh Marri has been left out because, based on political expediency, they – and their heirs – have vacillated between being anti-federation and pro-Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arguably exerted as much influence in breaking Pakistan as Jinnah did in carving it out of India. But that is precisely the reason why he is not in our list — by virtue of becoming the founder of Bangladesh, he cannot be in a list premised on the Pakistaniness of its constituents.
Akhtar Hameed Khan is another major omission. His pioneering work in Karachi’s slums manifests the power of grass-roots level activism but the impact and scope of his model of community-centred development have been limited so far.
The list could only have ten names. That alone explains why many activists, performers, artists, businessmen, technocrats, educationists, judges, lawyers, administrators, academics, politicians and prominent women are not in it. To somewhat make up for the omissions, we have come up with a supplementary list of five more nominees (though they have not been put to the test of opinion polls).
This still leaves one question unaddressed: why is Jinnah being kept above completion and comparison? The reason is that no other Pakistani has achieved what he could. To paraphrase his biographer Stanley Wolpert, he is the one who single-handedly altered the course of history, changed political geography and created a new nation. He cannot be compared to those who have only followed where he led.
To make the process of choosing the most influential Pakistani after Jinnah simultaneously representative and inclusive, we carried out a public opinion survey across Pakistan on the basis of a demographic sample stratified at four levels (province, ethnicity/language, location and gender) and randomised on the basis of age, education and profession.
The sample, consisting of 1,398 Pakistanis, was derived from the latest available official data (collected in the 1998 census) and its field work was completed during the month of June 2017. Edhi came on top with 31.76 per cent of respondents voting for him; two Bhuttos and Imran Khan together received about 52 per cent votes (almost evenly distributed among them) and two military dictators combined got about nine per cent of the responses. Take Edhi out and this gives you a rather typical view of Pakistan’s divided politics. The result of the survey has helped us decide the order in which the nominee profiles appear in subsequent pages.
A panel of ten historians offers insights into how people and experts view history from two different, if not mutually exclusive, prisms. If the public has chosen a saviour of the underdog and put prominent politicians from the present and near past at the top of the list, the historians seem to have taken an impersonal and long-term overview, looking at the depth and intensity of a nominee’s influence regardless of whether it has been positive or negative. Their unsurprising pick – Ziaul Haq – has undoubtedly changed Pakistan’s course more drastically than anyone else coming before or after him has so far.
A third part – an online poll – also offers a curious contrast. Imran Khan garnered almost half of around 4,500 responses received in the second week of July this year. Edhi came a distant second and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto an even more distant third. All the remaining seven nominees together received only around 22 per cent of the votes. If these results manifest the choices and biases of online readers of the Herald and Dawn.com, they don’t come as a surprise.
Additional input by Ayesha binte Rashid, Fatima Niazi and Adeela Akmal.
This was originally published in the Herald's August 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
Project Consultant: Shaheryar Popalzai (ICFJ Knight Fellow)
Field Survey Coordinator: Adeela Akmal
Online Survey Coordinator: Ayesha binte Rashid
Print design by Creative Department, Xpert Services (PVT) LTD
We are also grateful to all the Herald interns and field surveyors including Sameen Khan, Faareha Siddiqui, Fariha Parvaiz and Hafsa Saeed, Sattar Zangejo and Zulfiqar Shah (in Sindh), Fareedullah Chaudhary, Rizwan Safdar, Shafiq Butt, Tauqeer Mustafa and Atta Ullah (in Punjab, Islamabad and Rawalpindi), Akbar Notezai and Nasir Rahim (in Balochistan), and Ghulam Dastageer (in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata).