Dr Muhammad Amjad Saqib of Pakistan: the social entrepreneur extraordinaire

“Poverty is not just about lack of resources; it’s about deprivation–of a social network, justice and morality. But poverty, in its worst form, is of hopelessness.”

This is not a melancholic quote but the oft-repeated words – in reiteration of the foundation of his work – of one of Pakistan’s finest: Dr Muhammad Amjad Saqib. He believes in the essentiality of one of the biggest human necessities: hope.

It started in 2001. He was a bureaucrat posted in Lahore. One day a woman, visibly distressed, “eyes filled with tears,” entered his room. Her story was that of countless others, her audience was unique. Having recently lost her husband, the resource-strapped mother of four was despondent. What she knew with a certainty was that she wanted to give her children the best possible life. What she also knew was that she wanted a life of dignity and grace, without ever begging anyone for charity. When the bureaucrat, amazed, asked her how he could be of help, she told him that she wanted an interest-free loan, a qarz-e-hasna [religious translation: a beautiful loan; other definition: an interest-free loan) from him.

More amazed that she wanted his help but on her own terms, he spoke to one of his friends and arranged 10,000 rupees for her. The woman thanked him and left. Soon he forgot about meeting her. Time passed. Six months later she was in his office again. In that visit her eyes didn’t have unshed tears, her eyes shone with confidence and courage. Her story was simple yet so inspirational it changed Dr Saqib’s life. With the 10,000 rupees loan she bought two sewing machines, and her journey of honest hard work began. Learning to stand on her own two strong feet, she looked after her children remarkably well, one of her daughters even got married. Dr Saqib had forgotten his little good deed but the grateful woman had not. She returned the money with a caveat that it should be loaned to someone else. That someone else should receive help to start afresh.

In Dr Saqib’s words, “It was a historic moment for me. That moment when a new world was conjured up.” A few months later Akhuwat came into existence. It has been 20 years, and the message of solidarity, empathy and mawakhat continues, stronger than ever.

On his website, “Dr Muhammad Amjad Saqib is the founder and Executive Director of Akhuwat, the world’s largest Islamic microfinance organisation.” The list of his achievements is extensive.

Dr Saqib is many things–a former bureaucrat; author of eight books; recipient of many national and international awards including Sitar-e-Imtiaz of Pakistan, the Islamic Economy Award presented by Crown Prince of Dubai and Thomson Reuters, the Commonwealth’s 31st Point of Light Award presented by Queen Elizabeth II, and the Social Entrepreneur of the Year presented by the World Economic Forum and Schwab Foundation; has addressed the UN, and esteemed platforms of schools of Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.

When I think about Dr Saqib’s work one-of-a-kind is the adjective that comes to my mind. In a world full of philanthropists and social workers what is that one thing that makes Dr Saqib’s work singularly special? To me it is his deep empathy for those he helps through his work. I believe that protection of their self-respect is his primary concern. And that safeguarding the sanctity of their dignity is his constant credo.

I asked Dr Muhammad Amjad Saqib a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: What is the genesis of the name Akhuwat?

Dr Muhammad Amjad Saqib: The word “Akhuwat” is taken from “Mawakhat-e-Medina.” All of us [Muslims] are aware of the Mawakhat-e-Medina as one of our greatest and most luminous traditions. When Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) migrated to Medina from Mecca, he was accompanied by some of his relatives and friends. Most of those people belonged to affluent families, but the journey of hijra (migration) resulted in financial hardships. When they reached Medina, they required some resources to restart their lives. They did not want to ask anyone [for charity]. Medina didn’t have any financial institution [that they could approach for help]. But there were Jewish moneylenders who gave loans charging a huge interest. [Paying or taking] usury was against the religious teachings of the migrants from Mecca.

Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) presented a truly beautiful concept. He declared that one citizen of Medina, who would be called Ansar, and one Muhajir (migrant) from Mecca would form a bond. On the basis of that bond, they would be brothers and help one another. That relationship was called “mawakhat.” It means bhai-chara (brotherhood). After being connected in that relationship every Ansar helped his Muhajir brother and gave him guidance to start a business. Because of that the Muhajirs were able to stand on their own very soon. Not before long the world saw that those who had arrived in Medina in destitution were back on their feet.

What we believe is that the manifestation of mawakhat is not merely a historic event, it is a complete philosophy. And that philosophy is always applicable as it is beyond the limitations of geography and time.

If today in Pakistan 50 percent of the population is in the category of haves, 50 percent are have-nots. The same bond [of mawakhat] can be formed between these two classes so that they help one another. That is how we could form a splendid society. Mawakhat is the concept that we seem to have forgotten today, but even now we can build a new society working under the umbrella of this ideal. Akhuwat takes its strength, energy and courage from the philosophy of mawakhat. This is our philosophical inspiration. It is the blessing of this name that enriches Akhuwat with success.

MT: How many people have benefited from the microfinancing of Akhuwat since its inception? How much money has Akhuwat loaned, interest-free, so far?

AS: Since its inception Akhuwat has disbursed 140 billion rupees in the form of loans throughout Pakistan. That is more than four million loans, benefiting three million families. Some families took loans only once or twice. The journey of the 140 billion rupees is deeply heart-warming. It started with a few thousands, moved to lakhs, crores, and now to billions. It started in one city, and now it is in more than 350 cities in the four provinces, erstwhile FATA, AJK, Gilgit-Baltistan. Alhamdulillah, Akhuwat has spread all over the country. We have more than 4,000 employees who work, day and night, to form bonds of mawakhat with people [in need]. In that bond they offer them micro loans.

MT: What was the most important initiative of Akhuwat after the pandemic of coronavirus hit Pakistan in 2020?

AS: After COVID-19 hit Pakistan, Akhuwat took on more responsibilities. We diversified our role. Before the pandemic our focus was on loans, rehabilitation of transgender folks, provision of education and healthcare facilities on a micro level, and relief work in the wake of natural disasters, earthquakes and floods. But during the pandemic, a new situation arose. It was countrywide, and we had to reach the most far flung areas as well as the big cities. In the first stage the large donations that we received were used to distribute cooked meals to people in need. Daily wage-earning labourers were in search of work but were facing starvation because of COVID-19 mandated lockdowns.

After that we expanded our work. We started to make ration bags; thousands of ration bags were delivered to homes of people in need.

In the third stage, for the areas where we couldn’t send ration bags, we began the process of financial assistance through online transfers via banks and other cash transfer portals.

In the fourth stage, we identified a number of large hospitals. We started providing equipment, different kinds of masks and PPE, for the medical personnel.

In the fifth stage, we got different NGOs together, and under the title of Punjab Development Network [PDN] a large organisation was formed. PDN comprises 167 organisations of varying sizes. We created the network to work in collaboration with one another to avoid replication of different relief works. The idea was to make the other’s strength our own and vice versa. Governor Punjab Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar as the patron of the network played a very important role. Working in collaboration with the government through the PDN, we did philanthropic work worth 15 billion rupees.

Another thing that we did was when some people said they did not want ration bags or financial assistance, we started to give them special emergency loans. They gave us their word that as soon as the economic shutdown was over and their business resumed, they would return the loans. They took micro loans of 10-20,000 rupees. The few months that were hard became less difficult for them, and slowly, they started to return the loans.

All of these are tangible actions. One important contribution of ours, Alhamdulillah, during the pandemic was that we gave people hope. We gave people the assurance that together we could fight the catastrophe. The emotional support is very important.

We initiated an end-to-end, neighbour-to-neighbour movement; we said that every person should look after their neighbour and ensure that their neighbour is not hungry. Every person has a neighbour. If all of them take care of one another as neighbours, no one will ever be hungry.

We began with the idea of locality to locality. An affluent locality like DHA or Gulberg in Lahore has in its neighbourhood or behind it a kachi basti. The two are neighbours. Locality to locality, we raised the awareness that people from an affluent area should visit the poor one and place large amounts of food items in the main mosque. Anyone who needs something could take stuff from there.

We raised sensitisation and awareness through media. We convinced people through social media to identify people in need.

MT: Is there any project of Akhuwat that is presently in collaboration with the government of Pakistan and/or any of the provincial governments?

AS: The work of Akhuwat began with civil society. We wished to create the environment of mawakhat that Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) taught us. Essentially, it is a collaboration of civil society and non-state organisations. Gradually, the then government also noticed that Akhuwat was a highly successful model of interest-free financing, and they decided to collaborate with us. For issuing of micro loans we made different agreements with all provincial governments–Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, GB, AJK. Akhuwat and some other organisations in collaboration had a similar agreement with the federal government.

Last year, in collaboration with the government, we began a programme of building low cost houses. It is a huge initiative, under which we have given loans for construction of approximately 9,000 houses. The money for loans also comes from the government. Loans are given to people who already own a small piece of land, two, three or four marlas. They build the houses themselves, Akhuwat does not have any part in the construction aspect of the programme.

Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan increased the range of the programme on the basis of its impressive results. Almost 9,000 houses financed, Alhamdulillah, and the recovery rate of loans is also greatly praiseworthy. The amount that is returned to us is spent on a new loan for construction of another house.

MT: Akhuwat is doing great work for transgender people. Please tell us about that.

AS: Akhuwat has done a great deal of work for transgender folks, Alhamdulillah. Akhuwat’s main focus is on the most underprivileged sections of society. Those who are left behind, who do not have a guardian, who are not loved, who do not sit under the shade of a wall, whose hand is not held, who are mocked, demeaned, who have been a victim of persecution in all kinds of ways. A transgender person in our society is someone without education, without any social standing. Most of them do not have a National Identity Card, or a vote, or a passport, or a job, or a home. They are deprived of their parents’ inheritance. They are victims of sexual abuse. They dance to earn a living.

One day I thought that if we make claims to reach the poor of our society who is poorer than the transgender community? Uneducated, property-less, status-less, sifarish-less, political connection-less. We at Akhuwat embraced them. We helped them.

Transgender folks older than 50 are too many. We registered them in different cities and started to give them stipends. It is difficult to give them education at that age, but we try to give them moral coaching, and classes in social etiquettes of interaction and cleanliness. They are provided healthcare facilities. We encourage many of them to take up employment. Gradually, it is becoming a substantial movement. InshaAllah, from 50 we are moving to 40 and 30 age group. We are doing our best to provide protection for all the rights of transgenders enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan.

MT: Akhuwat is a morally, religiously and socially inspirational lesson. How has the philosophy of mawakhat changed your life?

AS: Mawakhat is such a concept that if you ponder on it, and if you try to reach its depth, it would have an unbelievable impression on your life. It is not me but anyone who reads the story of mawakhat [of Medina] that happened 1,450 years ago receive strength from it. Receive radiance from it. We received strength from mawakhat so that we could familiarise ourselves with the dignity of the way that would enable us to follow in the footsteps of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).

Akhuwat is anchored in the philosophy of mawakhat. If the vision, sensibilities and goals of an organisation are linked to a particular philosophy, people working in that organisation also begin to embody that philosophy. In their thinking, in their vision, in their actions they try to copy the lofty model. Irrespective of our individual personality defects, if we are connected to a larger concept it has the power to make us as big as it is.

Mawakhat has played a very important role in the lives of many people. On an individual level, I try to apply mawakhat in my interactions with people. The biggest thing that we have learned working in Akhuwat is that after connecting with the ideal of mawakhat we were fortunate to be given a chance to improve ourselves on ethical and spiritual levels. When we introduce ourselves with mawakhat, we remain conscious that we do not commit an act that could be detrimental to this magnificent concept. Or because of some action of ours, people don’t start considering this concept inapplicable.

Mawakhat has brightened every aspect of our lives. It has given us inspiration. It is our motivation. It encourages us to do introspection. It has endowed us with a process of self-purification. Mawakhat gives us the ehsaas that all we have belongs to our Rabb [Lord], and what belongs to the Rabb is for everyone. Resources of the privileged few should not just remain clasped in their fists. They should help the less privileged, the underprivileged. Only then the billions of people inhabiting the earth will be able to have lives that have solace, satisfaction, dignity and self-respect.

Mawakhat permeates our lives on an individual level, on a personal level, on a collective level, and on an organisational level. It permeates your body and your soul and your thoughts and your ideas in a way that it becomes difficult for you to think of anything else. The 4,000 employees of Akhuwat receive brightness and energy from the ideal of mawakhat. It is because of mawakhat that they find strength to continue to work in difficult times. They work on low salaries and they work honestly.

Mawakhat is a noor (luminosity). Anyone who comes in proximity to this way of life is gifted with rays of light. They see nothing but positive changes in themselves.

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