Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes, their attire comprises a dark green golfer unassumingly stamped with the words ‘Gift of the Givers’, and not any of the famous superhero emblems we’ve all come to recognise. The humble wearer of this unpretentious, non-lycra costume is the preternatural hero himself, Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman. One of SA’s busiest and most hard-working human-aid advocates, Dr. Sooliman share’s his philanthropic voyage with us.
No stranger to being in the public eye and the subject of many print, radio and TV interviews, Dr. Sooliman is a household name synonymous with outstanding humanitarian work. From his early beginnings in Potchefstroom in the North-West province to commandeering the largest disaster relief organisation in Africa, Imtiaz has always been keen on taking on new challenges. His dreams of becoming a doctor took him 625km away from his hometown to the coastal city of Durban, where he completed high school and thereafter attended medical school. After graduating in 1984, Imtiaz completed his community service at King Edward Hospital, then moved to Pietermaritzburg where he opened up a private practice in 1986.
The real-life chevalier doesn’t practice medicine anymore but says that his medical knowledge has been immensely helpful in his field of work, which includes setting up hospitals and aiding the ill or wounded. If he wasn’t out saving the world each day, Dr. Sooliman would be practising martial arts – his life-long aspiration.
Social work has been a high priority for him since the beginning of his career; he became involved with the Islamic Medical Association (IMASA), and provided assistance during the Gulf War and the catastrophic Bangladesh cyclone, both in 1991. While travelling to the disaster-hit cyclonic country via Turkey, a fortuitous meeting brought Imtiaz face to face with a Sufi sheikh and spiritual teacher; a confluence that changed the course of his life forever. The learned sheikh taught him to understand the spiritual side of Islam, stating that “love, compassion and human dignity override every other law in Islamic teaching.”
Under the advice of his sheikh, Dr. Sooliman started Gift of the Givers in August 1992. Building this colossal organisation from the ground up 25 years ago, Gift of the Givers has made far-reaching changes to the lives of the needy and destitute in South Africa and the rest of the world. With 21 different categories of assistance, the NGO has delivered aid to blocked regions in Yemen, drought-lashed countries in Africa and currently runs two of the biggest hospitals in northern Syria, managed by 230 staff members. A recipient of countless awards and honours, Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman’s respected and celebrated status does little to alter his lack of pretension. Instead, he’s most grateful to be given the opportunity to help people, and his biggest fear lies in it being taken away from him.
Imtiaz was deeply affected by his experience working in Somalia, where he witnessed children and their families walk hundreds of kilometres to get to his hospital. The children related their anguishing journey, having no choice but to leave a parent, sibling or relative behind along the way, as they were too weak or hungry to continue walking. These innocent kids face a burdensome paradox – staying behind could lead to death, but continuing their expedition meant someone they loved would be left behind to perish. Dr. Sooliman mentions that this is a common occurrence for thousands of Somalis.
“I’m very proudly Muslim,” Imtiaz affirms, explaining that Islam isn’t what people think it is – 1.6 billion people are certainly not terrorists. Less than one per cent of Muslims may engage in deranged, inexcusable behaviour, however “it’s not the behaviour of proper Muslims.” He says that Islam is a religion of peace, love and service to mankind. Imtiaz is inspired by the incredible example set by Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), who never had any hatred against anyone and was never harsh nor vindictive. He relates that the Prophet and all the other khalifs (Islamic leaders) always portrayed exceptional qualities of gentleness, compassion and forgiveness.
The 55-year-old describes himself as dedicated, determined and hard-working. Islam is what drives him as it makes him conscious of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s fair and what’s just, what’s balanced and what’s imbalanced, and what’s honesty and integrity. He earnestly wades through the pages of the holy Quraan and uses it as life’s ultimate textbook on what rules to follow.
To the aspiring philanthropist, Imtiaz advises that money isn’t a requirement to help people. Imparting your skills or knowledge to others is just as important. He mentions that the youth can empower other students simply by tutoring them as this will have a positive impact on their lives.
When asked about his future goals, Dr. Sooliman replies that he has no worldly desires and the only thing that satisfies him is serving others. “The less you have, the better it is. I have no desire for other stuff because it’s not real. Human suffering is real.“
Imtiaz is always emotively struck by the selflessness of people. While the affluent may donate millions from their inexhaustible resources, the penniless who give their last R10 to someone worse off than they are, have the kind of qualities we need to be mindful of.
To this lionhearted altruist, success is not defined by material evaluation. Success means gaining God Almighty’s acceptance of your good deeds.
Imtiaz believes that we can’t separate our identity as Muslims because we are all human, created by the same God. We shouldn’t assume that we’re better than anyone else as Islam has no place for ego. “We are proudly human” he declares, “and it’s important for us to respect our own belief systems as well as the belief systems of others.”
His favourite Quranic verse: “Verily we have created man into toil and struggle.”
His last words in life would be: “Continue serving people.” He believes that the fastest way to attain spiritual growth is through service to mankind.
His life motto: “Serve people.” A powerful sentiment put simply, Imtiaz says he has everything in life to be grateful for and that “there is no greater gift than contentment.”
Dr. Sooliman would like to leave his legacy as a reminder to people to do good for others. He doesn’t wish to be celebrated in any way, saying that “Everything I do is by the grace of Allah.”
A luminary whose brilliance and enormity cannot be perceived in just one interview, Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman is a man veneered in kindness and who lives his life solely for the benefit of others. Selfless, commiserative and open-handed with his abilities and humanitarian aid, Imtiaz is the existential archetype of what a true Muslim is. He lends credence to Islam’s greatest critics, while his love and consideration for all of mankind – regardless of religion, nationality or race – is an unparalleled quality which we can all learn from and aspire to.