Within days of his death, the renowned Muslim intellectual, writer and broadcaster, Charles Le Gai Eaton, also known as Hasan ‘Abd al-Hakim, was being hailed as ‘a towering patriarch of British Islam’, and his death proclaimed as ‘the end of an era’. One can well imagine him chuckling quietly at such expressions of what he would probably have called ‘oriental hyperbole’. And it was just this fusion of genuine humility and gentle humor that so deeply marked his character—a character which bestowed upon his intellectually articulate piety an irresistible charm and a benefic radiance. If the ‘patriarchal’ status of this quintessential English gentleman might be questioned in some quarters, almost all senior members of the Muslim community in this country are painfully aware that nobody can fill the void created by the departure of this unique embodiment of British Islam.
Gai Eaton was born in Switzerland on January 1, 1921, and educated at Charterhouse School and then at King’s College, Cambridge. Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War he was commissioned into the British Army. His first marriage, to Katherine Clayton, was short-lived, but produced Leo, his first son. From the end of the war to his formal retirement in 1977, he assumed the varied roles of actor, university lecturer, journalist, and finally diplomat in countries as far apart as Jamaica and Egypt, India and Ghana. In 1956 Eaton married Corah Hamilton, a Jamaican artist of considerable renown. This marriage produced three children, Judy, Maurice and Corah Ann.
Such was the outward trajectory of Eaton’s life. It is, however, his inner voyage and the manner in which he came to embrace the Islamic faith that has commanded the attention and elicited the fascination of countless admirers, a voyage recorded in his autobiography, published just weeks before his death, A Bad Beginning and the Journey to Islam.
Eaton converted to Islam in 1951 in Cairo at the hands of the man who was to be his foremost mentor, the British Sufi Martin Lings; through Lings Eaton was brought into direct contact with Frithjof Schuon, whose teachings were to increasingly fashion the mature Eaton’s intellectual orientation and spiritual life. From 1977 to 1999, Eaton served as a consultant to the Islamic Cultural Centre in London, where he also edited the respected journal entitled The Islamic Quarterly.
It was during these decades that Eaton made a major contribution to the expanding British Muslim community, both as writer and broadcaster, as well as in the capacity of advisor and counselor to those, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who were particularly interested in Sufism, the inner, mystical tradition of Islam. For it was this dimension of the faith which had attracted him to Islam, and it was this dimension which dominated his two major Islamic works, Islam and the Destiny of Man (1985), and Remembering God—Reflections on Islam (2000).
Eaton’s mystical leanings were already manifest in his first book, The Richest Vein, published in 1949, which revealed the extent of his universality, being largely devoted to the metaphysical teachings of the East. His embrace of Islam did not in any way diminish his universality; rather, it was within an Islamic framework that he felt he could cultivate more fully his deep reverence and love of all major faith traditions, doing so without any risk of straying into syncretism.
His second major book, King of the Castle (1977), was a penetrating critique of atheistic materialism and its accompanying modes of thought in the light of values proper to all authentic religious traditions. But it was Islam and the Destiny of Man that not only became his bestseller—85,000 copies were sold by 2010—but also established his reputation as one of the most serious Islamic thinkers of his generation. In this work, and in the more contemplative work that followed, Remembering God, Eaton provided a profound spiritual vision of Islamic faith and civilization. In the process, he mounted a rigorous critique of all forms of Islamism, all ideological caricatures of authentic Islam.
For Eaton Islam was neither an abstract ideology nor a sociological category; it was not about political slogans or visible badges of identity, it was above all a path of inner transformation, the cultivation of virtue, the deepening of one’s remembrance of God. The only Islamic ‘state’ that concerned him was a spiritual state of mind; the only ‘movement’, one of contemplative interiorization. He contrasted the unpredictable monstrosities of political revolution with the unfathomable mysteries of divine revelation, demonstrating with engaging wit and impeccable logic the extent to which all forms of Muslim extremism deviated from the norms intended by the Islamic revelation and upheld by the Islamic tradition.
As he made clear in his autobiography, Eaton was something of a rebel by nature. He may have represented Her Majesty’s government as a diplomat, but he could never take his official role altogether seriously. However ironic it may seem to some, it was Islam, above all else, which tempered his rebellious predisposition, making of him a conservative upholder of all that he considered best in British society. His identity as an Englishman was not subverted but deepened by Islam, which made him more acutely conscious of those traditional values that enhanced the spiritual character of society.
A strong supporter of the monarchy and hereditary peerage, a staunch upholder of the traditional family structure and its accompanying values and mores, and an unwavering proponent of British independence from Europe, this archetypal Englishman of aristocratic mien demonstrated far more effectively than any amount of theory that Islamic faith is fully compatible with British identity. For Eaton’s Islam was of a rigorously inward, spiritual nature. He refused to conform to the dictates of any ethnic or cultural model imported from abroad, whether Arab or Pakistani, and remained in his outward comportment and lifestyle impeccably British.
It was precisely this harmonious integration of his British identity within his Islamic faith that rendered him so attractive a model for British Muslims to emulate. His life demonstrated that authentic Islam, far from destroying or diminishing identification with one’s indigenous culture, on the contrary leads one to appreciate more deeply and to enhance all that is noble, beautiful and good therein. To the specious argument that Islam is inherently incompatible with traditional British values, Gai Eaton provided an eloquent living refutation.
Charles Le Gai Eaton died on February 26, 2010—the same day as the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, according to the Muslim calendar. He is survived by his sons Leo and Maurice, his daughters Judy and Ann, his daughters-in-law Jeri and Margaret—the latter being with him as he breathed his last; and his grandchildren Alexander, Conor, Eden and Lauren.
Reza Shah-Kazemi, 2010
Dr Reza Shah-Kazemi is an author of books on Islam and comparative religion, and is currently Managing Editor of Encyclopaedia Islamica at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.