Remembering the UK’s eloquent voice for Islam – Charles Le Gai Eaton
By HA Hellyer
In retrospect, it was a little bit peculiar to call his house after his passing. I was hoping to give my condolences to his family – instead, I got a chance to hear his voice one last time. On his answering machine, he still came through as the distinguished gentleman I had always known him to be. With the passing of Charles Le Gai Eaton, also known as Hassan Abdul-Hakeem, the last of a particular generation of remarkable western Muslims left this world – and certainly, he was one of the more influential of them, as attested by the numerous condolence messages from across the spectrum of British society and Anglophones everywhere.
Raised as an agnostic, Eaton received his education at Charterhouse (a renowned school in England), before going to study at Cambridge University. After working for some time as a teacher and journalist in Jamaica and Egypt, he joined the British diplomatic service in 1949. In 1951, he became Muslim, which irrevocably changed his world view, enabling him to become one of the pre-eminent writers on Islam for a British audience in the contemporary age. He was deeply engaged with the challenges facing Britain’s Muslims, and later served them at the Islamic Cultural Centre at Regent’s Park in London with distinction for many years.
Many people in the UK have become Muslims since 1951 – but Eaton made a particular contribution to all English-speaking communities. As a young university student researching Islamic thought, I looked hard for contemporary authors in that area of study, even if they were not religious authorities themselves. Much of what was available at the time, particularly in the English language, was infused with political undertones, and aimed at an activist lifestyle. While the call to action through faith isn’t wrongheaded as such, it has its limitations. Eaton’s works, such as King and the Castle and Islam and the Destiny of Man, were completely different, aiming at reorientating the reader towards a God-centred life, rather than a life aimed at success in this world.
He was empowered by his deep attachment to living a faithful life in the contemporary world, combined with a profound suspicion of what modernity really had to offer in the advancement of the human being. He wrote as a Muslim, but those who read his works were from all faith backgrounds and none. He insisted that he was not a classically trained authority of the Islamic sciences, but he had a unique way with the English language that few writers on Islam could match. His admirers did not always share his philosophical perspectives, but few could deny his profound eloquence and high culture.
As a young student, I met Eaton at an academic conference, and took the opportunity to tell him how impressed and touched I had been by his books. He was so utterly humble – although I was much younger than him, he seemed incredibly embarrassed when I made the very suggestion that his works were of any worth. Recognising him as one of the last great spiritual writers of his generation, and a reminder of high culture, I kept in touch with him, although it was certainly a one-sided relationship. When I last visited him in his home in Surrey with a friend, he was the epitome of a gentleman – he should never have exerted himself, considering his advanced years, but he nevertheless treated us with the highest hospitality.
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HA Hellyer is the author of “Muslims of Europe”, a Fellow of the University of Warwick and the director of the Visionary Consultants Group
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