Gai Eaton, or Sidi Hasan, which was his Muslim name, was a diplomat, author and one of Britain's most influential convert Muslims. In his nearly 60 years as a Muslim he proved that British values are very much compatible with Islamic ones, writes Kristiane Backer in her tribute to a friend
I first met the towering patriarch of British Islam, as he was called in the press within days after his death, with Imran Khan in 1993 when I was working as a presenter on MTV Europe. Imran had avidly read his book Islam and the Destiny of Man and had passed it on to me. He wanted to ask him questions and introduce me to a European Muslim scholar.
A few years after that first meeting, I called Gai Eaton in the mosque to ask him for advice. By then I had re-read his enlightening book Islam and the Destiny of Man, which has been translated into many languages and remains one of the most significant works on Islam in the English language.
A man of taste and style
He invited me for a lovely lunch at his gentleman's club on Pall Mall, the Travellers Club. Gai Eaton certainly had taste and style, he was impeccably dressed and groomed – the archetypal eccentric English gentleman, elegant and grand, but at the same time gracious and gentle in his dealings with people.
He calmed my worries about whether I was fit for this spiritual path by emphasizing that no one is born an angel. To live life according to God's will, becoming a Mu'min, and then entering His peace, is a process that requires hard work and much patience; I should take one step at a time, he said. And there was a secret: if we go one step towards God, He comes ten steps towards us. If we walk towards Him, He comes running towards us. We just need to take that first step.
After this second meeting I kept in touch and we became very close friends in God over the years, almost like spiritual father and daughter. Several years later Gai was to guide me to his Sufi group, a branch of the Awlawiyyah Tariqah, which played an essential part in his life.
Gai was fascinated by the contradictions of life and of human nature, even or especially in those who are leading figures. He often quoted the saying of a wise old Hadramawti Sheikh, who reminded us that "God chooses whom he will," as the Qur'an says. "God may choose a good man but he may sometimes choose a foolish man, he may even choose a bad man for his purposes and it is not for us to question his choice."
Visitors from all walks of life
Gai loved people (and people loved Gai) and he was sincerely interested in their stories. Many, especially the young would entrust their most private and personal problems to Gai and he counselled them on matters of love and life, family and faith, or in my case even media-related issues. He welcomed and respected visitors from all walks of life – whether it was Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, rock star Chrissie Hynde, a Muslim couple in trouble, a gay man or, as most often, a young woman with heartache.
Anyone who had the privilege of visiting Gai Eaton and spending time with him, felt uplifted and enriched by his humanity, his wisdom and his spirituality. He was an encyclopaedia of Islam but, as a former journalist and reader of The Times, he was also very well informed about current affairs. His worldview was entirely Islamic and at the same time British Conservative.
In his autobiography, "A Bad Beginning and the Path to Islam", which was published a few weeks before his death, he described himself as an "improbable member of the establishment". There was no question about his identity, Gai Eaton, or Sidi Hasan, which was his Muslim name, was a British Muslim through and through and proved in his nearly 60 years as a Muslim that British values are very much compatible with Islamic ones.
Gai Eaton was born in Switzerland and educated at Charterhouse school and later at Cambridge University. He worked as a diplomat for the British Foreign Service in Jamaica, Egypt, India and Trinidad as well as in Britain. Despite his background of privilege and glamour, he was driven by the quest for meaning in life and was essentially a humble man. He liked to serve God by helping people.
"Islam is good manners"
Sometimes when I was visiting Sidi Hasan for tea, he would bake a sponge cake, and I noticed how he poured fresh milk from a bottle he had just opened for me whereas he would himself first finish the old milk. Islam is adab, he often quoted the Prophet Muhammad, good manners! But it actually has a deeper and more universal meaning than this common translation, Gai Eaton explains in the epilogue to his autobiography:
"The principle of adab is at the heart of Islam. It signifies in the first place good manners towards God including gratitude for the gift of life, for the food that nourishes us, for the light of day and even for the air we breathe. Secondly we must show good manners in all our dealings with our fellows, even our enemies, respecting the dignity of the human condition. But this is not all. The animal creation also is to be treated with courtesy and compassion (as the Prophet demonstrated on several occasions), and no tree or plant which feeds man or beast is to be abused. The environment as such is sacred."
After his retirement, Gai worked part time at the London Central Mosque for 22 years editing the Centre's journal, The Islamic Quarterly and guiding Muslims who sought his advice. He was the unlikely but tolerated Sufi there, who became "irremovable" in the otherwise Wahhabi-influenced mosque. (Usually the Saudis follow the austere Wahhabi version of Islam and are therefore opposed to Sufism).
Good character, virtuous behaviour and the spiritual life
Gai's nature was refreshingly unconventional and sometimes even a little rebellious. One of the few things Gai enjoyed about his old age was the fact that he could get away with saying (and doing) almost anything he liked. And he did, whether when addressing the congregation in the Regent's Park Mosque, in his writings or in his private life. Until a few days before he went to hospital he was smoking, contrary to his doctor's advice, five or six cigarettes a day – very elegantly, with a tip. Officially he had limited it to three.
He was not one to accept conventions or fashionable ideologies – political or otherwise only because the majority adhered to it but urged us to question them using our reason.
And he loved his dogs – his last one, Twink, was a wild young puppy when he took her on. Naturally she startled some of his more conservative Muslim visitors. Even after his death and during his last stay in his casket at home, little Twink was able to cause quite a stir and add to the drama of the occasion, surely to Gai's amusement in heaven.
His focus was not on dogma – although he was an orthodox Muslim – but on good character, virtuous behaviour and the spiritual life. His emphasis was not on the outer shell but the inner heart of religion: God-consciousness; being mindful of God in every situation and everything we do. Naturally he never judged people. Instead he guided with gentleness and always tried to make the religion easy to practice.
For example, when I was supposed to host a five-day conference from nine am to six pm in Barcelona during Ramadan last year, I really wanted to continue fasting, but was worried it would have an impact on my performance. Gai emphasized that because I was travelling I was exempt and really should make up the missing days later instead of killing myself and possibly losing my job. I was grateful for the advice and followed it to the letter.
It was remarkable that as Gai grew older, far too old for his own liking, he remained young at heart and in the mind. One of his last interviews with a Middle Eastern journalist he did on the msn messenger and with a skype phone call. At the same time he aged gracefully and accepted whatever circumstances he found himself in.
I won't forget how he recovered from a stroke in the Mayday Hospital in Croydon, not in a private room but in a very basic ward with six other patients, no privacy and insufficient medical attention. He did not complain, or lose his temper, but patiently endured.
In fact he rather enjoyed observing his fellow patients. One I remember was from Pakistan and had a constant stream of visitors; over 55 Gai counted to his amazement on one day. And he mentioned the nurses to me, how he felt comfortable in their care, because they reminded him of his favourite place on earth: Jamaica.
Gai loved Jamaica. Not only had he lived there for many years, he was also married to a Jamaican lady for 30 years, the renowned artist Corah Hamilton who bore him three children, Judy, Maurice and Corah Ann. His wife sadly died twenty-six years before him. Soon after her death Gai Eaton published his masterpiece, Islam and the Destiny of Man, which was a very personal exploration of what it was that appealed to him in the Faith. So far the book has sold some 85,000 copies.
Gai was a strong family man, keenly involved and interested in all his children's and grandchildren's lives, many a time also sharing his concerns for one or the other with me.
A man from a different era
We often spoke about the challenges of our times, for example the difficulty of balancing professional life with the spiritual and the family. He felt the pressures of work were too much today and not at all conducive for nurturing the family or the soul. Gai was from a different era. He told me that when he was working as a diplomat in Jamaica he used to finish work at 3 pm, take the children to the beach and enjoy the afternoon with his family, an unthinkable concept today.
A marvellous writer and Muslim intellectual leader, not many people know that he was a trained actor by background and therefore also a wonderful speaker. "I was so happy talking to people", he writes "whether a hundred or a thousand, that a wave of affection always caught me up in its warm flow,"
With his emotional delivery – he loved a bit of drama – and sense of timing, he always captivated his audiences, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.
Orthodoxy, spirituality and compassion
Who doesn't remember Gai Eaton's passionate reading of the Koran in English that brought God's word to life and really put the fear – and love – of God into the hearts of listeners. And After the publication of Islam and the Destiny of Man, Gai was invited to speak to Muslim audiences around the world in the UK, in America, in Pakistan and even in Peru. He spoke on many different issues from a perspective of orthodoxy, spirituality and compassion.
In the fifteen years I knew Gai Eaton well I asked him so many questions about different aspects of the religion – because as a new Muslim I was told all sorts of things that I felt I had to verify and I was often confronted with prejudices from non-Muslims. He answered every question patiently and with common sense, wisdom and good humour.
Do apostates really need to be killed, was one such basic question. Of course not, was his answer, explaining to me that at the time of the Prophet it was a matter of the people being either with him or against him. And when they were against him this meant they were traitors and actively fought against the young community and its religion. But when someone quietly changed their religion and minded their own business no one cared, for there is no coercion in Islam.
Union with God
Many times we searched through different Qu'ranic commentaries or other books for references or explanations. Gai was very generous with his profound insight and knowledge; he even passed on e-mail exchanges he had with other scholars and friends to me if he thought I could benefit from them. I am deeply grateful for having had such a special teacher and friend, right up until our last meeting at his home two weeks before he died, when, very poignantly, we discussed a particular spiritual state – the so-called union with God. He knew his end was nigh and said to me then that he would very much welcome it, too.
Gai Eaton, Sidi Hasan was ready to meet God and had been preparing for this moment all his life, with the remembrance of God, dhikru'Llah, which in a sense is the essence of Sufism. "So remember Me, I will remember you," God says in the Qur'an as Gai quotes in the opening to his book, Remembering God, Reflections on Islam.
And this spiritual path, Sufism, was his way. He wanted Sufism to be placed at the heart of Islam where he said it belonged. He liked to call it the Ihsani tradition, which comes from Hasan and means goodness – inner beauty – or excellence. Sidi Hasan truly lived up to his name.
Only a few months before he died, Gai explained to me that we come closer to God through the ways He has offered to us. Islam is one such rope of God, a mercy from God. If we hold on to this rope, follow the shariah and are mindful of God in every situation and in everything we do, we are safe, no matter what happens – we have our grip. Death carries everyone in the stream of Divine mercy, and then our faith and our spiritual practice are the rope with which to grasp His mercy. This is why faith is so important, he said.
Gai was grasping this rope until the last minute of his life, invoking God on his deathbed with his breath because he couldn't speak anymore and with his friends in faith – beaming when certain suras of the Qur'an were recited to him and when I told him that I would go on Hajj for him. May God allow me to fulfil my promise.
Gai Eaton – Sidi Hasan died peacefully, with prayers from both sides of the Atlantic and surrounded by his loving family till the very end. His advice to us was, to put God at the very centre of our being. May his soul now find peace in God. Innalilahi wa inna ilaihi rajeun, as the Qur'an says. 'To God we belong and to Him is our return.'
© Qantara.de 2010
As the host of 'MTV Europe', Hamburg-born Kristiane Backer became an icon of 1990s musical pop culture. In 1995 Backer converted to Islam. In 2009 she published Von MTV nach Mekka – Wie der Islam mein Leben änderte (From MTV to Mecca - How Islam Inspired My Life). In 2010 Backer was awarded the Presidential Medal of the Sciences and the Arts by the Republic of Egypt for her attempts to promote understanding of Islam in the West.