I picked up my first copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet in Beirut in June last year, but I was too busy having a good time roaming about the country to read it – despite visiting Gibran’s village of birth, Becharre.
On my return to Lebanon a few months later I tried again, only to be spooked by the discovery that Gibran’s first English work was titled The Madman, a name I had unwittingly assigned a Lebanese friend in a piece I wrote that June. (He assumed I chose the name because of the Gibran connection, but never said this to me.)
I put it away again. I felt The Prophet was one of those books that deserved my due attention, and I wasn’t in a frame of mind to give it.
Baha’i philosophy holds that, throughout the course of humanity, Messengers of God will reveal spiritual truths when the time is right for us to receive their wisdom. These progressive revelations will come to us, the Baha’i say, when we’ve forsaken previous teachings and need to be returned to the right path.
The time for Khalil Gibran to write his masterpiece was as World War One came to an end. Thanks to the imperial powers’ prolonged conflict, suffering was widespread. In Gibran’s homeland Lebanon, under the hand of the Ottomans, an estimated one third to one half of the population starved to death or succumbed to disease. In 1918, in his adopted United States, Gibran wrote to his friend and benefactor Mary Haskell:
Human beings have changed remarkably during the past three years. They are hungry for beauty, for truth, and for that other thing which lies beneath and beyond beauty and truth.
In 1923, The Prophet was published. And the world, after following the path of war for four years, was ready to receive it. In the twentieth century, Gibran’s book of twenty-six prose poems was outsold only by the Bible in the United States.
The story is of a foreigner, Almustafa, who has been observing the city of Orphalese for twelve years while he waits for a ship from his homeland to retrieve him. As he departs, the city folk gather and implore him to impart what he knows about key aspects of life and the human condition. Despite living in Orphalese for more than a decade, it is only as Almustafa leaves the city that the people ask for his wisdom.
And it was only after carrying Gibran with me for a year that I finally felt it was time to read him, with the Mediterranean Sea to my left and the hills of Lebanon to my right. I instantly knew I could not have read The Prophet any earlier: without the experiences of the previous year, I would not have felt kicked in the chest with something I knew but was unable to articulate. While there is a timelessness to the worldly and personal issues Gibran covers in his poems, they also have the quality of being exactly what you need to hear, right when you need to hear it.
Baha’i philosophy holds that, throughout the course of humanity, Messengers of God will reveal spiritual truths when the time is right for us to receive their wisdom.
People across the globe have embraced Gibran’s work both for its artistic merit and its message. A friend’s uncle in Lebanon read The Prophet in Arabic, rather than its original English, every night before he went to sleep as a young boy. The South African grandmother of another friend considers the collection, given to her by her late husband, to be her most treasured. Australia’s hippies of the sixties and seventies also embraced it. When one of my uncles married at Melbourne’s artist colony Montsalvat, one of the readings (I suspect ‘On Marriage’) was from The Prophet.
Gibran’s work reflects two of his lifelong influences: the Sufis, Islamic mystics most commonly identified with the whirling dervishes, and his own Christianity. But many believe it was the leader of the Baha’i faith, Abdu’l-Bahá, who had an equally strong influence on The Prophet.
Gibran met and sketched Abdu’l-Bahá during the spiritual leader’s visit to the United States in 1912. In a talk in New York in May, Abdu’l-Bahá said the world’s religions were “like the progression of the seasons of the year”.
“[T]hough the calendar changes and the years move forward, each springtime that comes is the return of the springtime that has gone; this spring is the renewal of the former spring.”
In The Prophet, an Orphalese astonomer asks Almustafa, “What of time?”. He replies:
[I]f in your thought you must measure time into
seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons,
And let today embrace the past with remembrance and
the future with longing.
Like a lot of poets, Gibran walks the tightrope between wise philosopher and sentimental poser; poised on the precipice between obnoxiousness and beauty. But, as Gibran’s friend Mikhail Naimy suggests, “It is not the skeleton … that sets The Prophet apart; it is the spirit and vision that animates it”.
Ultimately, The Prophet bears a message of love and compassion for our fellow humans and our planet that will always hold value in this turbulent world.