The Rise of Gibran's "Prophet"

Gibran's first published book in the language of his adopted country was The Madman (1918). But by calling his second book in English The Forerunner, Gibran appears to have consciously designated it as the precursor of his most important work-The Prophet which followed it into print. The earlier book, published in 1920, certainly appears to anticipate The Prophet in the penultimate line of its final parable, "The Last Watch" which predicts, "out of our ashes a mightier love shall rise". And Gibran himself affirmed that there is a sort of promise of The Prophet in the farewell of The Forerunner.

Exactly when Gibran first thought of the idea of The Prophet and when he started writing it, has long been the subject of conjecture. According to Mary Haskell, he claimed to have in his possession "the Arabic original of it, in elementary form, that I did when I was sixteen years old", though no such original has ever been traced. In a letter to May Ziadeh dated 9/11/1919, he attempted to explain how it evolved:

"As for The Prophet - this is a book which I thought of writing a thousand years ago, but I did not get any of its chapters down on paper until the end of last year. What can I tell you about this prophet? He is my rebirth and my first baptism, the only thought in me that will make me worthy to stand in the light of the sun. For this prophet had already written me before I attempted to write him, had created me before I created him, and had silently set me on a course to follow him for seven thousand leagues before he appeared in front of me to dictate his wishes and inclinations".

After its publication, he again wrote to May:

"This book is only a small part of what I have seen and of what I see every day, a small part only of the many things yearning for expression in the silent hearts of men and in their souls".

There is no documentary evidence to show that Gibran worked on the book before June 1912, when, according to Mary Haskell he "got the first motif for his island God". It therefore took at least eleven years to complete, during which time Gibran regularly broke off to write other works. But all the while he was rigorously refining and honing The Prophet, which was demonstrably closer to his heart than, any of his other writings, and which he instinctly knew would be his finest work. He effectively completed it in 1922, but he was plagued with ill health and it was another year before it reached the printers.

Gibran used Mary Haskell as a consultant on his English writings from the start, when he began writing the Madman. She tidied up the punctuation and grammar and suggested alternative words for greater felicity of sound on occasions. He looked upon her as a trusted and intelligent friend with a native command of his adopted language, and whose comments were therefore invaluable to him. Mary's testimony indicates that the literary collaboration started in June 1914, and thereafter he consulted her on the majority of the parables and poems in The Madman and The Forerunner and on many of the sermons in The Prophet. The latter's publication in 1923 marked the end of their collaboration.

Mary's journals contain several references to the "counsels" as The Prophet was provisionally entitled in the early stages; earlier still Gibran was also referring to it simply as "My Book". Gibran appears finally to have begun calling the book The Prophet in 1919.
In 1920, Gibran told Mary of his idea for a sermon on crime and punishment, with its central theme of "what collective humanity does is done by each of us". When it was written, they went over it together with meticulous care. A month later, Gibran had plotted an overall scenario for The Prophet.

In a city between the plains and the sea, where ships come in and where graze in the fields behind the city, there wanders about the fields and somewhat among the people, a man-poet, seer, prophet - who loves them and whom they love - but there is an aloneness after all, about him. They are glad to hear him talk; they feel in him a beauty and a sweetness… young woman who are attracted by his gentleness do not quite venture to fall in love with him. Then while the people count him as part of the city, and like that he is there and that he talks with their children in the fields, there is a consciousness that this is all temporary-that someday he will leave.

One day, out of the blue horizon a ship comes toward the city and somehow everyone knows, though nothing is told, that the ship is for the hermit poet and that they are going to lose him. The feeling of what he is in their life comes to them and they all crowd down to the shore, and he stands and talks to them…

One says "Speak to us of Friendship - and so on. He speaks of these things, and when he finishes, he enters the ship and the ship sails into the mist. At the end one says to the poet: "Tell us about God", and he says: "Of Him I have been speaking in everything".

In September, Gibran showed Mary the first draft of the prologue, and she wrote down as much as she could recall, some of which is very close to the final version:

"Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, he who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese, for the ship of purple sails to return and bear him back again to the isle of his birth".

Everyday, upon the high hills without the city walls, he stood searching the distances for his ship. But the ship came not; and his heart grew heavy within him, for deep was his longing for the land of his memories and the dwelling - place of his greater desires. Then, in the twelfth year, on the seventh day of which is the month of awakening, came the ship of purple sails, and he descended the hills to go. But he could not go without pain, for all the self that he left in the city, and for his heart made sweet there with hunger and thirst: "Fair would I take with me all that is here". Yet, "A voice cannot carry with it the tongue and the life that gave it wings. Alone and without his rest shall the eagle fly across the sun".

Now when he had descended form the hill, turned again towards the sea and he saw his ship approaching the harbour. He beheld his mariners, the men of his own land, upon harbour… He hails them, riders of the tides, and says:

"How often have you sailed in my dreams and now you are come at this awakening, which is my deeper dream. Ready am I to go, and my eagerness, with sails full set, awaits the time… But another breath will I breathe in this air then shall I go with you, a seafarer, among seafarers".

"And you, vast sea, sleepless mother, who alone are peace and freedom to the river and the stream, only another winding will this stream make, only another, murmur in this glade, and then shall I come to you, a boundless drop to a boundless ocean".

These things he said in words. But in his heart more remained unsaid. For he himself could not speak his deeper silence.
That much Kahlil has written, and planned the rest. How Almustafa when he comes down from the hill whence he saw the ship, will find all the city meeting him, for now they know and they know they love him; and they follow him and ask him to counsel them, one after another questioning him; and to all of them he delivers his counsel; and then they go with him to the ship and he speaks his farewell, and it is ended.

He brought the third writing on the setting for The Prophet. How, as he walked on, he saw from afar the men and women leaving their fields and vineyards and hastening towards the gates of the city. Then he heard many voices calling his name, and men shouting one to another from field to field telling of the return of the ship; and he said to himself:

"Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering and shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn? What shall I give unto him who has left his plough in midfurrow, and to him who has stopped the wheel of his winepress. Shall my heart be as a fruit laden tree, that I may-and shall my desires become a Fountain, that I may fill their cups? Am I a harp that the hand of the Mighty may touch me, and a flute that his breath may blow through me? A seeker of silences am I. And what treasures have I found in silences that I may dispense with confidence? If this is the day of my harvest, in what unknown fields have I sowed the seed, and in what unremembered seasons? If this be indeed the hour in which I shall lift up my lantern, it is not my own flame that shall burn therein. Empty and cold shall I raise my lantern, and the guardian of the right shall fill it with oil, and he shall light it also."

This he said in words. But more remained in his heart unsaid. For he himself could not speak his inmost silence.
"It was written down in a hurry, said Kahlil. As we got into the text, we began at once to condense the connecting phrases. We always have a fine time over a manuscript, because one can talk to Kahlil as to one's self. There is no pride to guard and no treasuring of phrases. He likes to work on and on, and over and over until the thing is SAID. Sometimes we have to leave a thing to ripen in Kahlil. Never before has he written so systematically on an English book. So we are doing more than usual. Usually, he keeps things to show me, until he has completed them. But this PROPHET prologue he brings in its first or second writing down. He says the final form comes quicker than when he prunes it alone. Our method is, first, Kahlil reads it through aloud to me. Then we look together at the text, and if we come to a bit that I question, we stop until the question is settled.

He knows more English than any of us, for he is conscious of the bony structure of the language, its solar system, and he creates English".

After The Prophet was published at the end of September 1923, Mary was the first to recognize that its appeal would be universal. She was also aware that their association had now reached its climax. Colored by emotions as her words were, Mary's ecstatic letter of 2nd Oct. 1923 nevertheless forecasts quite accurately the feelings of many among those millions who have been touched by the book since its publication:

"Beloved Kahlil,
The Prophet came today, and it did more than realize my hopes. For it seemed in its compacted form to open further new doors of desire and imagination in me, and to create about itself the universe in nimbus, so that I read it as the center of things. The format is excellent, and lets the ideas and the verse flow quite unhampered. The pictures make my heart jump when I see them. They are beautifully done. I like the book altogether in style.

The text is more beautiful, nearer, more revealing, more marvelous in conveying reality and in sweetening consciousness - than ever. The English, the style, the wording, the music - is exquisite, Kahlil - just sheerly beautiful… The book will be held as one of the treasures of English Literature. And in our darkness we will open it to find ourselves again and the heaven and earth within ourselves. Generations will not exhaust it, but instead, generation after generation will find in the book what they would fain be - and it will be better loved, as men grow riper and riper.

It is the most loving book ever written. And it is because you are the greatest lover who ever wrote".

Influences on the The Prophet
A broad range of influences is detectable in The Prophet, including the Gospel, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, the Romantics, the popular American schools of thought, the course of Renaissance in the Orient, Ralph Emerson and William Blake with respective beliefs in the Oversoul and the Universal Man, and Friederick Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra resembles Gibran's own prophet in certain superficial respects but differs fundamentally in others. Gibran was also influenced by his friend Ameen Rihani, a fellow Lebanese expatriate writer for whose novel The Book of Khaled (1911) Gibran provided the illustrations.

The most significant of the influences on The Prophet are the Gospel and Sufism -combining for Gibran in the Christian-Muslim synthesis.

One of the most striking features of The Prophet is its spiritual-moral approach, which Gibran rightly saw as the ideal medium (language) for conveying profound teachings capable of being understood and digested… Shortly before The Prophet was published, Gibran told Mary: "I know English only from Shakespeare and the Bible and you".(See Gibran J. & K. 1974, Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World, Newyork p.364).

In July 1917 she wrote down his comments on the subject of Biblical language:

"The Bible is Syriac literature in English words. It is the child of a sort of marriage. There's nothing in any other tongue to correspond to the English Bible. And the Chaldo - Syriac is the most beautiful language that man has made-though it is no longer used". (Same reference p.313).

Above all, Almustafa is Christ and Muhammad merged into one, the embodiment of al-Insan al-Kamel - the "Perfect Man" of Sufi tradition. This Eastern Concept of the Perfect Man is paralleled in the West by that of the Universal Man and its variants which include Emerson's Oversoul and perhaps even Nietzsche's Superman. The following, which could almost have been written by a Sufi, is from Blake's poem "The Four Zoas":

"Four Mighty Ones are in every Man; a Perfect Unity Cannot exist but from the Universal Brotherhood of Eden, The Universal Man, to whom be Glory evermore. Amen."

It is true that Gibran expresses and represents the first convulsions of a nation aiming at revival, but in The Prophet, he seems expressing a more humanitarian tendency which was dominated by his national outlook and works. Even his viewpoint of woman has been amended in The Prophet from being influenced by Nietzsche, to being purer and closer to that of Tagore.Gibran and Blake (1757 - 1827
Joseph Helou considers Gibran "the nonpareil artist" (Kahlil Gibran: A Nnonpareil Artist, p. 177).

It is not entirely clear at what age Gibran first encountered the poetry and paintings of William Blake, but there is no doubt that William Blake has a profound impact upon him as a student in Paris in his mid-twenties. According to Mikhail Naimy, it was Auguste Rodin who awakened him to the subject; in 1909, Gibran attended a seminar in which the great French sculptor made extensive reference to Blake. In a letter to Mary Haskell in 1915, a more mature Gibran wrote:

"Blake is the God-man. His drawings are so far the profoundest things done in English-and his vision, putting aside his drawings and his poems is the most godly".

The most obvious attribute, which Gibran shares with Blake, is that they served twin muses. Both were poet-painters, perhaps even poet-prophets, in the sense of the poet as a revealer of eternal truths… Many convictions were common to both: a hatred of evil priests; the manumission of physical love from the bonds of convention in order to attain spiritual completeness; the perception of beauty in the moment that seems to be fleeting but is, in reality, everlasting; and the discovery of miracles in seasonal nature and the commonplace things of daily living. Both warred against familiar reason in the name of imagination. Both defied the snares of logic to cut a straight wing path directly to God.

To both Blake and Gibran, these revelations are the gift of the poet. The poet and the prophet are one.

The Prophet: Message and Form
The Prophet occupies a unique place in world literature, which makes assessment of its true value a difficult task for the critic. Often unjustly branded as a romanticized version of universal philosophical and religious teachings, it has in some ways been a victim of its own astonishing success. The reality is that it is a work of remarkable compassion, insight, hope, inspiration, with a timeless message that combines the dignity of the Christian Scriptures and the wisdom of the Islamic Sufism phrased with a simplicity and rhythmical quality that renders it accessible to a wide readership.

This little book of teachings comes across to the reader as a far less didactic work than, for example, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The Prophet owes its broad appeal partly to the clarity, universality and timelessness of its message, and partly to the power of its poetry. On its publication, the Irish mystic George Russel wrote:

"I do not think the East has spoken with so beautiful a voice since the Gitanjali of Rabindranath Tagore as in The Prophet of Kahlil Gibran… I could quote from every page, and from every page I could find some beautiful and liberating thought".

According to Robin Waterfield, some of Gibran's heritage is incomparable to The Prophet. He was not reluctant in stating that "The Earth Gods and The Wanderer are tired work. If he had but known it, Gibran's bid for immortality had already succeeded; if he had known how widely successful The Prophet was to become, he might not have risked tarnishing his literary reputation with these other works".

The Prophet is among the most consoling and least cynical literary works of a century often characterized as the Age of Anxiety. It represents an appeal for a return to reconciliation with nature, emphasizing the relationship that binds individuals to their environment and fellow creatures. They all become denizens of one world bound together by life and death. Those who err are not alone, and those who reach the sublime heights share it with all; our destiny lies in the way we act towards one another, and the salvation of the individual is the salvation of society. Thus Almustafa sets out his own version of the golden rule common to all great religions: that we must do as we would be done by. What he voices is not some unattainable ideal but practical wisdom, simple moral and spiritual values, laced with a strong sense of Sufi destiny: For everything there is a time, as in sunrise and sunset, ebb and flow.

Like all great writers, Gibran endeavors to show how opposites can be reconciled: good and evil are inseparable; joy and sorrow are one because each feeds on the other, as do body and soul; life and death are a source of each other, and we have neither past nor future- "Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream. (The Prophet, p.125).

The Poet himself is representative of this reconciliation at all levels. For Gibran, the East and the West, the pagan and the believer in God, the ancient and the modern, the past and the present, came together to reaffirm his faith in the "Unity of Being"; and the image of the eternal rebirth of beauty and passion in {the secular figure of} Adonis joined forces with the message of Christ, who taught selfless love, so that in turn this confirmed him in his passionate belief in the healing power of Universal Love.

Everyman, according to Gibran, is a longing: the longing of the divine in man for man the divine whom he had previously been… every man is destined for Godhood. Like the seed, he bears within him the longing, the fulfillment, which is God, and the road leading to this fulfillment.

The keynote of The Prophet, as in much of work of the Romantic poets, is pantheism. Its central article of belief is that God is latent within everyone as a Greater Self, and that this is attained through aspiration or "yearning", which is comparable to prayer in religion, and also through successive reincarnation. Life is a journey, and God is both the starting point and the destination. "Like a procession you walk together towards your god-self", says Almustafa in the sermon on good and evil, whilst the Quran (v:18) tells us that God is the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, and unto him is the journeying. The journey thus represents the condition of full awareness when the soul has embarked on the path leading to its desired union with God. The enlightened wayfarer (Almustafa is one of the names given to the prophet Muhamad) offers directions for anyone who would undertake such a journey.

The idea of "journeying" to God was developed by the great Sufi poet-philosopher Ibn Arabi into the theory that understanding of oneself and knowledge of the cosmos is attained by traveling through it. For him all creation was symbolized by a gigantic circle: the individual's journey from any point on the circumference along an abundant choice of paths towards the center, where he or she merges with the divine presence or the Absolute. The principal way is through self-purification by heeding God's solemn covenant, and following the example of the Perfect man or Prophet. The three types of Journey, according to Ibn Arabi, are away from God, towards God, and in God.

Examples of journey in God, carrying no rewards but still dangerous, are the rational journey of philosophers and others likely to lose their way without a guide, or the journey of prophets or apostles. This concept, although purely Sufi in origin, no doubt greatly appealed to Gibran on account of its universality. Implicit in Ibn Arabi's theory of journeying is the unity of religions. To him revelation is universal and every prophet has transmitted an aspect of God's will to mankind. Therefore, if we examine the inner contents of all religions by journeying inwardly from the external form towards the inner ones we will find a transcendent unity: they all emanate from the same Supreme Center.

A Panoramic view of the concepts
"Wise I may not call them, for that is a great name which belongs to God alone; lovers of wisdom or philosophers is their modest and befitting title".

So speaks Socrates in Plato's legacy of the genuine teachers of mankind, who, whether they be poets or lawgivers or dialecticians like Socrates himself, know what they are talking about and can distinguish what is really good from what is only apparently so, preferring what can be shown to be true to what is merely plausible and attractive.

Philosophy, says Plato, begins with wonder and, the ideal thinker is "the spectator of all time and of all existence".
So if Gibran were to meet this description, he would have definitely been a philosophical thinker in (The Prophet), and if literature adds creative style to creative thought and imagination, Gibran would consequently be a literary figure whose production sweetens with time, the more it ages, the more it glows.

"The Prophet" appealed to collective concepts and collective practice. Gibran's nationalism was a springboard towards humanitarianism; on the other hand, his mysticism reveals an intense preoccupation with the visionary and the spiritual. His over-all beliefs were that transparent and that broad:

Love is a director to be followed, and it is rather the joy of bleeding and of sublimation.
Marriage is an inseparable bond between two hearts, and much more, the confluent life of two souls.
Children are not the moulds of our desire or even our moods, but rather the children of life in the procession of development.
Giving, in its genuine practice, is to give what lies within your needs, to give of yourself with joy and satisfaction.
With work, life is indeed darkness except when there is urge.
The urge is blind except when there is knowledge. Knowledge is vain but in practice and work, is empty unless done with love.
Thus work is love embodied.
The distance between Joy and Sorrow is negligible if we comprehend that one completes the other in the balance of life. Your house, says Gibran, shall be not an anchor but a mast.
A house is peace in the first place.
When selling and buying, make sure before leaving the market place that no one has gone with empty hands.

On crime and punishment, the author couldn't separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked. Yet you cannot lay remorse upon the innocent nor lift it from the heart of the guilty.

On laws he wonders: who is he that shall bring you to judgment if you tear off your garment, yet leave it in no man's path?
Freedom, when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom. But all of us need the liberty of the spirit.
God moves in passion, but rests in reason.

Pain, in almost all cases, is self-chosen. It is the bitter dose by which the physician within us heals our sick selves.

"Say not", asserts Gibran, "I have found the truth, but rather I have found a truth". Even yourself is unknown completely. In teaching, the teacher does not give of his wisdom more than he gives of his faith and lovingness. He leads you to the threshold of your own mind rather than leading you to his house of wisdom.
Your friend is your needs answered, and you do not fear to reject some of his ideas, but your love makes your heart listen to his heart even when he's silent.
In time, let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.

"The Prophet" cannot teach people how to pray in words, for God listens not to the words but rather to the heart and the mind.
A freedom-song is pleasure and blossoming of desires. But humanity is asked to resemble in its pleasure the flowers and the bees, i.e., to the bee a flower is a fountain of life, and to the flower a bee is a messenger of love, and to both, giving and receiving pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.

On the other hand, beauty is not a need but an ecstasy. It is a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted, and more, a garden forever in bloom.
The Prophet's daily life is his temple and his religion, and if you would know God, do not be therefore a solver of riddles but rather see him within existence starting with you good self.

As such, the Prophet spills the essence of life experiences and the content of his doctrine and he argues the relativity of realities and the stability of facts by the following compendium: Man's needs change, but not his love, nor his desire that his love should satisfy his needs.

Symbols in the Prophet
"I am the maker of symbols", Gibran is said to have remarked to his friend and fellow student in Paris -Yussef Huwayik- and although evidently derived from a variety of sources, Gibran's symbolism was his own. Talking of the sermon on freedom, he remarked to Mary Haskell:

"I want to say only those things that are at the source of things. I want the root out which the fruits will grow. I want to use figures and symbols that are planetary. I use the footprint as a figure, because the footprint will be here as long as there is a planet". (Hilu, V. Beloved Prophet, the Love Letters, London, 1973, p.340).

The following are the principal symbols employed by Gibran in The Prophet, some of them are nearly universal in their application, others are intensely personal:

Dawn: The source of knowledge
Sea: The great spirit of greater self
Ether: Freedom
Tree, Fountain: Fertility and giving
Lantern: The self full of awareness and receptive to inspiration
Houses: enslaving traditions
Larger body: Nature, the forest, the world of freedom
Children of Space: those freed from the shackles of materialism
Songs and night silence: Inspiration
Clothes: Absolute traditions
Sun and Wind: Liberty
North Wind: Power of enslaving traditions;
God-self, Giant-self: The Al mighty towards whom all souls yearn
Well-spring: Eventual life of mysteries unceasing
Ear of one's ear: Insight
Temple invisible: The temple of the soul
Veil: Ignorance and unknowing
Greater silence: Death
Mist: Mystery and eternity
Giant Oak tree covered with apple Blossoms: God
Hills: The dimensions of thought and inspiration
Crystal: Clarity
Dream: Life on earth
Sons and Daughters of life: The generations of Future and Liberty
Tower in the sky: Hope for a future of spiritual fullfilment.

1. Gibran Kahlil, The Prophet, Knopf, Newyork, 1989.
2. Waterfield, Robin, The Life and Time of Kahlil Gibran, Penguin press, London, 1998.
3. Bushrui Suheil & Jenkins Joe, Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet - A New Biography, Oxford, 1998.
4. Kant Immanuel, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, Berkley, University of California press, 1965.
5. Hick Jones, Philosophy of Religion, New Delhi, 1994.
6. The Treasured Writings of Kahlil Gibran, Castle Books, U.S., 1981.
7. Ghareeb Haydar, Dawr Al-Mar'at fi Ibda'h G.K. Gibran (The role of woman in Gibran's creativity), U/P M.A. Thesis, Lebanese University, Faculty of letters and humanities, Branch I, Beirut, 2001.
G.K. Gibran, Safwat Al-A'mal Al Kamela, (The best of Gibran's complete works), Tr. And ed. By Tharwat Okasha, Cairo, Beirut, 1998.
8. Helou Joseph Habib, Kahlil Gibran: A Nnonpareil Artist, Raidy printing press, Beirut?, 2002.
9. Mi'att 'Aa, 'Ala Milad G. K. Gibran, (A century since the birth of G. K. Gibran), Several Lecturers, Al-Nadi Al-Thakafi Al -'Arabi, Beirut, 1984.
Gibran:The Craver for a Masterpiece
Dr. Rabeeh Al-Dibs