Life lessons from Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”

The featured image is a painting by the author discussed, Kahlil Gibran. For more information Google “خمسة‎‎” or “Hamsa”.

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1. Short biography

جبران خليل جبران (Gibran Khalil Gibran) was born in 1883 in the Ottoman Empire (present day Lebanon), as a Maronite Christian, before migrating to the US. It is in the US where his teacher made a spelling mistake and registered Gibran’s name as Kahlil Gibran, which he had gone on to keep in his artistic and literary venture.

Gibran was no stranger to suffering: a complication with the Ottoman Empire led to his father – who was also a recovering gambling addict – being arrested as an imperial administrator for tax evasion. His family property was subsequently confiscated. Gibran’s mother therefore followed her brother, with her children, to the US – eventually settling in Boston, which houses one of the US’ largest Syrian and Lebanese communities.

Growing up, Gibran was heavily influenced by Christian and Sufi spiritual practices. He received Arabic and Bible lessons from priests who visited him regularly in Lebanon and, in the US, he later attended both art and literary schools to master his craft. After briefly returning to Beirut in order to bring the Gibrans more acquainted with their Arabic culture, his sister, Sultana, died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. His half brother, Peter, died of the same condition a year later, with his mother also dying of cancer that year.

Gibran, himself, eventually died at 48 in New York from liver cirrhosis and tuberculosis linked to chronic alcoholism almost certainly linked to his turbulent life.

Today, Gibran is still celebrated as a literary hero in Lebanon, and is the world’s third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Laozi, respectively. His suffering resonates in his writings, which are often also decorated with his paintings, and being literate in both Arabic and English also certainly helped Gibran in terms of his international outreach.

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2. Timeline of professional events

  1. 1883: Born, Ottoman Empire, modern-day Lebanon
  2. 1904: First art exhibition at Day’s studio, meeting his future sponsor, Mary Elizabeth Haskell, Boston
  3. 1908-1910: Attended Académie Julian art school, Paris
  4. 1918: His first book, The Madman, was published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York
  5. 1923: His most famous work, The Prophet, was published by the same company, New York

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3. Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

A portrait of Mary Haskell by Kahlil Gibran; for similar images please see our Digital Archive

Meeting Mary Elizabeth Haskell at the age of 21 was one of the most significant moments in Gibran’s career. Haskell was ten years his senior, and hence would have been 31 at the time of meeting Gibran during his first art exhibition. She was a well-respected headmistress in the Boston area and pumped huge amounts of financial resources with the conviction of making Gibran an artistic and literary success. Whether this was grounded in a rational belief in his work, in her attraction towards Gibran, or both, is unclear.

There is conflicting evidence as to whether their relationship was platonic or was physically consummated; nonetheless, it definitely developed into a romance. Gibran proposed to Haskell twice, and some cite that they were briefly engaged, but in the end they never got married. One theory is that Haskell’s family did not approve of Gibran. Whether this was true, and whether this was because of his status as a non-American, or somebody younger than her, or both, is unclear. Their love letters are, however, published and available online.

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4. The Prophet: a synopsis

The Prophet is a compilation of 26 prose poems by Kahlil Gibran. The poems are ordered such that they depict a journey of “a prophet”, called Almustafa, who lived in the Lebanese island of Orphalese for 12 years, about to board a ship. Prior to boarding the ship, people stop him and ask him questions about the human condition. These people seem to be mourning the departure of Almustafa, perhaps given his insights into life, spirituality and philosophy. Each of his poems and chapters refers to different topics of the human condition – work, love, suffering, and so forth – in response to questions posed by the island’s population. The book then ends.

Interestingly, Mustafa is another name for the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, essentially meaning “the chosen one”. However, the scenario of boarding the ship also holds some resemblance to the story of Noah in Christianity, or Nuh (نوح‎) in Islam. Whilst Kahlil Gibran was a Maronite Christian, the book has some clear Sufi influences. The book is widely accessible, easy to read, and has been distributed worldwide and translated into approximately 40 languages.

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5. Selected life lessons from The Prophet

Finally, here are some selected insights that stood out to me reading the book:

5. a) You must feel pain to understand joy

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

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5. b) Marriage can be expressed unconventionally

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Was Gibran speaking of Haskell?

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5. c) Divine laws are transcendent

People of Orphalese, you can muffle the drum, and you can loosen the strings of the lyre, but who shall command the skylark not to sing?

Gibran, here, seems to be analogising Divine Law; an objective morality that transcends social construct and social consensus. In Islam and Sufi spiritual practice, this can be conceptualised as Fitra (فطرة‎‎), an innate moral compass or innate moral awareness embodied within humanity.

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Thank you for reading, comments welcome.

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