Kahlil Gibran
(1883-1931)

Kahlil Gibran was born in 1883 in what is now in the modern country of Lebanon, which at the time was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire; but he always thought of himself as a Syrian. He learned to read from a priest who visited his mountain village on a regular schedule to hold religious services and indoctrinate the village children. His early religious training was in the Maronite Sect, an offshoot of the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church.

He immigrated to American in 1895 to join his uncle, along with his mother Kamila, older half-brother and two younger sisters. His father chose to stay behind after his release from a term in prison for tax evasion, so his mother had to support the family. At the time, nobody would hire an Arab, so she earned a living as a street vendor in South Boston. Kamila worked very hard, saved money, and eventually opened a hardware store, which she ran with the help of her children.

Kahlil Gibran did not speak English when he enrolled in a Boston school at age 12, so he entered an ungraded class with other recent immigrants. However, his artistic talents impressed his teachers, who contacted Fred Holland Day, an artist from a wealthy Bostonian family who helped many struggling artists. Fred Day took young Kahlil under his wing, introduced him to cultural activities, helped fund his education, and supported his artistic endeavors.

Kahlil Gibran returned to the Middle East in 1897 to attend school in Beirut for two years. Then after a brief visit with his family in Boston, he accepted a position as an interpreter for a family traveling through the Middle East. However the trip was interrupted and he had to hastily return to Boston in 1902 because his mother was suffering with cancer; his half-brother was down with consumption; and one of his sisters was dying from tuberculosis--so he had to take over the store to support his family. All three of his sick family members died within a two-year period, and in his grief, Kahlil totally immersed himself in the operation of the store and in his art.

In 1904, Kahlil Gibran held his first art show, and from 1908 to 1910 he studied art in Europe with August Rodin and others. Then he moved to New York in 1912 to paint and write full-time. He developed an interest in mysticism and Ba'haism, but he remained a devout Christian and continued to write about Christianity throughout his life.

During WWI, Kahlil Gibran developed an intense interest in the cause of freeing his homeland from rule by the Ottoman Turks. From America, he wrote letters and magazine articles to encourage Christians and Moslems to unite in the cause of freedom, but he could not join the military because of a childhood injury. Famine followed in the wake of WWI, so he then worked to raise funds for humanitarian efforts in the Middle East.

At first he only wrote in Arabic, but beginning in 1918, he wrote mostly in English. He published The Prophet in 1923, but it did not become popular until well after his death in 1931. His most popular work is The Prophet, which has been translated into over 20 languages.


Fred Holland Day
(1864-1933)

Day was the only son of a successful Boston merchant, and he used his great wealth to pursue an artistic career. He began a publishing company to support the arts, but he is best known as a photographer. He produced controversial works including photographs of full frontal nude males, and the re-enactment of the crucifixion of Christ (one self-portrait photograph in the series is shown to the right). More importantly for Kahlil Gibran, he also supported and encouraged many struggling artists.


The name of the main character in the book is "Al Mustafa," which means "the chosen one" in Arabic. The title of this book may have been influenced by a friend of Kahlil Gibran who often referred to him as "her prophet."


Kahlil Gibran studied many religious writings, including the Vedas (Hindu Religion's sacred book) from which he drew ideas of reincarnation which appear in The Prophet. "Mitra" is the name of the Hindu god of friendship, which may have been the inspiration of the name "Almitra" (the name of the seeress). "Almitra" is now a popular baby name due to this book.


Gibran injected personal details in The Prophet. For example, Almitra represents Mary Hassell (his mentor and first love) who was ten years older. She refused his marriage proposal due to their age difference, which is represented by Al Mustafa's separation from Almitra when he sails home. Also Kahlil Gibran had lived in New York for 12 years prior to the publication of this book, just as Al Mustafa spent 12 years in Orphalese; and Kahlil Gibran traveled by ship between Lebanon and New York City, which incidentally is located on islands.


August Rodin
(1840-1917)

Kahlil Gibran studied with August Rodin, a famous French artist who is best known for his sculpture. Rodin's most famous piece is a larger than life bronze sculpture titled "The Thinker" (shown on the left).


Christian Symbols

The Prophet teaches Christian values such as charity and love, but these same values can be found in nearly all other religions. Kahlil Gibran presents these values as universal truths in order to appeal to all religious faiths and to promote religious tolerance. While The Prophet is not overtly Christian--indeed nowhere does it even include the words "Jesus" or "Christ"--it does reflect the Christian beliefs of its author including many references to the New Testament.

The Farewell speaks of "living water" and refers to Jesus' Disciple "Doubting" Thomas who did not believe in the resurrection until he actually placed his fingers in the wounds of the risen Christ. On Eating and Drinking, the Prophet refers to himself as "new wine" to be "kept in eternal vessels," as in Jesus' parable of putting new wine in new skins. In On Pain, he speaks of the "cup that he brings," which is a reference to the prayer of Jesus "to let this cup pass." On Death contains references to a shepherd, a metaphor that Jesus used quite often. The Coming of the Ship contains references to sowing seeds and oil lanterns, allegories that frequently appear in the New Testament.

In addition, Reason and Passion refers to resurrection, and Houses speaks of "mansion in the sky" which is a direct quote from the Bible. However, the clearest reference to Jesus Christ is the last line in On Giving, which refers to he who has "God for father."


Water Lillies

Farewell uses the metaphor of a water lily because the flower opens at dawn and closes at dust. The Egyptians called the flower a "lotus," which is how it is referred to in Self-Knowledge. Kahlil Gibran uses the flower as a symbol for death and resurrection.


CHARACTERS AND SETTING

Kahlil Gibran provides few details about the characters or the setting of The Prophet. Al Mustafa, the main character, supposedly came from an island to the east of Orphalese, the fictional city in which he has spent 12 years. The only other character given a name is Almitra, the seeress (fortuneteller) who is a friend to Al Mustafa and proclaims him to be a prophet. All of the other characters are referred to only by their occupation. The time is the fall season during the "month of reaping." The surrounding land is hilly or even mountainous, and the climate is warm enough to grow grapes--very much like the author's homeland of Lebanon.


LEGEND OF THE PHOENIX

The Phoenix is a mythical bird that ignites into a fireball at death, and then a fully-grown new Phoenix rises from the ashes. Kahlil Gibran uses the legend of the Phoenix as a metaphor for death and resurrection.

The legend is so ancient that both the Greeks and the Egyptians told versions of it. The most recent appearance has been in the Harry Potter books, but the name is also used for many organizations including one American city.


Kahlil Gibran referred to The Prophet as a "strange little book", according to his close friend, Mikhail Naimy, writing in the Nov/Dec 1964 Saudi Aramco World. He made the statement to his friend after receiving a request from the president of Colorado College to inscribe a quote from the book on their memorial chapel's bell.

Demand for the book was very slow at first but it steadily grew in many odd ways. Just after publication, a parish serving a poor section of New York City asked for permission to read the book from the pulpit. Attendance at services rose and word spread from person to person about the inspirational book.

Gibran was also pleasantly surprised by a letter from a friend in Europe relaying the admiration of the Queen of Romania for his little book. She told others in her social circle about the book, and then news of the book slowly trickled down to lower social stratas.

Sales surged during WWII (well after his death in 1931) and continued to grow until peaking in the 1960s--but the book still sells steadily and it has been translated into over 20 different languages. Quotes from the book turn up in countless places in many circumstances, so the message still seems to strike a chord with many people.