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The Exploration of Universal Concepts in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

by Caroline Bamberger

    Kahlil Gibran is arguably one of the most influential poets, philosophers, and writers of both the Arabic and English-speaking worlds. Born in Lebanon in 1883, Gibran immigrated to the United States with his family in 1893 in order to escape poverty and persecution and later traveled back to his homeland to study. This afforded Gibran the opportunity to unite the two worlds, contributing immensely to both the content and success of his work. Indeed, Gibran’s poetry and philosophy heavily reflects his Arab background in its style and content while still appealing to the English-speaking world with its sense of “ancient wisdom and mysticism,” and is considered to have sparked a renaissance in Arab literature (Bushuri and Jenkins). His work is particularly notable for its offering of spiritual guidance through the exploration of essential aspects of human existence such as the constant roles love and joy play in all parts of life, and this has contributed directly to its immense popularity due to its universality and timelessness.

    None of Kahlil Gibran’s work achieved greater success than his 1923 book, The Prophet, which sold several million copies worldwide. The Prophet is a work of prose poetry, addressing numerous central topics to the human existence in the form of advice from a mysterious figure known as “Almustafa, the chosen and beloved” (Gibran 3). It is important to note the significance of this name as it is a direct reference to the the Prophet Muhammed and reflects the impact of Islam and Sufism on Gibran’s work (Al-Khazraji, Abdullah & Eng 212). Gibran uses this character as a means to respond to the needs of humanity, particularly in the wake of World War I, through his sage advice to the people of Orphalese on the eve of his departure from the city (Bushuri and Jenkins). Although each section of the book addresses a different topic, they are unified by their inclusion of recurring messages and underlying themes whose importance in life is paralleled by their dominating presence throughout the book.

    One of the first central elements of human existence Gibran offers guidance on is love, a term that appears 64 times throughout the entirety of The Prophet (Al-Khazraji, Abdullah & Eng 215). The discussion of love begins in the piece entitled “On Love” in which Almustafa “recommends his audiences to follow love though it may be painful” through a series of powerful metaphors, often personifying love as in the following excerpt (Al-Khazraji, Abdullah & Eng 216).

For even as love crowns you so shall he
crucify you. Even as he is your growth
so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and
caresses your tenderest branches that quiver
in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and
Shake them in their clinging to the earth. (Gibran 11)
Here, Gibran draws on the power of love and its immense impact on life by comparing it to a force capable of both building and destroying and by associating it with a human or God-like being through the use of male pronouns. In a style found throughout the book, Gibran does not sugarcoat his message. Instead, the violent imagery of shaking a tree down to its roots and crucifixion acknowledges the fact that love’s transformative ability means that it also has the capacity to cause personal harm. By addressing the topic so bluntly and honestly, Gibran establishes a credibility with his readers who can likely relate to both the pain and sorrow associated with love. Additionally, his carefully crafted metaphors used in the above passage and throughout the book give it a sense of accessibility that enables readers to connect the text to their own lives by guiding them in interpreting their experiences in terms of the comparisons he lays out. While such simplicity and relatability has led his work to be criticized by some as “effusive, sentimental, and melodramatic,” it is also the primary reason Gibran attained widespread fame and still maintains a dedicated fanbase, although he never set out to do so (Bushuri and Jenkins).

    Gibran goes on to explore the concept of love in a variety of other parts of life in pieces such as “On Work.” In this section, Gibran identifies work as “love made visible,” a strong assertion meant to impart the importance of incorporating passion into any form of labor. Gibran builds on this advice through the use of several intriguing analogies. For example, he writes, “If you bake bread with indifference, / you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half / man’s hunger,” to convey the idea that work done in the absence of love produces sub-par results through the symbolism of a readily imaginable image like bread (Gibran 28). His conclusion here is that love is a necessary aspect of work and that it is “better for those who cannot work with love to become beggars” (Al-Khazraji, Abdullah and Eng 216). Such a concept is familiar to most as it reflects the same idea as the saying that has appeared countless times in popular culture that “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Although drawing on such a well-known idea has the potential to make Gibran’s work seem tired and uninteresting, his unique writing style and in-depth analysis of the concept have quite the opposite effect on readers, encouraging and inspiring them to seek fulfillment through work instead. Such clear-cut guidance has allowed The Prophet to continue to attract an audience and remain consistently in print for nearly a century (Amirani and Hegarty).

    In addition to love, Gibran pays much attention to the role of joy in all aspects of life. He dedicates the entirety of the section “On Joy and Sorrow” to exploring this topic in depth, asserting the inseparability of the two and thereby revealing the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Thus Speak Zarathustra in which the philosopher wrote "I laugh because I am afraid if I don't laugh, I may start weeping. My laughter is nothing but a strategy to hide my tears” (Al-Khazraji, Abdullah and Eng 219). In this piece, Gibran again relies on the compelling visual imagery of the figurative representations of the concepts he discusses to make them universally understandable. When he writes, “you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy,” Gibran captures the essence of the relationship between joy and sorrow, highlighting it in a way that any reader can grasp (Gibran 30). Furthermore, Gibran’s persistent use of second-person pronouns as demonstrated in these lines allows him to connect directly to his readers through the mouthpiece of the speaker Almustafa. In establishing this connection, Gibran inadvertently opened the door to a world he never anticipated. Since The Prophet focuses on such universal ideas and offers spiritual and philosophical guidance through an idolized main character, Gibran himself began to be idolized by fans and followers seeking his advice, despite the fact that he “had no desire to wear the mantle of a ‘prophet’” (Bushuri and Jenkins). Still, it speaks volumes about the universal appeal of Gibran’s work that audiences were overwhelmingly left yearning for more, even if he was unwilling or unable to provide it.

    Joy makes additional appearances throughout the book as a central, unifying motif. It is especially evident in the closing lines of “On Friendship” in which the speaker states:

And in the sweetness of friendship let
there be laughter, and the sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart
Finds its morning and is refreshed. (Gibran 59)
In these lines, Gibran weaves the importance of joy present throughout the book into his segment on friendships by detailing the need for its presence in satisfying relationships with others. In these lines, Gibran employs a light and undogmatic tone by using simple words with strong positive connotations and several allusions to rebirth or renewal and wholly uncomplicate syntax. These stylistic choices enable him to impart his message in a way that is direct yet not at all forceful, contributing to The Prophet’s status as the “bible of the counterculture” it achieved during its peaks in the 1930s and 1960s (Amirani and Hegarty). Although the use of such plain and easily understandable language was frequently met with “bewilderment or hostility” from the world of literary criticism, the overwhelming success of The Prophet stands as a testament to the effectiveness of Gibran’s techniques in captivating readers (Bushuri and Jenkins).

    Overall, Kahlil Gibran demonstrates an unparalleled ability to capture essential elements of the human existence throughout his most beloved work, The Prophet. Gibran seamlessly integrates appealing language rich with strong visual imagery and valuable life lessons into a publication worthy of the immense following it has achieved. When taken as a whole, Gibran’s work reads as a guide by which to live that has remained relevant despite the decades that have passed since its publication due to its highly accessible approach to even the most complex aspects of human life.

Works Cited

Al-Khazraji, Nidaa Hussain Fahmi, Mardziah Hayati Abdullah, and Wong Bee Eng. "Universal Themes and Messages in Khalil Gibran's The Prophet." Arab World English Journal (2013): 211-25. Web.
Bushrui, Suheil, and Joe Jenkins. "Introduction." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas J. Schoenberg, vol. 205, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7C H1420083620&asid=58eeb607e7f9c670b1cc1118d4e2c678. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016. Originally published in Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet, Oneworld Publications, 1998, pp. 1-23.
Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1952. Print.
Hegarty, Stephanie, and Shoku Amirani. "Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet: Why Is It so Loved?" BBC News. BBC, 11 May 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.