The Prophet is a book of prose poetry that made its Lebanese-American author famous. Commonly found in gift shops and frequently quoted at weddings or any occasion where uplifting 'spiritual' thoughts are required, the work has never been a favorite of intellectuals - to some readers it may seem a bit twee or pompous - yet its author was a genuine artist and scholar (see bio, below right) whose wisdom was hard-earned.
The Prophet begins with a man named Almustafa living on an island call Orphalese. Locals consider him something of a sage, but he is from elsewhere, and has waited twelve years for the right ship to take him home. From a hill above the town, he sees his ship coming into the harbor, and realizes his sadness at leaving the people he has come to know. The elders of the city ask him not to leave. He is asked to tell of his philosophy of life before he goes, to speak his truth to the crowds gathered. What he has to say forms the basis of the book.
The Prophet provides timeless spiritual wisdom on a range of subjects, including giving, eating and drinking, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, teaching, time, pleasure, religion, death, beauty and friendship. Corresponding to each chapter are evocative drawings by Gibran himself.
Love and marriage
Foolish is the person, the prophet says, who 'would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure', for to wish this leads to less of a person, who has seen less pain but also less pure joy. The prophet says: "When love beckons to you, follow him/Though his ways are hard and steep".
We cannot wish for love to reach only a certain measure, or to presume that we can direct the way its course, "for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course." As much as love allows for our growth, it also acts to prune us so that we grow straight and tall.
When questioned about marriage, the prophet departs from the conventional wisdom that it involves two people becoming one. A true marriage gives both people space to develop their individuality, in the same way that "the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow".
It is not just the loss of a wage or even status that is so disheartening, but the feeling that you have been left out of the normal procession of life. Neither is it enough just to work for money alone. People think of work as a curse, the prophet says, but in doing your work "you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born." Through work you express your love for whoever will benefit from it, and satisfy your own need to create. Those who enjoy their work know that it is a secret to fulfillment, that we can be saved through what we do.
Sorrow and pain
Sorrow carves out our being, says the prophet, but the space it makes provides room for more joy in another season of life. In one of his standout lines, he remarks, "Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding." Try to marvel at your pain as another experience of precious life. If you can do this, you can be more serene about your emotions, like the passing of the seasons.
Few realize, the prophet says, that suffering is the means to heal ourselves, "the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self." Consider, the next time you are in a state of sorrow, that it may have been self-chosen at some level of your being, to bring about an enlargement of your self. Without struggles we would learn nothing about life.
Guard against the love of houses and things, the prophet warns, for these comforts erode the strength of the soul. If you attach yourself too much to the domestic luxuries of life, "Your house shall not be an anchor but a mast." You will be tied to it when the ship sinks.
The longing for freedom is itself a kind of slavery. When people speak of wanting to be free, often it is aspects of themselves they are trying to get away from.
You cannot ask for anything in prayer, because God already knows your deepest needs. As God is our main need, so we should not pray for other things, but ask for more of God.
The divided self
The prophet likens the soul to a battlefield, in which our reason and passion seem eternally opposed. Yet it does not do much good to fight either: You have to be peacemaker, loving all your warring elements before you can heal yourself.
The boundless self
The prophet tries to convey to those gathered that the lives we lead on earth represent only a fraction of our larger selves. We all have 'giant selves' inside us, but we have to first recognize that they may exist. "In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness", the prophet says. In pursuit of self-knowledge, therefore, we are looking for the best in ourselves.
Taken as a whole, Gibran's book is a metaphor for the mystery of life: we come into the world and go back to where we came from. As the prophet readies himself to board his ship, it is clear that his words refer not to his journey across the seas but to the world he came from before he was born. His life now seems to him like a short dream.
The book suggests that we should be glad of the experience of coming into the world, even if it seems full of pain, because after death we will see that life had a pattern and a purpose, and that what seems to us now as 'good' and 'bad' will be appreciated without judgment as good for our souls.
The prophet also teaches that the separation we feel from other people and all forms of life while on earth is not real. We are merely expressions of a greater unity now forgotten. As he looks forward to his journey, Almustafa likens himself to "a boundless drop in a boundless ocean." To feel yourself to be a temporary manifestation of an infinite source is greatly comforting, and perhaps accounts for the feeling of peace and liberation many experience in reading The Prophet.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields. That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind."
Born in 1883 in northern Ottoman Lebanon, Gibran received no schooling, but enjoyed informal religious and language lessons from a priest. His father's gambling brought the family to financial ruin, which prompted his mother to emigrate with her children (without Gibran snr.) to the United States. A registration error upon arrival in Boston created the name 'Kahlil' instead of the correct Khalil.
At school, Kahlil showed talent in drawing and found a mentor in the artist and photographer Fred Holland Day, but returned to Lebanon to complete his secondary schooling. At 19 he returned to Boston, but his mother, brother and one of his sisters were tragically lost to tuberculosis. He found another mentor in Mary Haskell, a headmistress with an interest in orphans who supported Gibran's painting career, and he began to have his prose poetry, short stories and essays published in Arabic.
In 1908 Gibran began a two year stay in Paris, studying art, and in 1912 moved permanently to New York where was able to exhibit his paintings and have more work published, including Al-Ajniha Al-Mutakassirah (The Broken Wings) and The Madman. In 1920 he established a society of Arab writers, and continued his writings in Arabic in support of Lebanon and Syria's emancipation from Ottoman rule.
The release of The Prophet in 1923 received largely unfavorable reviews, but word of mouth made it a bestseller. After his death in 1931, associates completed and published the two sequels he had begun: The Garden of the Prophet and Death of the Prophet.