By Shoku Amirani & Stephanie Hegarty
Kahlil Gibran is said to be one of the world’s bestselling poets, and his life has inspired a play touring the UK and the Middle East. But many critics have been lukewarm about his merits. Why, then, has his seminal work, The Prophet, struck such a chord with generations of readers?
Since it was published in 1923, The Prophet has never been out of print. The perennial classic has been translated into more than 50 languages and is a staple on international bestseller lists. It is thought to have sold tens of millions of copies.
Although practically ignored by the literary establishment in the West, lines from the book have inspired song lyrics, political speeches and have been read out at weddings and funerals all around the world.
“It serves various occasions or big moments in one’s life so it tends to be a book that is often gifted to a lover, or for a birth, or death. That is why it has spread so widely, and by word of mouth,” says Dr Mohamed Salah Omri, lecturer in Modern Arabic literature at Oxford University.
The Beatles, John F Kennedy and Indira Gandhi are among those who have been influenced by its words.
Aside: Additional Reading
“This book has a way of speaking to people at different stages in their lives. It has this magical quality, the more you read it the more you come to understand the words,” says Reverend Laurie Sue, an interfaith minister in New York who has conducted hundreds of weddings with readings from The Prophet.
“But it is not filled with any kind of dogma, it is available to anyone whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim.”
The book is made up of 26 prose poems, delivered as sermons by a wise man called Al Mustapha. He is about to set sail for his homeland after 12 years in exile on a fictional island when the people of the island ask him to share his wisdom on the big questions of life: love, family, work and death.
Its popularity peaked in the 1930s and again in the 1960s when it became the bible of the counter culture.
“Many people turned away from the establishment of the Church to Gibran,” says Professor Juan Cole, historian of the Middle East at Michigan University who has translated several of Gibran’s works from Arabic.
“He offered a dogma-free universal spiritualism as opposed to orthodox religion, and his vision of the spiritual was not moralistic. In fact, he urged people to be non-judgmental.”
Despite the immense popularity of his writing, or perhaps because of it, The Prophet was panned by many critics in the West who thought it simplistic, naive and lacking in substance.
“In the West, he was not added to the canon of English literature,” says Cole. “Even though his major works were in English after 1918, and though he is one of bestselling poets in American history, he was disdained by English professors.”
“He was looked down upon as, frankly, a ‘bubblehead’ by Western academics, because he appealed to the masses. I think he has been misunderstood in the West. He is certainly not a bubblehead, in fact his writings in Arabic are in a very sophisticated style.
“There is no doubt he deserves a place in the Western canon. It is strange to teach English literature and ignore a literary phenomenon.”