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Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese artist, painter, poet and philosopher who spent most of his life in the United States and who wrote both in Arabic and English. He was, thus, much celebrated in the Arabophone world as well as in the Anglophone world. His ultimate literary achievement was probably The Prophet (1923), a light volume of twenty-six poetic reflections on the subject of faith and universal spirituality that was translated into more than twenty languages in the world.
Khalil Gibran was actually one of a number of Arab intellectuals and writers who lived in the United States in the beginning of the twentieth century and who had a great influence on the development of modern Arabic literature through the exploration of Western literary movements. The group was presided by Khalil himself and was baptized Arrabitah, or “The League.” It also included other famous and important literary figures such as Mikhail Nuaima, Nadra Haddad and Iliya Abu Madhi. Generally, the Arabic literature of the beginning of the twentieth century was marked by the revolutionary ideas advanced by Arrabitah members as well as by other Arab intellectuals and literary men who felt the urgent need to revolutionize classic Arabic verse and prose. It was a growing urge to innovate and to break with old literary traditions and conventions. The current eventually helped to open new horizons such as the flourishing, in the second half of the twentieth century, of Arabic prose poetry and free verse. The Arrabitah experience was, actually, fundamental in the life of Khalil Gibran who was regarded as a literary rebel and a leading figure of the Arabic literary Renaissance in addition to his Oriental contributions to Western poetry and thought. Khalil Gibran was born in Lebanon, in the village of Bsharri, on January 6th, 1883. His full name had been Gibran Khalil Gibran before it was simplified in the New World. According to different accounts, Gibran’s Maronite Catholic family was financially very modest despite owning their own rural property. His father Khalil Ben Gibran switched from one job to another. He was reported to have served as a shepherd and as an apothecary keeper. His gambling and tax evasion habits led to his temporary imprisonment.
Having had no formal education as a child, it was thanks to his mother Kamila that Khalil Gibran started learning languages and basic sciences at home. Kamila was an educated and a talented woman who venerated knowledge and who spoke and wrote in Arabic, French and English. She was also quite religious and used to receive Maronite priests who equally contributed to Gibran’s education by introducing him to languages and biblical studies.
Gibran was only twelve when his mother decided to join her brother in the United States. This was mainly for material reasons as Gibran’s father was still suffering from financial problems. Hence, in 1895, the Gibran family immigrated to Boston leaving only the father to take care of the family’s property. With Kamila and Khalil, there were Khalil’s two sisters, Mariana and Sultana, in addition to Khalil’s half-brother Butrus (Arabic for Peter). In Boston, while all the other members of the family occupied different jobs, Khalil was sent to school where he excelled and was distinguished among American classmates. This early experience shaped his whole life of a confirmed polyglot who would write eloquently and elegantly in more than one language. In addition to English language and literature, his early studies also included art courses. During this period, Gibran also met the Boston artist Fred Holland Day who played an important role in encouraging young Gibran and ushering him into the world of art. In 1898, some of Gibran’s early drawings were already chosen to be published as book covers.
After a short period in Boston, Gibran as well as his family thought it important for him to learn about Arabic language, literature and culture. It was, hence, decided to send him back to his native Lebanon with the objective of acquiring everything related to Arabic before returning to the States. In Beirut, Gibran attended Madrasat al-Hikma (The School of Wisdom) where he studied until 1901. Years after the Beirut experience, which was crowned with an honorable graduation from the prestigious Lebanese school, Gibran headed to Paris to study art at celebrated French schools. By the age of 20, Gibran had already written numerous essays, stories and poems in addition to his many drawings and paintings.
Back in Boston, Gibran’s life was also marked by the presence of another important person, mainly after the death of his mother. It was Miss Mary Haskell, a Boston school headmistress much older than him that he met during one of his art exhibitions in town. Miss Haskell seemed to play the role of both a lover and a mother-figure to the young poet. She encouraged Gibran’s passions for literature and the arts and supported him financially, actually paying for most of his studies. She also introduced him to important writers, journalists and publishers. Today, much about Gibran’s life is known thanks to the hundreds of letters that the couple used to write to each other.
Correspondence between Miss Haskell and Gibran took place mainly from 1912 after Gibran decided to move to New York where he remained till his death. New York was surely more appropriate for his ambitions and actually helped his reputation grow. It was also in New York that the group of Arab-American intellectuals known as Arrabitah was centered. Gibran’s publications actually multiplied after he settled in New York and started to become known among the literary circles of the age.
In the beginning of his career, most of Gibran’s literary publications were in Arabic. They included a number of works that revolutionized modern Arabic literature and art such as An Introduction to the Art of Music (1905), Broken Wings (1912) and A Tear and a Smile (1914). English publications came later in Gibran’s career. His earliest English publication was The Madman: His Parables and Poems in 1918. The short book represented a collection of thoughts and parables using the first-personal pronoun of a supposedly madman and pertaining to the subject of faith in God. After The Madman, Gibran published Twenty Drawings (1919) and The Forerunner (1920). So far Gibran’s publications were of significant success. It was, however, with the publication of his masterpiece The Prophet in 1923 that he achieved unprecedented recognition and fame. The Prophet was later followed by Sand and Foam (1926), Kingdom of the Imagination (1927), Jesus, the Son of Man (1928) and The Earth Gods (1931).
Gibran’s most recurrent themes are related to the belief in God as well as to a universal conception of faith, divine love and spirituality. Actually, this subject is at the center of many of his writings, of which the ultimate achievement that reached incomparable success and fame is his masterpiece. The message that Gibran has generally dedicated his life to spread is a message of spiritual unity between all humans. It is the idea that all the different faiths of the world have a meeting point that should be sought and explored. While the many differences are rather formal, the essential core of all faiths is one. This is actually the main reason behind the presence of both Christian and Muslim tones in Gibran’s lyrical parables and reflections. The universal divine love advocated by Gibran’s works is easily found compatible with almost all human belief systems since it rather adopts an inclusive attitude rather than an exclusive attitude towards differences.
There is no doubt that Gibran’s concept of universal spirituality was influenced by the heritage and works of older writers and thinkers. Gibran was also influenced by Christian and Muslim mystics and mainly by the tradition of Muslim Sufism. Indeed, readers can easily detect the striking similarities between Gibran’s ideas and the ideas developed by Sufi poets and mystics such as Ibn Arabi and Jalaluddin Rumi. One can safely state that Gibran’s contribution was actually to introduce Sufi ideals to the West and particularly to English speakers. This was mainly through the use of a smooth, accessible style, a formal language and a great deal of religious and humanist symbolism. The difference between traditional Sufi poets such as Rumi or Ibn Arabi and Khalil Gibran is that the latter had double culture and was quite familiar with the West. This made his literature most suited to serve as a linking bridge between the wisdom of the East and the spirit of the West. It is also noteworthy that Gibran’s home country was also a meeting point of numerous religious traditions which had gradually learnt to coexist.
It is quite interesting to know that though Gibran was formally Christian belonging to the Maronite Catholic Church, he deeply respected and even venerated other faiths including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. He also admired Baha’ism, that newly-born religion deriving from Islam which equally advocated ideals of tolerance, coexistence and convergence of all human religious traditions. Gibran’s extraordinary philosophy was to stick to one’s own religious heritage while keeping one’s arms wide open to embrace and welcome all human faiths. The same idea applies to Gibran’s attitude towards the ideal of patriotism, believing in both Lebanese nationalism as well as internationalism. To put it simply, for Gibran, the way to God that you choose for yourself does not make the other ways wrong, nor does your nationalist pride deprive you of universal and humanist ideals.
Gibran’s works, and mainly The Prophet, became even more popular posthumously. In fact, Gibran’s masterpiece reached the status of an icon mainly in the 1960s with the emergence of the New Age generation and youth revolutions. The Prophet offered a new vision of existence and a new meaning of reality in a world governed by excessive materialism and dominated by religious conformism, positivism and literalism. Even today, the subject of universal faith still remains in vogue as the world urgently needs voices of wisdom, such as Gibran’s, to call for the unity of humankind and for going beyond inconsequential contextual formalities in order to reach the universal, the divine.
Khalil Gibran died of cirrhosis on April 10th, 1931. He was still a Lebanese citizen when he died since he had always refused to be naturalized in the US despite his great love and gratitude for the country that had hosted him and made his fortune and fame. He also asked to be buried in Beirut where numerous statues, streets, public parks and museums were dedicated to his memory. In the US, he was also celebrated after his death and Miss Mary Haskell helped publish many of his other works posthumously. The latter included The Wanderer (1932), Lazarus and His Beloved (1933) and The Garden of the Prophet (1933) which was completed after his death by Barbara Young. Later, more collections of Gibran’s poetry were published along with many of the letters that he exchanged with Miss Haskell.