Kahlil Gibran and the Baha’i Faith

Kahlil Gibran (Jan 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931)

In 1912, Hudson Maxim, the one-handed American inventor of explosives, went to see Abdu’l-Baha at His hotel in New York. It’s possible that his morning interview with the “Prophet of Peace” was a kind of reconnaissance mission for the great scientist, research for his work of war: know thy enemy. Elements of their conversation read like a comedy of opposites:

“What do you think of modern warfare?” demanded Maxim.

“Everything that prevents war is good,” replied Abdu’l-Baha.

“Do you consider the next great national war necessary?” Maxim asked.

“Why not try peace for awhile?” Abdu’l-Baha answered. “If we find war is better, it will not be difficult to fight again.”

The combative approach Maxim took was met with a gentle, finding-the-good-ness spirit in Abdu’l-Baha, which Maxim seems to have found hostile in its mildness. He resorted to drawing a picture for Abdu’l-Baha of the range of an exploded bomb, to illustrate the physical limitations of its destruction.

This man was a product of his age, thoroughly believing and, in fact, invested in the vain imaginings of 19th-century theories about war. The Master turned to the light in Hudson Maxim, appealing to him to use his exceptional talents in instead “invent[ing] guns of love” that “God will be pleased with you and from every standpoint of estimation you will be a perfect man.”1

This story serves as a contrast to the entirely different sentiments and circumstances surrounding the introduction, in the same city and during the same year, of our real subject: the meeting of a young Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and that life-long Prisoner from Persia Abdu’l-Baha.

Far from justifying the business of mutual human destruction, Kahlil Gibran for years sought common ground between peoples. As a student, at the turn of the century, he had devised “plans for a Beirut opera house with two domes symbolizing the reconciliation of Christianity and Islam.”2 It was no wonder that he was drawn to Abdu’l-Baha’s universal message of the oneness of religions:

All the divine Manifestations have proclaimed the oneness of God and the unity of mankind… The fundamental truth of the Manifestations is peace. This underlies all religion, all justice… Read the Gospel and the other Holy Books. You will find their fundamentals are one and the same. Therefore, unity is the essential truth of religion and, when so understood, embraces all the virtues of the human world.3

Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, biographers of Gibran, note, “Coming from a part of the world that only twenty years before his birth had been convulsed by religious strife, [he] constantly expressed his conviction that beneath the various forms of religion was an underlying unity”4

Raised in poverty, with no means for formal education, as a child Kahlil Gibran had been visited frequently by priests, who, it seems, took it upon themselves to teach him the Bible in addition to reading and writing the Arabic and Syriac languages. He grew up to be a lover of His Holiness the Christ. “For Gibran Jesus was the supreme figure of all ages: ‘My art can find no better resting place than the personality of Jesus. His life is the symbol of Humanity. He shall always be the supreme figure of all ages and in Him we shall always find mystery, passion, love, imagination, tragedy, beauty, romance and truth.’”5

Gibran’s portrait of the Christ evolved through his writings and the years, culminating in what some consider his work of greatest spiritual intensity: Jesus, the Son of Man. He began writing it, with a tiny bit of kismet, on the commemoration of the Birth of Baha’u’llah in 19266, and he spent the last of his failing energy finishing it before his death in 1931. In Gibran’s mind, Jesus was a “raging tempest” of strength,7 “the most ‘real personality’ in human history, ‘a man of might and will, a man of charity and pity’.”8

His meeting with Abdu’l-Baha was an inspiration to and template for Gibran in his attempts to capture the personality of Christ in his writings, as he envisioned Him: “For centuries Humanity has been worshiping weakness in the person of the Savior. The Nazarene was not weak! He was strong and is strong! But people refuse to heed the true meaning of strength.”9

Abdu’l-Baha and Kahlil Gibran were both known as “the Master”, the former to Baha’is and the latter to followers of his existential poetry. They met through Juliet Thompson, an early American Baha’i, when Abdu’l-Baha was almost 68 and Gibran 29 years old. Of The Mystery of God, poetic Gibran declared: “For the first time I saw form noble enough to be a receptacle for the Holy Spirit.”10

Juliet says, with characteristic bluntness, “How Gibran got in touch with the Baha’i Cause: I’ll just frankly tell you the story, just as it was. I hastened to tell him; he listened.”11 The two artists lived across the street from each other, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, an area that had already become a haven for artists and writers. West 10th Street is lined on both sides with mostly tall residential brownstones (and, now, parked cars) and fringed with an assortment of trees whose branches and leaves arch towards each other to create a corridor of variegated greens.

Since they were close neighbours (Juliet at number 48 and Kahlil at number 51), and considering Juliet’s effervescent personality, it is no surprise that they became “very, very great friends.” “Kahlil always said [Juliet] was his first friend in New York.”12 She, for her part, infuriated him by saying that he was the “spitting image” of Charlie Chaplin.13 Her friendship, however exasperating, extended to a fervent encouragement of not only his writing but also his drawings.

A view of present day West 10th Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, New York, where Kahlil Gibran and Juliet Thompson were neighbours.

After meeting the Baha’i leader upon His arrival in the United States, Gibran requested, and was granted, permission to draw a portrait of Abdu’l-Baha. The session began very early, at 6:30 am, on 19 April, only four days after the Titanic sunk and eight days after Abdu’l-Baha landed in New York. It is no wonder that Kahlil was plagued with insomnia the night before. On the one hand, the magnitude of the nautical disaster and the epic, tragic loss of life had shaken everyone to the core. On the other hand, the young mystic poet was perhaps in awe of the prospect of being in such close contact with the son of One Whom he felt wrote “the most stupendous literature that ever was written.” Gibran had told Juliet, “There was no Arabic that even touched the Arabic of Baha’u’llah.”14

Of Abdu’l-Baha Himself, Kahlil wrote close friend Mary Haskell, “He is a very great man. He is complete. There are worlds in his soul. And oh what a remarkable face—what a beautiful face—so real and so sweet.”

Abdu’l-Baha said to Gibran, after seeing the portrait the poet made of Him: “Those who work with the Spirit work well. You have the power of Allah in you,’ and, quoting Mohammed, said: ‘Prophets and poets see with the light of God.’”15

Juliet remembers, “[Kahlil] simply adored the Master. He was with Him whenever he could be. He would come over here to this house (48 West 10th) to see the Master. In Boston, he was often with the Master.” “He often talked of Him, most sympathetically and most lovingly.” “When he wrote The Son of Man he thought of Abdu’l-Baha all through. He said that he was going to write another book with Abdu’l-Baha as the center and all the contemporaries of Abdu’l-Baha speaking. He died before he wrote it. He told me definitely that The Son of Man was influenced by Abdu’l-Baha.”16

Although there is not much information about what Abdu’l-Baha and Gibran talked about with each other, Juliet’s note that he spent as much time with Him as he could is supplemented with his status as the Master’s occasional, unofficial interpreter from Arabic to English. It seems that this young man enjoyed simply being in the Master’s company, observing His Being and learning from Him, as did countless others.

One anecdote of Gibran’s time with Abdu’l-Baha, conveyed through Juliet, gives us a glimpse into the intimacy of his time with the Master: “Two women came in [to the room when Gibran was with Him]. They were women of fashion, and they asked trifling questions. One of them wanted to know whether she was going to be married again. The Master was pacing the floor. Drawing in His breath, expelling it, His eyes turning from side to side. When they left, ‘Gilded dirt!’ He said.”17

Since Kahlil was a young man in forbidden love with Mary Haskell, an intelligent and independent woman, the affirmation of the equal station of woman by Baha’u’llah—proclaimed in the United States by Abdu’l-Baha—must have been a tonic to the claustrophobic sexual mores of Victorian New England:

The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment.18

Gibran wryly visited this theme when he wrote Jesus, the Son of Man: “women are weak and empty-headed, and they follow the man who would comfort their unspent passion with soft and tender words” …and put these words in the “mouth” of “A Young Priest in Capernaum”.19

Gibran once said, “Spare me the political events and power struggles, as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen,”20 so one can only imagine how his peaceful heart was set afire, “enthralled and electrified”21 by Baha’u’llah’s visionary, unifying message, brought by Abdu’l-Baha to the United States a century ago:

…all mankind are the servants of one God; God is the Father of all; there is not a single exception to that law. There are no people of Satan; all belong to the Merciful. There is no darkness; all is light. All are the servants of God, and man must love humanity from his heart. He must, verily, behold humanity as submerged in the divine mercy.22

In the end, Juliet remembers Kahlil’s last mention of Abdu’l-Baha, as told to Marzieh Gail:

“One night, years afterward, the Master’s motion picture was going to be shown at the Baha’i Center… He sat beside me on the front row and he saw the Master come to life again for him in that picture. And he began to sob. We had asked him to speak a few words that night. When the time came for him to speak, he controlled himself and jumped up on the platform and then …still weeping before us all he said: ‘I declare that Abdu’l-Baha is the Manifestation of God for this day!’ Of course he got it wrong—but… he was weeping and he didn’t say anything more. He got down and he sat beside me, and he kept on sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. Seeing the picture—it brought it all back. He took my two hands and said, ‘You have opened for me a door tonight.’ Then he fled the hall. I never heard anything about it again. He never referred to it again. The only thing was, he couldn’t accept an intermediary for himself. He wanted his direct contact [with the Divine].”23

  1. http://239days.com/2012/04/15/an-arms-dealer-tries-to-sell-war-to-abdul-baha/ []
  2. Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9 []
  3. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1982 second edition, page 32 []
  4. Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9 []
  5. Kahlil Gibran to Mary Elizabeth Haskell, April 29, 1909, Chapel Hill papers, found in Bushrui and Jenkins, Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet []
  6. Young, “This Man from Lebanon: A Study of Kahlil Gibran”, 1945, page 102 []
  7. http://www.spiritualsisters.com/page202.htm []
  8. Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9 []
  9. http://www.spiritualsisters.com/page202.htm []
  10. Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9 []
  11. http://bahai-library.com/gail_thompson_remembers_gibran []
  12. ibid []
  13. ibid []
  14. ibid []
  15. Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9 []
  16. http://bahai-library.com/gail_thompson_remembers_gibran []
  17. ibid []
  18. The Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 375 []
  19. Gibran, Jesus, the Son of Man, 2008, Oxford: One World, page 51. []
  20. Najjar, “Kahlil Gibran, a biography”, Saqi, 2008, p.110 []
  21. Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9 []
  22. “The Promulgation of Universal Peace”, page 266 []
  23. http://bahai-library.com/gail_thompson_remembers_gibran []

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Discussion 15 Comments

  1. Thank you Leila for compiling these touching facts in such an evocative manner. A lovely piece of writing, conveying also the sense of melancholy that characterized Gibran and his whole life. One phrase sums it all up: Behind the great men and women of the 20th century there is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Abbás. And behind ‘Abdu’l-Bahá there is the Blessed Beauty, veiled, powerful and glorious. It is indeed a miracle how many great artists, scientists, philosophers, social reformers, politicians and spiritual visionaries were directly influenced by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá whilst ‘Abdu’l-Bahá remains, to this date, oblivious to their ardent admirers and profuse quoters. This must indeed be the modus operandi of the Major Plan of God.

    Thank you for also mentioning the fact that Gibran deemed Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings “most stupendous Arabic literature ever written”. He was, after all, a native Arabic-speaking author and Maronite Christian, and an Arabic author himself. Bahá’u’lláh’s Arabic was amazingly creative and eloquent. It was mostly grammatic (much more so than the Báb’s) but sometimes deliberately mixed with Persian grammar and expressions, for those two languages mixed were for Bahá’u’lláh like mixing milk with honey.

    Thank you for this eulogy of a sensitive, sorrowful and exceptionally insightful man, and of the Mystery of God who was graced, at the eve of His life, to walk on the American soil to leave an indelible mark on his spirit and that of many others.

    “Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
    And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
    And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”

    -Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

    1. Sam, thank you so much for that beautiful quote from Gibran and for your kind comments. When I visited West 10th Street in 2011 it was a kind of pilgrimage to Juliet Thompson’s old house; I had no idea that she lived literally across the road from Kahlil (on whose stoop I crouched to take photos). It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be any direct transcription of conversation(s) between ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Gibran, so, apart from the important work done by Gibran scholars, I feel immensely grateful to Marzieh Gail for interviewing Juliet and capturing information that might (would?) otherwise be lost to us.

  2. Leila:

    Excellent narrative. The photograph of “present day West 10th Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, New York, where Khalil Gibran and Juliet Thompson were neighbours” is effective.

    You might consider spelling Gibran’s first name as “Kahlil,” which is how he spelled it (not “Khalil”), as Professor Bushrui and Joe Jenkins have written (Kahlil Gibran, Man and Poet: A New Biography, p. 299):

    1. Gibran’s full name in Arabic was Gibran Khalil Gibran, the middle name being his father’s. It is a convention among Arabs to use the father’s name after one’s first name. He always signed his full name in his Arabic works, but he dropped the first name in his English writings. He did this and changed the correct spelling of “Khalil” to “Kahlil” at the instigation of his English teacher at the Boston school he attended between 1895 and 1897. The family name Gibran is related to the Arabic word Jabre, which means to restore to harmony, to bring unequal parts to unity, as in algebra.

    Here is a recent article on Gibran:

    Buck, Christopher. “Kahlil Gibran.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement XX. Edited by Jay Parini. Farmington Hills, MI: Scribner’s Reference/The Gale Group. Pp. 113–129.
    http://bahai-library.com/pdf/b/buck_american_writers_gibran.pdf

    1. Thank you, Christopher, especially for that pdf, which looks fascinating. I can’t wait to read it. (And I agree with you about Gibran’s first name. I think that back-story you shared of the unusual spelling of “Kahlil” is totally of a piece with the unusual man and his unusual life. Like his poetry, reading “Kahlil” makes you go, “Wait, what?”.)

  3. Maybe it’s the pre-dawn wake up talking, but parts of this article moved me to tears! Such an interesting relationship to read about and your writing is awesome.

    1. It was such an interesting article to research, Leva! Reading “Jesus, the Son of Man” with ‘Abdu’l-Baha in mind was quite revealing; and it’s a good book to read, no matter what. Gibran being a pretty good writer and stuff.

  4. This blog is fascinating. This weekend, I visited “Bonniebrook,” the Missouri country home of the artist Rose O’Neill, a close friend of Gibran. She lived in Greenwich Village during the same period, while an illustrator for “Ladies Home Journal”–writing and drawing stories about kewpies and designing the famous kewpie dolls. She supposedly had a deep friendship and romance with Gibran. I am thinking she must have known Juliet Thompson.

    Much of her art is mystical. I am wondering if she ever met ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and whether he had a direct or indirect influence on her life. She was also a great supporter of women’s rights, and helped to finance the suffrage movement.

    She often visited her country home and entertained many artists. The home was a mountain retreat surrounded by forest–quite enchanting and peaceful. Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollack were among her frequent guests.

    If anyone knows more about any connection between Rose O’Neill and the Baha’i Faith, I would be delighted to hear it.

    1. Barb, thank you for your intriguing comment—I don’t recall coming across Rose O’Neill’s name during the (not-remotely-exhaustive) research for this article but will now be on the lookout for this artist!

  5. Dear Leila what a treasure for future generations. This took me back to a time that I was learning about this mystical Faith over 20 years ago and at the same time my introduction to the writings of Khalil Gibran. In my youth I was captivated by the magic that Gibran’s words spun, though shallow and pale in contrast to the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha and the Blessed Beauty Baha’u’llah. Splendid article.

  6. Many people I know have Karl Gibran books but have never heard of Abdul Baha or the Bahai’s, this is great article and it all makes sense to me now!, because the first time I read Karl Gibrans poetry it seemed to mirror the words of Baha ullah I read in bahai books ! , it was light shining momement to find out he lived across the street from Abdul Baha ! , great article really enjoyed it !

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