Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
In the summer of 2006, on a family trip across the country, we had the opportunity to hike some stunning trails in British Columbia. Some of these were gruelling, leg-wrecking hikes, especially since we were accustomed to much shorter treks with only mild elevation gains. Yet the sensation of ascending to a mountain summit in a completely isolated environment (we were traveling early in the season, the trails only opened the day we arrived, and we hiked from approximately 4000 to 8000 feet in complete solitude) was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-racking - this was true wilderness and sections of the trail were vertigo-inducing once we rose above the tree-line.
The earliest climbers in these peaks were first nations peoples. When, beginning in the late 1700's, European and Canadian climbers raced with one another to summit the tallest peaks in the Rockies they sometimes came across the remains of abandoned first nations' shelters and camps on the summits. These were the artifacts left behind by first nations' explorers or warriors on spirit or dream quests. The symbolic connection between ascending mountain heights and undertaking a religious ascent (a spiritual quest) is one that arises repeatedly in history and across cultures.
In our times this symbolic connection has transmuted into a commonplace cartoonish cliche that everyone has encountered in some form or other, whether in literature, in film, in jokes, cartoons, or comic books - a wise man sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop and a supplicant struggling to the top to ask him the meaning of life. This cliche's origins, its roots and its symbology however, are distinguished, deep, and profound.
“...and He has given you in the mountains places of retreat....” (Qur'an 16:81)
Moses ascended Sinai to receive the commandments. “And We called to him from the blessed side of the mountain” (Qur'an 19:52). Jesus led his disciples to isolated heights to witness his transfiguration. “Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.” (Mark 9:2) The Prophet spent year after year visiting the stark peaks around Mecca until the revelation manifested on Jabal-e-Nur (the mountain of light). “And he witnesses him (Jibraeel/Gabriel) in the highest horizon.” (Qur'an 81:23) The ascent of mountain heights unfurls symbolically as offering possibilities far beyond just a physical ascent.
Like the mystical alchemists who used the chemical transmutations of the elements as a symbolic representation of an inner transmutation of their heart and soul, the ascent of a mountain, the rise above the forest line into the rarefied atmosphere and stunning beauty of its heights, the sweeping, arcing view of the earth below - these are representative of a parallel ascent within the nafs (the soul) and a corresponding elevation in viewpoint, perspective, and personality.
The ascent of the physical mountain corresponds to the ascent of the mountain of one's own being. The physical difficulties and trials of the climb and the will and determination required to overcome them parallel the difficulty of transforming one's inner world, one's personality, of awakening one's metaphysical nature, and the will and determination necessary to accomplish this. The wise man proverbially encountered at the summit is no one but your own self - but a purified, elevated self - it is the self that knows truth directly, the self that has witnessed to the reality of God's lordship (Qur'an 7:172), the self that is concealed within your being but which can only be found by ascending to the summit, to the loftiest height of your own being. When ascending, you are the supplicant seeking answers, your desire for knowledge, for beauty, for truth, for throwing aside shallowness and falsity propel you upwards - this desire must be combined with will and determination, this will and determination fortified through supplication and made real through action - until at the summit of the mountain, at the summit of your own being, you become the person you were seeking. Simultaneously you experience a transformation and a realization - you have become what you sought - this is God's gift to you - the unveiling, the revelation of your own self to yourself in it's truest, most elevated form. “We will manifest to them Our signs on the horizons and within their own souls until the truth becomes clear to them.” (Qur'an 41:53)
The compulsion to climb is perhaps impacted by this concealed, invisible, symbolic reality. It is a search for beauty, for accomplishment, for new vistas, new perspectives, new conquests - but perhaps underlying it all is an urge which in our times is unconscious, subconscious, unknown, but very real. Only the outward aspect remains visible today as is the case with so many modern manifestations of human activities. And so in the absence of the growth of inner dimensions, the outer dimensions may also take on a fanatical, compulsive, extreme character, and satisfaction is sought through repetitively seeking the summit. The climb may take on the aspect of a technical competition or a somewhat extreme entertainment rather than transformation or exploration - so each instance of achieving the summit brings only a passing, temporary satisfaction since physical and mental activity has become uncoupled from spiritual activity - and the wise man on the mountain mutates downwards into a comical faqir, a humorous symbol of our inability to know our own souls.
The climber repeats the physical climb in new locations seeking the material summits of this world to recapture the intense feelings and the glory and benefits of the first climbs. But eventually the pursuit of summits and the feelings it engenders must lose their freshness and either sensitivity to the dangers, fear for one's mortality, advancing age, or death itself must draw one away from the activity - perhaps never truly having known either the substance of the mountain or that of the self.
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