Ramadan perennially offers every Muslim the opportunity to affirm the true meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last famous sermon, I’ve Been to The Mountaintop, and not just because our Beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ first received revelation from God on a mountaintop outside of Mecca in this month. Ramadan and the mountaintop imagery evoked by Dr. King both awaken civic virtues as an outcome of struggle in pursuit of God’s pleasure. I’ve Been to The Mountaintop was a means to inspire a promised ultimate good end in spite of the immediate threat of evil. The “mountaintop” was a metaphor of three civic virtues shared in common with Muslims in Ramadan—a vision of hope over fear for the road ahead, a reliance on the will of God in word and deed, and a surrender to the majestic love of God as resistance to the gravity of hate. Dr. King was speaking from the vantage point of a higher moral ground where he invited participants to struggle with him to transcend the doubts that clouded his final days on earth. Muslims all over the world face similar dark times and the Qur'an provides a safe refuge in the words of God during the month of Ramadan. If every believer sincerely struggles to fast in the long hot days and perseveres in the nights tirelessly standing in prayers, it is a way to climb over the mountaintop and obtain hope, reliance and love in the midst of a world steeped in the valley of injustice and fear.
In the years before the revelation, the Prophet Muhammadﷺ was very fond of physically scaling and retreating to the mountains. This retreat and seclusion was non-violent resistance to the social decay and economic and political injustice of his time. His oft-repeated visits and time in solitude on the mountaintop usually lasted for ten days and sometimes a month, in complete yearning for a closer relationship with God. It was there on the mountaintop, in the month of Ramadan in one of the last ten nights, when the meaning of the Negro spiritual hymn that Dr. King evoked in his mountaintop sermon became true for Prophet Muhammadﷺ. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. The Angel Gabriel visited Prophet Muhammad with the message of hope, to “read and recite”, and to do so in the powerful “name of your Lord who created”.
Given today’s troubled times it is important to be able to get to the mountaintop. Our tradition encourages every fasting Muslim to read 1 of the 30 parts daily of the Qur’an and nightly stand in congregational prayer to recite it collectively. A special effort is given in the last ten nights of Ramadan to seek what is affectionately called The Night of Power or Divine Decree, where one who stands vigil in night prayers will receive a blessing of a lifetime. Ramadan provides a way to ascend to new spiritual heights for everyone, regardless of the perilous time, place and circumstances they are under. After receiving revelation, the Prophet Muhammadﷺ was able to ‘see the glory of the coming of the Lord’ and after thirteen years of torture, exile and death in the nascent Muslim community, Ramadan had become a religious practice to reach the mountaintop.
All Muslims have access to the view from the mountaintop in Ramadan, whether you are under democratic surveillance as a Muslim in Brooklyn or under un-democratic physical persecution in Burma. Access and ascendancy is granted to you on either side of the wall bordering Mexico in Presidio, Texas, or either side of the wall bordering settlers in Palestine. Use Ramadan as a retreat and place of seclusion to get to the mountaintop. We have to get to a place of internal moral sobriety where we all can say at the end of this month what Dr. King said:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop.”
How does one get to the mountaintop in such low valleys of state-inflicted turmoil, religious suspicion, fear-mongering, enveloping doubt and intense grief over sustained oppression? My answer is none other than God’s response to the Prophet Muhammadﷺ after years of seclusion and yearning for an answer—“read and recite." These days in Ramadan are days of “mercy” from God, and in reflecting on God’s word, we find direction on how to ascend to higher ground, fittingly in the “Mountain of the Qur’an”, al-Baqarah:
And say not of those slain in God's way, 'They are dead'; rather they are living, but you are not aware. Surely We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and diminution of goods and lives and fruits; yet give thou good tidings unto the patient who, when they are visited by an affliction, say, 'Surely we belong to God, and to Him we return'; upon those rest blessings and mercy from their Lord, and those -- they are the truly guided. (Surah al-Baqarah 2:155-157)
Imam al Ghazali illustrates how significant this verse is as a means of hope to transcend difficult circumstances in the book On the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife in the The Ways to Salvation (Rubʿ al-munjiyat), the last section of his seminal work The Revival of Religious Sciences. When pondering its meaning we notice fear is coupled with hunger, loss of goods, life and nurturing fruits—one can see how the month long act of hunger in fasting would clearly cultivate a courageous patience facing difficulties. Such patience in the Qur’anic verse is exemplified in Dr. King’s metaphor about the moutaintop.
Why was this metaphor so important to Dr. King and Black people in the struggle? In his own words, going to the mountaintop was a significant indicator of his remembrance of death and the afterlife:
“And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over.”
Clearly these are the words of someone standing in the valley under the shadow of death, but despite having less than 24 hours to live, his reliance was to be found with a desire only to do God’s will. Likewise, Muslims recite from the Qur’an:
If you are slain or die in God's way, forgiveness and mercy from God are a better thing than that you amass; surely if you die or are slain, it is unto God you shall be mustered. (Surah Al-Imran 3:157-158)
When you live with the perspective of death as a near and welcomed promise of something better from God, then you have a healthy reliance which propels you to want only to do His will. In Dr. King’s conclusion to his last sermon he shares with us the importance of the collective over the individual, and how reliance on God should inspire believers to be in generous love and service to others in need:
“Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We've got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school, be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”
The key to ascension to the mountaintop is doing it together. God says in the Qur’an:
Such believers as sit at home -- unless they have an injury -- are not the equals of those who struggle in the path of God with their possessions and their selves. God has preferred in rank those who struggle with their possessions and their selves over the ones who sit at home; yet to each God has promised the reward most fair; and God has preferred those who struggle over the ones who sit at home for the bounty of a mighty wage, in ranks standing before Him, forgiveness and mercy; surely God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. (Surah al-Nisaa, 4:95-96)
Fasting in Ramadan is more than just a personal experience, and more than denying oneself of food, drink and carnal desires by day. The elevated in rank are those praying in the houses of God at night. They call on God together and receive their promised reward of high standing and proximity to God, greater than those who sit at home. This is the mountaintop of Ramadan, a higher moral standpoint of collective struggle that elevates those who pursue God’s pleasure, in true surrender to the majestic love of God over hate.
The mountaintop is where we find the mercy of God, and the key to that mercy is in the revelation. Fittingly, in the Qur’anic chapter, “The Heights”, God says: And when the Qur’an is recited, then listen to it and remain silent, that mercy may be shown to you (Surah al-Araf, 8:204). If we implement this verse, we can boldly say as Dr. King said in his last sermon: I’ve been to the mountaintop.
By 23 Jul 2014,