The Name and Its Essence in the story of Helen Keller
by Sayyid Mohsen Rizvi
Prevalently, Helen Keller is known as an American author, activist, and a famous lecturer but she is particularly known for her incapacitated faculties of perception that embarked her on an ambitious journey of struggle and enlightenment which has continued to touch many hearts and minds around the world even to this day.
Helen Keller became blind, deaf, and dumb when she was nineteen months old and as she grew older, her only mode of communication was a few home-signs and gestures which her parents developed to communicate out of dire necessity. Inspired by the story of Anne Sullivan and her student Helen Keller, the film director Arthur Penn directed a biographical movie by the name of ‘The Miracle Worker’ in 1962.
But why are we discussing Helen Keller and her struggles?
A while ago when I was watching this movie I came to realize that there is a very interesting message that surfaces from the life of Helen Keller which relates to the method of understanding the divine oneness of Allah (swt). Sounds strange and irrelevant, right? Here we would like to share that relevance that inadvertently manifested in the movie on the life of Helen Keller.
The basic need of a human being is fulfilled through the ability of perception and expression. The mind must perceive that bread is a thing that nourishes the body, and then the tongue must express the need for bread when required. If the faculty of perception is crippled then the contemplation of the physical world cannot be fully achieved, and if the faculty of expression is crippled then the promptness in expression is compromised.
In the case of Helen, her faulty of vision and hearing was impaired, and perception was only in the form of touching and feeling and not through the medium of vision or sound. When it comes to expression, Helen lacked the ability to speak. The domestically developed home-signs which her parents developed as means of communication were limited and very basic. However, as Helen’s quest for knowledge increased, her frustration and hopelessness surmounted in her mind and heart respectively. Helen’s inability to learn, understand, and to communicate added more to her family which prompted her parents to seek help from the Perkins Institute of the blind. The school director dispatched a visually impaired former student by the name of Anne Sullivan to help Helen Keller.
When Anne Sullivan was first sent to help, she was astonished to find the impaired condition of an eight-year-old girl, and she immediately realized her frustration and helplessness. In the beginning, Anne Sullivan began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling “sign letters” into Helen’s hand (so that Helen could recognize the letter by shapes through touch) beginning with “d-o-l-l” for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present.
Having the ability to understand few home signs and being able to identify letters by its shapes Helen was able to communicate, however, she was unable to understand that every word that is made up by a unique combination of “sign letters” has a correlative identifying object that exists in reality (outside her mind). For example, the word “candy” represents an object that has a certain shape, a distinct taste and smell, and that which gratifies the human sense if consumed. In simple terms ‘each name represents an object and each object is recognized by its attributes’. The effect of the fundamental inability of perception led to an immense amount of frustration in Helen, and at one point when Anne was trying to teach Helen the word for “mug”, Helen couldn’t match the name with the object and not knowing that the mug refers to an object that is other than the doll, Helen becomes so frustrated that she breaks her doll.
This is the part when we can realize that there is an interesting message in the Biography of Helen Keller. The human intellect seems to maintain an index of names and its corresponding essence i.e. the contemplated idea that describes the ‘meaning’ of the name. If one writes the word “bread” on a paper in the state of hunger and looks at it for a long time it will not address his hunger, because the word bread corresponds to an essence or an object that has perceptible attributes, like bread is made of flour and has a certain mass, distinct taste and smell, and that which satiates hunger.
The relationship of the name (al-ism) and its meaning is essential to the fundamental doctrine of the oneness of Allah. What is the meaning of name in Islamic philosophy? It is narrated from Muhammad ibn Sinan who has said the following:
“I asked Abu al-Hassan al-Rida about ‘name’ and what it was.”
“Indeed al-ism (the noun) is an attribute of the attributed.”
In other words, there are three necessary aspects in perceiving the realities that exist outside our mind. The first is the name/noun (al-Ism), the second is the attribute (of the noun), and the last is the object or a thing that possess the attributes (as-Sifah). The story of Helen Keller tells us that every living or non-living thing is perceived by its attributes and represented by a unique name. However, it is a reality that man is helpless like Helen when it comes to perceiving Allah. The faculty of perception of every human being is incapacitated when perceiving Allah because His sanctified being cannot be contained in the boundaries of human senses. We can perceive with our innate ability (al-Fitrah) that Allah is our Creator and we are His creation; however, we cannot acquire the cognition (Ma’arifat) of a thing whose Being is beyond the limitation of our senses.
Regarding the reason behind divine names, the grandson of the Prophet (saw) says:
“He is His Ownself and His Ownself is He. His power is dominant and He does not need to name His Ownself. He chose His Own name for the sake of others so they can call Him with it.”
The Being of Allah (swt) transcends the sensational and intellectual abilities, imagination cannot reach and words cannot describe or encompass. The way to recognize Allah (swt) is through His names:
“Until one is not called by means of his names he is not recognized. ”
Regarding the divine name and the relationship of the attributes with its essence, there is a saying by the grandson of the Prophet that underlines and emphasizes the conditions of the worship of Allah (swt). This saying may help us to ponder and rectify our thoughts if needed. It is mentioned in Kitab al-Kafi, transmitted by Ali ibn Ibrahim from his father from al-Nadr ibn Suwayd from Hisham ibn al- Hakam who asked Imam abu ‘Abdallah about the names of Allah and about the root or derivative forms of those names:
“What is the root word for Allah?”
The grandson replied,
“The word Allah is derived from the word Elah (Lord) which requires Ma’luh (someone whose Lord one has become).”
After explaining the root of the word Allah, he says:
“Note that names are something other than whatever to which they apply.”
The name is not the same as the object rather it describes the attributes of the object so that object is perceived. Then he says:
“O Hisham, whoever worships the name without the fact for which the name stands is an unbeliever.”
In other words, those who consider the divine name itself as the divine essence has not worshipped the being of Allah instead they have worshipped those letters that form the word “Allah”. It is similar to someone writing water on a paper and considering that term “water” as the essence that quenches the thirst.
Then he says:
“Whoever worships the name and the meaning for which the name stands he is a polytheist and has worshipped two things.”
The fundamentals of monotheism are to worship only Allah, but whoever worships anything alongside Allah has committed polytheism (shirk). Similarly, if someone worships the name “Allah” as well, the essence of the being of Allah is a polytheist. Then he says:
“Whoever worships the meaning without the name is a monotheist.”
The monotheistic doctrine of Islam dictates that only Allah is worthy of worship. However, to achieve this judgment rationally the recognition of Allah is critical. Hence, Allah introduced His being through His names and made it perceptible to the human senses. The divine name manifests the attributes of Allah and thus the meaning of the essence is introduced to the intellect and with this divine recognition the intellect concludes that there is none worthy of worship except for Allah. Then he continues to elaborate:
“O Hisham, bread is the name for a certain kind of food, water is the name for a certain kind of drink, the cloth is the name for a certain kind of garment and fire is the name for a thing that burns.”
He explains the distinction between the names and the essence. He then declares:
“Allah has ninety-nine names. If names would have been the same thing for which they stand, every one of them would have been a Lord.”
He is emphasizing the distinction by saying that the names are not the same as the essence rather the names manifest the attributes of the essence.
Islam exceptionally introduces the Being of Allah to the human intellect in the form of the ninety-nine beautiful names, however we still see that the majority of the followers of Islam are incapacitated when it comes to knowing the Divine Being of Allah, just like Helen Keller; who knows the name “water” through “sign-letters” but unable to correlate the name to the essence. The reason is, most believers have taken the Divine names but they have disengaged themselves from the being of such a creation which manifest in their own selves the divine attributes of Allah (swt) at the stage of perfection. In the Shia doctrines, we call that Creation as “Imam”.
Nevertheless, it is not possible to worship Allah without divine recognition, it is not possible to recognize Allah without the divine names, and it is not possible to know the reality of the divine names unless the attributes of those names become perceptible to the intellect. The divine attributes that are perceptible to human intellect must be manifested to the human being so that the faculties of perception can sense and the intellect can relate. Hence, the only path to this necessary goal is found in the following words of the divine leader from the progeny of the seal of the messenger – Prophet Muhammed (saw). Imam Jafar Al-Sadiq says:
“God has the most blessed Names. You should address Him by these Names. We, I swear by Allah, are the most blessed names of Allah without which Allah does not accept any of the good deeds of His servants until they seek our cognizance (Ma’arifah).”
Going back to the moment of enlightenment for Helen Keller, the big breakthrough in the perception of realities came when Helen realized that the movement her teacher was making on the palm of her hand while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”. The perception of essence became possible for a blind and deaf & dumb girl when the attributes of the water related to the term “water”.
No doubt there are lessons in the story of Helen Keller.
“My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold, all things are changed!” ~ Anne Sullivan.