Islamic Prayer Beads: Subha

Muslim Prayer Beads
Muslim Prayer Beads. Cameran Ashraf/Getty Images

Definition

Prayer beads are used in many religions and cultures around the world, either to help with prayer and meditation or to simply keep the fingers occupied during times of stress. Islamic prayer beads are called subha, from a word which means to glorify God (Allah).

Pronunciation: sub'-ha

Also Known As: misbaha, dhikr beads, worry beads. The verb to describe the use of the beads is tasbih or tasbeeha.

These verbs are also sometimes used to describe the beads themselves.

Alternate Spellings: subhah

Common Misspellings: "Rosary" refers to the Christian/Catholic form of prayer beads. Subha are similar in design but have distinct variations.

Examples: "The old woman fingered the subha (Islamic prayer beads) and recited prayers while she waited for her grandson to be born."

History

At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims did not use prayer beads as a tool during personal prayer, but may have used date pits or small pebbles. Reports indicate that Caliph Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) used a subha similar to modern ones. The widespread manufacture and use of subha began about 600 years ago.

Materials

Subha beads are most often made of round glass, wood, plastic, amber or gemstone. The cord is usually cotton, nylon or silk. There is a wide variety of colors and styles on the market, ranging from cheap mass-produced prayer beads to those that are made with expensive materials and high-quality workmanship.

Design

Subha may vary in style or decorative embellishments, but they share some common design qualities. Subha have either 33 round beads, or 99 round beads separated by flat disks into three groups of 33. There is often a larger, leader bead and a tassel at one end to mark the start point of recitations.

The color of the beads is most often uniform throughout a single strand but can vary widely among sets.

Use

The subha is used by Muslims to help count recitations and concentrate during personal prayers. The worshipper touches one bead at a time while reciting words of dhikr (remembrance of Allah). These recitations are often of the 99 "names" of Allah, or of phrases that glorify and praise Allah. These phrases are most often repeated as follows:

  • Subhannallah (Glory to Allah)--33 times
  • Alhamdilillah (Praise be to Allah)--33 times
  • Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great)--33 times

This form of recitation stems from an account (hadith) in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) instructed his daughter, Fatima, to remember Allah using these words. He also said that believers who recite these words after every prayer "will have all sins pardoned, even if they may be as large as the foam on the surface of the sea."

Muslims may also use prayer beads to count multiple recitations of other phrases while in personal prayer. Some Muslims also carry the beads as a source of comfort, fingering them when stressed or anxious. Prayer beads are a common gift item, especially for those returning from Hajj (pilgrimage).

Improper Use

Some Muslims may hang prayer beads in the home or near young babies, in the mistaken belief that the beads will protect from harm. Blue beads which contain an "evil eye" symbol are used in similar superstitious ways that have no basis in Islam. Prayer beads are also often carried by performers who swing them around during traditional dances. These are cultural practices with no basis in Islam.

Where To Buy

In the Muslim world, subha can be found for sale in stand-alone kiosks, at souqs, and even in shopping malls. In non-Muslim countries, they are often carried by merchants who sell other imported Islamic goods, such as clothing. Crafty people may even choose to make their own!

Alternatives

There are Muslims who see the subha as an unwelcome innovation. They argue that the Prophet Muhammad himself did not use them and that they are an imitation of ancient prayer beads used in other religions and cultures.

As an alternative, some Muslims use their fingers alone to count recitations. Beginning with the right hand, the worshipper uses the thumb to touch each joint of each finger. Three joints on a finger, over ten fingers, results in a count of 33.