Prayer beads are more than something to keep idle hands busy or to dangle from the rear-view mirrors of cars; they are used as a tool by which Muslims perform the dhikr, or pronouncements in remembrance of Allah as instructed by the Holy Quran.
Essentially, the rope of prayer beads is a kind of abacus used to help memorize verses from the Quran or more commonly to keep track of the recitation of the 99 names of God. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims’ intimacy with their prayer beads gets closer.
Masbaha can be simple — with beads made from cheap plastic — or they can be decorative and pricey, with beads made from decorative ceramics, hardwoods, precious stones, or the bones of rare animals, such as the rhinoceros.
The string that holds the beads together can be made of cotton, silk or simple nylon. (In the age of machinery, some Muslims have been known to forego the masbaha altogether and use button-operated metal counters.)
While masbaha may vary in style and decorative qualities, they all share similar attributes: Usually a loop of 99 beads divided into clusters of 33, with a shorter string of 10 beads to keep track of multiples and a tasseled rope to mark the start and end of the 99-bead chain.
Sometimes the masbaha will be smaller, with only 33 beads, or they can be longer, with 99 beads divided into three groups by three beads that are differently shaped than the rest so that they can be identified by touch. Some are even 999 beads in length, which eliminates the need for the shorter 10-bead string to track the multiples.
History of Prayer Beads
The history of using memorization aids goes back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. He used to count his remembrances on his fingers. It is said that the Prophet himself may have used simple date seeds; but reports indicate that Caliph Abu Bakr used the masbaha as it is known today. In any case, the widespread use and manufacture of the Muslim rosary began at least six centuries ago.