The most conspicuous outward manifestation of the spiritual life of Muslims is their daily prayer-ritual. Only those can penetrate to the core of this religion and its fervent theism are those who are familiar with the prayer-life of devout Muslims and have studied their litanies.
The litanies are not all contained in the Quran, although its shorter chapters are used in stated prayer. It is in the literature of the mystics and in the popular prayer-manuals called azhab wa awrad that we learn what Muslims understand by “prayer without ceasing.” Abu’l-Fadhl (A.D. 1595) wrote: “In ecstasy alone I see Thee face to face.”
To reach that ecstasy is the goal of the mystic; to multiply and facilitate the meditations that lead to it, he uses the rosary.
The proper name for the rosary in Islam is subha. It is derived from sabbaha, to give praise; that is, to declare God free from every imperfection or impurity or from anything derogatory to His glory. The word was first used for the performance of supererogatory prayer and then, in post-classical literature, applied to the rosary used for this purpose. The simplest and perhaps earliest form of the rosary in Islam was a string having ninety-nine shells or beads with a marker after each thirty-three, with which, by counting them, one performs the act termed al-tasbih, i.e. the repetition of the praises of God. This generally consists in saying subhan Allah thirty-three times, al-hamdu-lillahi thirty-three times, and Allahu-akbar thirty-three times. This is done by many persons, as a supererogatory act, after the ordinary daily prayers (Surah 30:16).
The rosary is used by all classes of Muslims and in all lands today, with the exception of the Wahhabis in Arabia. The Wahhabi movement started in Arabia under Muhammad Abd ul-Wahhab, born in Nejd in 1691. It was an attempt to distinguish between essential Islam and its later additions. The sect abominates the use of tobacco, jewels, silk, gold and the rosary.
There is evidence, however, that its use was an innovation introduced centuries after Muhammad, by Sufi circles and among the lower classes. Abu ’Abdullah Muhammad al-’Abdari, the learned author of Al-Mudkhal, who died 737 A.H., mentions the rosary as one of the strange new practices in Islam which should not be countenanced. Opposition against the use of it made itself heard as late as the fifteenth century A.D. when the great theologian, Suyuti, composed an apology for it.
According to Goldziher, the rosary was not generally adopted until after the third century of the Hegira. He cites the following to prove it: “When the Abbasid Khalif, Al Hadi (169-170 A.H.) forbade his mother Chejzuran, who tried to exercise her influence in political affairs of state, he said: “It is not a woman’s business to meddle with the affairs of state; you should occupy your time with prayers and your subha. “ From this it seems certain that in that century the use of the subha as an instrument of devotion was common but not amongst the educated. When a rosary was found in the possession of a certain pious saint, Abu-l Qasim al Junaid who died in 297 A.H. he was attacked for using it, although he belonged to the highest levels of society. ‘I cannot give it up,’ he said, a thing that serves to bring me nearer to God.’ This tradition furnishes us with rare facts, since it shows us on the one hand, that in the social sphere the use of the rosary was common even amongst the higher classes; and on the other hand, that the strict disciples of Muhammad looked on this foreign innovation, which was patronised by saints and pious men, with displeasure. To them it was an innovation (bid’a) without foundation in the old Islamic Sunna, and was consequently bound to stir distrust among the orthodox.” But like a great many things that were not tolerated in the beginning under religious forms, the rosary introduced itself from private religious life to the very heart of the mosques.
The introduction of the rosary into Islam
Goldziher quotes from the Sunan of al-Darami a tradition which indicates a development of the rosary within Islam; although many believe that the rosary was borrowed from Hindu or Buddhist pilgrims or converts.
Other traditions show the Prophet protesting regarding some faithful women against their using small stones when reciting litanies and recommending the use of fingers when counting their prayers. Generally the Traditions seem to denote a disapprobation of the use of the rosary at the moment of its appearance. The use of counting small stones seems to have been the original form of the subha, very much like the later use of the rosary. It is said of Abu Huraira that he recited the tasbih in his house by the aid of small stones which he kept in a purse. Let us also mention the severe words of ‘Abdallah, son of Khalif ‘Omar, which he addressed to a person who rattled his stones in his hands during prayer , “Do not do that, for that is prompted by the devil.”
The Tibetan Buddhists, long before the Christian era, used strings of beads, generally one hundred and eight in number and made of jewels, sandal-wood, mussel-shells and the like, according to the status of the owner. Whether Islam adopted the rosary from India during the Muslim conquest is uncertain, but not improbable. According to P. Edgar Schafer, the use of the rosary came from India, but it was through Christian channels that Islam adopted it. The rosary having been borrowed by Islam from the Oriental Church later during the Crusades the rosary found its way to the west, to the Roman Catholic Church. Whether the use of the rosary in Islam was borrowed or arose spontaneously, there is no doubt that it soon took a strong hold on the common people from Morocco to China, and was used not only for earnest devotion, but later on led to foolish superstitions and magical practices.
In Islam the rosary is used for three distinct purposes
a) Remembering God – dhikr
There are a number of traditions, rightly or wrongly attributed to Muhammad, regarding the blessing of “remembering God,” i.e. His names and attributes. A man said, “O Prophet of God, really the rules of Islam are many tell me a thing by which I may lay hold of rewards.” The Prophet said, “Let your tongue be always moist in the remembrance of God.” Another tradition reads: “Verily, there are ninety-nine names of God: whosoever counts them up shall enter into Paradise.” (Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam, p.709.) All these traditions are given in the standard collections in the section called Dhikr.
This religious ceremony or act of devotion called dhikr is practised by all the various religious orders or brotherhoods in Islam. The dhikr is either recited aloud (jali) or with a low voice or mentally (khafi). The former is more common. The worshipper either recites the ninety-nine attributes of God or certain expressions from the Quran, such as God is great, Praise be to God, etc. In every case the rosary is used to keep tally of the seemingly endless repetition. Al Ghazali entitled one of his best-known books Al-Maqsad-al-asna sharh asma Allah al husna, which might be translated “the chief end of man is to understand and imitate God’s attributes.” The threefold division of the rosary corresponds to the usual division of the ninety-nine names, i.e. those referring to God’s power, His wisdom, and His mercy.
Connected with its devotional use in dhikr, the rosary is also used in the form of prayer called Istikhara. This is a technical name given to the practice of divination or the securing of divine guidance in perplexity regarding any enterprise, a journey, sickness, etc. It was practised from the earliest times by the casting of lots: at first perhaps, by use of the Quran itself (bibliomancy) and later by use of the rosary.
It is related of one of the wives of Muhammad that she said: “The Prophet taught us Istikhara, i.e. to know what is best, just as he taught us verses from the Book, and if any of you wants anything let him perform ablution and pray two rakk’as and read the verse: ’ There is no other God, etc’”.
To use the rosary in this way the following things must be observed. The rosary must be grasped within the palms of both hands, which are then rubbed together; then the Fatiha is solemnly repeated, after which the user breathes upon the rosary with his breath in order to put the magic power of the sacred chapter into the beads. Then he seizes a particular bead and counts toward the “pointer” bead using the words, God, Muhammad, and Abu Jahal; when the count terminates with the name of God it means that his request is favourably received, if it terminates with Abu Jahal it is bad, and if with Muhammad the reply is doubtful. Others consider it more correct to use these three words: Adam, Eve, the devil. Therefore, the system of istikhara begins as a prayer and ends up in a grovelling superstition.
c) Animistic superstition – Baraka
Baraka is a quality, or blessed virtue that resides in sacred places, trees persons, garments and other objects, but especially in the rosary, it can be transmitted by touch, rubbing or effusion, etc. Constant prayer brings baraka into the rosary of a devout Muslim (Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco, vol. 1 p.494).
The use of rosaries as amulets or as the carriers of amulets is quite common. By the laws of magic, they have all the virtue (baraka) of the names of Allah.
We may conclude this part of the subject by quoting Skeat’s words from Malay Magic “There are, therefore, for a Muslim three alternatives, it would seem: viz., charms, for occasions where moral pressure can be brought to bear; divination, to assist in detecting dangers which in the ordinary course must come but can be avoided; and, finally Islam (resignation), when he has to meet the inevitable, whether it be regarded as the course of Fate or the eternal purpose of God.”
For those who desire to speak of Christ, there is no easier and more effective point of contact with Muslims than their prayer-life, the rosary and the ninety-nine names. Raymond Lull recognised this and wrote the book entitled Liber de centum nominibus Dei. Although worship in Islam is often mechanical and formal, the first step is to lead them to see the higher realm of prayer as communion with God.
I once met a Muslim, belonging to one of the Sufi orders, who lived in poverty. As I entered his room he was earnestly counting his ninety-nine rosary-beads, each one representing one of the beautiful names of Allah. When we spoke together of these attributes and their significance to the seeker after God, and how Al-Ghazali and other mystics taught that we were to meditate on God’s character in order to imitate His mercy, compassion and kindness, he turned to me and said: After all, one does not need a rosary to count the ninety-nine names; they are graven on our hands. “Then He spread his palms and pointed to the Arab numerals IV (eighty-one) and VI (eighteen) – the deep marks in every left and every right hand – the two making a total of ninety-nine.” And, he said, “that is why we spread our hands open in supplication, reminding Allah of all His merciful attributes, as we plead His grace.”