Thursday, December 07, 2006

Islamic rosaries: how early?

islamic rosaries, part iii

As with the Christian rosary, there are a number of conflicting stories about how and when prayer beads began to be used by Muslims.

Islamic scholars derive teaching not only from the Koran, but also from collections of hadith, usually referred to as "traditions." A hadith was originally just an Arabic story. As the stories began to be used more formally, it became common to provide each story with an isnad or lineage. The isnad is the list of who heard this story from whom, reaching back to the original teller of the story, whether the Prophet himself or one of his followers.

The reliability of each hadith, of course, depends on each scholar in the chain and whether they have transmitted the text correctly. As one would expect, modern Islamic scholars can and do differ on whether a particular hadith is authoritative or not.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, there are certainly hadith in the generally accepted collections that mention the use of loose stones, date-kernels, etc., in counting prayers. At least two of them mention the Prophet himself as recommending counted prayers (though not beads).

I've actually found one somewhat-helpful source online: Studies in Popular Islam: Collection of Papers dealing with the Superstitions and Beliefs of the Common People, by Samuel M. Zwemer, Emeritus Professor of Religion and Christian Missions at Princeton Theological Seminary.

I do use this with caution, since it was published (as you might guess from the title) in 1939, before scholarship about the Middle Ages was really well established.

Zwemer comments that there is evidence that the use of prayer beads in Islam was an innovation introduced centuries after Mohammed. He quotes Goldziher (in his book Vorlesungen ├╝ber den Islam), who says the rosary was not generally adopted until after the third century of the Hegira. "When a rosary was found in the possession of a certain pious saint, Abu-l-Qasim al-Junaid, who died in 297 of the Hegira (910 AD)," says Goldziher, "they attacked him for using it, although he belonged to the best society. 'I cannot give up,' said he, 'a thing that serves to bring me nearer to God.' Abu 'Abdullah Mohammed al-'Abdari, the learned author of Al-Mudkhal, who died as late as 737 AH (1337 AD), mentions the rosary as one of the "strange new practices" in Islam which should not be countenanced."


But most of the references I've found to early Islamic prayer beads look rather doubtful to me.

To briefly mention one, a May 2006 press release (Telegraph, UK) about an excavated shipwreck in Jakarta says that its cargo, which sank sometime close to 970 AD, included "Islamic rosary beads, and a mold to mass-produce small metal tags with three of the 99 names of God."

This would be very interesting if true, since it pre-dates the current earliest evidence for Islam in Malaysia by about 300 years, and suggests Islam could have been brought to Malaysia from China. Unfortunately the cargo is currently tied up in legal disputes and isn't available to scholars. Without more description, it's impossible to say why the finds are identified specifically as Islamic rosaries.

Another mention that causes me to raise my eyebrows is from an article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 1965, by Sami K. Hamarneh. He is describing a very interesting historical document, a treatise on healing from Spain, by the Arabic author known as Abulcasis (who died in about 1013 AD).

The 19th of the thirty volumes of the treatise is mostly about compounding perfumes, drugs, oils and spices for both medical and cosmetic purposes. One of the chapters on cosmetics has "an elaborate discussion of how to make medicated rosaries, necklaces, and beads of ambergris, musk, camphor, and clove." The recipes mentioned include one for beads of musk and another for cloves macerated in rosewater and held together with gum arabic.

However, again, the author doesn't say why he has made the conceptual leap from beads to "rosaries." I would want to see whether the word "rosaries" (tasbih or subha) is actually mentioned in the Arabic original.

(to be continued)



Anonymous Emerson said...

Hello, Chris!

Although I am a Catholic, I also collect Islamic tesbihs. One thing that I do not think that you mentioned is that the tesbih also comes in beads with 66, 500, and 1000.

A prefered material for tesbihs is Arabic. Kahraman (or Arabic) amber was a favourite, but its sources have since dried up, and it is now found only is collections. This type of amber, of which I do have sever Greeks kombolois, is very fragrant with a beautiful perfume.

But, Kahraman amber is very fragile. Not so much as when as beads, but rather when it was being carved. This leads to my next point - the invention of Faturan amber.

Faturan amber was created some 200 years ago by an Egyptian chemist named Faturan. His new material consisted of powder Kahraman amber scaps left over from carving and broken amber, Mastic resin, some chemicals, Frankincense incense, and natural dyes. Some people say that wine was used to get the red color, which was the most common original color, though this has not been proven. It is also unknown what percent of real amber was used it the making of Faturan. There are even very conservative bead collectors who say that there is actually no amber in Faturan at all, but rather Faturan himself stated that there was just so that his product would sell at a good price. Nobody really knows for sure, except for the decendants of Faturan, and they are not talking about it. It is possible to get a chemical analysis, but the cost of that would be pretty expensive, more so than what a person invested in the Faturan.

Another variationof Faturan known as Misketa (after Mastic) which is lighter in colour. It tends to be golden or pale orange. The came abotu in the later 1800's. It has chemical properties similiar to Bakelite because of phenolic resin used in its creation. What some people do is burn marks onto it with a hot rod for decoration.

The making process of Faturan is that it is made in long tubes, and then carved in to beads and imame bead. That is what they beads are identical in width. If you see a bead strand of Faturan and the beads are imame bead are different in width, they are not original.

It is said that the production of Faturan stopped in about 1940. I know for a fact that there are several modern variation being made today. Much of it, called German amber, was made in Germany up until about the 1950's. It is still being made today in Turky as Turkish amber. Yemeni amber is another variation. When Faturan or like amberoids are made, each artisan usually uses his own special fomula.

If you are interested in buy Faturan amber, you can always check on eBay. Several good sellers of it include Tesbihci (although his prices are a bit high), palace_of_komboloi (he has a very large secection, and also real Kahraman amber), and stratocaster73 (it isn't always listed, but soemtimes), and sometimes by other various sellers.

Here is some interesting info. As you already stated, some very conservative Islamic scholars believe that it is haram to use beads in prayer. There are other scholars who say it is halal to use prayer beads, but the material has to be natural and organic, such as wood or seed or amber or coral. No glass or plastic or ceramic. It is believed that the seed is one of the purest materials, and is favoured as a material for beads.

Hope all is material helps.

God bless!

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prayer beads/ropes come from Hinduism, which gave them to Buddhism, which passed them on to Islam, and Christianity borrowed them from Islam. You can read more about this fantastic story at and!

2:33 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

But there are records -- though not necessarily surviving beads -- of Christian rosaries at least as early as there are records of Islamic rosaries. The spread from Islam to Christendom has always been the standard theory, but there is evidence that it might have gone the other way. Certainly some of the Islamic scholars who dislike the tasbih think it is a thinly disguised borrowing from Christianity.

Personally, I don't think we have enough information yet to know for sure. That theory sounds possible, but so does independent invention in several places.

7:50 PM  
Blogger maata said...

hi all/

please, how can we know a kahraman amber?
and is it the one with insects insides?

i have found some jewellery in my grand mother box, and i would love to know what kind of amber is ?
thank you
good luck

11:08 AM  
Blogger Chris Laning said...

Maata, I would suggest that you take it to a jeweler. It is often difficult to identify what kind of amber something is.

It is also very common to make synthetic amber out of powdered amber and put insects inside it to make it look more valuable.

6:29 PM  

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