Saturday, November 18, 2006

Seen and noted (with cats)

Once in a while I have time for idle pursuits, such as looking up my own blog in places like Technorati. Of course, a search on "paternoster" turns up the predictable "junk" blogs (which are basically just a string of unrelated words) and nonsense posts with headings like, um, the names of certain heavily advertised medications. Then there are a few rants on the "evils" of the Inquisition (or of Christianity in general), as well as rather more neutral references to fishing lures, elevators (see A Paternoster by any other name...) and places or people named Paternoster.

On the positive side, I find I'm classed as a "Rational Religious Blog" (one of only two!) by EnglishEclectic, for instance, and I'm also on the links list of a number of other blogs of people I've never met. (Admittedly, while some are my friends, a liking for paternoster beads is probably the only thing I have in common with a few of the others!)

My posts also occasionally get picked up by historical blog "carnivals" -- a Blog Carnival being a listing of other blogs' recent articles of interest on a particular topic. This rosary is shot, for instance, is noted in Carnivalesque XX. (Irrelevant note: the names of the other participating blogs in such carnivals are an additional source of amusement.)

Speaking of amusement, my current favorite discovery -- and this is related to rosaries, however vaguely, I promise! -- is one of the comments to this post, which mentions both my sites favorably. Now, you may not think that rosaries have anything to do with cats... but if you are owned by a cat (as I am), you will quickly be reminded that cats are interested in everything!

The comments, unfortunately, don't have e-mail links, so I couldn't ask permission to re-post this.

"Kasia" writes:

Furthermore, I have two sweet but mischievous cats who are very enthusiastic about 'helping' me pray the Rosary! ("Ooo, look what you have! That looks like a GREAT toy!" *bat* *bat* *bite* etc.) Praying [the rosary] in front of the computer does lose something of the beauty and meditative quality of using the beads, but it's better than (a) not saying it at all, and (b) fending off the 'helpers'. It's far more meditative for me to pray in front of a screen than to be continually shoving a 20-lb cat out of the room:

"Hail Mary, full of - Hey, cut that out! - grace, the Lord is - Cat, would you please stop trying to eat the crucifix? - with Thee, blesse - Blessed Heaven, would you stop...OW! No claws! NO CLAWS!...where's the spritz bottle?..."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

...99, 100

islamic rosaries, part ii

I'm having an interesting time pursuing the history of the Islamic rosary: there's a lot more information on the Internet now than there was when I first went looking, several years ago.

However, I've come to realize that the sources have to be read very carefully, because while they do sometimes mention a specific number of prayers or the concept of counting the number of times a prayer is repeated, it's important not to read these as saying something about beads, when they may not actually mention beads at all.

After all, for all we know, the prayers are being counted with a pile of pebbles, or one one's fingers, or perhaps with some other type of counting device. (I was amused, by the way, to note that modern Muslims can now buy an "electronic tasbih," just as modern Catholics can buy one or another type of "electronic rosary" prayer counter.)

In fact, the Prophet Mohammed says in one hadith that counting on one's fingers is actually better, because your fingers will be available to "testify" on your behalf on Judgement Day. Islamic rosary beads apparently were controversial when they were first introduced, and there are still conservative Moslem authors today who maintain that counting prayers on anything other than one's fingers is an unjustifiable "innovation," and therefore harmful. (The theory being that the Prophet's revelations already provide everything a believer needs, so "innovations" are unnecessary and bad.)


Nonetheless, I think we have established that, assuming the hadith has been accurately transmitted, the practice of saying a specific number of repetitions of prayers does indeed go back to the first companions of Mohammed, if perhaps not to the Prophet himself.

the names of God

The 99 beads in an Islamic rosary stand for the 99 names, or attributes, of Allah (God). Allah is variously described in the Koran as "the merciful," "the All-Powerful," "the Giver of Honor," and so forth. Islamic scholars at an early date scoured the Koran for such titles and compiled an official list of 99, though there are some minor disputes about the exact list. This fulfills the tradition mentioned in the Sahih Muslim, Volume 3, Book 50, Hadith Number 894:
Narrated Abu Huraira:
Allah's Apostle said, "Allah has ninety-nine names, i.e. one-hundred minus one, and whoever knows them will go to Paradise."

The ideal way to recite the Islamic rosary is to repeat the 99 names of Allah, one per bead. But just as the Christian rosary originated as a "short cut" for reciting the 150 psalms, so there is a prescribed set of short, easily memorized prayers for those Muslims who haven't learned all 99 names of Allah by heart. This consists in saying "Subhan Allah" (sublime is God) 33 times, "Al-hamdulillah" (praise to God) 33 times, and "Allahu Akbar" (God is most great) 33 times.

In a full Islamic rosary string, therefore, there are 99 beads, often with two extra "marker" beads after the 33rd and 66th regular bead. The loop is closed by one terminal bead that is usually elongated in shape and often bears a tassel. This terminal bead is sometimes called a "leader," or it may be compared metaphorically to a minaret, the tower from which the call to prayer is sounded.

A shorter version of the rosary may have only 33 beads. While many people maintain that the "worry beads" carried by many people in Muslim cultures have no religious significance, the fact that they also come in strings of 33 points to their likely origin as a rosary string.


There are various ways of saying the Islamic rosary, just as there are the Christian rosary. To make a round number of 100, sometimes "Allahu Akbar" (God is most great) is said 34 times instead of 33, including the terminal bead.

Another way of completing the hundred comes from the Sahih Muslim, Book 004, Hadith Number 1243:
Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: If anyone extols Allah after every prayer thirty-three times, and praises Allah thirty-three times, and declares His Greatness thirty-three times, ninety-nine times in all, and says to complete a hundred: "There is no god but Allah, having no partner with Him, to Him belongs sovereignty and to Him is praise due, and He is potent over everything," his sins will be forgiven even if these are as abundant as the foam of the sea.

the 100th name

There are a number of traditions about the existence of a 100th name of Allah.

There seems to be general agreement that the 100th name is "hidden" or mysterious. Sufis and others may regularly meditate on the "mystery" of the 100th name as a symbol of God's transcendence, or as a symbol of the true nature of God, which the other 99 names only attempt to describe.

So far I have heard four different theories about the 100th name.

One theory is that the 100th name of Allah is known only to angels, since it's too holy to be entrusted to human beings.

A second theory is that the 100th name will be revealed by the Mahdi (the prophesied redeemer of Islam) at the end of time.

A third theory is that Allah will reveal the 100th name in the heart of each true believer who devoutly prays the other 99 names.

The fourth theory is that the 100th name is known only to camels. When you think about it, this would actually explain quite a lot about camels, including their attitude!


Friday, November 03, 2006

Islamic rosaries

The earliest history of the Christian rosary or paternoster is something of a scholastic black hole -- there are wisps of data spiraling into the center, but very little scholarship has come out. I don't know of anyone who has investigated this early history in depth. But the early of history of Islamic prayer beads seems, as far as I can tell, to be an even bigger, blacker black hole. Most of the information I can find takes Islamic prayer beads for granted as something Muslims have "always" had, much like the state of Christian rosary scholarship several decades ago.

Part of the reason I have this impression is undoubtedly because I don't read or speak the relevant languages of the main Islamic cultural areas, most notably Arabic. I can testify that, at least, very little has been published in English about Islamic rosaries. I am also not myself a Muslim, so there are undoubtedly sources of information that I wouldn't know about. But I've asked a few Islamic scholars for help, and they have also come up blank. If anyone out there has solid information on Islamic rosaries before about 1600 AD, or 1000 AH in the Islamic dating system, I'd love to know about it.

One of the persistent myths about the European Middle Ages is the idea that the Christian Crusaders brought back new customs and ideas from their contact with Islam. In many cases this is demonstrably not true, because there is already evidence in Europe of those ideas before the Crusades. That seems to be the case with the concept of prayer beads as well. There are not a lot of earlier records of Christians using prayer beads, but there are a few.

In fact, there has been some speculation that Muslims got the idea of counting prayers on a string of beads from Christian sources -- specifically from the Eastern Christian traditions, which tend to use strings of 99 or 100 beads. The Muslim tasbih or rosary is generally either 99 or 33 beads long, as opposed to the usual European preference for groups of 10 or 50.


As far as I know, prayer beads are not mentioned in the Koran. But the idea may very well have been known to the Prophet's early followers. Collections of sayings attributed to the Prophet, known as hadith, are a major source of information about Islamic custom, thought and culture, and translations of these are appearing on the Internet, so I went looking to see what I could find.

From this translation of the Partial Sunan Abu Dawud, I found:

Book 8, Number 1495:
Narrated Sa'd ibn AbuWaqqas:

Once Sa'd, with the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him), visited a woman in front of whom were some date-stones or pebbles which she was using as a rosary to glorify Allah. He (the Prophet) said: I tell you something which would be easier (or more excellent) for you than that. He said (it consisted of saying): "Glory be to Allah" as many times as the number of that which He has created in Heaven; "Glory be to Allah" as many times as the number of that which He has created on Earth; "Glory be to Allah" as many times as the number of that which He has created between them; "Glory be to Allah" as many times as the number of that which He is creating; "Allah is most great" a similar number of times; "Praise (be to Allah)" a similar number of times; and "There is no god but Allah" a similar number of times; "There is no might and no power except in Allah" a similar number of times.


Book 8, Number 1496:
Narrated Yusayrah, mother of Yasir:

The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) commanded them (the women emigrants) to be regular (in remembering Allah by saying): "Allah is most great"; "Glory be to the King, the Holy"; "there is no god but Allah"; and that they should count them on fingers, for they (the fingers) will be questioned and asked to speak.


Book 8, Number 1497:
Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As:

I saw the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) counting the glorification of Allah on fingers.


This passage seems to be the main source for the belief that counted prayers go back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed himself. But you'll note that the first part of it does not, in fact, involve counting, since the numbers recommended are quantities like "as many times as the number of that which He has created in Heaven" which is infinite or nearly so. (Compare the Christian "Pray without ceasing.")

The number 33 seems to come from another passage in the same collection:


Book 8, Number 1499:
Narrated AbuHurayrah:

AbuDharr said: Prophet of Allah. The wealthy people have all the rewards; they pray as we pray; they fast as we fast; and they have surplus wealth which they give in charity; but we have no wealth which we may give in charity.

The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: AbuDharr, should I not teach you phrases by which you acquire the rank of those who excel you? No one can acquire your rank except one who acts like you.

He said: Why not, Apostle of Allah? He said: Exalt Allah (say: Allah is Most Great) after each prayer thirty-three times; and praise Him (say: Praise be to Allah) thirty-three times; and glorify Him (say: Glory be to Allah) thirty-three times, and end it by saying, "There is no god but Allah alone, there is no partner, to Him belongs the Kingdom, to Him praise is due and He has power over everything". His sins will be forgiven, even if they are like the foam of the sea.

(to be continued)