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!