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)