Muslim Tasbih


"Worship is the pillar of religion," proclaimed the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE). Salat, or prayer, is one of the Five Pillars, or essential rites, upholding Islam. Performed five times a day (at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and nightfall), prayer punctuates the rhythms of daily life with continual opportunities to come before God in absorbed contemplation. Many Muslims also pray with the tasbih, a string of 99 prayer beads; they recite the names of God upon each bead, or repeat exaltations which express their reverence, complete submission and gratitude to the Supreme Being. The power and devotion of each uttered name assists believers in their communion with God.

Glorifying God

The word tasbih derives from the Arabic root s-b-h which means "to glorify." Each of this rosary's 99 beads represents one of the names, or attributes, of God. Muslims believe that God's Divine qualities combine in various proportions to create the universe around us, and that all the names are contained in the Name, or word Allah—interestingly, a neuter word in the Arabic language. Hence by repeating this Name during invocation, a sacred rite known as dhikr or remembrance, the worshipper participates in the manifestation of creation. Muslims usually complete each of the five daily prayers by repeating the following phrases 99 times and counting out each repetition on the tasbih or on the fingers: Subhana'llah (Glory be to God); Alhamdulillah (All Praise is due to God); Allahu akhbar (God is most Great).


The Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) likened worship to a ladder, a route by which humankind might ascend into the presence of God. Writing about the benefits of worship, the 18th-century Mogul mystical savant, Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1703-61 CE), spoke of the state of prayer as a type of absorption during which the soul is taken over by the Divine Presence and one sees and feels that which "the human tongue is incapable of describing." He explained that the physical positions adopted by Muslims during prayer are a type of quest, an attempt to reengage with an ecstatic "state of light." In bowing her forehead to the ground, a Muslim attempts to submit will and being before the Creator. Prostration is a powerful physical symbol reflecting human lowliness before the majesty of God. As the Qur'an clearly states, "Bow down and draw near" (96:19). Repeated standing, bowing and prostration, and the the reiterated sacred formulae of the daily services, purify body and heart. The believer gradually draws closer to God and thus is able to approach the Divine realm by repeating verses revealed by God directly through the Prophet Muhammad.


Although the s-b-h root within tasbih refers to glorification, s-b-h bears an etymological reference to "finger," as in praying with beads. Usually totaling 99 beads, one for each of the names, or attributes, of God, some sets comprise only 33 but are prayed upon three times over during worship. The 100th name, the Name of the Essence, is found in Paradise.

This Muslim rosary is divided into three equal sections, separated by a tassel or by accent beads of a different color or shape to the regular beads. A single longer bead holds all the beads in place and additional tassels, threaded with 10 counter beads each, enable greater repetitions of prayers. The tassel at the entrance to the tasbih is known as El-shaheed ("the witness"); the longer bead is the "A" or Alif, the source of knowledge and awareness.

Gifts of Creation

Although the beads themselves can be created from virtually any material, those made from precious stones, terracotta or various types of wood, such as sandalwood, rosewood or olivewood, are most commonly used to offer a constant reminder of and connection with God's creation. Terracotta beads gain in sacredness if rolled out of clay obtained from Mecca, the spiritual heart of the Muslim world. Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan is the more traditional choice for beads, and carnelian is a stone renowned for having a special connection with the Prophet Muhammad, who reputedly wore an inscribed carnelian ring and preached that whoever wore this type of stone would be blessed. Silver is also considered a particularly suitable metal to incorporate in prayer beads.

Unity of the Sphere

Medieval Islamic mathematicians revived and refined the work of early Greek scientists after the decline of Western learning following the 3rd century CE, laying down the basic foundations for most of the mathematical knowledge later used in Renaissance Europe. Their laws of geometry proposed that all shapes and forms derive from that of the sphere. These advances were influential in the development of Islamic art, which excels at elaborately abstract geometric patterns based on the divisions of the circle; all of them hint at the infinite, which goes on ad infinitum. The beads and the shape of the tasbih itself resonate with this prime cosmological symbol. The string of beads also mirrors the Islamic arabesque style in which complex arrangements of smaller geometric forms relate to the larger whole, such as in fractal geometry.

Sufi Mysticism

Sufism is an inner or esoteric dimension of Islam for those both with the aptitude or the desire to accelerate the spiritual process. A seeker becomes the disciple of a master, or sheikh (the Arabic word for an elderly, wise man). These sages can trace their lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad and give voluntary guidance to devout Muslims in the course of sanctification or the regaining of the fitra, humankind's pure, primordial nature.

The disciple of a Sufi master is ever careful and willing to comply with all the obligatory prayers, fasts, charity and pilgrimages required of ordinary, practicing Muslims. In addition to these mandatory activities, using the tasbih two or three times daily is also expected with the aim of attaining in the heart a permanent state of remembrance of God. Daily prayer rituals with the tasbih help the seeker to curb the influence of the ego by focusing the concentration on strengthening both heart and mind on God. Disciples are also requested to perform regular retreats, or khalwas, and attend devotional gatherings held by their spiritual brotherhood.

Constant Awareness

The rite of dhikr (remembrance of God by repetition of the Divine Name and other formulae) centers the Sufi seeker within to reside in God's presence. Different forms of dhikr suit specific occasions and times of day (before sleep, on waking, at midday, after the five daily prayers), and may be accompanied by meditation on verses from the Qur'an. Dhikr involves reciting God's 99 names or, with the permission of a sheikh, the word Allah, while using the tasbih so that the Divine quality within each Name induces a God-absorbed spiritual state. Other phrases used in repetitions include: La ilaha illallah (There is no god but God); Subhana'llah (Glory be to God); Alhamdulillah (All Praise is due to God); Allahu akhbar (God is most Great); and Astaghfirullah (May God forgive me).

During invocation, a Sufi disciple may focus on his heartbeat, so that all but God disappears. Every breath should be invested with an awareness of the Divine: it is even intimated that the collective sound of the inhalations and exhalations of all living beings forms the name of God. Other techniques, such as those used by the Mevlevi "whirling dervishes" of Turkey, incorporate rhythmic movements: those to the right represent the body and the world; those to the left symbolize the heart.

There are three stages of dhikr: firstly, recitations are purely verbal; secondly, heart and tongue unite to open the seeker's heart through the Supreme Name; finally, La ilaha illallah is attained, where there is no reality except God. The ultimate achievement is fanna fi Allah (the extinction of the self in God).

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words
Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words

Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

The practice of the rosary in various faiths is thoroughly covered in this stunning book and its accompanying DVD. For background, the commentary explains that the word "bead" has an interfaith origin: it comes from both the Sanskrit "Buddh," which refers to self-realization (the Buddha is the "Enlightened One"); and it also derives from the Saxon verb "bidden," meaning to pray. The rosaries pictured are made from such materials as rose petals, chunks of Tibetan amber, exquisitely carved Italian coral, and silken Turkish tassels. One simple mantra or prayer for each faith is also presented, as is a prize-winning DVD that takes the viewer into various world cultures where the recitation and method can be heard and seen.