Islamic Beads


The Muslims probably derived the concept of prayer beads from the Buddhists. When this happened, however, is uncertain. Called subha, meaning "to exalt," the Islamic rosary has ninety-nine counting beads in addition to an elongated terminal one, known as the Iman or "Leader," "pillar," or "minaret" (below right).

Islamic coral prayer beads (subha) inlaid with silver
Enlarge Islamic Subha

Muslim prayer beads (subha) from Cairo
Enlarge Muslim Subha

The counting beads are used to recite the ninety-nine attributes of God the Holy, the Mighty, the Forgiver, and so forth. The one hundredth bead is reserved for saying the name of God, Allah. Devotional phrases recited on the prayer beads include the tahmid, "God be praised," and the tahlit, "There is no deity but God." Great stock is put into uttering the one hundred names of God and chanting the formulas. A prophet said, "There are ninety-nine names of God, and whoever recites them shall enter into Paradise," and "Whoever recites the tasbih and the tahmid, a hundred times morning and evening, will have all his sins forgiven." Ultraorthodox, conservative Muslims were, at the time of the prayer beads' appearance, opposed to them. During the thirteenth century Ibn al-Hajj complained that the exaggerated use and esteem of the subha was contrary to the primitive simplicity of Islam. Islamic beads are often made of wood, including acacia, olivewood, ebony, sycamore, and sandalwood. Materials such as bone, ivory, coral, amber, carnelian, agate, lapis lazuli, and glass have also been used. In Mogul India (1526–1756), pearls, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires were the beads of the court. Beads of date pits from the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina are revered. Mecca is a huge bead emporium, and a vast array of beads imported from all over the world are sold there. Wooden beads that have been dyed red and immersed in water from the holy well of Zemzem are taken away from Mecca by pilgrims who have made the hajj, or pilgrimage, to the sacred Muslim city.

Islamic coral prayer beads (subha) inlaid with silver

Islamic Subha

Islamic coral prayer beads inlaid with silver, probably made in Istanbul during the nineteenth century. Length, 146 cm. Collection Franyo Schindler, New York

Muslim prayer beads (subha) from Cairo

Muslim Subha

Muslim prayer beads (subha) from Cairo, consisting of ninety-nine round olivewood beads divided into three sections by two vase-shaped marker beads. The marker beads, placed after the thirty-third and sixty-sixth beads, allow the devotee a respite from counting prayers. The ends of the cord pass through a spindle-shaped terminal bead, known as the "leader," which indicates that one has "come into" the circle of prayer. The cords finally go through two smaller beads, terminating in a tassel. Because evil spirits are believed to dislike fringed objects, the tassel keeps away the evil eye. Length, 101.6 cm. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Islamic Beads » Prayer Beads » The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present
Lois Sherr Dubin (2009) Abrams Publishers, Inc.

The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present

The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present

Since its publication in 1987, The History of Beads has become the world's definitive guide for bead lovers, collectors, and scholars. In this new edition, author Lois Sherr Dubin updates al chapters with the latest archeological discoveries; pens a new chapter on contemporary adornment since the 1980s, with a focus on glass beads; and best of all, revises and adds 225 beads to what is considered by many to be the piece de resistance: the eight-page gatefold timeline that guides readers through the remarkably rich history of the world's first form of adornment. The latest revisions include an update on the oldest bead ever discovered, now dating to around 100,000 B.C., and an explanation on why beads worn on the human body were the original media communication system.

Beads are among the most stunningly attractive and varied items of jewelry known to humankind. Yet they represent far more than mere personal adornment. Beads have been used throughout the world in countless ways: as talismans in prehistoric and contemporary societies; as status symbols in the ancient world and in present-day Africa; as religious articles in the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic faiths; and as a standard medium of barter throughout the world. They represent basic relationships to life and the supernatural and have been used to organize and symbolize cultural world views. They have been guideposts in human relationships and expressions of innermost feelings. Each bead is therefore a capsule of cultural information, containing a fascinating tale of the origins of its materials, its manufacture, its multifold uses, perhaps its travels, and certainly its potent symbolism.

Lois Sherr Dubin presents the panoramic scope of these ubiquitous objects, unravels the mysteries of the world's rarest beads, and explores the myriad cultural context from which beads have come. Along the way, she examines the dominant historical, geographic, and thematic features of beads, as well as their impact on cultural cross-fertilization and the light they shed on the ritualistic practices of various peoples.

Updates include the numerous maps, which have been modernized and are now in color; approximately seventy formerly black-and-white images have been changed to full color; and 200 new photographs have been taken especially for this edition. Beautifully packaged with a new cover, this revised and expanded edition of The History of Beads is a must-have for devotees of the first edition and for the next generation of bead obsessives and aficionados.