The importance of prayer beads

From knots on a rope to pebbles in a pocket, beads are widely used by the devout as a physical means of meditating and thanking their creator - in fact, nearly two-thirds of the world's population use prayer beads in their religious practices.


Muslims have the subha, misbaha or tasbeeh, all words meaning to exalt (the name of Allah). During Ramadan, the popularity of the subha increases, even amongst those not practicing Islam. It is very common to present them as gifts, particularly to men, although there is a market specifically for women's beads. Traditionally, the subha usually consists of between 33 and 99 beads threaded onto a strong base thread, each set of 11 separated by a bead named the shahid, ending with a single elongated bead and a colourful tassel. The beads are meant to flow freely between the fingers of the pious as they recite the 99 names of Allah, verses of the Quran and specific prayers. The beads can be silver, semi-precious stones, glass, amber or plastic. However, some religious scholars believe that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) simply used his fingers to exalt the name of Allah; therefore they see the subha as a fad and frown upon it.


In Catholicism a rose represents perfection; therefore the rosary, derived from the Latin ‘rosarium’ or rose garden, represents a permanent garden of prayer. Traditionally, rosaries are made up of 59 beads, arranged into five 'decades' of 10 small beads and one large bead each. The individual beads are threaded onto wire and linked together, as opposed to being threaded on a thread, and the rosary is completed with three more beads linked on a wire and to a cross pendant.

In contrast to the Catholic rosary, the Silent Orthodox Prayer Ropes are simply ropes of knotted wool. In the Greek tradition, these prayer beads are made up of 33, 50 or 100 knots, but they are not arranged in any specific formation and are used silently. They are known as ‘metanoia’, meaning change of mind, or ‘kombologion’, meaning string of knots. Chotki, the Russian Orthodox prayer beads, comprise 33, 100 or 300 knots.

Finally, the Anglican prayer bead ropes blend both Catholic Rosary and Silent Orthodox Prayer Ropes. They comprise 28 beads divided into four groups of seven called ‘weeks’. The number seven, in most religions, represents purity and spiritual perfection. Between each group of seven beads is a cruciform bead; the four cruciform beads form a cross. One final bead joins the prayer beads together and links them to the cross pendant. The total number of beads is 33, representing the number of years Christ spent on earth.  


Some sources say that the first prayer beads, called mala, were used around the eighth century by Buddhists, a religious sect that developed from Hinduism. The Buddhist monks had a special mala made up of 108 beads, while ordinary people used malas with just 30 or 40 beads. Traditionally the beads were crafted from the seeds of the bodhi tree under which Buddha is believed to have found enlightenment. The beads, knotted one by one on a rope, represent impurities, and their rough texture expresses difficulties, all of which must be overcome.

The word bead itself is believed to have derived from the Saxon word Bede, meaning ‘to pray.’