When Were Islamic Prayer Beads First Used?
There are many traditions which explain how dhikr beads first came into use among the Muslims. One states that Fatima (may Allah be pleased with her) used pebbles from the grave of Hamza to make her misbaha and thus, others followed her and Muhammad (peace be upon him) did not object. Another states that Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) used a collection of small stones to count dhikr and, once again, the Prophet did not object. It is altogether possible that both traditions are correct, the main point that we can take from this is that use of tasbih among Muslims was known to be practiced among the family of the Prophet and the rest of the sahaba and that Muhammad (peace be upon him) did not forbid its use. Nevertheless, do not mistake this as a part of worship as it was not prescribed for us nor was it forbidden; it is merely a tool to make it easier to keep up with Dhikr counts.
How to use Muslim Prayer Beads?
The purpose of using tasbih is to make dhikr, or remembrance of Allah. While there are many forms of dhikr, including the elaborate and beautiful recitation of Sufi zikr done in groups, probably the best known is the dhikr of Fatima (may Allah be pleased with her). Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir, great-great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) related a story that was passed to him by his father wherein Ali (May Allah be pleased with him) approached the Prophet to get a servant to help Fatima with her housework. Muhammad declared that he did not have any servants anymore and that he could not provide one, however he said “I give you one thing better than helping of servant”. He then taught them a special manner of dhikr which is known as ‘tasbih of Fatima’. The method was to recite Subhan'Allah (Glory be to Allah) 33 times, then Alhamdulillah (Praise be to Allah) 33 times and then Allahuakbar (Allah is the Greatest) 34 times.
In another Hadith recorded by Imam Bukhari Narrated Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him): Some poor people came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and said, "The wealthy people will get higher grades and will have permanent enjoyment and they pray like us and fast as we do. They have more money by which they perform the Hajj, and 'Umra; fight and struggle in Allah's Cause and give in charity." The Prophet said, "Shall I not tell you a thing upon which if you acted you would catch up with those who have surpassed you? Nobody would overtake you and you would be better than the people amongst whom you live except those who would do the same. Say "Sub-han-al-lah", "Alhamdu-lillah" and "Allahu Akbar" thirty three times each after every (compulsory) prayer." We differed and some of us said that we should say, "Subhan-al-lah" thirty three times and "Alhamdu lillah" thirty three times and "Allahu Akbar" thirty four times. I went to the Prophet who said, "Say, "Subhan-al-lah" and "Alhamdu lillah" and "Allahu Akbar" all together for thirty three times."
In order to use the misbaha, or prayer beads, properly, you merely roll one bead with your thumb to move it and complete a count. When you start right next to the tassel portion, then count through the tasbeeh string, you will complete counts without having to look at the string. On 33 bead strings you will complete the whole string. On 99 bead strings there are two additional beads inserted which have a different shape and let you know when to stop one recitation and begin a new one. Some tasbih have an extra tassel with beads on it that you would slide over to indicate a completed count. These are used mostly in Sufi dhikr circles which go on for many hours celebrating the attributes of Allah and praising His divine names.
What are the Benefits of Dhikr or Using Tasbih?
In an authentic hadith recorded by Imam Muslim, The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “If anyone recited ‘Subhan-Allah’ after every prayer thirty-three times, and ‘Alhamdulillah’ thirty-three times, and ‘Allahuakbar’ thirty-three times, ninety-nine times in all, and say to complete a hundred: ‘La ilaha illa Allah wahdahu la sharika lahu, lahu-l-mulk wa lahu-l-hamd wa huwa ‘ala kulli shai’in qadir.’ (There is no god but Allah, having no partner with Him, to Him belongs sovereignty, and to Him is all 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.”
Making dhikr as a remembrance of Allah also increases our level of taqwa (consciousness of God) which will vastly improve our imaan and the strength of every aspect of our lives. It becomes a shield against shaytaan and guards us against sin. For many Muslims, keeping a string of prayer beads in one’s pocket is a constant reminder to make dhikr and remember Allah in His many divine attributes. Allah’s 99 names can be used as remembrance with the tasbih and there is reward in memorizing His divine attributes as well. Making tasbeeh is a form of worship and any added worship will help us to remove sin and shield against the temptation of Shaytaan.
Ultimately, the reward of remembrance of Allah is that Allah will remember us. Dhikr, the remembrance of Allah, is most beautifully referred to in a Hadith Qudsi that was recorded by Imam Muslim, Imam Bukhari and others wherein the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon him) said, "Allah Almighty says, 'I am in My slave's opinion of Me and I am with Him when He remembers Me. When he remembers Me in himself, I mention him in Myself. If he mentions Me in an assembly, I mention him in a better assembly than them.' If he comes near Me by a handspan, I come near him a cubit. If he comes near Me by a cubit, I come near a fathom. When he comes to walking, I come to him running."