The Rosary (Tasbih)

By Dr. V. A. Lalani

The Nature of Prayer is a 14″ x 10″ mixed media acrylic painting on canvas. Secured on the canvas with strong glue are a handmade Tasbih (prayer beads), and 3 dried leaves bearing the Arabic inscriptions of Allah, Ali, and Muhammad. The whole piece represents prayer through the invocation of these names. This work was Nurin Merchant's contribution for Colours of Love, an art and culture initiative by the Ismaili Council for Canada during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of His Highness the Aga Khan.

‘The Nature of Prayer’ is a 14″ x 10″ mixed media acrylic painting on canvas. Secured on the canvas with strong glue are a handmade tasbih (prayer beads), and 3 dried leaves bearing the Arabic inscriptions reading from bottom to top, Allah, Muhammad and Ali. The whole piece represents keeping the memory of Allah, and making sure that every day there is in our minds the presence of our faith in our hearts and souls which in itself is a prayer, hence the tile of the painting ‘The Nature of Prayer’. This work was Nurin Merchant’s contribution for Colours of Love, an art and culture initiative by the Ismaili Council for Canada in 2008 during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of His Highness the Aga Khan.

In Islam, while the word tasbih refers to a form of supererogatory prayer it is also a name given to a number of beads strung together in the form of a circle. There is a loop at one point of this circular object and the two ends are passed through a bigger, decorative bead where they are tied or woven into a knot. This is the starting point of a tasbih (rosary).

Almost all the religions in the world today possess some form of this object which differ a little in size, number and arrangement of beads. Calling it by different names, they make use of it for the purpose of reciting the Name of Allah or for recalling the name of the deity in whom they believe.

Although tasbih is a constant companion and an object of daily use by the believers, its origin, development and purpose has remained so obscure to most of us that I shall discuss some of the details of this small, but important object.

Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest! – Holy Qur;an, 13:28

In the ordinary Islamic tasbih the number of beads varies widely from 99 to 102: numbers 101 and 102 being the most favoured numbers. The tasbih with 33 beads is also commonly used and can be considered in conformity with our Holy Prophet’s original conception of tasbih.

It is said that the first tasbih (supererogatory prayer) was given by the Prophet to his beloved daughter Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s.), the wife of Hazrat Mawla Murtaza Ali (a.s.). This comprise of the praises of Allah, namely, Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great),  Subhan Allah (Glory be to Allah) and Al-Hamdu-lillah (All praise is due to Allah). Each of these was to be recited thirty-three times in succession. This is known as Tasbih-e Bibi Fatima.

O believers, remember God oft and give Him glory at the dawn and in the evening – Holy Qur’an, 33:41-42

In the absence of any circular object like the present day tasbih, it is said that Bibi Fatima used to recite these praises taking help of thirty-three stones of dates or thirty-three pebbles.

Later on, as it was found to be very inconvenient to keep loose stones or pebbles. or collect them when needed, it was probably decided to string together three times thirty-three stones of dates or some such object to make a rosary giving it a circular appearance. At a later period, at the point where the knot was tied, a little more decorative and imposing larger bead was added and the present day appearance of the tasbih was complete.

A Turkish painting of a whirling dervish. The tasbih or the rosary which is not strictly a part of the robe worn by the whirling dervish, depicts the importance of the repetition of God or the utterance of a certain religious formula, such as the profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.”  Phooto: Navyn Naran Collection.

A Turkish painting of a whirling dervish. The tasbih or the rosary which is not strictly a part of the robe worn by the whirling dervish, depicts the importance of the repetition of God or the utterance of a certain religious formula, such as the profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet.” Photo: Navyn Naran Turkish Collection.

The larger bead is called imam which means ‘a leader’ and it is so called because all recitations start at this point. Imam leads and all the other small beads follow.

There are two extra beads which are introduced to inform the worshiper when the required number of recitations are completed. These are called mui’zin in Arabic which means ‘an informer’ (like the informer who calls Muslims to prayer). In the Indian sub-continent, these two beads are called banga, bangi or bango which all mean ‘a caller’ or ‘an informer’.

O momin! while lying or seating or moving along a way, remember the name of the Lord — Ismaili ginan Dur Desh Thee Aayo Vannjaaro

The last and the most important point about tasbih is its purpose. One is likely to remark that the purpose of tasbih is quite evident and that is to remember Allah and recite His praise (Please read caption, top photo – Editor). Out of the various other purposes two particular ones that can be mentioned are congregational uniformity and individual discipline.

Date posted:  Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

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This piece has been adapted from the March 1986 issue of Al-Misbah magazine published by the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom (ITREB). The magazine, like all other religious magazines published by ITREB in numerous countries around the world, ceased publication in the early 1990’s.

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8 thoughts on “The Rosary (Tasbih)

  1. Thanks for the great article and the beautiful tasbih. If Bibi Fatimah’s tasbih had 100 beads which Nellie Ahmed has commented above then – why are some tasbihs with 101 beads?

  2. Allahi Allah kiya karo dukha na kisi ko deeya karo, jo duniyaka makil hay, naam usika liya kaaro, Allahi hi Allaha, Allahi hi Allaha. Don’t count the beads, just count the beads of hearts.

  3. I was told Bibi Fatima’s Tasbi consists of 100 beads, 34 beads Allah ho Akbar, 33 beads each of Subanallah and Alhamdulillah
    Is this correct?

  4. It is of interest to note that the shorter 33 bead tasbih is often dividied into 3 sets of 11 beads each. Is there any significance to the number 11?

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