The Nature of Prayer: Significance of the Tasbih, and carrying it to practice the faith by calling on the name of Allah, Muhammad, Ali or the names of Imams

T'The Nature of Prayer'  by Nurin Merchant. Golden Jubilee art for His Highness the Aga Khan's Golden Jubilee
‘The Nature of Prayer’ is a 14″ x 10″ mixed media acrylic painting on canvas. Secured on the canvas with gesso, a 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 title 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 Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan.

By DR. V. A. LALANI
with additional material by MALIK MERCHANT

In response to a recent piece on the impact of Jamatkhana closures, we were pleased to receive a very inspiring recommendation from Omar Kassam of Vancouver who suggested that we slowly recite the Surah Al-Fatihah while we spend 20 seconds thoroughly washing our hands – the #1 health guideline during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Such is the nature of prayer –- that we can seek out small moments of 1 second, 5 seconds or 20 seconds to the remembrance of God, to exalt Him, and to seek His help. The Surah is regarded as one of greatest Surahs in the Holy Qur’an, along with Surah Al-Ikhlas. The wisdom and prayers contained in this small seven verse Surah are absolutely remarkable.

There are many other opportune moments that we have throughout the day, and Mawlana Hazar Imam has often recommended to us to carry the tasbih with us –- in our pockets or handbags –- and seek out moments of happiness by calling on the name of Allah, Hazrat Ali, Prophet Muhammad or the names of the Imams. He has also asked us to invoke these names during any difficulty we are facing.

What is tasbih and what are its origins in Islam?

The Arabic word tasbih means to exalt God, praise God or to pray to God. It is supererogatory prayer, that is, an act which is considered to be good and beyond the call of duty, and not something that is strictly required.

The word tasbih is also given to the beads strung together in the form of a circle which are used in the process of praying.

The tasbih consists of a string of beads that is looped into a circle. The two ends are passed through a larger, decorative bead where they are tied or woven into a knot. This is the starting point of a tasbih.

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 (for example, rosary, in Christianity), they make use of it for the purpose of reciting 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

It is said that the first tasbih (supererogatory prayer) was given by the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S.) 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.

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 have to collect them when needed, it was probably decided to string together 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 more decorative, larger bead was added, forming what we recognize as the tasbih today. Tasbih prayer beads are made of various materials, including different stones, sterling silver, wood, etc.

The larger bead at the tasbih’s crown 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.

In the ordinary Islamic tasbih, the number of beads varies widely from 99 to 102. The 99 bead tasbih may have 2 extra small beads as dividers, after each group of 33 beads. The 102 bead tasbih used in some tariqahs is divided in parts of 12, 22, 34, 22 and 12. Then, of course, we have the commonly used smaller tasbih with 33 beads that is considered in conformity with our Holy Prophet Muhammad’s original conception of tasbih.

As in the 99 bead tasbih, the 33 bead also carries 2 extra beads after each 11 beads, as dividers. The extra small beads act as an informer 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’.

Tasbihs
A selection of tasbihs produced during the Diamond Jubilee (left) and Golden Jubilee celebrations of Mawlana Hazar Imam. Photo: The Ismaili.

Among the numerous memorabilia objects that were produced for Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2007 and 2017, the tasbih was the most sought after item. The Diamond Jubilee tasbihs came with a finely-detailed floral pattern interwoven with intricate and diverging leaves inspired by a Fatimid wood carving. The 33 bead Golden Jubilee tasbihs came in twenty-three varieties of semi-precious stone with the top stem adapted from a 16th century alam (emblem or standard).

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

The last and most important point about tasbih is its purpose. The purpose of tasbih is quite evident and that is to remember Allah.

Over the past 35 years, Mawlana Hazar Imam has sought to encourage us to keep the remembrance of our faith as an integral part of our daily life, and to seek from this remembrance spiritual happiness on an ongoing basis. His most recent reference regarding using the tasbih for calling out the name of Allah, the name of Prophet Muhammad, or Hazrat Ali was in a Farman Mubarak that he made in India in 2018 (see page 144, para. 3, in Diamond Jubilee Farman Mubarak book)

While we all face and feel the effects of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic with the rest of humanity, let us all recall the message that Mawlana Hazar Imam conveyed to us at the commencement of the Diamond Jubilee year, when he said that the faith of our forefathers would help us to face life’s challenges in times of crisis and rapid changes (see page 12, para. 2, in Diamond Jubilee Farman Mubarak book).

“Sitting, sleeping, going about, take the Lord’s name, take the Lord’s name” —
Ginan, Pir Hasan Kabirdin

An illustrious piece of advice regarding our faith comes from none other than our illustrious forefather Pir Hasan Kabirdin, composer of hundreds of Ginans that have illuminated millions of Ismailis over the past seven centuries. In the second verse of Dur Desh Thee Aayo Vannjaaro, he says: “Sitting, sleeping, going about, take the Lord’s name, take the Lord’s name.” (Translation, Aziz Esmail, in his Scent of Sandalwood)

Ginan Dur Desh…sung by Late Shamshu Bandali Haji. Credit: Ginan Central

Carrying the tasbih with us will act as reminder for us to contemplate on the names of Allah, the Prophet and the Imams during any moment in our lifetime. That is the nature of prayer.

Date posted:  April 6, 2020.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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This piece contains material 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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