I wrote an article on the history of prayer beads in both the Christian East and the West and discuss the issue of the Muslim practice in this regard.
Reader Sergius has kindly allowed my article to appear on his website at: www.oldworldrus.com
Prayer beads were in use among pagan religions for thousands of years. Hinduism and Buddhism have them where different colours and numbers of beads have special significance.
Christians doubtless borrowed the use of prayer beads in this way for meditative prayer from the earliest beginnings and Fr. Deacon Ed's point on the use of beads in Judaism by Jewish mystics is well put.
In Judaism, strings of knots with tassels were carried as part of one's religious dress (tzitzith for example).
Christ Himself wore a fringed garment and tassels, as observant Jews did. The woman with the issue of blood who reached for the 'edge of His garment' was actually going for the most religiously significant part of our Lord's garments, the fringed parts.
The blue and white fringes signified the outpouring of God's Grace and protection on our lives, resembling the pouring of streams of olive oil, the symbol of Grace. Priests and Bishops still have fringes and tassels on their vestments and the prayer rope ends in a tassel.
Tassels and knots were believed to have been charged with special spiritual blessing and even good luck!
The knot was considered a mystical symbol even by pagans, thus Alexander the Great (venerated as a prophet in Islam and in Ethiopia
) cut the Gordian Knot.
The tied knot was seen by Judaism and others as a symbol of life's problems and sins, something that only God could "untie" or undo.
Knotted ropes with tassels ornamented staffs, as we read in the story about Isaac.
Jewish Christians related elements of their Judaic heritage to their Christian faith.
A tradition has it that St Peter would cut strings from his prayer shawl to tie around the necks of people he baptized - so many were baptized that he didn't want to baptize anyone twice etc.
This blue or white cord came to signify the "yoke of the Lord" and crosses were soon attached to them.
In Georgia, Crosses are still worn on white silk cords. In Ethiopia, the "Matab" or blue or black cord signifies one is a Christian. If you aren't wearing one, you are deemed to be a Muslim!
It was natural then for people to have knotted cords on which repeated prayers were said, such as the repetition of a Psalmic verse, the Name of Jesus, the Our Father and later the Hail Mary.
There are images of Our Lady holding a knotted white cord with tassels and this is the earliest form of the "Rosary."
The use of beads was also in vogue. St Paul of Thebes walked with two bags on either side of him. In one bag he had 300 pebbles. As he said his daily round of Our Fathers, he placed a pebble into the other bag each time he said a prayer and so didn't lose count in his prayer rule.
Also, St Clare of Assisi prayed in this exact same manner.
The Orthodox Church has kept the most ancient form of the prayer rope, approved by St Basil the Great, as a knotted cord ending in a tassel.
The Old Believers have the "Ladder" or "vervitsa" which is a leather device with folds ending in two leather triangular forms, resembling a Roman stole.
This is also a very ancient Christian devotional device.
"Prayer wheels" were also in vogue in the early centuries of the Church, but not in terms of the Buddhist prayer wheels.
These were small round objects with knotches that one turned in one's hand as one said the Jesus Prayer, and some have likened the prayer rope to a prayer wheel. The "Rosary ring" of today is actually a small version of this ancient Christian prayer wheel device!
One of the earliest divisions of beads or knots was based on the Holy Trinity and the years that Christ lived. There were beads or knotted cords with 33 beads, as was popular in Ireland. In the Middle East, there were three times this amount or 99 beads, considered a sacred number. Others reflected the number of Psalms, 50 - 150.
It is almost a certainty that Muslims borrowed the beads from both Christians and pagans. There are Muslim sects that do not use beads at all, such as the Wahnabi sect, that prays on its fingers. They say that the Prophet Muhammad refused to use beads and prayed on his fingers, since the beads were a practice used by Christians!
When I worked in a government department, I wrote an article about the different faith traditions in our province. In writing about Islam, I made passing mention of the "dhikr" or Islamic prayer beads.
Well, I received some angry calls from irate Muslims who told me that prayer beads was something other faiths did, not them, and where did I get my facts? (People keep asking me that here as well
So the use of prayer beads among Muslims is not universal, and probably serves as further evidence that it is a practice that was borrowed from the Christians.
[ 04-05-2002: Message edited by: Orthodox Catholic ]