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Volume 19, Number 6November/December 1968

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Worry Beads

Written by Daniel Da Cruz
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

In times of stress, when men of other nations reach for aspirins or tranquilizers, the Arab is likely to reach into his pocket and come up with a string of beads.


Beads. Beads of ebony, beads of mother-of-pearl, or amber, cornelian, aloe, coral, date pits, olive wood, glass, ivory, and a thousand other rare and mundane materials, but always either 33 or 99 in number, and always with enough slack in the string so that, as each bead is released by thumb-and-index finger in its turn, it raps its brother below with an emphatic click. The clicks themselves are wholly without character, but their rhythm and the intervening pauses can express a vast range of meaning: placid boredom, thoughtful meditation, agitated nervousness, measured insolence, mounting impatience, burning hostility, and a full palate of shadings between, for the Arab's misbaha, or rosary, is a natural extension of his personality, and a most useful means of getting his point across without actually saying anything.

The misbaha has been performing this vital social function for the Arabs at least as far back as the 9th century, but originally it served the holy purpose of helping the devout remember the number of times a particular prayer or eulogy had been recited and help keep a man's thoughts away from intemperate thoughts. Coming to the Middle East by way of India, the misbaha was at first probably no more than a handful of seeds or pebbles moved from one small pile to another in the course of devotions. Eventually the counters were strung for convenience, more precious materials were substituted for the simple originals, and lo! —the misbaha was born.

For a device in such common use—many Middle Eastern men feel undressed without one—uncommonly little is known about it. It is said that the 33-bead misbaha represents, to Christians, the 33 years of Christ's earthly existence, while those of 99 beads represent the 33 years multiplied by the three manifestations of God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Islamic waikas observe that the use of the misbaha originated with the mystical Sufi sect, which employed the beads as a mnemonic device to recall the 99 most beautiful names of Allah, for to Muslims God is "the Merciful, the Compassionate, the King, the Holy, the All-Knowing, the Patient, the Wise, the Venerable, the One, the Giver of Life and Death...."

The 33- and 99-bead misbahas are used today by both Christians and Muslims; whatever distinctions once limited their use to one or the other religion have long since been obliterated by time and cultural diffusion, and their basic form is invariable: both have a carved handle-like piece through which the two ends of the string are threaded and knotted, frequently in an ornamental tuft, and in the 99-bead version the beads are separated into divisions of 33 by the handle and two smaller beads of different design, called imam ("religious leader" in Islam, presumably here having the connotation of that which connects the various parts of the whole). In past times a third type of misbaha, consisting of 1,000 egg-sized beads on a heavy cord, had a place in Egyptian funeral ceremonies, where mourners formed a large circle holding the misbaha and circulating its beads to record the 3,000 repetitions of the Muslim Profession of Faith: La ilaha ilia Allah—"There is no god but God."

Available evidence suggests that the rosary of the Roman Catholic Church is a lineal descendant of the Arab misbaha, for it was introduced into western Europe during the 13th century after more than two centuries of contact between the Franks and Arabs during the Crusades. The Catholics' rosary has 50 beads to mark repetitions of the Hail Mary, with five larger beads to count Our Father's, preserving the enumerative function for which the misbaha was originally elaborated.

The fierce Janissaries, the professional soldier caste of the Ottoman Empire, though Muslims, were forbidden to use the misbaha by their commanders, who believed that the telling of the beads leads to softness through excessive contemplation. But the passage of years has made the former vice a present virtue. The gentle mind-lulling click of the beads smoothly bridges over long silences that otherwise might become awkward, allows one a few moments of grace to gather his thoughts, and then provides a rhythmical accompaniment to the cadenced sonorities of the Arabic language, a filigree frame for poetic expression, a delicate punctuation for profundities....

True, the captain of industry with his executive-length cigar can achieve a similar orchestration of effects by means of stacatto bursts of fragrant smoke, the twin rituals of trimming the stogie and lighting up, the grandiose gesture that threatens his audience with second-degree burns. But, the Arab might argue, ticking off his arguments as he clicks off his beads, just think of the advantages of the misbaha: no spilled ashes, no burns on the coffee table, no bad breath, no trading with Cuba, no stained fingers, no yellowed teeth, no tobacconists' bills, no smoker's hack, no lung cancer....

Daniel da Cruz, a frequent contributor to Aramco World Magazine, is a free-lance writer, a correspondent and the author of several novels.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the November/December 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1968 images.