If you struggle with anxiety, using a rosary may help. There are many Christian rosaries to choose from—but can a Christian use Muslim prayer beads, if they want?
Most of my clients struggle with anxiety. Many of them do things when anxious that get them in trouble. One, in particular, mentioned that he would like to try meditation to find inner peace but didn’t know where to begin. I told him I would be happy to introduce him to meditation. We talked about different styles, and he remarked that he felt attracted to prayer beads. I have been using prayer beads for decades now, so that delighted me. Then he asked if we could get a style of prayer beads that I had never used before. I told him I would order some for both of us.
I’m sure my coworkers thought it was strange when a package of Muslim misbaha beads arrived at the office. Knowing my background as a Christian minister, they may have found it odd when I printed out instructions on Muslim prayer. Someone even asked me if I, as a Christian, was allowed to pray Muslim prayers and use those prayer beads. Before I answer that question, let me explain the beads themselves.
How to Use Misbaha Beads
A misbaha (aka subha, tasbih, or tespih, depending on the region or language) consists of ninety-nine beads on a loop of string, with a tassel on the end. Each bead represents one of the names of Allah. (The word Allah, by the way, is not a proper noun. It is not a name for God, like Zeus or Jehovah. Instead, it is simply the word God. For this reason, Arabic-speaking Christians also call God Allah.) The ninety-nine names of Allah are just as applicable to Christians worshiping God as Muslims. These names are, for example, The Merciful, The Nourisher, The Ever-Forgiving, etc. When I first learned this, I assumed one used the Misbaha by uttering a different name of God for each one of the ninety-nine beads. This would take a lot of memorization. It’s actually simpler than that.
Muslim prayer beads are divided into three sections. You only have to memorize three phrases to repeat like a mantra as you go through the beads. You start at the tassel, repeating a phrase for each bead. You can do this in your head or out loud. In the first section, you repeat, “Subhan Allah,” which means, “Glory be to Allah.” In the second section, you repeat “Alhamdulillah,” or “All thanks and praises be to Allah.” In the third section, you repeat, “Allahu Akbar,” which means, “Allah is most great” or “Allah is the greatest.” You continue this until you have worked your way back to the tassel, or tail. You can read more about this on Wikihow. While there are ninety-nine beads, each representing the ninety-nine names of God, all you need to know are these three phrases.
Is This Okay for Christians?
Some Christians might object because of these three Arabic phrases. There is nothing about these three phrases that would violate the Christian belief system. Of course, I’m a universalist, so it’s even less of a problem for me now. But even in my more fundamentalist days, I would have agreed that there’s nothing objectionable about these phrases. In fact, Christians would do well to remind themselves of God’s glory and greatness, and to give thanks and praise to God. If the objection is because these divine attributes are names in the Arabic language, then the objector needs to evaluate their own racism or xenophobia and understand that it isn’t a religious objection at all.
Other Christians could object because Jesus said not to pray with repetition. He actually said not to pray with vain repetition. The Greek word he uses here is βαττολογέω, “to blubber nonsensical repetitions; to chatter (be “long-winded”), using empty (vain) words.” I think you will find that these phrases have a lot of meaning. Jesus also said not to do so in order to be seen by others. That was certainly not my intention nor the intention of my client. Jesus never forbids meaningful repetitious prayer and meditation.
So far, I have shown that there could be no viable objection to a Christian using a misbaha based on either the content of the prayers or some misunderstood prohibition from Jesus. Only one question now remains…
Is This Cultural Appropriation?
Much has been said lately about cultural appropriation. This is when a dominant culture borrows from a less dominant culture, absorbing elements of that culture and sometimes changing those elements to suit the needs or desires of the dominant culture. Many who engage in cultural appropriation are unaware that that is what they are doing. They may think they are honoring the culture from which they are borrowing. But really, they are co-opting that culture and making it in their own image.
One example of this is when my father, brother, and I joined the Indian guides back in the 1970s. Picture a whole club full of white boys, all donning buckskins and feathers and pretending to be native American. Sounds disgusting now, but at the time we did not have the cultural awareness to understand what we were doing. We didn’t even realize it was racist to paint our faces, fold our arms in front of our chests, and say “ugh.” When you know better, you do better.
So, is it cultural appropriation for me as a Christian to use Muslim prayer beads? I’ll say a resounding no, for three reasons:
- My client’s mother is Christian, but his father is Muslim. For one reason or another, his father won’t or can’t teach him this. He wanted to explore something in his own heritage, so this was not cultural appropriation.
- Religion is not culture. Certainly, religion can contain elements of culture. But religion surpasses culture. It would have been cultural appropriation to put on stereotypes from the Arabic world, which we did not. We were just a couple of white Americans, praying according to a particular religious custom.
- Islam is a religion that seeks converts and wants people to follow its ways. It’s not like Gentile celebrities popularizing the Kabbalah which is by its nature secretive and Jewish to the core.
While a Christian using Muslim prayer beads is not cultural appropriation, it is religious syncretism. Growing up in a conservative church, I was always taught to avoid syncretism or the blending of religious traditions. But this warning has no basis in the teachings of the Gospels. Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion—he came to spread a way of living that demonstrates love and peace—regardless of the specifics of your religion. Just as Jewish believers in Jesus’ day could believe the Gospel yet remain Jewish, so a Christian can say a Muslim prayer and not jeopardize his Christianity. Especially when monotheistic religions all claim that there is only one God, why should there be an objection to sharing traditions that honor that one deity?
What began as a way for me to help a client learn his own religious heritage and find peace in a way that is meaningful to him, ended with me discovering a beautiful addition to my collection of spiritual practices. Because I bought a misbaha for each of us, I can use these beads if I have a particularly stressful day at work—just like I can use my Roman Catholic rosary, or my Protestant prayer beads when I’m driving or at home. I might even throw in some Buddhist mala beads as well.
If you are a Christian and have found a beautiful practice from another religion that enhances your faith and does not violate your conscience, you can feel free to borrow it. Whatever is good belongs to faithful people of the world. No one religion owns things like lighting candles, wearing special garments, observing certain times, or fingering prayer beads. Monotheists should be the last ones to feel territorial about one tradition borrowing from another since we all originate from the same creator anyway.