Can a Christian use Muslim prayer beads?



If you struggle with anxiety, using a rosary can help. There are many Christian rosaries to choose from, but can a Christian use a Muslim rosary if they wish?

Photo by Chelsea Shapouri on Unsplash

Most of my clients suffer from anxiety. Many of them do things when they are anxious that get them into trouble. One in particular mentioned that he would like to try meditation to find inner peace, but didn’t know where to start. I told him that I would be happy to introduce him to meditation. We talked about different styles and he noticed that he felt drawn to the rosary. I’ve been using prayer beads for decades now, which I’ve been thrilled with. Then he asked if we could get a style of rosary that I had never used before. I told him I was going to order some for both of us.

I’m sure my colleagues thought it was strange when a packet of Muslim misbaha beads arrived at the office. Knowing my background as a Christian minister, they may have found it strange that I printed instructions on Muslim prayer. Someone even asked me if, as a Christian, I had the right to do Muslim prayers and use these rosaries. Before answering this question, let me explain the pearls themselves.

How to use Misbaha beads

A misbaha (aka subha, tasbih, or tespih, depending on region or language) consists of ninety-nine beads on a string loop, with a tassel at the end. Each bead represents one of the names of Allah. (The word Allah, by the way, is not a proper name. 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 God-worshipping Christians as they are to Muslims. These names are, for example, The Merciful, The Nourisher, The Forever Forgiving, etc. When I first learned of this, I assumed that one used the Misbaha by pronouncing a different name of God for each of the ninety-nine beads. That would take a lot of memorization. It’s actually simpler than that.

Muslim prayer beads are divided into three sections. Just memorize three phrases to repeat like a mantra as you go through the beads. You start with the tassel, repeating a phrase for each bead. You can do it 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 “Al-Hamdulillah,” or “All thanks and praise be to Allah.” In the third section you repeat, “Allahu Akbar,” which means “Allah is the greatest” or “Allah is the greatest”. You continue in this way until you have returned to the glans or the tail. You can find out more about this at Wikihow. Although there are ninety-nine beads, each representing the ninety-nine names of God, all you need to know are these three phrases.

Is this acceptable for Christians?

Some Christians might object because of these three Arabic phrases. There is nothing in these three sentences that would violate the Christian belief system. Of course, I’m a Universalist, so that’s even less of an issue for me now. But even when I was more fundamentalist, I would have agreed that there is nothing wrong with those sentences. In fact, Christians would do well to remember the glory and greatness of God, and to thank and praise God. If the objection is because these divine attributes are names in the Arabic language, then the objector must assess his own racism or xenophobia and understand that this is not a religious objection at all.

Other Christians might object because Jesus said not to pray repeatedly. He actually said not to pray with vain repetition. The Greek word he uses here is βαττολογέω, “to blubber absurd repetitions; gossip (be “long”), using empty words (vain).” I think you will find that these sentences make a lot of sense. Jesus also said not to do it to be seen by others. It was certainly not my intention nor that of my client. Jesus never forbids significant repetitive prayer and meditation.

So far I have shown that there can be no viable objection to a Christian using a misbaha based either on the content of the prayers or on a misunderstood prohibition from Jesus.. Only one question now remains…

Is it cultural appropriation?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about cultural appropriation. It is when a dominant culture borrows from a less dominant culture, absorbing elements of that culture and sometimes modifying those elements to suit the needs or desires of the dominant culture. Many who engage in cultural appropriation are unaware that this is what they are doing. They may think they are honoring the culture they are borrowing from. But in reality, they co-opt this culture and make it in their image.

An example of this is when my father, my brother and I joined Indian Girl Guides in the 1970s. Imagine a whole club full of white boys, all wearing buckskins and feathers and pretending to be Native Americans. It sounds gross now, but back then we didn’t have the cultural awareness to understand what we were doing. We didn’t even know it was racist to paint our faces, cross 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 the Muslim rosary? I will say a resounding Nopefor three reasons:

  1. My client’s mother is Christian, but his father is Muslim. For some reason, his father is unwilling or unable to teach him this. He wanted to explore something in his own heritage, so it wasn’t cultural appropriation.
  2. Religion is not culture. Of course, religion can contain elements of culture. But religion goes beyond culture. It would have been a cultural appropriation to put stereotypes of the Arab world, which we did not do. We were just a couple of white Americans, praying according to a particular religious custom.
  3. Islam is a religion that seeks converts and wants people to follow its ways. It is not like Gentile celebrities who popularize Kabbalah which is by nature secretive and Jewish to the core.

Religious syncretism

While a Christian using a 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 mixing religious traditions. But this warning has no basis in the teachings of the Gospels. Jesus did not come to start a new religion—He came to spread a way of life that demonstrates love and peace—regardless of the specifics of your religion. Just as Jewish believers in Jesus’ time could believe the gospel while remaining Jewish, a Christian can recite a Muslim prayer without compromising his Christianity. Especially when monotheistic religions all claim there is only one God, why should there be any objection to sharing traditions that honor that one deity?

What started as a way for me to help a client learn about their own religious heritage and find peace in a way that is meaningful to them, 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 rosary when I’m driving or at home. I might even add Buddhist mala beads.

If you are a Christian and have found a beautiful practice from another religion that strengthens your faith and does not violate your conscience, you may feel free to borrow it. All that is good belongs to the faithful of the world. No religion has things like lighting candles, wearing special clothes, observing certain hours, or touching prayer beads. Monotheists should be the last to feel territorial about one tradition borrowing from another since we are all from the same creator anyway.

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