- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

SALT LAKE CITY — A chain of green plastic beads rests casually in Taj Mohammad's pocket or hangs from his cab's rearview mirror.
Mr. Mohammad, a devout Muslim, pulls out the sacred strand at any odd moment when he feels the urge to pray. He uses the 99-bead circle, made up of three sets of 33, to repeat Muslim prayers such as "There is no God but Allah," "Praise be to Allah" and "God be glorified."
"I use my prayer beads whenever I have time," says Mr. Mohammad, who joins a dozen Muslim cab drivers for evening prayers at the Salt Lake International Airport each sunset. "It is not a religious obligation. It just gives you extra rewards."
Muslims are not alone in relying on beads to help count prayers and focus the mind. Buddhists and Hindus use a kind of bracelet, known as a "mala" or garland, typically containing 108 beads, to count their mantras and aid in meditation. Eastern Orthodox practitioners use a woven band, known as a "komboskini" or prayer rope, with several notches on it.
Perhaps the most well-known prayer beads are the Roman Catholic rosaries. The term comes from Latin for "rose garden." A rosary consists of a string of 150 beads, divided into groups of 10 prayers. The "Hail Mary" and the "Our Father" primarily are said while fingering each bead.
In many early religions, repeating a prayer was believed to increase its efficacy, Charles Panati writes in "Sacred Origins of Profound Things."
For example, the traveling Knights Templars, founded in 1119 to fight in the Crusades, were required to recite the Lord's Prayer exactly 57 times a day, Mr. Panati writes. On the death of a fellow knight, the number jumped to 100 times a day for a week.
Worshippers first used their fingers, then joints on their fingers, to count the number of prayers offered throughout a day. Next they carried loose stones in their pockets, but eventually they strung together fruit pits, dried berries or fragments of bones of deceased loved ones as memory aids.
"In the Pacific Islands, sharks' teeth were a favorite," Mr. Panati writes. "Wealthy folks strung together precious stones, dazzling trinkets of glass, and gold nuggets."
Legend has it that the Catholic rosary emerged in the 13th century when St. Dominic prayed for a weapon to use against the heresy sweeping through Christianity.
"The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him and gave him the rosary as a weapon," says the Rev. Bartholomew Hutcherson of St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center, which is adjacent to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Members of the Dominican religious order still wear a rosary on the left side of their belts, "the same place a knight would wear a sword," the priest says.
But that's romantic history; the real story is more complicated.
Prayer beads probably came into Christianity from Islam in the Middle Ages, he says.
At that time, few people not even most monks could read, so the church had to find other means of helping people remember scripture stories.
The Dominicans developed 15 themes and stories from the lives of Jesus and Mary. They divided these stories into groups of five, which they called the "joyful mysteries" of his birth and childhood, the "sorrowful mysteries" of his trial and crucifixion and the "glorious mysteries" of his resurrection and ascension into heaven. That helped pattern the rosary.
"It's a whole program of spirituality, not just a repetitive prayer," Father Hutcherson says. "The repetitiveness is something to occupy our mouths while our minds and our hearts meditate on the mysteries of Christ so we can imitate him."
He says the use of rosaries began to decline in the 1960s, a trend that continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s. But in recent years, young Catholics have begun to rediscover this devotional tradition, he says.
In 1998, Father Hutcherson conducted a retreat for college students that focused on the mysteries of the rosary.
"The students really got into it," he says. "They made their own rosaries and organized rosary prayer groups."
During his recent visit to Utah, the Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists, could be seen regularly stroking the orange beads encircling his left wrist.
The string of 108 beads is so large the Dalai Lama had to wind it several times around his wrist.

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