Q. What is the origin of the prayer beads (sibha) in Islam? Is the use of the prayer beads for dhikr a practice within the Prophetic tradition?

Also, the odd number is preferred in many of the Islamic rituals, especially during the recital of dhikr for the ruku and sujuud in prayer (salah). What is the significance of the "odd number" as opposed to the "even number" in Islam?

A. There are ahadith to show that the companions used pebbles to achieve the counts. If this is so, then it seems a logical progression to stringing whatever can pass as pebbles to get the count, which leads to the sibha. In this vein, there is a precedent for the item. Did the Prophet do it? Most likely not, since the joints of the fingers served as well. What is frowned upon by the scholars is not so much the use of the sibha as such, but the lack of attention given to reciting the names of Allah when it is used. Muslims have been observed to be reciting it while listening to a conversation, conducting an interview, etc., doing injustice to both Allah, and the person being addressed or listened to.

On the aspect of odd and even numbers, there seems to be no precedent except superstition. In fact, the Qur'an would point more to the use of even numbers, since Allah has created everything in pairs, and the majority of the prayers are in even numbers. Remember that even though one is classified as an odd number, it is the three that really denotes it in terms of counting, and that bears a strong -- albeit coincidental -- trinitarian suggestiveness. This could have then been focused on for its "oddness" rather than the proper significance. However, this is just a thought with no proof. The bottom line is that there is no shari'ah precedent. Even in the so-called dhikr, the complete count is supposedly one hundred, an even number.

Posted March 7, 1999