Come Ramadan and more people pick up their prayer beads as a tool by which they perform the dhikr, or pronouncements in remembrance of Allah as instructed by the Holy Quran.
In the Arab Gulf countries elderly people are often seen with beads. Visitors to Saudi Arabia will never go back home without taking these colourful rosaries, called masbaha or, in India, tasbih, as gifts for close relatives. Especially after Haj and Umrah, prayer beads are hot favourite gifts, second only to cans of Zamzam water.
Masbaha can be simple as well as artistic. The most basic ones are made of plastic and come quite cheap. You can buy a dozen for about 8 Saudi riyals ($3).
The decorative beads are made from ceramics, hardwoods, precious stones, or bones of rare animals, such as rhinoceros. One of the most expensive beads are those made of gemstones while those crafted of ivory or sandalwood are good buys. Prayer beads made of amber or onyx can fetch as much as $1,200 while ivory ones can cost $75 per piece.
If the beads are made from the bones of some animals they are exorbitant. Then there are antique rosaries which are in demand by antique lovers who are ready to shell up to $20,000.
Those who are brand-conscious do not mind owning expensive beads just for the sake of flaunting their social status.
With China producing virtually anything and everything under the sun, prayer beads have not been left out. China has begun mass production of rosaries in recent years, using fake stones and cheap wood or crystal and crafting out pieces whose price range from one Saudi riyal to 40 riyals.
The string that holds the beads together can be made of cotton, silk or simple nylon. In the age of machinery, some Muslims have been known to forego the masbaha and use metal counters.
In Makkah and Madinah, stalls around the two great mosques sell colourful beads.
In Oman too, shops selling rosaries are in plenty.
Akhtar Rasool Buksh Al Balushi offers a variety of prayer beads at his shop, Muscat Turath, in Oman's famous Muttrah souq. Some of the pieces he has on display date back to more than 150 years.
Manufacturers of prayer beads estimate that the Saudi market for masbaha is SR15 million annually, with plenty of room to grow.
The history of using memorisation aides goes back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is established that one of his famous companions, Abu Hurayrah, used a type of masbaha that resembled the one known today. In any case, the widespread use and manufacture of the Muslim rosary began at least six centuries ago.
All said and done, masbaha has become an intrinsic part of Muslim tradition.