Ask Ali: The significance of Emirati prayer beads

Gulf men are proud to own a high-quality subha and the handmade stone beads increase their owner’s prestige.

Dear Ali: I visited the UAE recently and noticed that men hold “masbaha” with them at all times, but not as much as the men in Qatar, where I’m based. What is the significance? Are they handled by Arab men only and what’s with the twisting movement? NB, Qatar

Dear NB: It’s fascinating to notice cultural similarities in the Gulf while also having our differences. The “masbaha” that you refer to are the prayer beads known in Arabic as “subha”. They have been part of Islamic tradition for centuries.

The beads originated in India during the second century of Islam and so did not exist during the time of the Prophet Mohammed or his caliphs. The subha is used to keep track of the number of times that we invoke certain phrases such as “Subhan Allah” (Glory to God), “Alhamdulillah” (Praise God) and “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).

As narrated in the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, we believe that we will be rewarded for reciting these phrases a certain number of times following every prayer.

Today, some people view the beads as more of a fashion accessory. What might surprise you is that it’s usually men who like to show off their beautiful, expensive beads.

Gulf men are proud to own a high-quality subha and the handmade stone beads increase their owner’s prestige. At present, there are few high-quality subha craftsmen across the Arab world, so it’s a great gift idea. The subha represents a person’s gratitude or regard for another and is cherished by all Arabs if received as a gift.

Do Qatari or Emirati men wear them more? It varies from person to person. Some people come from a culture where it’s OK to show them in public and twist the beads in front of others; others have the opposite culture, where they don’t appreciate showing it in public, so they use them for a religious purpose mainly, not fashion.

Not only men use the beads, but also women, mainly for religious purposes.

Dear Ali: As a western lady living in the UAE, I do my best to show respect at all times. I always cover my shoulders and never wear skirts above the knee. Does dressing conservatively command respect from Emiratis? HT, Abu Dhabi

Dear HT: It’s refreshing to hear from an expat about such an issue, because it sometimes seems that people don’t really care that this is an Islamic nation. Emirati families, no matter how open-minded they are, will continue to raise their children to cover up in accordance with Islamic values. However, our country is growing faster than our minds; our culture is facing a big challenge to cope with this growth.

I don’t think many Emiratis feel that it’s appropriate to tell expats to dress modestly. We don’t think it’s polite; it embarrasses people who are guests in our country. It’s a very complicated situation.

The UAE is a very open country and even allows short skirts and bare shoulders inside hotel bars and nightclubs and on beaches. But the minute that someone steps outside the hotel doors, they are in public and it’s always advisable to cover their shoulders with a scarf or change into something more modest. The word “awrah” means the sensitive parts of a man’s or woman’s body which God advised us to make sure that we cover. Devoted Muslims definitely consider anything above the ankle or below the neck is awrah, as well as uncovered hair.

We appreciate women who attempt to cover up, even if they don’t cover up as much as we do. It isn’t just expats who are flaunting the dress code: Emirati ladies are starting to show less concern for the abaya in malls. The idea behind the abaya is to show modesty so that a woman can go about her day without being harassed.

Modest dress is one of the easiest ways to command our respect.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50.

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