Worshippers of many different religious use beads on a string to count prayers: Catholic Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, and Baháʼís.
Prayer beads are a handy way to keep track of how many prayers you’ve said: simply hold a bead, say the prayer, then move to the next bead in the chain. But you can tell a lot about a religious person by the number of beads on their string.
The Catholic rosary typically has 59 beads and a crucifix. It counts prayers of course and helps to meditate on a set of episodes in the life of Christ, poetically called the Mysteries: the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Glorious Mysteries, and – since 2002 – the Luminous Mysteries.
The misbaḥah or tasbīḥ of Islam typically has 99 beads counting three sets of 33 prayers (including the classic “Allāhu akbar”). The Baháʼí must say the same prayer 95 times each day, so that’s the number of beads on their string.
Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and Sikh prayer beads – called mala or japamala – all have the same number: 108. Sometimes a large “mother” bead is added to bring the total to 109. The number 108 carries significance in all these religions: in Hinduism, for example, Shiva has 108 servants. There are 108 sacred texts (“Kangyur”) in Tibetan Buddhism; the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra of Chan and Zen Buddhism features 108 questions asked of the Buddha. (Incidentally, you see the number 108 in a lot of martial arts as well. This is not a coincidence.)
The origins of prayer beads are lost to history: there’s archaeological evidence going back to the ancient Greeks and early Hindu worshippers. But the connection between beads and prayer is pretty ingrained: the word bead itself comes from the Old English word gebed, meaning “prayer.”