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Some Muslims are using digital rings to count recitations

JERUSALEM — Walking through the courtyard of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on a recent afternoon, Nisreen Biqwaidar wore a pink Apple Watch on her wrist to count her steps and a green ring on her finger to count her religious recitations.

“Every day I say, ‘God is great’ 1,000 times and ‘Glory to God’ 1,000 times,” Nisreen, 13, said recently as she left evening prayers. The ring is superior to prayer beads, he said, because “it’s faster and stays on your hand.”

Throughout the day, each time he recites, he says, he presses a silver button on the ring and his count on the digital monitor increases. At the end of the day, she presses a smaller reset button, clearing the ring for the next day’s memories. She has been using a digital counter since she was 10 years old.

Many Muslims around the world have long used prayer beads for religious recitations and praises. The practice, which is in addition to the five daily prayers that most do, is one way to infuse religious remembrance into your day. Increasingly, Palestinians like Nisreen are turning to digital prayer counters to keep track of their recitations, like a Fitbit for their Allahu akbars, which is Arabic for “God is great.”

Merchants in Jerusalem’s Old City say the counters began appearing there about five or seven years ago, though their exact arrival time is unclear. Interest in them began after Palestinians returning from pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia brought them back. They became an instant hit.

Now, in shops throughout the Old City, long rows of multi-colored prayer beads stand next to a series of prayer counters. Digital meters there tend to range from just over $1 to around $10 and are especially popular during the holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to end on Sunday in most of the region.

Rings and other prayer counters can be found throughout much of the Muslim world. Those who wear them in Jerusalem vary in age, with some saying they wore both rings and beads, but preferred the digital option when away from home.

While many Christians use rosaries in a similar way, shopkeepers in the Old City’s Christian quarter said digital counters had yet to catch on, mainly because Christians are likely to say dozens of Hail Marys or Our Fathers in a day, instead of hundreds or more.

On that recent afternoon, Nisreen had forgotten to put on her prayer ring before leaving her home in Beersheba, southern Israel. But as he made his way through the streets of the Old City, a woman handed out dates and prayer rings. Nisreen took one.

“If I don’t have the ring, I use the prayer beads,” said Nisreen, who often keeps prayer beads in her backpack for backup. “And if I don’t have the prayer beads, I just use my fingers.”

As children, many Muslims are taught to recite religious praises on their hands, using the crooks of their fingers. Some still prefer that, to emulate the prophet Muhammad, who is said to have used his fingers.

Many Muslims still prefer prayer beads, which are often about 100 beads long but can be even longer, and older worshipers often keep their beads constantly on hand.

But it can be difficult to remember the total. Enter the sentence counters.

“If you wanted to say 1,000 praises, it’s hard to keep track,” said Ahmad Natsha, 35, who was working at his friend’s shop on the edge of the Aqsa Mosque compound on a recent day. “Some would buy 10 rosaries and use each one to keep track,” he said, but “it’s much easier with the counter.”

Ibtihal Ahmad, 60, agrees. “There is tranquility,” he said. “I know at the end of the day how many praises I have said.”

Sitting with her back to the Dome of the Rock, she looked at the blue plastic counter on her ring finger, which was next to two nearly equal-sized gold rings. The screen showed that she had already reached 755.

But she said she had many more prayers left that day.

“When people see a high number, they feel a sense of accomplishment,” said 16-year-old Sham Ibrahim, who was sitting next to her.

Ms Ahmad says she gives her young grandchildren prayer rings when they get rowdy and instructs them to recite a prayer 500 times, giving them some time to reflect and herself a quiet moment.

Just as Fitbits and other wearable health trackers inspired competition or bragging for the basic act of walking, prayer counters have fostered a sense of religious competition.

In a religious WhatsApp group she is in, Nadia Mohammad, 60, Sham’s grandmother, said members regularly shared their daily prayer count. One of the oldest members usually posts accounts in the thousands.

“It lifts the rest of us up,” he said last week, holding up traditional prayer beads shortly after evening prayers.

Others post their daily accounts on Facebook.

Adding to the excitement, a new model and design comes out every year or so, Old City dealers said.

The latter looks like a fish and is meant to be cradled in the palm of the hand. A knurled wheel can be turned with the thumb, replicating the sensation of moving a finger across beads.

Although Mr. Natsha worked in a store that sold beads and counters, he criticized what he saw as new methods of worship. He doesn’t use either.

“In our religion, we shouldn’t wear this or that,” he said, gesturing toward the display of prayer beads hanging above prayer ring boxes. “In our religion, we should use only our hands. This is just capitalism.”

For Akram, 66, who declined to give his last name because, like others interviewed, he felt that talking about his daily memory seemed like religious boasting, the counters are more than a daily record of his prayers.

Three years ago, Akram, from the northern city of Acre, said he started maximizing the rings. The display on some of the rings, including yours, can go as high as 99,999 before automatically resetting to zero. Now, every time he hits 99,999, he puts tape over the reset button so his record stays intact. He then puts the ring in a box for safekeeping. He so far he has collected 30.

He has instructed his family to place all the rings around his neck when he dies, a final digital testament to how much he praised God in life.

“With regular prayer beads, you can do it 100 times, but what proof is there that you did it 100 times? There is none,” she said. She gestured toward a box of prayer rings much like the ones he has kept. “This is forever.”