In Islam, i’tikaf refers to a form of worship in which one stays in a masjid as a way of getting closer to Allah. The word i’tikaf comes from the Arabic root ayn – kaf – fa, represented here in English as -’akafa, which means to adhere to a certain place for one reason or another, or to detain someone or something in a place preventing him or it from going elsewhere
The wisdom behind having a kind of worship like this in Islam is that when one is in the world (especially in the hustle and bustle of today’s societies) there are many distractions that cause one to forget why one is here and where one is going. So sometimes a person needs more than just the five daily salahs to revive the spirit. That is why Islam provides its followers with i’tikaf, the option of surrendering themselves totally to God and distancing themselves as much as possible from all worldly concerns, for a time.
The goal of i’tikaf is for one to remain in the masjid and busy him or herself in salah, contemplation, reciting Qur’an, attending lessons, and such.
I’tikaf is not obligatory in Islam. Rather, it is a prescribed form of worship that is strongly recommended in Ramadhan, and especially in its blessed last 10 days. In fact, the recommendation of i’tikaf in the last 10 days of Ramadhan seeking out Laylatul-Qadr, The Night of Empowering Decree is so emphatic that some scholars deem it a communal sin if no one in the community performs it during these days. There are many authentic reports of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, making i’tikaf for exactly this duration.
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The Four Integrals of I’tikaf
I’tikaf contains four essential elements,
- The one who is performing it.
- The intention to perform it.
- The place in which it is performed.
- The act itself (of remaining in the masjid for a period of time).
The First Integral: The One Performing I’tikaf
As for the one performing i’tikaf, he must fulfill three conditions,
- He must be a Muslim.
- He must be of sound mind. This condition rules out the performance of i’tikaf by the insane, intoxicated, unconscious, or very young children who cannot sufficiently discern crucial things (a child under about five or six years of age). This does not mean that those who fall under these categories are not allowed to make i’tikaf. Rather, it means that the act of remaining in the masjid is not considered an act of worship from them. (Similarly, were they to do something wrong therein, they would bear no sin).
- He must not be in a state of major ritual impurity (janabah). Janabah is a bodily state that requires ghusl, or ritual, whole-body bathing, occasioned by marital relations, sexual emissions, menstruation, and postpartum bleeding.
Hence, neither a menstruating woman nor one in a state of postbirth bleeding can make i’tikaf, since it is forbidden for them to remain in the masjid in that state. Also, a man or woman who has participated in a sexual union or come to orgasm must perform ghusl before making i’tikaf, since it is likewise forbidden for them to remain in the masjid in that state.
There is no disagreement that the i’tikaf of an unmarried woman is valid. If she is married, she must have the permission of her husband to validate it. It is slightly undesirable for a woman to make i’tikaf, especially if she is a woman of beauty and good form.
When a woman makes i’tikaf, it is desirable for her to put a curtain between herself and the men, as the wives of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, used to do. There is also nothing wrong for a man to put up a curtain around where he sleeps and makes salah, if he wants privacy.
The Second Integral: The Intention to Perform I’tikaf
As for intention, as with all worship, one must deliberately make it. If the one performing i’tikaf leaves the masjid, his i’tikaf has ended. If he returns to make i’tikaf again, he must renew his intention.
The Third Integral: The Place of I’tikaf
As for the place of i’tikaf, there is consensus among the scholars that if a man performs it anywhere other than the masjid it is invalid due to verse 2:187, which means in its related part, “for so long as you may be in ritual retreat in the mosques… ,” and due, as well, to the fact that the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, never made i’tikaf anywhere other than the masjid.
They also agreed that i’tikaf in the three sacred masjids (the Haram of Makkah, then the Masjid of the Prophet in Madinah, then Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem) is better (in that respective order) than i’tikaf elsewhere, and that, similarly, i’tikaf in a “central” masjid is preferred to i’tikaf in a “peripheral,” that is, “local” masjid.
The scholars differed as to whether or not a woman can make i’tikaf in the prayer area (musalla) of her house.The majority is of the opinion that her i’tikaf in the prayer area of her house is not valid owing to what al-Bayhaqi reported about Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) in his book Al-Sunnan Al-Kubra (4:316), wherein he records him as stating, “It is an innovation (bid’ah) for a woman to make i’tikaf in the prayer area of her house.”
The Hanafis were of the opinion that this is valid due to the fact that it is slightly undesirable for a woman to make i’tikaf in the masjid.
The Fourth Integral: The Period of Remaining in I’tikaf
As for staying in the masjid for a period of time, it is the most essential integral that constitutes the worship of i’tikaf.
The opinion of the majority is that intending to spend any amount of time in the masjid—even less than an hour—can be considered i’tikaf.
They agreed, however, that it is desirable for the one who wishes to perform this worship to spend at least a day and a night in the masjid because the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, was never reported to have made i’tikaf for less than that interval.
It is preferable for one, as well, to fast while making i’tikaf.
Things that Invalidate or End I’tikaf
- Sexual Union: The proof for this is verse 2:187 whose relevant meaning is “…but do not ever lie with them for so long as you may be in ritual retreat in the masajid…”The preferred opinion is intimate contact that leads to sexual union, such as kissing and touching, also invalidates the i’tikaf.
- Leaving the Masjid: Leaving the masjid unnecessarily also ends i’tikaf, though there is relatively extensive discussion about what is considered necessary. There are no solid lines dividing what is necessary from what is not, but it is for the most part self-evident. Basically, if one leaves the masjid to shower, eat, be treated for an illness, and the like, it does not end the i’tikaf.
- Intoxication: Whether by means of alcohol, drugs, or other substances, intoxication ends the i’tikaf.
- Leaving Islam: This invalidates the i’tikaf.
- The Commencement of Menstruation or Post-Birth Bleeding This ends the i’tikaf.
Things that Are Undesirable While in I’tikaf
- Abstaining from Speech as a Way to Come Closer to Allah. The reason for this is that abstention from speech as a form of worship is not prescribed in Islam. However, there is no harm in refraining from speech if there is a lack of need.
- To Speak Needlessly or Delve into Argumentation and Conversation for Entertainment.
- Busying Oneself with Religious Lessons that Involve Debate. As to this, there is a difference of opinion regarding whether this is desirable or undesirable for the one performing i’tikaf. The evidence of those who contend that it is desirable is that learning about matters of religion is worship, as long as the intention is to benefit others or receive benefit and not to boast. The evidence of those who hold it undesirable is that the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, was never reported to have engaged in such discourse in i’tikaf.
- Wearing Ostentatious Clothing. What is considered “ostentatious” here depends upon what the people of the time and place deem more than ordinary neat and clean attire.
What is most important to know is that the goal of i’tikaf is for one to separate him or herself from the distractions of the world. As such, those who intend the ritual retreat of i’tikaf should rid themselves of two types of corruptions of their intention and of their thoughts during their vigils, and refresh their intentions and refocus their worship often with a third remembrance. As for the first two to avoid, they are as follows,
- To engage in competition with one another by means of i’tikaf for the sake of family, wealth, and prestige.
- To shun anxieties associated with harms that may come to one, or benefits that might be withheld, as a result of performing i’tikaf.
- In regard to the remembrance, it is this: To remind yourself incessantly that you are here for worship, and how very soon you shall return to Allah.