Ramadan for most people is a festive time. I remember when my brother used to plead with my parents to spend the night at the local mosque, where his friends were observing Itikaf. Together they had plans to enjoy themselves – away from the watchful eye of their parents. Being children, they can be forgiven for taking Itikaf as a time to have fun. However, it is distressing to find adults observing Itikaf and yet not realizing the seriousness of the Ibadah. Moreover, many people have simply given up this Sunnah. Through this article, we hope to encourage Muslims to observe Itikaf and to clarify some of the misconceptions, which might be preventing them from observing this Sunnah.
Itikaf in the Quran and Ahadeeth
Itikaf means staying in the mosque to worship Allah (swt). It has been prescribed by Allah (swt) in the Quran and is a Sunnah of the Prophet (sa). In the Quran, Allah (swt) says: “…and We commanded Ibrahim (Abraham) and Ismail (Ishmael) that they should purify My House (the Kabah at Makkah) for those who are circumambulating it, or staying (Itikaf), or bowing or prostrating themselves (there, in prayer).” (Al-Baqarah 2:125)
There are many Ahadeeth, which tell us that the Prophet (sa) observed Itikaf. According to a Hadeeth of Aisha (rta), the Prophet (sa) used to observe Itikaf during the last ten days of Ramadan, until Allah (swt) took his soul. His wives observed Itikaf after he was gone. (Bukhari and Muslim)
What is the purpose of Itikaf?
One of the greatest aims of this form of worship is to seek the Night of Power (Laylat ul-Qadr), which is one of the odd-numbered nights in the last ten nights of Ramadan. It is also a time for conversing with Allah (swt) by offering Salah, reading the Quran and engaging in Dhikr.
When can we observe Itikaf?
The best time to observe it is during the last ten days of Ramadan. We know from the Hadeeth of Abu Hurairah (rta) that the Messenger of Allah (sa) used to observe Itikaf for the last ten days every Ramadan, and in the year, in which he passed away, he observed Itikaf for twenty days. (Bukhari) However, it is also proven that the Prophet (sa) observed it during ten days of Shawwal (Bukhari). Therefore, one can observe it at any time of the year. Being in a state of fast is also not a condition for observing Itikaf.
Length of Itikaf
There are differences among scholars regarding the minimum length of Itikaf, ranging from a moment to one day. We can find the grounds for this in a Hadeeth of the Prophet (sa), where he allowed Umar (rta) to observe Itikaf for one night in Masjid Al-Haram, in order to fulfil a vow. (Bukhari)
The maximum number of days that the Prophet (sa) observed Itikaf was thirty. We know this from a Hadeeth narrated by Abu Saeed Al-Khudri (rta): The Messenger of Allah (sa) observed Itikaf during the first ten days of Ramadan, then he observed Itikaf during the middle ten days in a small tent, at the door of which was a reed mat. He took the mat in his hand and lifted it. Then he put his head out and spoke to the people, and they came close to him. He(sa) said: “I observed Itikaf during the first ten days seeking this night, then I observed Itikaf during the middle ten days. Then someone came and said to me that it is in the last ten days, so whoever among you wishes to observe Itikaf, let him do so.” (Muslim)
Where do we stay for Itikaf?
According to the scholars, Itikaf is only valid if observed in a mosque, where congregational prayers are held, because Allah (swt) said: “And do not have sexual relations with them (your wives) while you are in Itikaf (i.e., confining oneself in a mosque for prayers and invocations leaving the worldly activities) in the mosques.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:187). Being in a mosque cuts off a person from worldly activities and allows him to focus on worship.
Women must also observe Itikaf in the mosque. However, it is not necessary that congregational prayers be held there, for it is not obligatory upon women to offer prayers in congregation. According to Shaikh Muhammad Ibn Saalih Al-Uthaymeen, a woman may observe Itikaf so long as there is no fear of Fitnah (temptation), such as happens in Masjid Al-Haraam because there is no separate place for women there.
Taking breaks during Itikaf
According to Aisha (rta), “The Sunnah is for the Mutakif not to visit any sick person, or attend any funeral, or touch his wife or be intimate with her, or to go out for any purpose, except those which cannot be avoided.” (Abu Dawood) Ibn Qudamah says that for everything that he cannot do without and cannot do in the mosque, the Mutakif may go out. This does not invalidate his Itikaf, as long as he does not take a long time to do it. He is, therefore, allowed to leave the mosque for food and drink, and to relieve himself.
How do women perform Itikaf?
Women will perform Itikaf in the same manner as men. However, married women need to seek permission from their husbands to perform Itikaf. We know that Aisha (rta) asked Prophet (sa) for permission to observe Itikaf and he gave her permission; then Hafsa (rta) asked Aisha (rta) to ask for permission for her and she did so. (Bukhari)
Itikaf: a forsaken Sunnah
It is sad to note that in this day and age, many Muslims have forsaken this Sunnah. It seems that we find it very difficult to cut ourselves off from the world even for a short time. It is time we ponder on our keenness for Paradise and reassess our faith.