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Linguistically the word i’tikāf refers to being engaged with something with persistence and not paying attention to anything else. It can also refer to fixing something to a place such that it remains tied to that space.
Islamically Ibn Taymiyyah said it is: ‘to confine oneself to a masjid for the purpose of worshipping Allāh inside it’.
Objectives of I’tikāf
- Confining the heart to worship and devotion of the Divine.
Though one is physically confining themselves to a masjid in reality it is his heart that he hopes to confine to worship and bring into devotion of the Divine.
- Seeking out Laylatul Qadr
- Experiencing a close intimacy with Allāh, Exalted is He.
The I’tikāf is a type of spiritual retreat which allows the person to experience isolation from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and socialising with other people in order to gain a closeness with Allāh, Exalted is He.
- Nurturing the mind, body and soul into doing more acts of worship with greater quality such as reciting & reflecting on the Qur’ān, remembering and praising Allāh, and supplicating to Him.
Religious Status in Islam
According to all four Imāms observing i’tikāf is a Sunnah for both men and women, i.e., encouraged. Some scholars have cited a consensus on this point.
This status of I’tikāf is indicated by the fact the Prophet SAW himself performed it. Abu Sa’īd al-Khudri said: the Messenger of Allah SAW observed i’tikāf in the first ten days of Ramaḍān; he then observed i’tikāf in the middle ten days staying inside a Turkish tent with a mat hanging at its door. He took hold of that mat and placed it in the nook of the tent. He then put his head out and talked with people and they came near him, and he said: I observed I’tikāf in the first ten in order to seek that night (i.e., Laylatul Qadr). I then observed i’tikāf in the middle ten days. Then (an angel) was sent to me and I was told that this night is among the last ten. Whoever amongst you desires to observe I’tikāf should do so; and the people observed it along with him.
The fact that the Prophet SAW said: ‘Whoever amongst you desires to observe i’tikāf should do so’, indicates that though its observance is requested from the Believers it is not binding upon them but simply encouraged.
Women are also encouraged to observe I’tikāf as ‘Āisha RA reports that: ‘The Prophet SAW performed I’tikāf and some of his wives were also observing it’.
Prerequisites to I’tikāf
In order for a Muslim of sound mind to have an I’tikāf religiously acceptable the following criteria must be adhered to:
- They must actively intend to observe I’tikāf. A child of very young age (ghayra mumayyiz) would therefore not legally be classed as having observed I’tikāf, nor would a senile person.
- A married woman would require the express permission of her husband. The four Imāms are in agreement on this point.
- It must be observed inside an actual mosque as Allāh, Exalted is He, said when speaking of I’tikāf: ‘But do not have sexual intercourse with them while you are in retreat in the mosques’. Had it been acceptable to observe it in other than a mosque the prohibition of intercourse would not have been specified to it. That is to say that the address prohibiting intercourse was made with a specific mentioning of mosques indicating the mosques are the only place one can observe I’tikāf. ‘Āisha RA relates that whilst the Prophet SAW was observing I’tikāf he would lean over and peer into my apartment (which was adjacent to the mosque) so I could comb his blessed hair. A consensus has been reported on this point by Ibn ‘Abdil Bar, Ibn Qudāmah, al-Qurṭubi and Ibn Taymiyyah.
- According to all four Imāms the I’tikāf must be started whilst in a state of purity free from impurities that require Ghusl such as janābah, menstruation or postnatal bleeding. However, it is not a requirement for a person to keep their wudūt hroughout the I’tikāf, renewing it every time it breaks. Ibn Taymiyyah reports a consensus on this second point.
The Time of I’tikāf
It is permissible to observe I’tikāf at anytime throughout the year -even if one is not fasting– though it is especially encouraged to observe it during Ramaḍān. The statement of ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Umar RA indicates that observing it for ten whole days during the last ten days of Ramaḍān is recommended.
‘Abdullāh b. Umar reports that: ‘Allah’s Messenger SAW used to observe I’tikāf in the last ten days of the month of Ramaḍān.’
All four Imāms are in agreement as to the when a person should start observing the I’tikāf during the last ten days of Ramaḍān. It should be started before the sun sets on the twentieth day of Ramaḍān. As the night precedes the day in the Islamic calendar the first night in I’tikāf would be twenty-first night; the first odd night of the last ten.
This is understood from the narration of ‘Āisha RA when she said that: ‘the Prophet SAW would observe I’tikāf in the last ten (‘ashr) of Ramaḍān until Allāh took away his soul, thereafter his wives would observe it’.The inference of start timing being from just before sunset of the twenty-first night is based on the wording of “ten”which was said in the feminine form denoting the feminine word night (layl) as oppose to day (nahār). This is how the Qur’ān refers to the night too when it says: ‘and ten (‘ashr) nights’.
All four Imāms are in agreement as to when a person should end observing I’tikāf during the last ten days of Ramaḍān. It should be ended after the sun has set on the last day of Ramaḍān such that the next day is considered the 1st of Shawwāl.
Actions to Avoid
- Leaving the mosque without a valid excuse, or not in the case of an emergency (ḍarūra), or not to perform a good deed that is either required or even encouraged would nullify the I’tikāf. There is a consensus cited by Ibn Ḥazm on this point which was notably not contested by Ibn Taymiyyah. According to all four Imāms a person may peer out of the mosque window or door without that affecting his I’tikāf. This is because some of the body is still inside the mosque.
- The scholars are also in agreement that one may leave the mosque to fulfil a need be that religious or worldly such as to make wuḍūor to use an outside toilet.
- Intercourse with ones spouse that causes ejaculation would invalidate the I’tikāf. In fact a person observing I’tikāf is not even allowed to kiss and be intimate with his spouse. Experiencing a wet dream would not in validate the I’tikāf. According to all four Imāms, such a person would need to perform Ghusl and continue observing the I’tikāf.
- Though it is totally unacceptable for a person observing I’tikāf to intentionally sin and disobey Allāh, if he happened to sin and disobey, it would not invalidate his I’tikāf even it was a major sin such as backbiting.
- According the Shafi’ees, Ḥanbalis, and a view within the Ḥanafi school, if a person happens to nullify his or her I’tikāf they are encouraged to make it up later on during the year.
How to Cope
When Ramaḍān entered al-Zuhri used to say: ‘This month is for the recitation of the Qur’ān’. I’tikāf is a great time to foster a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the Qur’ān. In order to maximise the time spent in reading one can read it with different motives to make things more dynamic and to avoid a ‘burn out’.
Below a suggested daily routine spanning from after Fajr until Maghrib. A variety of virtuous activities have been included to help ensure one stays motivated, focused and benefiting from the I’tikāf experience.
Fewer than 10 days?
It is better for a Muslim to observe I’tikāf during all of the last ten days, following the example of the Prophet SAW. Al-Bukhaari and Muslim narrated from ‘Aa’ishah RA that the Prophet SAW used to spend the last ten days of Ramaḍān in I’tikāf, until he passed away.
If he cannot spend all of the last ten days in I’tikāf, and he limits himself to some of the days or nights, there is nothing wrong with that. Al-Bukhaari narrated that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab RA vowed to spend one night in I’tikāf in al-Masjid al-Harām, and the Prophet SAW told him to fulfil his vow. This indicates that it is valid to observe I’tikāf for even one night.
And Allāh knows best.
Notes: To download this PDF click here
 See Lisān al-‘Arab by Ibn Munthir & al-Miṣbāḥal-Munīr by al-Fayyūmi
 See Kitāb al-Ṣiyām min Sharḥal-‘Umdah by Ibn Taymiyyah.
 See al-Majmū’by al-Nawawi
 Saḥiḥ Muslim, 1167.
 Saḥiḥ al-Bukhari, 309.
 Q. al-Baqarah, v:187.
 Saḥiḥ al-Bukhari, 2029 & Saḥiḥ Muslim 297.
 See Majmū’ al-Fatāwā 26/123 by Ibn Taymiyyah.
 There is also a consensus cited by Ibn ‘Abdil al-Barr that one can observe I’tikāf outside of Ramaḍān as well.
 The validity of observing I’tikāf outside of Ramaḍān without fasting is a view attributed to a party of the Early Muslims (salaf), an opinion within the Shāfi’ee school, the well-known opinion of the Hanbalis,, and more recently the view attributed to both Ibn Bāz and Ibn ‘Uthaymīn..
 Saḥiḥal-Bukhari, 242.
 Ibn al-Munthir, al-Qayyim, and more recently Ibn Bāz were of the view that it begins later on after the fajr.
 Saḥiḥal-Bukhari, 2026
 Q. al-Fajr, v:3.
 See Marātib al-Ijmā’by Ibn Ḥazm, pg 41.
 Consensus cited by Ibn al-Munthir, al-Māwardī, Ibn Qudāmah, and al-Nawawi.