I'tikaf is a practice that goes back to all those who spend time in seclusion to reflect and ponder over their purpose in life and who want to achieve a higher stage of spirituality. Through their contemplation and reflection on the purpose of their existence, many have offered new and unique perspectives to their fellow humans, and many have achieved higher spiritual status. It is a practice that prevails in all cultures and religions. It inspires a human being to withdraw from the regular hustle and bustle of the world, even from his own family, and focuses on issues that he or she deems significant for oneself and society. The length of seclusion depends on the social rhythm of life in each culture and religion.
Islam institutionalized i'tikaf in the month of fasting through the practice of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him.) It is a communal obligation, and it means that if only one person observes it in a locality, it would be regarded as an obligation fulfilled on behalf of all. The fasting was declared obligatory for the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar in the second year of Prophet's migration to Medina or in the fifteenth year of his Prophetic mission. Except for the first year of fasting, the Prophet is reported to have observed i'tikaf as long as he lived. After him, his wives continued performing i'tikaf in the masjid. He spent ten days in the middle of Ramadan in the masjid, but he advised his companions to continue doing i'tikaf in the last ten days. He once observed i'tikaf for 20 days.
I'tikaf is performed by those who are fasting. Both men and women did their i'tikaf during the time of the Prophet. At Prophet's mosque, special arrangements were made for women following this practice of the Prophet.
During the I'tikaf a person doing i'tikaf should spend the night only in the mosque where he/she is doing i'tikaf, except if the tent is in one of the courtyards of the mosque. If the masjid does not have toilet facilities then the person doing i'tikaf can go home to relieve.
The person who wants to have i'tikaf should enter the masjid before sunset with a clear intention. During his stay, his focus should not be his family, business, or work. However, he can delegate others to take care of these matters in his absence. If due to some unavoidable situation one has to abandon the i'tikaf for intended days, he or she has to complete it later. Itikaf is an act of ibada (worship) and it must be performed with full sincerity and intensity. Imam Malik said: "A person doing i'tikaf is not doing i'tikaf until he avoids what someone doing i'tikaf should avoid, namely, visiting the sick, praying over the dead, and entering houses, except to relieve himself."
The best practice is to absorb oneself in prayers and recitation of the Quran, reflecting on its meaning and relevance in one's life. The prophet in addition to doing this would also use the opportunity to reflect on the condition of Muslims and would discuss strategies to improve the quality of spiritual and social life. There are four things that are proven from the practice of the Prophet during i'tikaf:
- Consuming less food
- Sleeping less number of hours
- Lesser engagement in conversation.
- Lesser social interaction.
Instead, he would focus on the following four:
- Quranic recitation of the passages that were revealed until then
- Deeper reflections on the divine guidance of the existence of life
- Quietly helping others observing the i'tikaf.
In fact, i'tikaf is once a lifetime opportunity to focus on one's life and purpose in relation to the creator and His creation.