A Ramadan primer on the ritual retreat of I’tikaaf

A Ramadan primer on the ritual retreat of I’tikaaf
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In Islam, I’tikaaf refers to a form of worship in which one stays in a Mosque as a way of getting closer to Allah. The word 'I‘tikaaf’ comes from the Arabic root ‘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 prayers to revive the spirit. That is why Islam provides its followers with I`tikaaf, the option of surrendering themselves totally to Allah and distancing themselves as much as possible from all worldly concerns, for a time.
The goal of I`tikaaf is for one to remain in the Mosque and busy him or herself in prayer, contemplation, reciting Quran, attending lessons, and such.
I‘tikaaf is not obligatory in Islam. Rather, it is a prescribed form of worship that is strongly recommended in Ramadan, and especially in its blessed last 10 days. In fact, the recommendation of I`tikaaf in the last 10 days of Ramadan seeking out the Night of 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  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ) making I`tikaaf for exactly this duration.
The four integrals of I'tikaaf
I‘tikaaf contains four essential elements:
1.     The one who is performing it.
2.     The intention to perform it.
3.     The place in which it is performed.
4.     The act itself (of remaining in the Mosque for a period of time).
The first integral: the one performing I'tikaaf
As for the one performing I`tikaaf he must fulfill three conditions:
1.     He must be a Muslim.
2.     He must be of sound mind.
(This condition rules out the performance of I`tikaaf 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`tikaaf. Rather, it means that the act of remaining in the Mosque is not considered an act of worship from them. (Similarly, were they to do something wrong therein, they would bear no sin).
3.     He must not be in a state of major ritual impurity (Janaabah)
(Janaabah 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 post-birth bleeding can make I`tikaaf, since it is forbidden for them to remain in the Mosque 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`tikaaf since it is likewise forbidden for them to remain in the Mosque in that state.
There is no disagreement that the I`tikaaf of an unmarried woman is valid. If she is married, she must have the permission of her husband to validate it.
The second integral: the intention to perform I’tikaaf
As for intention, as with all worship, one must deliberately make it. If the one performing I`tikaaf leaves the Mosque, his I`tikaaf has ended. If he returns to make I`tikaaf again, he must renew his intention.
The third integral: the place of I’tikaaf
As for the place of I`tikaaf there is consensus among the scholars that if a man performs it anywhere other than the Mosque 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  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ) never made I’tikaaf anywhere other than the Mosque.
They also agreed that I`tikaaf in the three sacred Mosques (the Haram of Makkah, then the Mosque of the Prophet in Madeenah, then Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem) is better (in that respective order) than I'tikaaf elsewhere, and that, similarly, I'tikaaf in a “central” Mosque is preferred to I'tikaaf in a “peripheral,” that is, “local” Mosque.
The scholars differed as to whether or not a woman can make I`tikaaf in the prayer area (musalla) of her house. The majority is of the opinion that her I'tikaaf in the prayer area of her house is not valid owing to what Al-Bayhaqi reported about Ibn ‘Abbasa, may Allah be pleased with him, in his book As-Sunnan Al-Kubra (4:316), wherein he records him as stating: “It is an innovation (Bid'ah) for a woman to make I'tikaaf 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'tikaaf in the Mosque.
The fourth integral: the period of remaining in I’tikaaf
As for staying in the Mosque for a period of time, it is the most essential integral that constitutes the worship of I`tikaaf.
The opinion of the majority is that intending to spend any amount of time in the Mosque—even less than an hour can be considered I`tikaaf.
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 Mosque because the Prophet  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ) was never reported to have made I`tikaaf for less than that interval.
It is preferable for one, as well, to fast while making I'tikaaf.
Things that invalidate or end I’tikaaf
1.     Sexual union
The proof for this is verse 2:187 whose relevant meaning is “...And do not have relations with them as long as you are staying for worship in the Mosques....” The preferred opinion is intimate contact that leads to sexual union, such as kissing and touching, also invalidates the I'tikaaf.
2.     Leaving the Mosque
Leaving the Mosque unnecessarily also ends I`tikaaf, 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 Mosque to shower, eat, be treated for an illness, and the like, it does not end the I`tikaaf.
3.     Intoxication
Whether by means of alcohol, drugs, or other substances, intoxication ends the I`tikaaf.
4.     Leaving Islam
This invalidates the I'tikaaf.
5.     The commencement of menstruation or Post-Birth Bleeding
This ends the I'tikaaf.
Things that are undesirable while in I’tikaaf
1.     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.
2. To speak needlessly or delve into argumentation and conversation for entertainment.
3. 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'tikaaf. 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  sallallaahu  `alayhi  wa  sallam ( may  Allah exalt his mention ) was never reported to have engaged in such discourse in I'tikaaf.
4.     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'tikaaf is for one to separate him or herself from the distractions of the world. As such, those who intend the ritual retreat of I'tikaaf 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:
1. To engage in competition with one another by means of I`tikaaf for the sake of family, wealth, and prestige.
2. To shun anxieties associated with harms that may come to one, or benefits that might be withheld, as a result of performing I`tikaaf.
In regard to the remembrance, it is this:
3. To remind yourself incessantly that you are here for worship, and how very soon you shall return to Allah.

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