`Abdullah ibn `Umar, a learned Companion of the Prophet, reported that “Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to stay in the mosque during the last ten days of Ramadan.” (Al-Bukhari)
The month of Ramadan is a special season of worship. If one attends to one’s worship with dedication and sincerity, one is certain to end the month having earned forgiveness of all one’s past misdeeds. The reward Allah gives for fasting in the month of Ramadan is greater than we can imagine because fasting is an act of worship that admits of no hypocrisy. It is not possible for any person to fast in order to deceive others. This is due to the fact that boasting about fasting is forbidden. Hence, one cannot publicize the fact that one is fasting. If one does not mention it, then other people have no way of knowing it because fasting is worship by abstention, rather than by a positive action.
Moreover, the Prophet taught us to spend part of the nights of Ramadan in worship, standing up to offer the special Prayer known as Tarawih. This means that in Ramadan we fast during the day in fulfillment of an obligatory type of worship and we stand up in Prayer as a recommended act of worship. Moreover, there is Laylat Al-Qadr (the Night of Decree), which falls in the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. It is a night that is worth more than one thousand months. If one happens to spend that night in worship, one is certain to have all one’s prayers answered and all one’s sins forgiven.
The night of Decree is the pinnacle of this season of worship. It takes place in the last ten days of the month when a Muslim’s devotion is brought to its climax. One way of doing this is to stay in a mosque, following the Sunnah of the Prophet. That sunnah is known as i`tikaf, which means, linguistically speaking, to commit oneself to doing something to the exclusion of everything else. In a religious context, it means to stay in a mosque for worship. Reference to it is made in the Qur’an in Al-Baqarah 2:187. All scholars agree that it is a sunnah, following the practice of the Prophet. `Abdullah ibn `Umar, a learned Companion of the Prophet, reported that “Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to stay in the mosque during the last ten days of Ramadan” (Al-Bukhari).
`A’ishah, the Prophet’s wife (may Allah be pleased with her), also reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to stay in the mosque for the last ten days of Ramadan until he passed away, and his wives used to do the same afterward (Al-Bukhari). From these hadiths, we deduce that the i`tikaf, or staying in the mosque for worship, is recommended to both men and women, especially during the last ten days of Ramadan. Most scholars agree that i`tikaf should be in a mosque, although the Hanafi school of thought makes it possible for a woman to practice this sunnah in the place where she normally prays in her home.
When a person embarks on this sunnah, it is permissible for him to pay a visit to his family at home to attend to their needs. He does this during the day and then comes back to resume his stay in the mosque. It is also permissible for his family to visit him in the mosque. It so happened that when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was in the midst of his stay in the mosque his wives visited him. When they left, he asked Safiyah, his wife, to stay a little longer, perhaps because she arrived later than the others and he wanted her to stay an equal length of time. He accompanied her to her home, which was, like the homes of his other wives, just next to the mosque.
It is also permissible for a person who is in the middle of his stay in a mosque for worship to have his head washed and his hair combed. `A’ishah reported that Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to put his head through the door while the rest of his body was inside the mosque, and she used to clean and comb his head. This report is a clear indication of what to observe during i`tikaf. We understand that if one puts one’s head out of the mosque, say, through the window, while one’s feet and the rest of one’s body are inside, then one has not violated the rules of i`tikaf. Another version of this hadith, also related on the authority of `A’ishah, quotes her as adding that she could be in her period when she washed the Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) head. It is important to know these details, since it is forbidden to have sexual intercourse while one is observing this sunnah. The instruction prohibiting that is given in the aforementioned verse in the Qur’an. This prohibition was specified because any of the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) who went home for a brief period during their i`tikaf to attend to their families’ needs might have had intercourse with their wives before returning to the mosque. This was expressly forbidden by this Qur’anic statement. That, however, does not include having a normal relationship with one’s wife during i`tikaf. One may go home to inquire if one’s family needs anything. During this brief visit, one’s wife may attend to one’s own needs, such as combing one’s hair.
A person who stays in a mosque in order to follow the Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) example, may have some sleep before waking up to spend the rest of his night in worship, reciting the Qur’an or praying.
It is needless to say that i`tikaf is not easy for everyone to observe. People have to attend to their needs and continue their work. It is possible to limit one’s i`tikaf to one night, or even a portion of one night. According to scholars, one may make one’s stay in a mosque a stay of i`tikaf at any time if one dedicates the time to worship and intends the stay for such dedication. It is needless to say that i`tikaf is highly rewarded by Allah, as every action therein involves dedication.
* Excerpted, with kind permission, and with some modifications from: http://www.islamicvoice.com/january.99/hadith.htm
** Adil Salahi is the Religious Page Editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News.