I’tikaf means staying in the mosque for a specific purpose, which is to worship Allaah. It is prescribed in Islam and is mustahabb (recommended) according to the consensus of the scholars. Imam Ahmad said, as was narrated from him by Abu Daawood: “I have not heard from any of the scholars that it is anything other than Sunnah.
Az-Zuhri said: “How strange the Muslims are! They have given up I’tikaf, despite the fact that the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, never abandoned this practice from the time he came to Madinah until his death.”
The benefits of I’tikaf
There are many hidden benefits in the acts of worship and much wisdom behind them. The basis of all deeds is the heart, as the Messenger of Allaah, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, said: “In the body there is an organ which if it is sound, the entire body will be sound, and if it is corrupt, the entire body will be corrupt. That organ is the heart.” (Al-Bukhaari and Muslim)
What corrupts the heart most is distractions and preoccupations – such as food, drink, sex, talking too much, sleeping too much and socializing too much, and other distractions – which divert people from turning to Allaah and cause the heart to be unfocused and unable to concentrate on worshipping Allaah. So Allaah has prescribed acts of worship, such as fasting, to protect the heart from the negative effects of these distractions. Fasting deprives a person of food and drink and sex during the day, and this denial of excessive enjoyments is reflected in the heart, which gains more strength for seeking Allaah and frees it from the chains of these distractions which take a person from thinking of the Hereafter by occupying him with worldly concerns.
Just as fasting is a shield which protects the heart from the influences of physical excessive indulgence in food, drink and sex, so I’tikaf offers an immense hidden benefit, which is protection from the effects of excessive socializing. For people may take socializing to extremes, until it has a similar effect on a person to the effects of over-eating.
I’tikaf also offers protection from the evil consequences of talking too much, because a person usually does I’tikaf on his own, turning to Allaah by praying Qiyaam al-Layl, reading Quran, making Dhikr, reciting du’aa, and so on.
It also offers protection from sleeping too much, because when a person makes I’tikaf in the mosque, he devotes his time to drawing closer to Allaah by doing different kinds of acts of worship; he does not stay in the mosque to sleep.
Undoubtedly a person’s success in freeing himself from socializing, talking and sleeping too much will help him to make his heart turn towards Allaah, and will protect him from the opposite.
The connection between fasting and I’tikaf
No doubt when a person has all the means of purifying his heart by keeping away from all the things that can distract him from worship, this will be more effective in helping him to turn towards Allaah with devotion and humility. Hence the Salaf regarded it as mustahabb to combine fasting and I’tikaf. Imam Ibn al-Qayyim said: “It was not reported that the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, ever did I’tikaf when he was not fasting. Indeed, `Aa’ishah, may Allaah be pleased with her, said: `There is no I’tikaf except with fasting.'” (Abu Daawood)
Allaah did not mention I’tikaf except in conjunction with fasting, and the Messenger of Allaah, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, did not do I’tikaf except in conjunction with fasting.
The view that fasting is a condition of I’tikaf was narrated from Ibn `Umar and Ibn `Abbas. It was also the view of Malik, al-Awza’i and Abu Haneefah, and different opinions were narrated from Ahmad and Al-Shaafi’ee.
With regard to the words of Ibn al-Qayyim, “It was not reported that the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, ever did I’tikaf when he was not fasting”, there is some room for debate. It was reported that the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, did I’tikaf in Shawwaal (Al-Bukhaari and Muslim), but it was not proven that he was fasting on these days when he did I’tikaf.
The most correct view is that fasting is mustahabb for the one who does I’tikaf, but it is not a condition of his I’tikaf being valid.