On Ritual Retreat (I‘tikaf)

By Amer Haleem

I’tikaf in the Arabic language means to adhere or commit oneself to something. In the Shari‘ah, it marks a particular person taking up residence in the mosque in a specific way for a specified time. We may call this “ritual retreat.”

There is scholarly consensus that ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) as a form of worship is never an obligation in Islam, except for one who makes a vow to do it. Some hold that if a person makes an intention to do ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) for a certain period of time and then begins it, he or she is obligated to fulfill this period as intended. Others say that fasting is a necessary condition of ritual retreat (i‘tikaf). Still, others maintain that one must be ritually pure, through ablution (wudu’) or ritual bathing (ghusl), to make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf).

RITUAL RETREAT IN THE LAST 10 NIGHTS OF RAMADAN IN THE MOSQUE

The concept of ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) comes in association with Ramadan in verse 187 of the Quran’s second sura (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:187), occurring in the course of the verses (2:183-187) that enjoin fasting and the Ramadan fast in particular.

We know certainly that the Prophet, on him be peace, used to make ritual retreat in Ramadan. In three consecutive reports on the Prophet, on him be peace, recorded in the most authoritative collection (that of the scholar known as Bukhari) reporting the prophetic statements, acts, and approvals (known as hadith), the Prophet’s practice of ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) is unmistakably established.

The Companion Abdullah ibn ‘Umar said: “The Messenger of God, on him be peace, used to make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) in the last 10 days of Ramadan” (Bukhari, no. 2025).

Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, on him be peace, said: “The Prophet used to make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) for the last 10 nights of Ramadan until he passed away. And his wives continued to make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) [for the last 10 nights] after him (Bukhari, no. 2026).

The Companion Abu Sa‘id Al-Khudri said:

The Messenger of God, on him be peace, used to make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) in the middle 10 days of Ramadan. One year, he made ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) and came to the 21st night, which, ordinarily then, used to be the last night of his ritual retreat (i‘tikaf), whereafter he would leave his ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) the next morning.

Then the Messenger of God said: “Anyone who has made ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) with me [for the middle 10 nights], then let him [continue and] make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) with me for the last 10 nights. For, indeed, I have been shown that Night [Laylat Al-Qadr] – then [the knowledge of its night of occurrence was taken from me, and] I was made to forget it.

“Yet, truly, I saw in a dream that I was making prostration [sujud, bowing the forehead to the ground in prayer] in the mud the morning after Laylat Al-Qadr. So seek it out in the last 10 nights. And seek it out on every odd night.”

Then the sky rained that night. The mosque had a thatched roof, so the roof leaked. Then with my own two eyes I saw the Messenger of God, on him be peace, with traces of mud on his forehead the morning of the 21st (Bukhari, no. 2027).

THE MEANING OF RITUAL RETREAT 

Bukhari mentions ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) in “all the mosques,” meaning that ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) as an act of worship must be performed in a mosque. It does not count anywhere else as an act of worship.

Ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) means “abiding or residing in a mosque for any length of time with the intention of restricting oneself to the mosque and leaving behind unessential worldly concerns and activities related to family and work.” It can take place in any month for any length of time, not only in Ramadan or in its last 10 days.

Ritual retreat embodies devoting oneself to the worship of God. So one’s abiding or residence in ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) in a mosque – simply being there with that intention – is itself a continuous act worship whenever one undertakes it as such. I‘tikaf is the acceptable and true form of ritual retreat and seclusion, as opposed to the forms of monasticism other communities have established. God says in the Quran: “But as for the tradition of monasticism – they themselves invented it. Never did We prescribe it for them, but only that they seek the pleasure of God” (Surat Al-Hadid, 57:27).

Islam does not envision a society in which some commit wholly to worldly gain while others devote themselves solely to spiritual exercise. It seeks to build a community of believers who allot a portion of life to worldly pursuits and a part to sanctuary from the world. Balance between the life of the world and religious devotion makes retreat, if not incumbent, then strongly recommended sometimes, permissible at others, and forbidden in any extreme practice.

Ritual retreat’s middle allocation of temporary permissibility allows us to tailor it to our varied personal circumstances, and to depressurize from the struggle for livelihood and the harried nature of communal living, which God Himself created in our physical lives. Retreat satisfies the need in us to reaffirm connection with the sacred – whether our distance or even disconnection from the Divine comes from a world too much with us in its abundance or demand; or we feel overcome by our own indulgence in the life of the world; or we face excessive hardship and abuse from society and those around us. Yet there can be no doubt that from time to time, whoever we are and whatever our condition, we need to disentangle from the material and temporal in order to cure our hearts and seek closeness to God, from whom we can drift or, may He forgive us, neglect.

So the Quran lays down the requirement that we take up residence in a mosque to reestablish spiritual connection, accepting no other location for ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) as an act of continuous worship, on one hand, and forbidding this form of devotion in any other place, on the other.

RITUAL RETREAT AND ITS DEFINING LIMITATION

The proof that the mosques of God are the exclusive province for ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) occurs in the verse cited previously that establishes it as a laudable Ramadan practice, first in the affirmation of its place – in the mosques of God – and then in the negation of even lawful sexual relations: But do not ever lie with them for so long as you may be in ritual retreat in the mosques of God (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:187), meaning one’s wife (and by extension a woman’s husband). Sexual activity categorically contradicts ritual worship, which is the defining purpose of the mosque. The word to focus on here is “ritual” worship, like the Salah-prayer and in the sanctified purity (ihram) of Hajj.

The revealed context for this restriction is the permission God grants fasters in the same verse – after they had succumbed to sleep during the nights of the Ramadan fast – to (1) have relations with their wives on a Ramadan fasting night, and (2) to eat if they awoke in the night. These were previously forbidden acts when the fast of Ramadan was first enjoined.

Permitted for you believers on the night of the fast is intimate approach to your wives. They are a garment for you. And you are a garment for them. God knows that before granting this permission, you used to betray yourselves. Thus, He has granted you repentance for what is past and pardoned you. So now you may lie with them and seek whatever offspring God has decreed for you. Moreover, you may now eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes clear to you, as distinguished from the black thread of night. Then complete the fast until the night.

The restriction of sexual intercourse during ritual retreat (i‘tikaf), however, remains intact in the same verse:

But do not ever lie with them for so long as you may be in ritual retreat in the mosques of God. These are the ordained limits of God. Therefore, do not approach them. Thus does God make clear His revealed signs to all people, that they may be ever God-fearing.

First, sexual relations in mosques are forbidden in general, which is a consensus position (ijma‘), making it very strong (and an expiation in charity must be made if one violates this rule). The revealed restriction here shows that ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) implies its occurrence in the mosque as such, as sexual relations during it are explicitly prohibited. Were ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) allowed elsewhere, God would have necessarily forbidden sexual intercourse wherever ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) was allowed, which is nowhere the case. In this way, the verse’s restriction of ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) to the mosques is established.

Taking to the wild, open pasturelands, mountaintops, caves, and the like for seclusion as a retreat from society’s excessive harms can be restorative, and this verse is not restricting this; but it is not the worship of ritual retreat as Islam permits and exhorts it, even though one may experience a sense of spiritual revival from one’s worship in such places.

THE OCCASION OF REVELATION

Al-Tabari (d. 923ce) and others state the occasion for this verse’s revelation on the authority of the Companion Qatadah ibn Nu‘man. He says the Companions of the Prophet, on him be peace, previously made ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) and left the mosque for their needs as necessary. If they met up with their wives during their necessary outings from the mosque, they would engage in sexual intercourse and then return to their ritual retreat (i‘tikaf). So God revealed this verse to set ritual retreat’s limits.

We take from this, first, that when one enters into ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) leaving the mosques for necessity does not break one’s retreat. One remains in retreat. Necessities can be work or bringing food to one’s family, or the like, if there is no one else to do it. A person may exit the mosque for the time it takes to do a deed of necessity and return. As long as one’s departure is as short as possible, leaving the mosque does not break one’s act of ritual retreat (i‘tikaf). So a man who vows a three-day-and-night retreat who leaves the mosque for a need breaks neither his retreat nor vow.

If that same man has relations with his wife after leaving the mosque for a need, he breaks his ritual retreat (i‘tikaf), for that act removes one from the ritual state. Islam places no shame nor demeans the character of one who partakes of lawful sexual intercourse. Indeed, the Prophet, on him be peace, explicitly states that men and women who engage in it when and where permissible gain the blessing of God for their act, even though it gives us passionate pleasure. All is, or can be, worship in Islam.

Yet when it comes to voluntary or obligatory ritual worship, Islam bars sexual relations. This line enables wholesome and joyous human community. In moments and settings where sexual relations are permissible, we may enjoy them with blessing. In times of restriction, the worshiper is reminded of his or her spiritual connection to God.

The Hanafi school of Law deems it acceptable for a woman to make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) in the mosque of her house, meaning the place in her house set aside for prayer. The Shafi‘is and Malikis deem it permissible for both men and women to make ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) in the prayer places in their houses, on the prophetic basis of acts of voluntary worship at home having preference in general to their performance in the mosque.

Abu Hanifah and Imam Ahmad hold that ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) must be performed in mosques that host the five daily prayers.

There is no time constraint on ritual retreat (i‘tikaf), as already stated. One may perform it for five minutes or for as long as desired, though not as a perpetual state. Some scholars hold that the Friday Congregational Prayer (Al-Jumu‘ah) breaks ritual retreat (i‘tikaf).

The last 10 days of Ramadan remain ritual retreat’s best time. One who practices it follows the firmly established way of the Prophet, on him be peace. For the aim of this ritual retreat (i‘tikaf) coincides with the prophetic command and life-example to seek the Night of Empowering Decree (Laylat Al-Qadr), a miraculous interval of blessing without compare.