Itikaf is a very special practice, marking the closure of the blessed month of Ramzan. Observers of this practice are required to stay in a mosque for ten days or less, during the last ten days of Ramzan. Abu Hurairah reported: The Prophet used to observe itikaf every year (during Ramzan) for ten days; in the year in which he passed away, he observed itikaf for twenty days.
Itikaf means going into seclusion for the purpose of concentration. In the final days of fasting, when a Muslim is more spiritually prepared and more awakened, he goes into seclusion in the environment of a mosque, freeing his mind of the activities of this world. In spiritual terms, it is meditation; in intellectual terms, it is contemplation.
The purpose of itikaf is to engage in muhasaba, which means introspection. During this practice, one finds time to reflect on one’s life, one’s past and present, and what course to follow in the future. The ten-day period of itikaf requires a person to undergo overhauling in the spiritual sense. This means he must undertake introspection and read the Quran more deeply.
This reading is not only meant as recitation of the words of the Quran, but is aimed at delving into the deeper meaning of the Quran and understanding its message. This practice is like taking a spiritual bath by making oneself a more awakened person.
During itikaf a Muslim tries to look at himself in the divine mirror. He makes an effort to rediscover the Quran and to reapply Quranic teachings to his life every year.
Rediscovery of the Quran is very important. Life is ever-changing and full of new situations. In this sense, it poses a continuous challenge to every person. When a person goes into itikaf and studies the Quran in seclusion, he discovers the Quran again with reference to the new situations he may be facing. This practice keeps the Muslim intellectually alive. In this way, itikaf enables a Muslim to evaluate his response towards each new situation and update his life accordingly.
In some way or the other, itikaf, in terms of meditation in seclusion, is common to all religions. The form it takes may differ, but in spirit, it is universal.
In the course of daily life in this world, the individual keeps getting distracted. Therefore, it is essential to refocus. The practice of itikaf aims at bringing one who has been derailed back to the right track. The distracted soul has to be turned into a focussed soul.
Ramzan is a month of profound spiritual experience. When one drinks water after a long period of thirst, eats food after a long period of hunger, and is at rest after a long period of unrest, he receives a special kind of spiritual uplift in his life. This is the daily experience of the month of Ramzan. Itikaf is meant to enhance and broaden these spiritual experiences. In this sense, itikaf means increasing these spiritual experiences on a larger scale. Both Ramzan and itikaf are similar, but with a difference. Where fasting during Ramzan is a routine experience, going into itikaf makes it an extraordinary experience, ensuring a heightened spiritual preparedness for the moral challenges of life.
If fasting is a spiritual experience, itikaf is spiritual retreat, designed to enable the rebuilding of self. Ramzan is meant to foster this spiritual transformation and itikaf enhances this process during the period of retreat.