The guidance of the Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) with regard to i’tikaaf (ritual seclusion) was the most perfect and moderate of guidance.
Once he observed i’tikaaf in the first ten days of Ramadan, then in the middle ten days, seeking Layla-tal-Qadr. Then he was told that it is in the last ten days, so then he always observed i’tikaaf during the last ten days, until he met his Lord.
On one occasion he did not observe i’tikaaf during the last ten days, so he made it up in Shawwaal and observed i’tikaaf during the first ten days thereof. This was narrated by al-Bukhaari and Muslim. In the year in which he died, he observed i’tikaaf for twenty days. Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 2040.
It was said that the reason for that is that he knew his life was drawing to a close, so he wanted to increase his good deeds, to show his Ummah how to strive hard in doing good deeds when the opportunity for doing so drew to close, so that they could meet Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala in the best way. And it was said that the reason was that Jibreel ‘alayhi salaam used to review the Qur’an with him once each Ramadan, but in the year in which he died, he reviewed it with him twice, which is why his i’tikaaf was twice as long as usual.
A more likely reason is that he observed i’tikaaf for twenty days in that year because the year before he had been traveling. This is indicated by the report narrated by al-Nasaa’i and Abu Dawood, and classed as saheeh by Ibn Hibbaan and others, from Ubayy ibn Ka’b who said: The Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) used to observe i’tikaaf during the last ten days of Ramadaan, but he travelled one year and did not observe i’tikaaf, so the following year he observed i’tikaaf for twenty days. Fath al-Baari.
The Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) used to order that a kind of tent be pitched for him in the mosque, and he would stay in it, keeping away from people and turning to his Lord, so he could be on his own with his Lord in a true sense of the word.
On one occasion he observed i’tikaaf in a small tent, and put a reed mat over the door. Narrated by Muslim, 1167.
Ibn al-Qayyim said in Zaad al-Ma’aad, 2/90:
All of this to achieve the spirit and purpose of i’tikaaf, and is the opposite of what the ignorant do, whereby the place of i’tikaaf becomes a place of gathering and meeting with people and chatting to them. This is one thing, and i’tikaaf as observed by the Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is something else.
He used to stay in the mosque the whole time, and not leave it except to relieve himself. ‘Aa’ishah (radhiAllahu ‘anha) said, “He would not enter his house for anything except for a need when he was observing i’tikaaf.” Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 2029; Muslim, 297. According to a report narrated by Muslim: “Except for human needs.” Al-Zuhri interpreted this as referring to urination and defecation.
He (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) made sure he remained clean. He would lean his head out of the mosque into ‘Aa’ishah’s apartment so that she should wash his head and comb his hair.
Al-Bukhaari (2028) and Muslim (297) narrated that ‘Aa’ishah (radhiAllahu ‘anha) said, “The Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) used to lean his head towards me when he was observing i’tikaaf in the mosque, and I would comb his hair, when I was menstruating.” According to a report also narrated by al-Bukhaari: “And I would wash it.”
This hadeeth indicates that it is permissible to clean oneself, put on perfume, wash oneself, comb one’s hair etc (when in i’tikaaf). The majority of scholars are of the view that nothing is makrooh except that which it is makrooh to do in the mosque.
When he was in i’tikaaf, the Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) did not visit the sick or attend funerals. This was so that he could concentrate fully on conversing with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and achieving the purpose of i’tikaaf, which is to cut oneself off from people and turn to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.
‘Aa’ishah said: The Sunnah is for the person in i’tikaaf not to visit the sick or attend funerals, or to be intimate with his wife. But there is nothing wrong with his going out for essential needs. Narrated by Abu Dawood, 2473; classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh Abi Dawood.
“or to be intimate with his wife” means intercourse. This was stated by al-Shawkaani in Nayl al-Awtaar.
Some of his wives used to visit him when he was in i’tikaaf. When she stood up to leave, he would take her home – that was at night.
It was narrated from Safiyyah the wife of the Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) that she came to the Messenger of Allah (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and visited him when he was in i’tikaaf in the mosque, during the last ten days of Ramadan. She spoke with him for a while, then she stood up to leave. The Prophet (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) stood up with her to take her home. Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 2035; Muslim, 2175.
In conclusion, his i’tikaaf was moderate and not harsh. He spent all his time remembering Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and turning to Him in worship, seeking Layla-tal-Qadr.
See: Zaad al-Ma’aad by Ibn al-Qayyim, 2/90; al-I’tikaaf Nazrah Tarbawiyyah by Dr ‘Abd al-Lateef Balto.
Originally published at islamqa.info