Islamic Voice
Ramadan/Shawwal 1422
December 2001
Volume 14-12 No:180

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The Tranquility of Itekaf

The Tranquility of Itekaf

Dr. Muhammad Kamal Al-Shareef

Godís Messenger, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), used to spend 10 nights during the month of Ramadan in the mosque, devoting all his time to worship. In the last year of his life, he spent 20 nights in such devotion. Normally, his 10 nights were the last ten days of the month of Ramadan.

This practice is called iítikaf, which means ďto stay in the mosque praying, glorifying God, praising Him, reading the Qurían, or pursuing Islamic knowledge,and even just to stay and sleep there during a certain period of time. A person who follows this practice does not leave the mosque except for an urgent business, and he may not have sexual relations with his wife until he has finished his stay.

Iítikaf is a voluntary type of worship, which the Prophet practised every year in Ramadan, but he did not order anyone of his followers to do it. This is perhaps due to the fact that he did not wish to assign a difficult task to them. However, this practice leaves a highly beneficial effect. When a believer spends a few days in the mosque, where he stays night and day, his awareness of Godís presence is enhanced and refined. Indeed, it fills all his conscious and sub-conscious perception.

To understand this better, imagine that you are entering the palace of a king. The fact that the palace you are in belongs to the king gives you a feeling of the kingís presence. Although your mind may be distracted by one thing or another, you continue to be aware of the kingís presence, even though this may be at the back of your mind. The fact is that everything you may see in the palace will remind you of the king.

The mosque is Godís home, and staying there will enhance a personís awareness of God and His presence. This will be added to the feeling generated by glorifying God, praising Him and reciting His words. Thus, not a moment is lost during oneís stay without remembering God. We will indeed remember Him consciously or subconsciously while we are in His home. This makes our very stay there, or iítikaf, an exercise of remembering God. But it is also a symbol of freedom. People live in communities, each of which influences the personalities, values, customs and morality of its individuals according to a largely consistent pattern. An individual who disregards the traditions and values of his or her community is subjected to different pressures aiming at bringing their behaviour and attitude to the accepted norm. When an individual breaks away from social tradition in his or her behaviour, ideas, dress or other aspects, he will find those who are close to him trying to persuade him not to do so. Persuasion, however, is the approach of relatives and close friends. Other people will resort to backbiting, making that person their laughing stock, ridiculing him in word and deed. Some may go even further than that so as to ridicule such breakaways to their faces, and hurl abuse on them. Should such an individual be originally in a highly respectable position, he will lose that respect when he insists on breaking away with his peopleís habits and traditions and may be badly humiliated. Indeed in some communities, disregarding a certain tradition of high social importance may make the person concerned an out-cast, ostracized by his community.

Iítikaf provides an excellent substitute, enabling the individual to shake himself away from social shackles to seek help and strength in Godís home.

Apart from laws and regulations, these are perhaps the most important ways of social control which may be exercised against an individual so as to bring his behaviour in line with tradition.

When we look very carefully into this, we will find that society deprives the individual of a great portion of his or her personal freedom and discourages creativity and innovation, because, by definition, these seek to bring about a change. Hence, a person who believes in a new religion or adopts a new line of thinking will find his position difficult, requiring fortitude to resist the immense social pressure.

Such was the opposition met by the Prophet Muhammad in Makkah, when he preached his message, because the Makkan society attached great value to tradition, and strongly opposed change. The Prophet needed to be trained for confrontation with the community in which he was raised. Perhaps his inspired seclusion in the Cave of Hira, where he used to spend days away from the hustle and bustle of people, was part of his training so that he would not fear peopleís censure. Such a fear is normally ingrained in human beings right from their childhood, when they are rebuked for committing what is likely to bring them social disapproval.

It is well known that the Prophet was not ordered to publicly call on people to adopt the new faith until three years had passed, during which he approached a number of individuals in private. Perhaps this delay in making a public call to the new faith was meant to train the Prophet and the early Muslims to face up to social pressure, which was bound to come when they declared their rejection of the values, traditions and beliefs of their community. But despite all this preparation and training, an element of apprehension of peopleís reaction remained with the Prophet. When he was told in Divine revelation that God wanted him to marry the divorcee of Zaid, his former adopted son, he was really worried. Arabian society considered that as a very serious breach of convention, because they treated an adopted son in exactly the same way as oneís own son. The Prophet felt ill at ease and could not talk to people about what he was ordered to do. Hence, Quríanic revelations were sent down to him exposing the whole situation and ensuring that the Prophet paid little attention to all such social pressure. God says in the Qurían: You, (Muhammad), said to the one to whom God had shown favour and to whom you had shown favour, ďHold on to your wife, and fear God! And thus would you hide within yourself something that God was about to bring to light. For you stood in awe of what people might think, whereas it is God alone of whom you should have stood in awe! Then, when Zaid had come to the end of his union with her, We gave her to you in marriage, so that in future no blame should attach to the believers for marrying the spouses of their adopted children when the latter have come to the end of their union with themĒ. Thus Godís will was done. Hence, no blame whatever, attaches to the Prophet for having done what God has ordained for him. Indeed, such was Godís way with generations that have passed away. Godís will is always destiny absolute. (33: 37-38)

It is in this area that we see the role played by iítikaf which involves staying in the mosque day and night. It protects the individual from restrictive social influences that curtail his freedom to live as he believes. In practice, people think of their community and its attitude before taking any serious measure. No one can free himself from such pressure unless he physically moves away from society completely, as the Prophet did in the Cave of Hira. But this is impracticable for the overwhelming majority of people.

Hence, iítikaf provides an excellent substitute, enabling the individual to shake himself away from social shackles to seek help and strength in Godís home. Such added strength is certainly needed to overcome the impediments to self-fulfillment. There is no doubt that at the end of a period of iítikaf, a person feels much stronger and more mature than earlier.


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