What is I’tikāf?
It is when a person secludes himself in the Masjid in obedience to Allah, Most High, away from the company of the people. And he busies himself in obedience to Allah, devoting himself to Him (the Most High). It can be performed in any Masjid, even if it is a Masjid that does not establish Jumu’ah prayers. However, a Masjid that establishes Jumu’ah is better so that he is not compelled to leave the Masjid on Friday.
The i’tikāf which is legislated and encouraged is the one performed in the last ten days of Ramadān. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) performed I’tikāf in the last ten hoping for the reward of Laylatul-Qadr (the night of Decree and Power).
Allah mentions I’tikāf in the Qur’ān in His saying, “And do not be sexually intimate with your wives while you are making i’tikāf in the Mosques.” It is established in Bukhāri and Muslim and elsewhere that the Prophet (ﷺ) performed i’tikāf in the Masjid as did his Companions along with him . So i’tikāf remains as a Religious practice and was not abrogated. Bukhāri and Muslim reported from A’ishah (radiyallāhu ‘anhā) said, “The Prophet (ﷺ) used to perform i’tikāf in the last ten days of Ramadān until he died. Then his wives performed i’tikāf after his passing away.”  Saheeh Muslim reported from Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri (radiyallāhu ‘anhu) that the Prophet (ﷺ) performed i’tikāf in the first ten days of Ramadān, then he performed it in middle ten days, then the Prophet (ﷺ) said, “I observed i’tikāf in the first ten in order to seek that night (Laylatul-Qadr). I then observed i’tikāf in the middle ten days. Then an angel was sent to me and I was told that it is among the last ten nights. Whoever among you loves to observe i’tikāf should do so.” Abu Sa’eed said: “And the people observed it along with him.”  Imām Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (rahimahullāh), “There is not a scholar who disagrees that i’tikāf is from the Sunnah.” It is proven from the Sunnah by textual proof and by ijmā’ (consensus).
The place to perform i’tikāf is the Mosques wherein the five congregational daily prayers are established – it can be in any country or town due to the general statement of Allah, “While you are secluded (in i’tikāf) in the Mosques.” And it is better that i’tikāf is performed in a Mosque where the people prayer Jumu’ah, so he does not have to leave to pray it in another mosque. But if his i’tikāf is in such a mosque, then there is no harm if he leaves early to the Jumu’ah (Friday) prayer.
It is imperative that the mu’takif (one performing i’tikāf) busies himself with obedience to Allah (the Most High) with prayer, reciting the Qur’ān and Dhikr (remembrance of Allah). And there is no harm if he converses with his companions a little, especially if there is a benefit in that.
Sexual relations and whatever leads to that is forbidden for the one in i’tikāf.
As for leaving the Masjid, then the scholars have divided it into three categories:
First: Permissible. That is to leave the Masjid for a religiously valid reason or for a natural reason such as for the Jumu’ah prayer or to eat and drink if the food has not been brought to him, to leave to perform wudū or ghusl and to visit the bathroom to relieve himself.
Second: Leaving the masjid for an act of obedience to Allah that is not obligatory upon him (as an individual) such visiting the sick, attending a janāzah: so if he makes it a condition at the beginning of his i’tikāf (that he will attend to such things), then it is allowed for him, otherwise it is not.
Third: Leaving the masjid for an affair that will negate his i’tikāf such as leaving to attend to trading, buying and selling, or to have sexual relations with his wife and so on. This is not permitted, even if introduces it as a condition at the beginning of the i’tikāf.
So the one in i’tikāf leaves the affairs of the world and devotes himself to the obedience of Allah. A person should not leave the masjid except for a necessity (wudū, toilets, ghusl, etc). He should not leave for a worldly purpose such as shopping — or even visit to visit the sick or to attend a funeral. Some people who are in i’tikāf receive visitors during the days and nights wasting their time with affairs that bring no benefit. This negates the purpose of i’tikāf and its goal. However, if a family member visits him and converses with him for a time, there is no harm in that. It is reported that the wife of the Prophet (ﷺ), Safiyyah (radiyallāhu ‘anhā) visited him and he talked with her.  The point is that a person enters into i’tikāf to seek nearness to Allah (the Majestic and Most High), and he seizes the opportunity of this seclusion to perform acts of obedience.
I’tikāf is a Sunnah (i.e. recommended), not an obligation whereas obedience to parents is an obligation. And by acting upon a Sunnah, an obligation is not to be dropped — an obligation is not to be opposed with a Sunnah (a recommended affair) because an obligation (a wājib/fard) has precedence over a recommended Sunnah. Allah (the Most High) stated in a hadeeth Qudsi: “My servant does not come closer to Me with anything more beloved to Me than what I have obligated upon him.”  So if your father prohibits you from i’tikāf and he mentions affairs that require you not to make i’tikāf because he needs you — then in that situation the balance tilts in his favour and not yours. That is because it is possible the scales with which you judge you are not balanced and not just due to your strong desire to perform i’tikāf and you may think his reasons not to be justified, whilst your father considers them to be justified. In this situation, I (Ibn ‘Uthaimeen) advise you not to make i’tikāf. However, if he does not mention any justifiable reasons to prohibit you, then you are not bound to obey him in that situation. That is because he cannot obligate you to obey him in an affair in which there is no benefit for him yet there is in it only loss for you.
I’tikāf in other than Ramadān:
It is legislated to make i’tikāf only in Ramadān because the Prophet (ﷺ) did not make it in other than Ramadān except once in Shawwāl and that was when he did not make i’tikāf in Ramdān that one year.  However, if a person was to perform i’tikāf outside of Ramadān, then it is allowed because Umar (radiyallāhu ‘anhu) said to the Prophet (ﷺ), “I took a vow to make i’tikāf for one night or a day in the Haram Masjid (Makkah).” So Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) replied, “Fulfill your vow.”  However a person is not commanded nor is it requested of him to perform i’tikāf outside of Ramadān. Furthermore, i’tikāf is correct whether one is fasting or not.
I’tikāf in other than the Three Mosques:
It is permitted to make i’tikāf in other than the three well-known mosques, and they are Masjid Al-Harām (Makkah), Masjid An-Nabiyy (Madinah) and Masjid Al-Aqsa. The proof for this is in the unrestricted words of Allah, “And do not have relations with your wives whilst you are secluded in i’tikāf in the Mosques.” This āyah addresses all the Muslims. If we were to say: This āyah refers to only the three mosques, then most of the Muslims are not being addressed by this āyah because most of the Muslims live outside Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem. So based on that, we say: I’tikāf is permitted in all mosques. If we accept the authenticity of the hadeeth, “There no i’tikāf except in the three Mosques”  then it carries the meaning that i’tikāf is better and more virtuous in them. And there is no doubt that i’tikāf in these three Mosques is more virtuous than other than them just as prayer in them is more virtuous. The prayer in Masjid Al-Harām is 100,000 times more rewardable than elsewhere, and the prayer in Masjid of the Prophet is 1,000 times more rewardable than elsewhere except for the Masjid Al-Harām. And the prayer in Masjid Al-Aqsā is worth 500 prayers.
So i’tikāf is permitted in other than the three. And this is the saying of the Imāms of the Muslims, the Imāms of the Madhhabs that are followed such as Imām Ahmad, Mālik, Shāfi’ee, Abu Haneefah and others. And it far-fetched to imagine that Allah would address the Ummah with an address that encompasses only a very small number of them. So the hadeeth narrated by Hudhayfah that “There no i’tikāf except in the three Mosques” refers to these mosques being better and more virtuous. And this is found often wherein a negation is intended to mean the negation of perfection, and not a negation in reality or a negation of the correctness of the act. Such as the saying of the Prophet (ﷺ), “There is no prayer when food is served”  and other similar hadeeth. There is no doubt that the origin of a textually proven negation of something is a real actual Sharee’ah legislated negation. However, if another text prevents a complete negation, then it allows such a position (as mentioned here) such as the hadeeth of Hudhayfah — that is if we hold that the hadeeth is free from defects in its chain of narration.
I’tikāf for Women:
If a woman wishes to perform i’tikāf, there is no harm in that, and she makes i’tikāf in the mosque so long as there are no religious violations or a danger of tribulation, in which case she should not make i’tikāf. (Note that there is no i’tikāf in the homes as some women incorrectly think. I’tikāf for men and women is in the mosques). The wives of the Prophet (ﷺ) made i’tikāf in the Mosque.
When does I’tikāf begin and end?
The majority of the scholars state that i’tikāf begins from the night before the twenty-first fast, and not from Fajr on the twenty-first day. Some scholars hold that is starts from Fajr on the twenty-first day of Ramadān due to the hadeeth of Ā’ishah (radiyallāhu ‘anhā) reported by Al-Bukhāri, “When he prayed the morning prayer he entered into i’tikāf.” However, the scholars explain that the Messenger (ﷺ) separated himself from the people after the prayer but the intention for i’tikāf is made from the beginning of the night. That is because of the last ten days begin when the sun sets on the twentieth day.
One exits the state of i’tikāf when Ramadān finishes — and Ramadān finishes when the sun sets the night before ‘Eid.
What should the Mu’takif do?
The actions of the one in i’tikāf fall into the following categories: that which is allowed, that which is encouraged and recommended, and that which is forbidden.
As for what is recommended: then that is to busy oneself with acts of obedience and worship because that is the essence of i’tikāf and the purpose behind secluding oneself in the masjid.
As for what is forbidden: than that refers to those affairs that invalidate the i’tikāf such as leaving the masjid without an excuse, to buy and sell, or to have relations with one’s spouse, and so on.
As for what is allowed: this includes talking to others and asking how they are. Also to leave the masjid for a necessity such as to eat and drink if food is not brought to them in the masjid, or to visit the bathroom, or to fulfil an obligatory Islamic duty such leaving to make ghusl from sexual impurity (due to a wet dream).
Leaving the masjid for a religious matter that is not obligatory is allowed if he made it a condition of his i’tikāf (which is an intention he makes in the heart before his i’tikāf). If he did not make it a condition then he does not leave the masjid. This category would include: visiting a sick person, attending a janāzah and so on.
If a close relative dies or a close friend and the mu’takif fears that him staying in the masjid will lead to the cutting of ties and to evil, then he leaves the masjid even if that invalidates his i’tikāf because i’tikāf is recommended and one is not required to continue in it, and it avoids a greater harm.
Returning Home During I’tikāf:
It is allowed for the one making i’tikāf to return to his home to eat food if no one brings him food to the masjid — but if food can be brought to him or is brought to him, then he cannot leave the masjid because the mu’takif cannot leave the masjid except for a necessity. If his returning to his home is for ghusl from sexual impurity (janābah due to a wet dream), then it is obligatory that he must leave the masjid because the ghusl is necessary. If leaving the masjid is to make ghusl from a bad odour of the body that bothers him then he is allowed to leave to take a bath or shower. From this, we see that leaving the masjid to take ghusl (bath) is of three types: obligatory, permissible and prohibited.
Should a Person who has Family Duties make I’tikāf?
I’tikāf is a Sunnah, not an obligation. So if a person has duties that he has to fulfil for the family, then it is obligatory that he fulfils them — and he would be sinful for making i’tikāf which is a lesser duty than his obligations. Even if those duties are not obligatory, then it may that his fulfilling those responsibilities are better for him than i’tikāf. The Prophet (ﷺ) said to Abdullah Ibn ‘Amr (radiyallāhu ‘anhumā), “O Abdullah! I have been informed that you fast all the day and stand in prayer all night?” I said, “Yes, O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)!” He said, “Do not do that! Observe the fast sometimes and also leave it at other times; stand for the prayer at night and also sleep at night. Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.”  So a person leaving his duties so as to make i’tikāf is a deficiency in his knowledge and in his wisdom because fulfilling the needs of his family is more virtuous than his performing i’tikāf. As for the person who is free from these responsibilities, then for him, i’tikāf is legislated. So if a person has family responsibilities at the beginning of the last ten days, but he becomes free of them before the end of Ramadān, and he wants to make i’tikāf, then there is no problem in that because he enters into the saying of Allah, “Be dutiful to Allah as much as you are able.”
Leaving I’tikāf Before the end of the Last Ten Days:
I’tikāf is not an obligation, so if a person leaves it before the last the day of i’tikāf or even before that, then there is no sin on him. However, the one who wishes to attain the Sunnah and to follow it, then he should not leave i’tikāf until the sun has set the night before ‘Eid signifying the end of the fasting month of Ramadān.
The rulings in this article are taken from the work of the Scholar of Fiqh and Sunnah, the Allāmah, Muhammad Ibn Sālih Al-‘Uthaimeen (may Allah have mercy upon him) entitled, “Fatāwa fi Ahkāmis-Siyām.” pp. 487-517. Bukhāri, 2036. Muslim, 1167.  Bukhāri, 2026. Muslim, 1176.  Muslim, 1167.  Bukhāri, 2038. Muslim, 2175.  Bukhāri, 6502.  Bukāri, 2041. Muslim, 1173.  Bukhāri, 2032. Muslim, 1656.  Abdur-Razzāq in his Musannaf 4/347, and Ibn Abee Shaybah in his Musannaf, 3/911.  Muslim, 560.  Bukhāri, 5199.