Although Islam focuses on the individual and his relation to God, it also emphasises the individual’s role in society; thus, asceticism has been discouraged. However, similar to other religious traditions, a form of spiritual seclusion or retreat for a few days is found in Islam. In fact, even those with no religious inclination undertake various forms of spiritual retreats. There are many benefits for such a retreat, especially with respect to one’s spirituality and relation to God.
The Prophet Muhammad(s) said, “The person who secludes himself (in the masjid in I‘tikaf) in true faith and hope (for the reward of God), all of his previous sins shall be forgiven.” The Holy Prophet used to perform I‘tikaf for the duration of three days in the first ten days, second ten days, and last ten days of the month of Ramadan. One of the other most recommended times for I‘tikaf is during the ‘white nights’ of Rajab, the night of the 13th, 14th and 15th. According to Shi‘a jurist, I‘tikaf should be done in one of the four masjids: Masjid al-Haram, Masjid al-Nabi. Masjid al-Kufa and Masjid al-Basra; however, it could be done in any other mosque with the hope of acceptance.
The literal definition of the word I‘tikaf is to stay in a particular place. In Islam, it refers to staying in the masjid for a certain time period in the worship of God while maintaining certain conditions. I‘tikaf has no specific form like salat (prayer); for example, one can stand, sit, sleep, or supplicate. Of course, what is important is that one refrains from what is prohibited. Firstly, one must make the intention of performing I‘tikaf for the purpose of seeking nearness to God and no other reason. The minimum number of days in I‘tikaf according to Shi‘a jurists is three days. Although i‘tikaf is a recommended act, it can become obligatory if a person makes an oath to God to perform it, or upon completing one day when it becomes obligatory to complete the three days. Another type of intention would be if it is performed on behalf of deceased relatives. The person in I‘tikaf needs to fast while he is in I‘tikaf, and he or she must have permission if required for performing I‘tikaf. The minimum duration for the state of It‘ikaf is three complete days from sunrise of the first day until sunset on the third day. Therefore, it lasts for a minimum of 3 full days and 2 nights. Obviously, any act which nullifies the fast would be prohibited. Furthermore, applying and smelling perfume with the intention of deriving pleasure is not allowed during I‘tikaf. Worldly discussions and arguments are not allowed, nor is it permitted to leave the masjid except for reasons which are allowed in necessity. Even though it is a form of spiritual seclusion, I‘tikaf is not isolation, for people are allowed to visit; friends and family can bring necessities such as food to break the fast.
I‘tikaf is not just any holiday or retreat; it is a time to return to God and devote ourselves to Him. It is not social isolation, but a time of healing and reassessment. Islam encourages us to take account of ourselves, and when we do that then we work on areas which need to be developed. Thus, I‘tikaf facilitates self-evolution; it forces one to reflect on the self and to forget the temporal world, and concentrate on God. One can talk to God by supplicating through recommended du’as or hear the words of God by reciting the Qur’an. Indeed, the one who performs I‘tikaf leaves his house to be the guest of God in His house (the masjid).
Each action in Islam is prescribed with the wisdom of God; hence, although the spiritual rewards are recounted and emphasised, there are undoubtedly other beneficial aspects of the actions in Islam. I‘tikaf is no exception.
Although to my knowledge no studies have been conducted on those who perform I‘tikaf, an interesting study was published in the journal Religion, Brain and Behaviour (2017) about the effect of spiritual retreat on the brain. Dr Andrew Newberg and his team conducted brain scans and psychological surveys of 14 Christian participants (aged 24 to 76) before and after a seven-day spiritual retreat. The participants spent most of their time in silent contemplation, prayer and reflection. Findings indicated alterations in the brain’s reward centre.
The participants reported less fatigue and stress, and more feelings of self-transcendence. Furthermore, brain scans revealed decreases in dopamine and serotonin binding, which made these two neurotransmitters more available to the brain. Neurotransmitters are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers.
Serotonin is one of the calming neurotransmitters, while dopamine is one of the stimulating ones. Dopamine relates to our ability to stay alert and concentrate on mental tasks, so enhancing dopamine levels can help to improve motivation and enthusiasm for life. On the other hand, serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is predominantly responsible for regulating our sense of calm. Hence, serotonin promotes feelings of contentment, satisfaction and well-being, which in turn prompt relaxation and peace. Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are thought to be directly related to imbalances with neurotransmitters. Consequently, spiritual retreats, like I‘tikaf, may help us renew our purpose in life and covenant with God, as well as provide us with a sense of peace and awareness of His presence.
In one of his speeches, Ayatullah Khamenei praised the youth who fervently perform I‘tikaf. In addition, he recommends reciting the supplications from Sahifa Sajjadiya (book of teachings and sermon of Imam Sajjad(a)). He says, “It is Rajab now, the month of praying, turning back to God, and supplication. It is the month of becoming similar to the Commander of the Faithful. Let us strengthen our relationship with God so that we can go through the various stages of life with strong determination, steadfastness and awareness.”
Imam Ali(a), the Lion of God, prayed 1,000 cycles each night, and even the other Imams would exclaim that no one could be like him. However, in the month of his auspicious birth, even more so, in the night of his birth, as his lovers we can strive to acquire some of his characteristics, especially his devotion to God. Indeed, it may be practically impossible for some of us to perform I‘tikaf as it is stipulated. Nevertheless, all is not lost. Perhaps after our children are asleep, when we have turned off the TV and our phones, we can sit on our prayer mats and nurture our connection with God by praying, reciting the Qur’an and recommended supplications. Thus, we will welcome the holy month of Rajab, the harbinger of the season of spirituality: Rajab, Shaban and Ramadan.