The month of Ramadan is a special season of worship. If one attends to his worship with dedication and sincerity, he is certain to end the month having earned forgiveness of all his past misdeeds. Muslims know the reward God gives for fasting in the month of Ramadan is greater than we can imagine, because fasting is an act of worship that admits no hypocrisy. It is not possible for any person to fast in order to deceive others. This is due to the fact that boasting about fasting is forbidden. Hence, he cannot publicize the fact that he is fasting. If he does not mention it, then other people have no way of knowing it, because fasting is an act of worship by abstention, rather than a positive action.
Moreover, the Prophet (peace be upon him) has taught us to spend part of the nights of Ramadan in worship, standing up in prayer to offer the special prayer known as Taraweeh. This means that in Ramadan we fast during the day in fulfillment of an obligatory type of worship and we stand up in prayer at night as a recommended act of worship. Moreover, there is the Night of Power that falls in the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. It is a night that is worth more than one thousand months. If one happens to spend that night in worship, he is certain to have all his prayers answered and all his sins forgiven.
The Night of Power is the pinnacle of this season of worship. It takes place in the last ten days of the month when a Muslim’s devotion is brought to its climax. One way of doing this is to stay in a mosque, following the Sunnah of the Prophet. That Sunnah is known as ietikaf, which means, linguistically speaking, to commit oneself to doing something to the exclusion of everything else.
In a religious context, it means to stay in a mosque for worship. Reference to it is made in the Quran in Verse 187 of Surah 2, “The Cow”. All scholars agree that it is a Sunnah, following the practice of the Prophet. Abdullah ibn Umar, a learned companion of the Prophet, reports: “God’s messenger (peace be on him) used to stay in the mosque during the last 10 days of Ramadan.” (Related by Al-Bukhari). Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, also reports that “The Prophet (peace be on him) used to stay in the mosque for the last 10 days of Ramadan until he passed away, and his wives used to do the same afterwards.” (Related by Al-Bukhari). From these Hadiths we deduce that the ietikaf, or staying in the mosque for worship, is recommended to both men and women, especially during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Most scholars agree that ietikaf should be in a mosque, although the Hanafi school of thought makes it possible for a woman to practice this Sunnah in the place where she normally prays in her home.
When a person embarks on this Sunnah, it is permissible for him to pay a visit to his family at home to attend to their needs. He does this during the day and then comes back to resume his stay in the mosque. It is also permissible for this family to visit him in the mosque.
It so happened when the Prophet was in the midst of his stay in the mosque that his wives visited him. When they left, he asked Safiyah, his wife, to stay a little longer, perhaps because she arrived later than the others and he wanted her to stay an equal length of time. He accompanied her to her home, which was, like the homes of his other wives, just next to the mosque.
It is permissible for a person who is in the middle of his stay in a mosque for worship to have his head washed and his hair combed. Aisha, the Prophet’s wife whose home was adjacent to the mosque, reports: “God’s messenger (peace be on him) used to put his head through the door, while the rest of his body was inside the mosque, and I used to clean and comb his head. He did not come into his home during ietikaf, except to relieve himself.” This report is a clear indication of what to observe during ietikaf.
We understand that if one puts his head out of the mosque, say, through a window, while his feet and the rest of his body are inside, then he has not violated the rules of ietikaf. Another version of this Hadith, also related on the authority of Aisha, quotes her as adding that she could be in the period when she washed the Prophet’s head.
It is important to know these details, since it is forbidden to have sexual intercourse while one is observing this Sunnah. The instruction prohibiting that is given in the aforementioned verse in the Qur’an. This prohibition was specified because any of the companions of the Prophet who went home for a brief period, during his ietikaf, to attend to his family’s needs, might have had intercourse with his wife before returning to the mosque. This was expressly forbidden by this Qur’anic statement.
That, however, does not include having a normal relationship with one’s wife during ietikaf. One may go home to inquire if his family needs anything. During this brief visit, his wife may attend to his own needs, such as combing his hair.
A person who stays in a mosque in order to follow the Prophet’s example, may have some sleep before waking up to spend the rest of his night in worship, reciting the Qur’an or praying.
Needless to say, ietikaf is not easy for everyone to observe. People have to attend to their needs and to continue their work. It is possible to limit one’s ietikaf to one night, or even a portion of one night. According to scholars, one may make his stay in a mosque a stay of ietikaf at any time, if he dedicates his time to worship, and intends his stay for such dedication. It should be strongly emphasized that ietikaf is highly rewarded by God, as is every action which involves dedication.