My first i’tikaf and what my father taught me by Abdulhamid Al-Gazali



One of my very close associates came this night to bid me a farewell as he would embark on i’tikaf—a form of congregational or individual seclusion embarked upon by Muslims usually in the last ten days of Ramadan, in order to dedicate themselves to full-time spiritual practices alone. The experience took me 20 years back, when I had my first i’tikaf experience. It had changed my life in very remarkable ways.

The story:

As I was preparing to embark on it, I made a huge mistake, which I still regret. I waited until it was 17th of Ramadan before I informed my boss, Late Prof. Nur Alkali (may Allah rest his soul in peace). But I have already informed everyone else and completed all my preparations. Oh naïveté! I thought it was some sort of a rare, exceptional exercise and so it would even impress him. But when I told him; it suddenly changed his countenance. His response was very shocking.

‘Are you now an authority onto to yourself? By the way, are you seeking permission or merely just informing me?’ After I said some nonsense as a response, none of which I can now remember, he simply only said ‘okay’. The answer was cryptic, I didn’t know what it meant. It left me confused, and when he normally gives you such cold treatment, you have no way of bringing back the topic again.

By the 19th, still confused, he asked me for updates about my preparations. Even I could not tell if I was going or not, his cold therapy had destabilized everything I was doing, including those not related to it. But when he realized I was lost, he gave me a lifetime manual to deal with the world. I became a more alive, effective and freer person.

‘Are you sad—and pity yourself—that you have someone who can stop you from doing what you want, even if he has no reason for it? Know that those who do whatever they want without let or hindrance are the ones to pity.

‘Do you think that because a conduct is generally good, it is enough in itself? My dear son, a good conduct has to be done well, for it to be one.

‘Do you think you can think better for yourself than we can? Oh my dear, what is my job? Your thought is only as important as to let you know that it (your thought) is not needed since I am here. You have a readymade thinking infrastructure that has been forged out of decades of experience, permissions and toil; don’t waste yours just yet.

‘You may have wondered why you didn’t get the response you had expected when you told me. Are you trying to understand it? Know that, contemplation is good but absolute submission is better than understanding. Take instructions without questions and seek permission before every action. Do that while it lasts, you may need it one day. Don’t cry when that happens, just move on.

‘May be you want to embark on the i’tikaf to pray for yourself. Great thing. But now that you have my permission to go on, let me remind you that, if you are going to pray for yourself, your unborn children and their children, all the way through, you are already late. Isn’t it what our forefathers preoccupied themselves with for centuries? May be all you need is to pray to God to reward them for their hard work—because you and I are all results of that; and pray that all their prayers be answered for you and the rest of the progeny!’

‘You are permitted to go ahead, Mal. Abdu. All your assignments will be carried out by XYZ. I have instructed that food will be taken to you for iftar and I have asked that all other things you may need while there be sorted for you. Let me receive updates about your condition from the errands, please. May Allah bless you!’

Yes, it is 20 years now; but the things he had told me have been more—or at least as much—useful as the i’tikaf. I have never been more guided and educated. My i’tikaf reward, I keep saying, was given to me well before I embarked on it.

I remember three years ago when this same companion of mine also decided to embark on the same exercise for most probably the first time, he made the same mistake I made 20 years ago though the circumstances are different. My case was between a father and his son. This one is not. I may have been deluding myself by believing that I am in position to decide for him merely on account of what he means to me. I may be wrong but I always think he knows that I have long given up my life and everything about me for him and others in our team. I will go to the end of the world for him. On that account, I keep deluding myself that I have a responsibility to make sure he does the right thing.

But he also probably thought, as I did, that because it was a good conduct, he did not need my permission. In fact, I understood—and I may be wrong—that even if I had stopped him, he was not going to give it up, which was why I didn’t. But every year when he tells me he is going ahead with it, it helps me remember and reflect on my own experience.

My last i’tikaf was in 2012, thanks not to Boko Haram. I have learnt a lot of things from it and I am grateful God had allowed me to embark on it.

First thing it had taught me is my own perception of myself. After ten years of seclusion, I thought I would come back to find the world waiting for me. To my dismay, nobody remembers I was away for 10 days. In fact, some people would not even ask. This taught me three things. That I was the one who needed people more and ever since, I made sure I held everyone I met closely. That my worth is primarily upon me to weigh. It was never about how others perceived it. And three, it taught me that the world is self-sufficient, it goes on with or without me; so I relaxed. There is no such thing that I now feel will not go well if I am not there. No, the world is too big, so self-sufficient, so well prepared and sophisticated. Ever since, I learned to enjoy my time, do my best and mind my business. God is in charge of His world.

The second thing, reflecting on the experience, is that spiritual exercises are like physical exercises. My point is simple: many today say that they pray a lot but their prayers are yet to be answered. Some would say that they have tried so much but could not do certain things yet (e.g. a certain number of adhkar or fasting and so on). Those you envy for what they do, how they live or how their prayers are answered swiftly, have put in decades of small practices, sacrifices and hard work. They have been investing when they are in no any manifested need, for years and years. There are things I do now, and a lot about my current condition, besides other things, that I know are rooted in the i’tikaf and its like more than 20 years ago. If, for instance, I can fast for a whole year, recite the salawat a million times within just days, and so on, it is absolutely nothing when you compare it to the things others are doing. As long as you are alive, you have to keep investing in your spiritual upliftment, as much as you eat, drink, learn and sleep.

وأما بنعمة ربك فحدث

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