Iʿtikāf is to seclude yourself inside a mosque and focus on worshipping Allah without normal distractions of daily life. It is a commendable act to be performed in any masjid and is especially recommended during the last ten nights of Ramadan since that was the regular established practice of the Prophet Muhammad. In order for Iʿtikāf to be valid, a person must be fasting, avoid intimacy and intercourse, and not leave the masjid without a good reason such as going to the toilet, acquiring food, or helping someone with an emergency. [See Al-Mawṣilī, Kitāb Al-Ikhtiyār 177-178]
Iʿtikāf is normally only valid for men inside a masjid. However, given the fact that most masjids are closed due to the Novel Coronavirus pandemic, it would be encouraged for men to seclude themselves [khalwah] in the designated prayer area of their home for as much time as possible. If they had the intention and the means to perform Iʿtikāf in the masjid, but are unable to due to it being closed, it is hoped that from the mercy of Allah they will get the same reward. Since their seclusion will not be technically considered an Iʿtikāf, the normal rules will not apply.
The two instances where Iʿtikāf is mentioned in the Qur’an are both connected with the masjid. Allah says, “…Purify My House for those who walk round it, those who stay there, and those who bow and prostrate themselves in worship.” [Qur’an 2:125] Again, he says, “…Do not lie with them during the nights of your devotional retreat in the mosques: these are the bounds set by God, so do not go near them…” [Qur’an 2:187] Furthermore, all the narration from the Prophet Muhammad referring to Iʿtikāf are all connected to being in a masjid. Likewise, the Companions all held the opinion that it must be done in a masjid.
Mainstream Muslim scholars have held the opinion that Iʿtikāf is supposed to be performed inside a masjid. The position of the Ḥanafī school was explained by Imam Al-Mawṣilī, “It must be performed in a masjid where prayers are held…since the person in Iʿtikāf awaits the prayer to pray it in a group [jamāʿah], so the greater the masjid the greater the reward of Iʿtikāf in it.” [Kitāb Al-Ikhtiyār 177] The Mālikī position was explained by Imam Ḥaṭṭāb, “I’tikaf is valid in any masjid…but not in a house according to Imam Malik, neither for men or women.” [Mawāhib Al-Jalīl 3:241] The position of the Shāfiʿī school was explained by Imam Nawawī, “…it is not valid except in the masjid due to verse 2:187 which indicates that it is only permitted in the masjid.” [Al-Majmūʿ Sharḥ Al-Muhadhdhab 8:6] The Hanbalī position was explained by Imam Ibn Qudāmā, “The Iʿtikāf of a man is not valid except in a masjid. We are not aware of any difference of opinion between the scholars on this issue… The fact that Allah Most High specified Iʿtikāf within the masjid is an indication that it should be observed exclusively in the masjid only.” [Al-Mughnī 3:189]
The only difference of opinion that has been reported is about women being allowed to perform it at home only in the designated prayer area of her house. This was the position of Imam Abū Ḥanīfah and one opinion attributed to Imam Shāfiʿī [though scholars like Imam Nawawī consider this to be a weak ascription]. Imam Sarakhsī explains the reasoning as follows, “When a woman performs Iʿtikāf in the designated prayer-area of her home, then that area for her is similar to what a congregational masjid is for a man.” [Kitāb Al-Mabsūṭ 2:132]
Lastly, the only scholar I could find who ever allowed Iʿtikāf in general outside of a masjid is Ibn Lubābah, but his opinion was deemed to be ‘strange’ [shādh] and therefore cannot be considered as a valid historical precedent. [See Bidāyat ul-Mujtahid 2:77]
The majority of Muslim scholars have made it clear that Iʿtikāf can only be performed in a masjid. The Ḥanafī school was one exception where they said that a woman may perform it in her house. While it may be tempting to apply an analogy and say that if women were allowed then men should also be, this idea does not make sense when the rationale behind why women were specifically given this exemption is properly understood. Therefore, although many masjids are closed, Iʿtikāf should remain associated with a masjid, as it was intended. Furthermore, the practice of Iʿtikāf is not a requirement in Islam, so no individual is missing out. If one or two people are able to perform it, such as the Imam or the Muezzin [Caller to Prayer], that will at least ensure the sanctity of the masjid has been upheld. Others may try to focus on worship and come close to the purpose of Iʿtikāf at home, while hoping for the reward from Allah, even though it is not a complete Iʿtikāf.