The meaning of ‘itikaf’ is to continue to do something. In religious terminology it means to stay in (or to withdraw/retract to) a Masjid for the purpose of continuous prayer.
Narrated Ibn ‘Umar(R A):
Some men amongst the companions of the Prophet (SAW) were shown in their dreams that the night of Qadr was in the last seven nights of Ramadhan. Allaah’s Apostle (SAW) said, “It seems that all your dreams agree that (the Night of Qadr) is in the last seven nights, and whoever wants to search for it (i.e. the Night of Qadr) should search in the last seven (nights of Ramadhan).”
[Bukhari :: Book 3 :: Volume 32 :: Hadith 232]
Narrated ‘Aisha(R Anha):
Allaah’s Apostle(SAW) used to practice Itikaf (Seclude) in the last ten nights of Ramadhan and used to say, “Look for the Night of Qadr in the last ten nights of the month of Ramadhan ,”
[Bukhari :: Book 3 :: Volume 32 :: Hadith 237 ]
When one participates in itikaf, one strives to prepare his heart so that he can ‘let Allaah in’.
In another way, itikaf is to continuously and persistently knock on Allaah ‘s door saying, ‘please open Your door to me, too’, ‘I won’t leave Your doorstep until You forgive me’, ‘hold the hand that I stretch out to You and don’t let go’, and ‘do not reject me (and leave me with empty hands)’. Truly, the believers who observe the month of Ramadhan have already spent the day fasting, therefore withdrawing from worldly deeds. In addition to this, the believers completely give themselves up to prayer and reflection. The believers recite the Holy Qur’an, pray, and keep busy with Dhikr (the mentioning of Allaah and His names). They read books on Allaah (the Face of Truth, the Ultimate Truth) and extend the horizons of their wisdom. At night, they perform the special prayers, the tarawih prayers. Also, they pass the time before dawn with another special prayer, the tahajjud prayer. The believers attract Allaah ‘s mercy with prayers that ask for forgiveness.
Moreover, the believers eat less, sleep less, speak less, and do not deal with worldly deeds. During these holy days and nights they completely focus on the feeling of unity with Allaah (The Truth). They try to stay alert for the gentle inspiration that may come from Allaah . From this perspective, it would be correct to say that the believers that have withdrawn (to itikaf) are people who have stationed themselves to witness the appearances of the Lord.
Allaah with His infinite mercy, will not reject the believers who have turned to Him with a sincere heart and who persist in staying on His doorstep; He even hears the ant and does not deny its requests.
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) organized his work accordingly during the last 10 days (the last third) of Ramadan, and withdrew (itikaf) every year, spending those days worshipping Allaah in seclusion. Traditionally, he would increase the amount of worship to Allaah during the month of Ramadhan relative to that in other months. He increased his proximity to Allaah within the month of Ramadan. The Prophet (SAW) would share his efforts to worship with his wives and would also ask them to also occupy themselves with the worship of Allaah .
Believers who are serious in their intention to follow the Prophet’s (SAW) tradition can put their hand on Allaah ‘s door. They can lay their faces on Allaah ‘s doorstep and during this holy period of time they will be in search of the Lord’s mercy.
by:Essentials Towards Understanding Islam