Imam al-Albaani said in his essay Qiyaam Ramadan, in the section on i‘tikaaf: “Then I came across a clear saheeh hadeeth which singles out these mosques: ‘There is no i‘tikaaf except in the three mosques.”’ And he pointed out that it is a hadeeth of Hudhayfah narrated by al-Tahhaawi, al-Bayhaqi and al-Isma‘eeli, and hence in al-Silsilah al-Saheehah. What is the ruling on this hadeeth? What could we learn from it concerning i‘tikaaf? i.e., do we understand that it is prohibited to observe i‘tikaaf anywhere but in the three mosques or do we learn from this hadeeth that perfect i‘tikaaf cannot be done except in the three mosques? In either case, what is the proof?.
The Qur’aan and Sunnah, and scholarly consensus, indicate that it is mustahabb to observe i‘tikaaf in the mosques.
Allah, may He be exalted, says (interpretation of the meaning):
“and We commanded Ibrâhim (Abraham) and Ismâ'il (Ishmael) that they should purify My House (the Ka'bah at Makkah) for those who are circumambulating it, or staying (I'tikâf), or bowing or prostrating themselves (there, in prayer)”
“And do not have sexual relations with them (your wives) while you are in I'tikâf (i.e. confining oneself in a mosque for prayers and invocations leaving the worldly activities) in the mosques”
More than one of the scholars narrated that there was consensus on that. See: al-Ijmaa‘ by Ibn al-Mundhir, 47; al-Mughni, 3/122
Although the scholars differed concerning the description of the mosque in which it is prescribed to observe i‘tikaaf, there is hardly any difference of opinion among the fuqaha’ that it is permissible to observe i‘tikaaf in the mosque in which Jumu‘ah prayer and prayers in congregation are offered. There was no report of any difference of opinion concerning that except from some of the Taabi‘een.
With regard to the hadeeth mentioned in the question, “There is no i‘tikaaf except in the three mosques,” it is a hadeeth from the great Sahaabi Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman which was narrated from him via Sufyaan ibn ‘Uyaynah from Jaami‘ ibn Abi Raashid from Abu Waa’il: Hudhayfah said to ‘Abdullah, meaning ibn Mas‘ood (may Allah be pleased with him): Are you observing i‘tikaaf between your house and the house of Abu Moosa when you know that the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “There is no i‘tikaaf except in al-Masjid al-Haraam or in the three mosques”? ‘Abdullah said: Perhaps you have forgotten and they remembered, or you made a mistake and they got it right.
But the companions of Sufyaan ibn ‘Uyaynah differed concerning it.
Some of them narrated it as being the words of the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him). They were:
Muhammad ibn al-Faraj, recorded by al-Ismaa‘eeli in Mu‘jam Shuyookhihi, 2/112; Mahmoud ibn Adam al-Marwazi, recorded by al-Bayhaqi in al-Sunan, 4/316; Hishaam ibn ‘Ammaar, recorded by al-Tahhaawi in Bayaan Mushkil al-Athaar, 7/40; Sa‘eed ibn Mansoor, as recorded in al-Tahqeeq fi Ahaadeeth al-Khilaaf by Ibn al-Jawzi, 2/127.
Some of them narrated it as being the words of Hudhayfah, as if the isnaad ends with him (and not with the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him)). They were:
‘Abd al-Razzaaq in al-Musannaf, 4/348; Sa‘eed ibn ‘Abd al-Rahmaan and Muhammad ibn Abi ‘Umar, reported by al-Faakihi in Akhbaar Makkah, 2/149
The more correct view – and Allah knows best – is the mawqoof report which goes back to Hudhayfah, i.e., he said these words on the basis of his own opinion and ijtihaad, and he did not hear it from the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him). That is for the following reasons:
This text is narrated as the words of Hudhayfah (may Allah be pleased with him) by another chain of narrators. It was narrated by Ibn Abi Shaybah in al-Musannaf (2/337) and also by ‘Abd al-Razzaaq (4/347) via Sufyaan al-Thawri from Waasil al-Ahdab from Ibraahem al-Nakha‘i who said: Hudhayfah came to ‘Abdullah and said: Is it not amazing that your people are observing i‘tikaaf between your house and the house of al-Ash‘ari? – Meaning in the mosque. ‘Abdullah said: Perhaps they got it right and you got it wrong! Hudhayfah said: Do you not know that there is no i‘tikaaf except in three mosques: al-Masjid al-Haraam [in Makkah], al-Masjid al-Aqsa [in Jerusalem] and Masjid Rasool-Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) [in Madinah]? There is no difference between observing i‘tikaaf in it or in this market of yours..
The report of Ibraaheem al-Nakha‘i from ‘Abd-Allah ibn Mas‘ood is acceptable to the scholars. See: Jaami‘ al-Tahseel, 141; Sharh al-‘Ilal, 1/294
Differences in reports from Hudhayfah (may Allah be pleased with him). It was narrated from him via other chains of narrators that he said: There is no i‘tikaaf except in a mosque in which prayers are offered in congregation. And he did not limit it to the three mosques at all.
Ibn Hazm (may Allah have mercy on him) said in al-Muhalla (5/195), after mentioning this difference of opinion:
We say: It is uncertain whether this is from Hudhayfah or someone else, and something uncertain cannot be definitely attributed to the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him). If he (peace be upon him) had said, “There is no i‘tikaaf except in the three mosques”, Allah would have preserved it and there would have been no uncertainty concerning it. So we are certain that he (peace be upon him) never said it. End quote.
The senior Sahaabah did something other than that. ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (may Allah be pleased with him), ‘Aa’ishah and Ibn ‘Abbaas all issued fatwas stating that i‘tikaaf may be observed in any mosque in which prayers in congregation are held, and there is no proof that any of the Sahaabah differed from them concerning that. Rather this action (i.e., observing i‘tikaaf in the mosque) was well-known among them in all regions, with no objection to it, apart from what was narrated from Hudhayfah (may Allah be pleased with him). And Allah knows best. This was stated by Shaykh Sulaymaan al-‘Alwaan.
To sum up, it is not correct to attribute this hadeeth to the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him). It is the individual opinion of Hudhayfah in which he differed from the rest of the Sahaabah (may Allah be pleased with them), as he also differed from the apparent meaning of the Holy Qur’aan which states that i‘tikaaf may be observed in any mosque, as Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): “while you are in I'tikâf (i.e. confining oneself in a mosque for prayers and invocations leaving the worldly activities) in the mosques”[al-Baqarah 2:187]. It is not appropriate to go against the apparent meaning of the Qur’aan and the actions of the majority of the Sahaabah on the basis of one mawqoof report concerning which there is some uncertainty, as it was not narrated by the authors of Saheehs or Sunans, and none of the earlier fuqaha’ issued any fatwa on that basis. Although some of the later scholars were of this view, their ijtihaad concerning this matter was incorrect.
Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him) said in al-Sharh al-Mumti‘ (6/504):
It is Sunnah to observe i‘tikaaf in any mosque in the world, not only in the three mosques, as it was narrated from Hudhayfah ibn al-Yamaan (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “There is no i‘tikaaf except in the three mosques.” This is a da‘eef (weak) hadeeth.
The fact that it is da‘eef is indicated by the fact that Ibn Mas‘ood (may Allah be pleased with him) doubted it and said: Perhaps they got it right and you got it wrong, or they remembered and you forgot. Thus he regarded this ruling and this report as unsound.
As for the ruling, it is to be found in the words: They got it right and you got it wrong. As for his doubting the report, it is reflected in his words: They remembered and you forgot. Human beings are prone to forgetfulness.
If this hadeeth is saheeh, then what it means is that there is no perfect i‘tikaaf, i.e., in other mosques apart from the three, just as prayers offered elsewhere are lower in status than prayers offered in the three mosques.
The fact that it is general in meaning and includes all mosques is indicated by the words of Allah (interpretation of the meaning): “while you are in I'tikâf (i.e. confining oneself in a mosque for prayers and invocations leaving the worldly activities) in the mosques”[al-Baqarah 2:187].
Moreover, how can this ruling in the Book of Allah be for the ummah that stretches from east to west, then we say that it is not valid except in the three mosques? It is far-fetched to suggest that the ruling is mentioned in general terms to the Muslim ummah then to say that this act of worship is not valid except in three mosques. End quote.
And Allah knows best.