If I have only 10 days to spend in either Jamaat or I`tikaaf. What would you councel?
Hamidan wa muswalliyan
First know that both are rewarded and praise worthy pious deeds. So it would be better that you observe I`tikaaf now and then go out in the path of Allah later. Because the beloved prophet SAW did both in Ramadhaan. In fact the conquest of Makkah was done during the last 10 days of Ramadhaan. The beloved prophet SAW did not observe I`tikaaf that year, not even in Makkah also. But rather he concentrated on the upliftment of deen in the region of Makkah. The main objective of going in the path of Allah is abandon all worldly activities and leave your home town to go in a place, away from your social and local climatic conditions so as to uplift the deen of Allah. During the path of Allah, one do i`tikaaf nafil in masjid at night. Also there is teaching during the day. In fact the beloved prophet SAW used to teach sahabas during the day of I`tikaaf. The people going into jamaat are the only people of this ummah that call people from outside masjid to bring them inside the masjid. This was the noble practice of Mu`az bin Jabal, Hazrat Umar and Abdullah Bin Rawahah r.a. Hence it is important to go in the path of Allah during Ramadhaan or outside Ramadhaan.
I`tikaaf of last 10 days is sunnate Muakkadah alal kifayah. That is if in a town, no one sits for I`tikaaf, then everyone is sinful. This is because the beloved prophet SAW observed I`tikaaf of last 10 days of Ramadhaan until he left this world. But note that he missed one year I`tikaaf and gave preference to go in the path of Allah. And know that the beloved prophet SAW stepped backward from I`tikaaf to state the level of importance of I`tikaaf in shariah. And hence one may step backward from I`tikaaf for an issue of deen. The beloved prophet SAW prevented the issue of women being in masjid and ordered to take out all tents of his wives from the masjid(Bukhari). By this, the beloved prophet SAW stated the order of I`tikaaf of women be in their masjid ul bait, at home. And not in masjid. And he himself did not sit for I`tikaaf that Ramadhaan. So for an Islamic issue, on may step backwards from I`tikaaf. If there is one person sitting for I`tikaaf, then one may go in jamaat. But if no one is sitting I`tikaaf in your town, then give preference to I`tikaaf to save the town from being sinful. In fact, jamaat is a concerned for oneself and others while I`tikaaf is only a personnal spriritual need. But when there is no one ready to sit for I`tikaaf, then one should prefer to save the town from sin. So when there is no one for I`tikaaf, then a jamaat saathi should be the first to do I`tikaaf to complete this task and then after Ramadhaan he may go out in jamaat. One may opt for I`tikaaf to complete the sunnah of keeping the masjid alive with ta`leem, bayaans, invite musallis to keep the masjid abaad or stay in the masjid with ta`leem, da`wat and istiqbaal. Improve the Qur-aan and salaah duas of all Mu`takifs. And also get them to talk of greatness of Allah like Mu`az bin Jabal(Bukhari).
But if you want to compare both, then know that there is no comparison between the `Ibadah of I`tikaaf and going in the path of Allah! There are no warnings on muslims when they don`t do I`tikaaf in a masjid. Only sinful if they all left the whole town without one mu`takif also. But the warning of not going in the path of Allah is addressed to all muslims and is addressed clearly in the Holy Qur-aan:
Say, [O Muhammad], “If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your relatives, wealth which you have obtained, commerce wherein you fear decline, and dwellings with which you are pleased are more beloved to you than Allah and His Messenger and going out in the path of Allah, then wait until Allah executes His command(against you). And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people.(Sourah 9. Verse 23)
Another warning of not going in the path of Allah: (Sourah 9: verses 38 and 38) O you who have believed, what is [the matter] with you that, when you are told to go out in the path of Allah , you adhere heavily to the earth? Are you satisfied with the life of this world rather than the Hereafter? But what is the enjoyment of worldly life compared to the Hereafter except a [very] little.
If you do not go(in the path of Allah),then He will punish you with a painful punishment and will replace you with another people, and you will not harm Him at all. And Allah is over all things competent.
And on top of that, the reprimand that came for the 3 sahabas who did not go in the path of Allah in Tabook is really severe. Note that Tabook is the last going out in the path of Allah for the beloved prophet SAW. The ayah 118 of sourah 9 explicitly says that staying behind from going in the path of Allah is a great sin and needed repentance! The 3 sahabas were: Ka`b bin Malik, Hilaal bin Umayyah and Murarah bin Rabi` r.a. Allah Ta`ala says :
And [He also forgave] the three who were left behind [and regretted their error] to the point that the earth closed in on them in spite of its vastness and their souls confined them and they were certain that there is no refuge from Allah except in Him. Then He turned to them so they could repent. Indeed, Allah is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.
Hence there are severe warnings to abandon going in the path of Allah and hence give the greatest importance to go in the path of Allah. Such warnings are not found for leaving I`tikaaf.
And if you want to know the reward, then know that there is a sahih hadith in Ibn Hibbaan that says:
موقف ساعة في سبيل الله خير من قيام ليلة القدر عند الحجر الأسود
‘The status of the reward of one moment in the path of Allah is much more than the reward of standing in salaah during lailatul qadr by the the Hajre Aswad(in front of Ka`bah)!'(Sahih Ibn Hibbaan)
So one hour in the path of Allah is even better than to definitely find lailatul qadr and spend it in ibaadah!
It is reported in Tabrani that Hazrat Bilaal r.a. came to Hazrat Abu BAkr r.a. and said: ”I have heard the beloved prophet SAW saying: There is no action of a mu`min that can surpass going in the path of Allah…”
But all these virtues would be accepted when you accept going in jamaat is going in the path of Allah. In fact going in jamaat is to invite people to deen, kalimah, to advise people to get close to deen, follow the prophet SAW etc. The beloved prophet SAW said:”The one who go out striving to uplift the Kalimah of Allah, he is the one who is in the path of Allah Azzawa Jal”(Bukhari)
Note that in Tabook, there was fighting and yet sahabas were reprimanded from their absence therein. So the importance is to go out of your town for Allah`s cause.
And know that to give da`wat is important before any fighting. Hence if the enemy embrace Islam, then there is no fighting. So inviting people towards Islam is principal, not fighting them.
And also in sourah Yasin, Allah Ta`ala talks of Habib the carpenter assassinated because of inviting people to follow the prophets. Allah Ta`ala says concretely that I put him at once in Jannah! In fact he was a martyr in the path of Allah, the path to uplift the Kalimah of Allah!
As such going in the path of Allah is much more rewardable than I`tikaaf. But still we recommend muslims to do I`tikaaf so as to work on youngsters and mu`takif to go out in the path of Allah after Ramadhaan. So do I`tikaaf to keep alive the masjid as it was during the prophet`s time. Ta`leem, bayaans, teaching and learning Qur-aan, dua qounout, attahiyyat and other masnoon duas.