Tok Kenali or Muhammad Yusof bin Ahmad (1870 - 1933 CE) was born in Kelantan, a state in the northeast of Peninsular Malaysia. Orphaned at the tender age of 5, Tok Kenali grew up under the care of his pious grandfather Tok Salleh, from whom he studied the Qur'an. He learned the Arabic language and the basics of Islamic teachings at Masjid Al-Muhammadi and several religious institutions in Kelantan from 1879 to 1887 before furthering his studies and performing hajj in Makkah.
Tok Kenali was 18 years old when he sailed to Makkah. In an interview with his youngest son and grandchildren aired on a Malaysian tv station last friday, Tok Kenali was said to have embarked on the journey with only RM22.00 in his pocket. With that amount of money he had spent 22 years studying at Masjidil Haram. He came back to Malaysia in 1909 and established his own madrasah before assuming the post of headmaster at Masjid al-Muhammadi in 1912. He died on 19 November 1933 at the age of 65.
Stories of his karamah first became known when he was sailing to Makkah. The voyage got delayed in the Indian Ocean for a long time because the ship's mast had broken. Tok Kenali helped restore the ship and made it reach Makkah after being at sea for six months. While in Makkah, Tok Kenali appeared as a student with a strange personality. He lived a simple meagre life while focusing his efforts on acquiring knowledge. He did not have any spare clothes and seldom ate any meals. He was seen attending one halaqah (classes) after another without bringing any kitab. Other sources said that he would buy one kitab in a year and sell it afterwards or sometimes borrow kitab from his guru. He was often caught sleeping during lectures.
One day, during a halaqah of Shaykh Ahmad Al-Fathani, Tok Kenali who had fallen asleep was called by the guru. Al-Fathani woke him up to ask three difficult questions which none of the other students could answer. His guru had purposely prepared the questions to test Tok Kenali if he was truly gifted with 'ilm laduni. He surprised many as he was able to answer the questions well. Needless to say, he impressed his guru and from that incident onwards Tok Kenali became close with Shaykh Ahmad Al-Fathani and began to serve him for many years.
Tok Kenali's mureed especially those who dedicated their time as his khadam (those who served him) were renowned gurus too. According to a member of his family, Tok Kenali's karamah became the talk of the town when someone who had gone for pilgrimage saw him put out a fire in Mina. It was narrated that Tok Kenali was in the midst of teaching in Malaysia when that event occured. He excused himself from class and miraculously 'left' for Mina. Upon his return, his students noticed that Tok Kenali had ashes on his turban.
One Malay historian by the name of Wan Shaghir Abdullah traced Tok Kenali's roots to a clan from Caiyya (Cahaya) in south Thailand. He would be given a royal treatment everytime he visited Caiyya. The locals idolized him and often asked for his prayers. The Caiyya people believed that any du'a he made would be granted maqbul.
Tok Kenali was not only known for his karamah, he was also remembered as editor and writer for several publications. He founded a Malay magazine called Pengasuh which continued to be published until today (2006). His writing flair was evident even as a student. A litograph on the virtues of Imam Bushiri's Burdah (Risalatud Durril Mantsur) which he composed was published in Makkah circa 1892. His books on sharaf and nahu (Arabic grammar) were published while he was back teaching in Kelantan.
Tok Kenali was married to Cik Ruqayyah Mahmud. Their four children, Ahmad, Muhd Shaalih, Mahmud and Abdullah Zawawi too became respectable Islamic scholars in their own right.Reference:
1. Article by Wan Mohd Shaghir Abdullah
2. TV1 program 'Lambaian Kaabah: Kelana Anak Melayu' 28 October 2010
3. Biodata Tok Kenali originally published on www.tok-kenali.net