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Tokoh Tanah Melayu: Tok Kenali

TOK KENALI  (MUHAMMAD YUSOF)(1870 –1933)*

This essay proposes to examine the life and contributions of To’ Kenali of Kelantan, whose life coincided with the period when Kelantan was under the Siamese rule and then under the British sephere of influence, after the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. His studies in Islamic traditional education which started in his hometown and then pursued further at Mecca at the Sacred City, with a brief visit to Cairo, making him a revered intellectualand spiritual figure of the country, with such desire for positive changes among his people, led him to pursue an intensive life of Islamic educational and social reforms, with a number of institutions bearing the stamp of either his direct or indirect influence. Inspite of his intellectual attitude directed towards reform, he is intellectually a man of the traditional intellectual Sunni school, much influenced by Imam al-Ghazali, Shafi’i and Al-Ash’ari, affecting reform by a very cautious attitude, without making an intellectual break with the classical intellectual construct of mainstream Islam. Hence, his ability to gain the respect and following among the traditional scholars apart from him being accepted by those among the administrative elite in the state. The writer has to rely on the writers who had already made a study on him, apart from his perusal of some original sources; the interpretations are his own, guided by the facts observed.

His Life:

To’ Kenali (1), that is Muhammad Yusof (frequently referred simply as “Awang”)-may Allah has mercy on him – was born in kampong (village of) Kenali, Kubang Krian, Kota Bharu, Kelantan, the state in the East of Peninsular Malaysia, in 1870. This coincides with the period towards the end of the reign of Sultan Muhammad II of Kelantan. His father Ahmad was a farmer, a simple villager, nevertheless was a man devoted Islamic values. His mother, Fatimah, was a lady with fine character and strong believer of the values and practice of the faith. In the first number of the Islamic magazine Pengasuh (2) of which he was the first editor, he was named as “al-fadil Tuan Haji Awang Kenali”, and Sultan Muhammad IV named him as “Haji Awang Muhammad Yusof Kenali” in his royal address appointing him as one of the members of the Kelantan Islamic Religious Council. He was born about three years after the building of the Muhammadi Mosque of Kota Bharu, which later was to become a very significant center of Islamic learning, making it famous in South-east Asia. (3)

He was born into a poor farmer’s family making a living by planting paddy, with the mother helping in maintaining the household. This family situation living with little means influenced the future Islamic scholar to be man of asceticism and independent ways. When he was five years old his father passed away and he was taken care of by his maternal grandfather.

His educational Background:

At that time there was a strong awareness among the people to educate their children in the field of Qur’anic learning and the Islamic religious sciences. Hence Muhammad Yusof began his education with his own grandfather Che Salled or To’ Leh, who taught him the Qur’an, reading and writing. His grandfather was a man of sufficient learning and piety to be his guide, living with the philosophy of life seeking for the pleasure of his Lord in whatever he does. From his step-grandmother he was influenced by her views about the necessity of being careful concerning food and drink because taking forbidden meals and drink will impair one’s well being in this world and the hereafter.

Due to his love of learning since the earliest years of his life, soon he became proficient in the Qur’anic learning and in reading and writing. The story is being told that even at the early age of seven or eight the To’ Kweng –the title for the village chief at that time – engaged him as a clerk to help him to keep record of the yields from paddy, coconut and durian at that time from which taxes were taken. After the death of this To’ Kweng Ahmad, his son Ismail succeeded him in that post. This occurred some time after 1908 after To’ Kenali’s return from Mecca. (4)

When he was about eight or nine years old (1878-1879) he continued with his education in Kota Bharu, walking twice daily for four miles each way, for attending his classes in the capital, in the state mosque, Masjid Muhammadi. There were a number of religious scholars teaching at the mosque with several hundred students from every corner of the state. The mosque was surrounded by small huts of the students – called pondoks, which constituted the ‘hostels’ for them during their period of studying there. (5)

Among the famous scholars with whom To’ Kenali learned Islamic religious sciences then were: Encik Ismail or Haji Wan Ismail, the father of Dato’ Nik Mahmud, the Perdana Menteri or the Chief-Minister of Kelantan, Tuan Guru Shaikh Muhammad ‘Ali bin ‘Abd al-Rahman, known by the name of Wan ‘Ali Kutan, Tuan Guru Haji Talib Tuan Padang, and Tuan Guru Haji Ibrahim Sungai Budor. (6)

Apart from teaching at the central mosque of the state the scholars also taught in their own homes; for instance Haji Wan Isma’il, To’ Kenali’s first teacher after his grandfather, taught at kampong Banggul, not far from the central mosque; one of Haji Muhammad Yusuf’s fellow students studying under Haji Wan ismail was Idris bin Haji Hassan who in 1921 was appointed as the state mufti holding the post until his demise six years later.

It appears also that Muhammad Yusof studied in the early 1880s under one Haji Ibrahim at his pondok at Sungai Budor, in Kota Bharu. He also studied with Tuan Padang – that is Tuan Guru Haji Taib, originally from Sumatera, Indonesia. (7)

His Life and Education in Mecca:

Mecca is not only the center for the pilgrimage, the rite constituting the fifth pillar of the religion, but it also is a center for Islamic education. Thus for centuries Mecca became a center for advanced studies for these scholars wherein they spent their life in advancing their knowledge and understanding of Islam and at the same time they composed their writings in the Malay Language (called “Bahasa Jawi”) for enriching Islamic literature in that language. There they gained profiency in Arabic and the Islamic religious sciences of tafsir, traditions of the Prophet, fiqh or the Islamic Sacred Law, usul al-din or Islamic Theology and mysticism. Among these scholars can be mentioned such illustrious names like Shaikh ‘Abd al-Rauf al-Fansuri, Shaikh ‘Abd al-Samad al-Falimbani, Shaikh Daud al-Fatani, Shaikh Muhammad Arshad al-Banjari, Shaikh Nawawi Bantani (known for writing his works in Arabic), Shaikh Ahmad Khatib, Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani, and many others. (8)

Teaching in the Sacred Mosque or Masjid al-Haram was done in small groups in circles – in halaqah – as was the practice for centuries; apart from this mosque there was the center of learning at Medina, at the Mosque of the Prophet, -peace and blessings be upon him, and then of course, there was the famous University of Al-Azhar, centered around the Mosque at Al-Azhar. Scholars from the Malay World flocked to these centers, to deepen their studies in the Islamic sciences and Arabic. After their return to the Malay World, they devoted themselves to the dissemination of Islam and its practices.

To’ Kenali must have felt such a great longing to advance in his studies at the sacred city of Mecca. Hence he undertook his voyage to Mecca in 1886, at the young age of about eighteen, and after a difficult journey of six months by sailing ship he set foot on the sacred soil of the Holy City of Mecca to perform the pilgrimage and further his studies.

Since he was from a poor family, he could only make the journey with the financial assistance of his friends and well-wishers in Kota Bharu who collected for him $50.00 (fifty Dollars then) to which his mother added another sum of $22.00 (twenty Dollars); for seven months he was without proper lodging there, and he was able to rest in the evening and at night at the mosque. He was in very difficult circumstances in the land of strangers, and he managed to solve some of his difficulties by cooking for his friends and acquaintances in their picnics in the valleys outside the Holy City. (9)

While he was in Kelantan Muhammad Yusof has already mastered such subjects as Arabic grammar and syntax (nahw and saraf) so that he would be able to follow his classical Islamic learning in the Arabic language. He was ready to follow the instructions in his studies in the Holy City. However, unfortunately because he was in difficult circumstances, he could only follow his lessons by listening, without being able to benefit from reading the texts. As a result, so the story goes, he has to go to the bookshops and ask the permission of the owners to see the relevant books with particular care and attention without buying them. Books in the waqf endowment in the sacred Mosque were also utilized by To’ Kenali to help him in his studies. He was also fortunate because he was able to borrow the texts from his teachers. Possibly because of his patience with his difficult circumstances and poverty he was able to advance very well in his studies due to his diligence and focus.

To’ Kenali’s intellectual horizon seems not to be confined to limited subjects of his studies alone.  It appears that he frequently read and scrutinized manuscripts written by Muslim scholars and thinkers which were in circulation in the Muslim World at that time. He liked to examine the materials taught to him and ask questions about them, before being repeated by his teachers, in this manner he made more impressions of the materials of his learning on his mind and heart, and in this way also he was able to make comparisons between the materials learnt with his own experience and understanding. Possibly wide reading and positive critical attitude in his studies made him advance very well in his studies.

Teachers in the Sacred Mosque (Masjid al-Haram);

Among his teachers frequently mentioned, in the Masjid al-Haram were – among the most outstanding: Tuan Guru Wan Ahmad, his full name being: Ahmad bin Muhammad Zain bin Mustafa al-Fatani. (10) Apart from being a very famous and respectable teacher Shaikh Ahmad – may Allah has mercy on him – is also an important writer, second only to Shaikh Daud al-Fatani. (11). To’ Kenali became a very close student of this mentor who influenced him in his studies and life too. This towering figure in the Malay World who is to be the determining influence on To’ Kenali’s life, as will be seen from his activities later on, deserves more serious attention from researchers on Muslim Thought in this region.  The fame of Shaikh Ahmad is still remembered in the Malay World, in Malaysia, Indonesia (especially Sumatera), and Cambodia, and Brunei. It is stated that Shaikh Ahmad changed the name of “Petani” with “p” –“t”-“n” to “f” (fa’) – ta’ (the ‘big’ ta in Arabic)-“nun” –) giving the name from “f-t-n” meaning “to be clever skilful and wise”(12). This is to avoid the meaning of “fitnah” from the old manner of writing it as if it is from “f-t-n” giving the name of “trials” and “dissentions”.

It is known that several other teachers from Patani and Indonesia attracted the attention of To’ Kenali; apart from that there were a number of Arab teachers who attracted his attention.

Among the Arab teachers whose knowledge were benefited by To’ Kenali were: Shaikh Hasbullah from Egypt, Shaikh ‘Ubaid, the mufti of the Maliki school of law, Shaikh Muhammad Amin, the imam of the Hanafi school of law, Shaikh Sayyid Bakri, Shaikh Muhammad Yusuf al-Khayat, Shaikh Sayyid ‘Abdullah bin as-Sayyid Muhammad Salih al-Zawawi, the mufti of Mecca and a teacher in the Sacred Mosque. (13)

Visit to Egypt:

After a period of about twenty years studying various branches of Islamic sciences and others, under the intimate guidance of that teacher Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani, To’ Kenali was brought by Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani to pay a visit to Egypt; this was in 1903; there were four members of the party: Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani, To’ Kenali, Haji Nik Mahmud bin Haji Wan Ismail (the son of his old teacher in Kota Bharu, later to become the Chief-Minister in the Kelantan government), and one Haji Wan Ismail of Patani.The only brief record available concerning this short visit shows that it is of general interest about sight seeing and at the same time having importance from the point of view of learning and the development of education in Al-Azhar and other institutions of like nature in Egypt. After a short time of meeting with men of learning in Cairo, discussing matters about religion and Islamic education with them, the delegation returned to Mecca. The visit took place in the final decade of the life of Shaikh Muhammad ‘Abduh the reformer of Egypt, the student of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the pan-Islamist.

In connection with this visit it can be understood that apart from visiting the ulama of al-Azhar in Cairo, the delegation also met Shaikh Yusuf al-Nabhani in Beirut; this is mentioned by Haji Wan Mohd Shaghir a few times.   May be this is influential in the formation of the intellectual attitude of To’ Kenali later in having the respect for traditional Sunni intellectual legacy on one hand and favouring reforms in the Muslim society and their religious education on the other.

Death of Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani and Return to Kelantan:

After a period of about four years, Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani –Allah has mercy on him- passed away in Mecca on 11th Dhul-Hijjah, 1325(14th January 1908), and was buried in the famous cemetery of Ma’la, Mecca. Hence due to the loss of that guide, To’ Kenali for the first time felt a great void in his life; hence about two years after his teacher’s death he returned to Kelantan, while he was forty years old.

At that time Kelantan was under the rule of Sultan Muhammad IV who was entitled the Sultan of Kelantan or Raja Kelantan; there were consultations held between the leaders of the Kelantan Government and the representatives of the Siamese Government on the one hand and the representatives of the British on the other. The aim was to reach an agreement to place Kelantan under the British rule.  In the following year (1909) Kelantan was under the rule of the British. The transfer of Kelantan from the Siamese to the British rule is stated in the treaty and then the    treaty is followed by a letter from the High Commissioner, Sir John Anderson informing Raja Senik (of Kelantan) that:

His Majesty the King of Siam has agreed to transfer all rights over Kelantan, and The King of England will pay to the king of Siam the amount of debt due by my friend the Sultan of Kelantan and the King of England will in future appoint an advisor to assist my friend instead of the advisor appointed by the King of Siam and the King of Siam will no longer have anything to do with the affairs of my friend’s state, and my friend will have to look only to the King of England (14).

Hence the return of To’ Kenali from Mecca can be considered as a point marking a new period of Kelantan being under the British; hence his return is awaited for fulfilling his future role in bringing progress to the society with his knowledge and potentialities.

His Educational and Religious Activities in Kelantan:

Without wasting his time, To’ Kenali established the famous Pondok Kenali; he was lucky because at that time Kelantan was under the leadership of the Chief Minister-Datok Besar-Datok Perdana Haji Nik Mahmud bin Ismail, his companion during their student days under that guide Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani. In fact their friendship started already when they studied in their childhood days under Ence Ismail, the father of Nik Mahmud; and in Mecca they were together under the guidance of Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani. Dato’ Yusof Zaky Yacob states in his observation about To’ Kenali:

If To’ Kenali inherited (the intellectual legacy) concerning knowledge of Arabic grammar (and syntax) and the advanced level of Islamic religious sciences (usul-al-din, al-fiqh, al-tasawwuf, knowledge about the Qur’an and Sunnah as clear from the texts of Shaikh Ahmad) from Shaikh Ahmad, then Dato’ Haji Nik Mahmud (the Chief Minister) inherited (from him) advanced knowledge and views about societal and political  (issues) from that great and multi-faceted skilled teacher” (15).

The return of To’ Kenali once again made possible the renewal of the close friendship and co-operation of the two luminaries of the state, so that they could work for the progress of the society and the dissemination of the knowledge of the faith at an advanced level.

As stated above at first To’ Kenali returned to teach at the Pondok Kenali at his village. In fact he began to deliver his lessons at his own house at Kampong Paya, which was then occupied by his mother, Hajjah Fatimah. Before long students began to come to him from the surrounding villages and also from further off places; they came and set up their own small pondoks around him in the village so that they could study under him and be with him. By 1910 the first Pondok Kenali was flourishing extremely well under his able leadership, and from there his fame began to spread far and wide.

Later he began to teach once a week at the Muhammadi Mosque in Kota Bharu.In 1915 he was persuaded by Dato’ Nik Mahmud (by this time he was the Dato’ Betara Setia and assistant to the Chief Minister of the state) to move his household to the state capital; and so for the next five years he taught at the state mosque and at the Pondok Kubang Pasu, also in the capital.

At that time the Muhammadi Mosque was not only the center of learning for Kelantan alone, rather it was a center of learning for the region as a whole. It was frequented by many able teachers like Nik Abdullah and Haji Idris bin Haji Hassan. (16) After five years teaching in Kota Bharu in which period he made notable contributions in the religious life of the state as a founder member of the State Religious Council and editor of the fortnightly magazine Pengasuh (The Educator), To’ Kenali again returned to his village, his birthplace, Kampong Kenali.His fame as a revered teacher grew and never leave him; at its highest point, the community in the pondok grew up to a number of no less than three hundred students from all over the Penunsula, Indonesia, (especially Sumatera), Patani and Cambodia.

In carrying out his task as an educator and teacher, To’ Kenali it reported to have prepared graduated text-books in a number of subjects related to Arabic Language and the study of Islamic religious subjects. In the teaching of Arabic he has played considerable role in developing its teaching, and in other subjects he has made his contributions befitting the society which was his milieu. The more outstanding ones among his students were made “group teachers” (“kepala metalaah”)-leading the other students in preparing for their lessons and reading their prescribed texts; apart from such lessons To’ Kenali was also involved in giving lessons in religious subjects to children and adults based on certain religious texts.

Apart from giving his lessons on Arabic texts, To’ Kenali also read Malay texts in Jawi. Among the texts read by him are: Faridatul-Fara’id written by his mentor, Shaikh Ahmad al-Fatani, on Ash’arite theology, the text ‘Aqidatul-Najin written by Shaikh Zain al-‘Abidin al-Fatani, also on Ash’arite theology, Munyatul-Musalli of Shaikh Daud al-Fatani on fiqh concerning prayer, Furu’ al-Masa’il of Shaikh Daud al-Fatani on fiqh concerning advanced fatwas based on Shaikh ibn Hajar and Shaikh Ramli’s views, Bughyatu’t-Tullab of Shaikh Daud, a very detailed fiqh text on Shafi’I school concerning spiritual devotions, Kashf al-Litham a very detailed fiqh work in the Shafi’I school, Hidayatu’s-Salikin of Shaikh ‘Abd al-Samad al-Falimbani, a Sufi text, Sayr al-Salikin of the same author, based on the Bidayatul-Hidayah and Ihya’ ‘Ulumid-Din of al-Ghazali. He also read the Hikam of Ibn ‘Ata’illah (in its Malay version, said to have been authored by To’ Pulau Manis of Trengganu) for advanced level students. (17)

In relation to general religious education to adults, apart from reading texts, he provided moral tales, often humorous ones, to the kampong people so as to draw certain points he was trying to drive home to them. One of the characteristics of his way of instructions was that he did not use text- books. Though students might have texts in front of them, he never did. Besides indicating his amazing memory, this reflected the severe training he had undergone in Mecca during his difficult years in poverty in the Sacred City of Mecca. (18)

His Offices and Services in the State and the Community:

To’ Kenali-Allah has mercy on him- was in the front line of those who undertook the task of furthering the cause of Islamic religious education and the growth of cultural activities in the state.

As a teacher and educator, he taught at the mosque of the capital, the Mashed Muhammadi   from about 1910, and more intensively from 1915, and then acted as a kind of head of Islamic education in the state and as assistant to the mufti; it was with his advice that Dato’ Bentara Setia (Haji Nik Mahmud Ismail) proposed the idea of the formation of the Majlis Ugama Islam dan Adat istiadat Melayu Kelantan (Kelantan Council of Islamic Religion and Malay Customs) which really came into being. (To’ Kenali was appointed as one of the twelve foundation members) in December 1915, and it is still active until to-day. Then in January 1918 the majlis convened the Meshuarat ‘Ulama (or the Meeting of the ‘Ulama) as a permanent body; To’ Kenali was one of the first members. Then in July 1981 when the majlis published the fortnightly magazine Pengasoh (The Educator), To’ Kenali was appointed as “principal honourary editor” (“Ketua Pengarang Kehormat”)(19) Later, with the help of the Meshuarat ‘Ulama, the column on “Question and Answer” was launched, dealing with religious issues of that time.

Further, of a more serious and intellectually daunting enterprise, To’ Kenali was entrusted with the duty of carrying out the Malay translation of Tafsir al-Khazin and Tafsir ibn Kathir (20) This exacting intellectual task resulted in the completion of part of the first of these two classical works of Sunni exegesis, however, unfortunately, the manuscript has not been published until to-day. (21).

Then there was at that time the monthly magazine Al-Hedayah which was first published in July 1923, whose chief editor was Ahmad bin Ismail; this literary magazine benefited from his advice and views which was often sought after by the chief editor. He was frequently seen at the chief editor’s office reading newspapers and periodicals of the day. He was a man dedicated to learning as can be clearly observed from the characteristics of his life; and it is interesting to note that in his collection of books can be found the manuscript of Chetera Raja Muda, an important source for the history of Kelantan, later on it was given by him to the writer of the famous work Hikayat Seri Kelantan (22)

In relation to social change and development, he established the Islamic society by the name of al-Jam’iyyah al-‘Asriyyah (The Contemporary Association) which served as a forum in which discussions were often held concerning controversial social and intellectual issues of the day, apart from being a center for the congregational prayer. For furthering its activities and goals the premises for the organization was established at the Jalan Tengku Putera Semerak in the center of Kota Bharu. Now the building is no more there, as a newly erected building is erected there, with the Jam’iyyah occupying one part of the whole complex at the same road in the town. Now it is a musalla for holding congregational prayer and a place for imparting Islamic knowledge from traditional Islamic texts after the evening prayer, apart from being a community center for holding sacred functions like the commemoration of the Prophet’s birthday and the ascension of the Prophet to the heavenly realms (al-isra’ wa al-mi’raj). (23).

His Influence in Islamic Education:

It can be observed that the influence and fame of To’ Kenali was spread widely and speedily throughout the Peninsula and the surrounding areas. Possibly this can be attributed to the many important positions and posts held by him in the state and the dedication and sincerity shown by him in his efforts at promoting Islamic education and learning and the growth of culture in the state in particular and in Malaya in general.

The highest point of his influence and fame manifested itself towards the end of the reign of Sultan Muhammad IV (1900-20) and in the early stage of the reign of Sultan Ismail (1920-44); both rulers of Kelantan were responsible for a lot of development for the state, especially in matters pertaining to the religious sphere. It can be stated that this created a very conducive atmosphere for the spread of To’ Kenali’s influence, facilitating him in his educational efforts and religious activities. This can be easily understood when we remember that both rulers respected To’ Kenali very much due to his learning and extremely pious character. Apart from that To’ Kenali was fortunate because he had a very intimate relationship and close co-operation with Dato’ Haji Nik Mahmud b. Haji Wan Ismail, who as Dato’ Setia and then as Dato’ Perdana Paduka Raja (the Chief minister) exercised much power in the state, and therefore this again facilitated him in his struggle and efforts therein.

In relation to the improvement of Arabic and Islamic education in the traditional pondok system and similar schools throughout the Peninsula, it can be said that this was partly due to the efforts of To’ Kenali. He devised a system of graduated instruction in Arabic grammar and syntax, which helped his students enormously in mastering the language. There is a famous ‘alim in Kelantan by the name of Haji ‘Ali Salahuddin bin Awang (24) who published these lessons of To’ Kenali in 1945 in a work entitled ad-Durus al-Kenaliyyah al-Ibtida’iyyah (To’ Kenali’s Elementary Lessons (in Arabic)). There was another student of To’ Kenali by the name of Shaikh ‘Othman Jalaluddin al-Kelantani (25) who had earlier published a similar collection (2nd edition 1358/1939/40) under the title Tasrif al-‘Arf (a table of Arabic verb declensions); both works were circulated widely throughout the Peninsula.

In his Tasrif al-’Arf Shaikh ‘Othman states (26):

Truly I have borrowed many morphological ideas of great value from my profound and learned teacher, one who has accumulated much valuable knowledge in the service of religion –that is Muhammad Yusof, better known throughout Malaya by his Kelantan title ‘To’ Kenali’

In his article concerning the contribution of To’ Kenali in Arabic studies, Abdul Hayie bin Abd Shukor mentions a number of useful in formations. (27) Among them are when To’ Kenali returned to Malaya in 1908 he was always with two texts on Arabic grammar, namely Hashiyah ‘ala Sharah al-Ashmuni ‘ala-l-Alfiyah, written by Muhammad bin ‘Ali al-Sabban (d.1792) and Mughni’l-Labib ‘an Kitab al-A’arib written by Jamal al-Din ibn Hisham (d.761) both of which were so liked by him.

Further he mentions the love of To’ Kenali for Arabic literature and poetry of high literary merits. And he liked to quote them in his lessons and at certain suitable occasions. Apart from this he also mentions that those who attended the study circles of To’ Kenali (halaqat) were encouraged to memorize the text Al-Ajrumiyah and Alfiyah of ibn Malik which contains a thousand lines concerning rules on Arabic grammar.

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