The imam guide in the garden


Raja Mohamad Izan Raja Yusoff takes his job at the Tropical Spice Garden seriously. “Our responsibility is to tell the truth about our plants.” There has been a lot of misconception, he said, about plants and their supposed medicinal value. “For example, some people say the misai kucing (Orthosiphon stamineus) can cure diabetes. But it cannot, it can only help prevent it. Because we are Muslim, we must be sincere in our business.”

The peak Arabic season, he noted, is coming up, from June to August. As he speaks fluent Arabic, a skill he learned from his father (“My father can speak 11 languages: Arab, Chinese, Hokkien, Cantonese, French, Urdu, Italian, German…”), Raja is designated as one of the Tropical Spice Garden’s Arabic guides, tasked with taking his guests on a guided tour of the Spice Garden and its more than 500 species of tropical flora. Arabs, Raja said, love spices, and would gush over and take pictures of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom or ginger. “They are very happy,” he said with a laugh. “They consume a lot of spices in the Gulf, but they can’t grow them there.”

As much as the 43-year-old enjoys working at the Tropical Spice Garden (“I like nature, and it’s good for my health because it’s warm.”), Raja’s true calling lies with his faith: he is a practicing imam at a nearby Batu Ferringhi mosque. There, he holds Quran reading classes for adults, emphasising tajwid, which is a set of rules on how the Quran should be read. "When you pronounce the words wrongly, the meaning will be different. This is a sin. So I teach people to pronounce carefully and properly." He is also a facilitator for marriage courses.

It was a long road for him to get to this point. Raja began studying Syariah law in Yemen in 1988, but war broke out there and he returned to Malaysia to finish his studies in Nilam Puri, Kelantan. When he returned to Penang in 1991, there were no positions available, and he found himself in the services sector instead, eventually becoming the food and beverage supervisor for Mutiara Hotel’s six restaurants. Then Mutiara closed in 2006 and he found himself out of a job again. Fortunately, Tropical Spice Garden invited him to become one of their Arabic guides.

But even when working at Mutiara, Raja taught Islamic classes on the side, and after an interview with the Islamic Department in 2009, he officially became an imam. “There are different categories of imam,” he said. “Some are imam kampung, who only lead the prayers. They cannot teach, because in order to teach you must know how to read Arabic and know its meaning. And you need a certificate to teach in public.”

Raja comes from a family of deeply religious people. His father, Raja Yusoff, is a missionary who travelled the world (“Like Ahmed Deedat and Cat Stevens!”). Raja himself has done missionary work in Sarawak, Madagascar and Albania, among others. “Actually, we don’t see the non-Muslims,” he clarified.

Volunteer missionary work is done with the support of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia ( Jakim).

Locally, Raja’s reach as an imam doesn’t end with Batu Ferringhi; he often gets invitations to speak at other mosques in Penang, or even Kuala Lumpur. In December last year, he was invited by Putera Umno to give motivational talks for youths in Putrajaya. “We talk about believing in Allah and how we must follow Islam 100%, not just halfway.”

Having been a devout Muslim all his life, has Raja noticed any differences in how Islam is practiced today compared to in the past? He took a moment to gather his thoughts; it’s clear he has been thinking about this for some time.

“Back then, people in the kampungs were very good. But when they went to the city, the youngsters became terrible because they became exposed to all sorts of things.” Today, everything’s reversed, said Raja. “The youngsters in the big towns are more religious than the youngsters in the kampungs. There are fewer talks on Islam in the kampungs now. But in the big cities, there are talks every night, in every mosque.

"Honestly, social problems in the cities are not caused by city people, but by people from the kampungs. Maybe when they moved, they got a culture shock, and started taking syabu, ecstasy, everything!”

He laughed ruefully. “In the kampungs, they have family. In the city, they have no one to stop them from doing bad things.”

But Raja put some of the blame on religious leaders themselves. “All the leaders, the old men, they only complain. I asked them, ‘Do you go to them and talk to them? No? Then why are you being a busybody?'

Rather than waiting for people to come to the mosque, Raja has taken more proactive measures. In the afternoons, he organises small groups of up to six people to go to public places like the beach or shopping malls and talk to the “youngsters” themselves. It seems to be working; Raja said it’s no longer unusual to see tattooed beach boys show up at the mosque to take part in prayers. Not many, but it’s a start.

"La ilaha illa Allah. ‘There is no god but Allah’. It’s not just a saying. Sickness and health, all of this comes from Allah. We must plant this in our hearts, and believe."

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