TV casting shows modeled on the British "Pop Idol" or "American Idol" have become extremely popular all over Asia. A Malaysian show is now extending this format to select the best young talent to become an imam.
Ten contestants participate in the reality TV show "Imam Muda"
"Imam Muda" or "Young Imam" is the name of a reality TV competition in Malaysia, where 10 young men try to convince the audience that they deserve a scholarship to be trained as an imam by the al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia.
The audience votes out one candidate in each show. Wearing dark suits and black caps, which are common among Malaysian Muslims, the candidates have to fulfil several tasks. During the very first show, the would-be imams got a tough assignment: They were asked to wash corpses in front of live cameras, and bury the bodies of the deceased according to Muslim tradition. One of the deceased even was an HIV-infected person, whose body, according to newspaper reports had been lying in a mosque for weeks because nobody was willing to touch the corpse.
"I think it's great that I can participate here", says 26-year-old Asyraf Mohd Ridzuan, one of the candidates. "Presenting religion on TV just like American Idol is something unheard of. I am really enthusiastic about it."
More than 1,000 Malaysians from all parts of the country originally applied to go on the show. Those selected are between 19 and 27 years old, and none of them had any previous religious training. One was a farmer, another worked in a bank. That's exactly what has made the program such a success, argues producer Izelan Basar.
Taufek Noh is one of the contestants in "Imam Muda"
"We want to show that Islam is a modern religion. And we seem to have touched on a sensitive issue. Many people call us and want our candidates to become their sons-in-law or husbands. Why is that? Because at last someone is able to reconcile religion with everyday life."
Winner gets laptop and trip to Mecca
The winner will get the job of leading prayers at Kuala Lumpur's biggest mosque. He will be paid a trip to Mecca to participate in the Hajj pilgrimage and receive a laptop as well. But there's still a long way to go. The candidates must live under one roof for three months, almost as in the Big Brother reality show, and they have to study hard to master the challenges.
Hassan Mahmoud Al-Hafiz, who heads the channel's jury, describes what is needed to win: "A good imam should make people understand religion. And at the same time, he should understand the people. Our candidates, who all are ordinary people, are well suited to do that."
Hassan Mahmoud Al-Hafiz heads the channel's jury
TV audiences love the show, which is only broadcast by Astro Oasis, a religious pay TV channel. A woman from Kuala Lumpur says young people don't go to the mosque much but the show is changing all that: "If an imam is young, is their age, it will attract them. You know, I think it's beautiful!"
Imam Muda's Facebook page has already more than 30,000 fans.
Author: Bernd Musch-Borowska / tb
Editor: Grahame Lucas