On Malaysia's religious reality show 'Imam Muda', 10 young men compete to be next top Muslim leader
BY Meena Hartenstein DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Sunday, June 27th 2010, 8:05 PM
via FacebookA scene from the television show "Imam Muda" from its Facebook page, which boasts nearly 30,000 followers.
via FacebookTaufek Noh, a motivational speaker and contestant competing on the television show "Imam Muda."
Reality TV shows have crowned stars in every field imaginable, minting new top models, singers, chefs, designers, and even hair stylists -- but can the same formula work to create a religious leader?
In Malaysia, one cable station hopes the answer is yes.
A new show called "Imam Muda" or "Young Leader", now halfway through its 10-week run, pits 10 young men against each other in the quest to become Malaysia's next top imam, The Associated Press reports.
An imam plays a broad role in Muslim society, leading prayers as well as helping to counsel problems within his community. So in lieu of runway walk-offs or quickfire cooking challenges, contestants on this reality show compete in religious-based challenges to test their leadership potential.
For the first challenge, the men performed traditional Muslim ablutions on corpses at a morgue that had gone unclaimed for weeks, later burying the bodies in accordance with Islamic rites. In later episodes, the men joined a police crackdown on teenage motorcyclists and cried as they counseled unmarried pregnant women at a women's shelter.
"This is not like other programs that have no religious values," the show's chief judge - and former prayer leader at Malaysia's national mosque - told the AP. "We have no shouting or jumping. We provide spiritual food. We're not looking for a singer or a fashion model."
The show debuted to great popularity in Malaysia, which is one of the world's most progressive Muslim nations. The producers say "Imam Muda" is the most-watched program ever on its Islamic-themed cable channel, and a Facebook page dedicated to the show has nearly 30,000 fans.
"We try not to miss a single episode, because we find that we learn new things about our religion," Fauziana Ismail, a 25-year-old nurse, told the AP. Ismail says she watches the show with her husband and his parents every week.
"These young imams are modern, and we need that. Muslims these days are very progressive," Hafizul Fadly, a 27-year-old shipping analyst and fan of the show, said to the Wall Street Journal. "After 9/11, it's good for us to show the true picture of Islam."
The show's producers say their aim is to find a leader who will connect with young Malaysians, keeping religion relevant for a generation immersed in Western pop culture.
And the top prizes, just like the show, straddle both worlds: an all-expenses paid pilgrimage to Mecca, and a car. Other prizes include a job as a prayer leader in a major mosque, a scholarship to a Saudi Arabian university, and about $6400 in cash and a laptop.
The AP reports that more than 1,000 men auditioned for the show, who were then tested on their knowledge of Islam and current affairs. That group was whittled down to 10 attractive young men between the ages of 18 and 27, including students, a bank officer, a farmer, and a cleric.
"We want to prove that our young Muslim Malaysians can keep up with the times," Izelan Basar, the show's creator and manager of the cable channel, told the AP. "We chose the brightest, most devout men for this program — young men whom our female viewers now want for their husbands or sons-in-law."
During the competition the men are isolated in a hostel on the grounds of a mosque in Kuala Lampur, where they are prohibited from watching TV, reading newspapers, or surfing the Internet. So far only two contestants have been eliminated, but five weeks remain before the live finale.
"Imam Muda" isn't the first time Malaysia has attempted a religious-based reality show, but it is the most popular. Past attempts like "Akademi Al Quran," in which participants trained to learn how to recite Quranic verses, were met with much less enthusiasm.
Taufek Noh, a motivational speaker competing for the top imam title, is taking the opportunity very seriously.
On June 12 he was allowed to leave the show's quarantine to marry his fiancee, but he returned to the sequestered company of his fellow competitors after just one night.
"My new wife and I are sad to be separated, but we accept that it is Allah's will for us," he told the AP. "If it is also Allah's will for me to win, then we will be thankful."