KUALA LUMPUR. Ever since the introduction of reality TV early this decade, Malaysia has embraced it with open arms and it even sent a man to space via a reality show. Now it has chosen a young Muslim cleric the same way.
The series, Imam Muda (young cleric), has generated plenty of interest in Malaysia and there are talks of a franchise in other Muslim countries. Last week a young Muslim student won the right to be an imam or cleric after winning the show.
Izelan Basar, the general manager for the religious channel Astro Oasis, is the brainchild behind Imam Muda. "I created the content and it was developed by some of my colleagues in partnership with the religious authorities. For many years, I have been thinking about how to attract young viewers," said Basar.
Ten finalists were chosen from 1,000 contestants for the show. They were given a variety of challenges including preparing a HIV-positive corpse for burial and counselling marriage partners while living in isolation at a mosque.
Despite the conservative Islamic trends in Malaysia over the last two decades, Izelan says he did not face any opposition from the religious authorities. "The word imam is actually translated as leader. In Islam, every single male is an imam. Good leaders come from the home. Leaders of a house must pray and tackle problems. That is what we are looking for," he said.
Hassan Mahmood is the former Grand Imam of the National Mosque and the judge for Imam Muda. In the finals, he grills the last two contestants on the conflict between science and religion. He dismisses allegations of the show being un-Islamic even though the contestants are treated like celebrities and often wear western-style clothing.
"Many Muslims are static. They just watch the show and call it un-Islamic. We don't want the best of Islam to be found only in books and theories. Islam is both East and West, so the criticism of the contestants wearing western clothing doesn't really make sense. Whatever does not destroy our faith or our life is a good thing and is not in conflict with Islam. Why do we always look at things that pull it back? Islam is modern," said Mahmood.
Finalist Hizbur Rahman Omar Zuhdi, a 27-year-old religious teacher, says the attention the show gets is good for the religion. "Let us ask ourselves: 'Is this show a good or bad thing for Islam?' The prophet Mohammad is glamorous. There is no problem with being glamorous for the good of society," said Zudhi.
The finalists were tested on reciting the Koran, presenting a sermon and singing religious hymns, among other things. The winner was Muhammad Asyraf Mohamad Ridzuan, a 26-year-old religious scholar. His prize includes a scholarship to study at al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia and a job at a Malaysian mosque. Asyraf says, "Sometimes young people feel they have been sidelined from carrying out their religious duties. This program shows they can also contribute to Islam. Everyone can aspire to become a good imam and they can do it in many ways, not strictly through the Koran."
And it is this simple message in a modern reality show that makes it so appealing to both the young and old. Imam Muda creator Izelan Basar says they have even received interest from abroad. "We have received interest from a few Islamic countries including Turkey and Egypt, but we would like to perfect the program first. When we designed it we did not think about going beyond Malaysian shores."
Izelan says there will definitely be a second season of Imam Muda and who knows, it may even be in a different language, in a different country.
This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia.