BARNEY HENDERSON, KUALA LUMPURJune 28, 2010A MALAYSIAN version of X Factor has forsaken the world of pop to conduct a search for an inspiring religious leader.
Mastering the mullah ... contestants during the filming of the Malaysian reality TV show Imam Muda or Young Leader. Photo: Lai Seng Sin
Instead of singing pop songs, male contestants on Young Imamchant passages from the Koran to prove they are the best mullah.
The show is in its third week and is fast becoming popular in the Muslim-majority country. The contestants' fate is in the hands of Hasan Mahmoud, the former grand mufti of Malaysia's national mosque.
Instead of a record deal, the winner from the 10 contestants aged between 19 and 27 will get a post as an imam at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, a Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and a scholarship to Madinah University in Saudi Arabia.
Like their counterparts in the West, the Young Imam competitors are becoming idols to teenage viewers. The show's Facebook page has more than 25,000 fans, including prospective mothers-in-law looking to marry off their daughters.
Each week the aspiring imams are given clerical tasks to complete.
The first challenge was to bathe and bury a body that had lain unclaimed in a morgue for a month. The man had died of an AIDS-related condition. They washed the body, wrapped it in white cotton, offered prayers and buried it, with some contestants weeping at the grave.
Izelan Basar, the channel manager of Astro Oasis, which screens the show, said: ''Seeing and handling a dead body is the most difficult ritual they could face as an imam. The 10 boys were brilliant, but the crew was not so good. The producer fainted and several crew members vomited.''
Other tasks included trying to teach young street racers caught by police about Islam, and visiting an orphanage. The group is secluded from the outside world in a dormitory on a mosque compound.
Each contestant has to deliver a sermon in a mosque every Friday. Last week, Sharafuddin Suaut, 25, was sent home for a lack of clarity on the finer points of Islamic theory.
Mr Izelan said: ''The aim of the show is to get both the contestants and the audience to know, understand and practise their religion in an entertaining way. The reactions to the show have been hugely positive.''
With contestants dressed in fashionable suits, the show seems to be keen to move away from the stereotype of elderly imams in robes. The television channel collaborated with the government to ensure religious sensitivities were not bruised.
Malaysia's reputation as a progressive Muslim country has suffered recently, with the firebombing of churches in January, the caning of three Muslim women for adultery in February and news last week that al-Qaeda-linked extremists have been recruiting from Malaysian universities.