Hit Malaysian TV talent show stars Muslim scholars

Like the stars of smash-hit television talent shows around the world, the eight young men in sharp black suits and matching skullcaps draw adoring fans and dreams of marriage. But instead of singing or dancing, they hit the prime-time stage to recite verses from Islam's Holy book, the Koran, wash corpses for Muslim burial and try to woo young Malaysians away from illicit sex and drugs.

The prize for the winner of the Malaysian show "Young Imam" is not the chance of global fame and fortune but a trip to Mecca to perform the haj, a scholarship to the al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia and a job at a mosque.

All the contestants, however, win the attention of young women and prospective mothers-in-law.

"For Muslims, the young imams are ideal sons-in-law because they are professionals and have good knowledge of Islam," said Izelan Basar, channel manager with cable network Astro Oasis which is broadcasting the programme.

Following the formula made popular through shows such as "American Idol" in the US and "The X Factor" in Britain, a contestant is knocked off the show each week - two of the original 10 have already gone.

The contest also provides the same emotion when a contestant is booted off, with hugs and tears from the survivors.

The 10-week series has sparked wide public reaction and has taken social networking giant Facebook by storm as fans post comments in support of the contestants and the programme.

"Wow, it was great to see "Young Imam" participants being regarded as stars. Fans were taking photos of them. Mothers were not shy to offer their daughters," said a posting last week.

Imams play a broad role in Muslim society, leading prayers at the mosque and counselling troubled individuals. The contestants include a cleric, a businessman, a student, a farmer and a banker.

The show is a "landmark programme with a refreshing approach to Islam", said media commentator Azman Ujang.

"An imam is usually linked with someone old. But here we have young personalities. It gives a vibrant look to Islam at a time when the community is facing so many social ills," he said.

The programme comes against a backround of concern among Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities over rising "Islamisation" of the country and fear that tolerance towards Christians, Hindus and others is diminishing.

A simmering row over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims saw attacks on 11 churches and the dumping of the severed heads of pigs at two mosques in January.

In February, three women were caned for having sex out of wedlock, the first such punishment under Islamic law in Malaysia.

A total of 1,134 candidates applied to join the show but only 10 were picked, based on their personality and Islamic knowledge. Each week they face written and practical tests on the religion.

The young imams have bathed and buried an unclaimed body, followed religious enforcement officials to nab Muslims who indulge in illicit sex, and counselled illegal motocycle racers.

The sole judge who wields the weekly axe is a former grand imam of the national mosque, Hasan Mahmood, who said the young imams have a duty to safeguard Islam and teach Muslims to live harmoniously with other faiths.

"They are going to become good role models. We will use them to fight social and moral decadence affecting Muslims, like free sex and drugs," he said.

"What is the use of us achieving rapid economic growth and having dazzling skyscrapers when the society is sick?"

For the duration of the show, the contestants, who are aged between 18 and 27, are quarantined at a mosque dormitory and banned from using phones, the Internet and television so they focus on their religion.

Ahmad Hazran, 26, a banker who quit his job to participate in the show, said he was thrilled to learn to handle dead bodies and engage with the young and illegal motorcycle racers.

"I prefer to work with the young people. We cannot use force to change wrongdoers. We have to mix with them and guide them to the right path," he said.

Khairul Azhar, a 20 year old graduate student said he was excited that women had expressed a desire to marry the contestants.

"Yes I have heard about it. I think I can be a good husband and a responsible father," he said.

"I oppose violence. Terrorism is not a character of Islam. I want to help create a peaceful Malaysia," he said.