Malaysia to pick top young Imam as talent show enters finals

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The Independent Culture

A hugely popular Malaysian TV search for young new Islamic leaders stages its finale Friday, after gaining worldwide attention and igniting new enthusiasm for the religion among Muslim youth.

The "Young Imam" show has seen 10 finalists hit the prime-time stage to recite verses from Islam's holy book, wash corpses and slaughter sheep according to Muslim rules, and persuade youngsters away from sex and drugs.

Following the reality-TV formula made popular through shows such as "American Idol" in the US and "The X Factor" in Britain, the 10-week series has eliminated eight contestants.

Now, two young men will fight it out to win the "Young Imam" title.

"The final challenge consists of the Young Imam finalists presenting a religious sermon, reciting the Koran in rhythmic tones, singing religious hymns and answering questions related to Islamic law," Izelan Basar, channel manager with cable network Astro Oasis, told AFP.

Imams play a broad role in Malaysia - where more than 60 percent of the 28 million population are Muslim - including leading prayers at the mosque and counselling troubled individuals.

The shows' creators, who had a goal of making Islam more appealing to young people, have been thrilled by its success. The official Facebook page has nearly 52,500 fans and the discussion board is crowded with comments.

Over 1,000 guests, including the country's top clerics and religious affairs minister, have been invited to the finals of the show at a convention hall beside the National Mosque in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

The 90-minute programme will be aired live over the Astro Oasis network from 9pm (1300 GMT) and giant screens have been placed outside the hall to allow fans who could not enter to watch the show.

Since the series began in May, the 10 finalists, who were chosen from over 1,000 candidates, have been quarantined in a mosque dormitory and banned from using phones, the Internet and television.

The show - in which the contestants face written and practical tests on the religion each week - has become a major hit after it attracted worldwide interest and even the attention of young women and prospective mothers-in-law.

The two finalists, religious teacher Hizbur Rahman Omar Zuhd and religious scholar Muhammad Asyraf Mohamad Ridzuan - who are both married - said they were looking forward to the finals.

"Whether I win or lose, I am grateful that I have learned a lot of things through this programme," Hizbur, 27, a graduate of the prestigious religious school of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, told Malay daily Harian Metro.

"Praise to God, I will try my best (in the finals) and focus on my preaching work after this," 26-year-old Muhammad Asyraf, who like Hizbur was clad in a smart black suit and matching skullcap, told the same newspaper.

The winner will get a trip to Mecca to perform the hajj pilgrimage, a scholarship to al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, and a job at a mosque.

The sole judge who wields the weekly axe is a former grand imam of the national mosque, 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," Hasan Mahmood told AFP previously.

The rising popularity of the show comes against a background of concern among Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities over rising "Islamisation" of the multicultural country and fears 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 severed pigs' heads 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.