Malaysia's Imam Idol – Gimmick or Good Thing?

BY ARWA ABURAWA
Jul 26, 2010

Call it cheesy, but this latest TV hit does deserve praise for trying to reconcile Islamic ideals with modern culture.

 

Only 10, aged between 18 and 27, were selected for the finals.

Impeccably dressed contestants vie to become Malaysia’s next biggest religious leader.

Photo credit: Astro Entertainment (via Imam Muda on Facebook)

 

I hate the television shows that hunt for the next top singer, model, dancer, business leader, or whatever. There are just too many of them. Malaysia’s “Imam Muda”, however, caught my attention.

The show, which hopes to discover young men with what it takes to be the country's leading Imams (or Islamic religious leaders), walks a thin line between being a cheesy gimmick and an innovative exercise in, well, democratising religion.

The whole of Malaysia appears to be hooked on the programme: by mid July, the show's Facebook page had more than 45,000 friends.

Over 1,000 men auditioned for the show and were questioned on their knowledge of Islam and current affairs. Checks were made for any unsavoury pasts.

Only 10, aged between 18 and 27, were selected for the finals and are now vying for the top spot and the prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to Mecca, a scholarship to be trained as an Imam at the al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, and a job at a top mosque in Malaysia.

The aim is to find, the organisers say, “a leader for these times, a pious but progressive Muslim who can prove that religion remains relevant to Malaysian youths despite the influences of Western pop culture”.

Over the past couple of weeks, the impeccably dressed contestants have been put through their paces in tasks such as counselling unmarried pregnant women and burying AIDS-infected bodies.

The candidates live together in a mosque hotel. They are denied access to family, friends and cell phones. Just one candidate was granted permission to leave for a day – so he could get married. vSo far, the show has been hailed a complete success not only in terms of viewers but in its attempt to reconcile Islamic ideals with modern culture.

“This is not like other programmes that have no religious values," says the show's chief judge, Hasan Mahmud Al Hafiz, a former prayer leader at Malaysia's national mosque. "We have no shouting or jumping. We provide spiritual food. We're not looking for a singer or a fashion model."

"A good Imam should make people understand religion. And at the same time, he should understand the people. Our candidates, who all are ordinary people, are well suited to do that."

 

Contestants have been put through their paces in tasks such as counselling unmarried pregnant women and burying AIDS-infected bodies

Contestants have been put through their paces in tasks such as counselling unmarried pregnant women and burying AIDS-infected bodies.

Photo credit: Astro Entertainment (via Imam Muda on Facebook)

 

The 10 finalists come from all backgrounds – there are religious students, bankers, farmers. They have to show that they can reach out to the community and find common ground with, for example, motorcycle gangs and other young Malaysians who cannot connect with the older and more traditional Imams.

As viewers watch the contestants progress through the rounds, sometimes openly crying over issues which have affected them or because they are sad to see other contestants leave the show, they get to see the human face of prospective religious leaders. Perhaps this is the start of a new trend in Malaysia for down-to-earth religious leaders able to find a good balance between Islamic teachings and life as it is lived today.