n Friday, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on a short vacation. While flicking through TV channels on Friday night, I stumbled across the last episode of a new 10-part reality TV show, Malaysian-style. Called ‘Young Imam’, the show is currently Malaysia’s most popular show – a reality TV show set up to choose a new Muslim imam, or holy man. Each week, contestants faced off against each other while doing tasks connected to things a Muslim imam might do – tested on Islamic theory, reciting verses from the Qu’ran and and even preparing unclaimed corpses for burial – and, every week, one would-be imam was voted off. On Friday night, it was 26 year old Muhammad Asyraf who was finally named the winner.
As a reality show, the one episode I saw was fascinating to watch as it really put Islam in a more understandable light, but is it really a good idea to choose an imam this way? Honestly, why not.
As religion in many places in the world is stuck in old ways or simply not appropriate to modern society, Malaysia is one of the more progressive Muslim countries. With 60% of its population Muslim, Malaysia is still modern, forward-thinking and moving fast. Unfortunately, this can also mean people are less likely to follow the Islamic way or follow it in the right way, and this is where ‘Young Imam’ comes in. The show was created in an attempt to bring Islam to the masses, in a way that makes it interesting and fitting for modern life. This is why all of the men vying for the title of ‘Young Imam’ are young and excited about Islam and their role in it.
Muslim women too were fascinated with the show as they either thought the would-be imams were ‘cute’ and possibly husband material or, the more serious ones, felt the men’s heartfelt devotion to their religion made them think about taking it even more seriously.
When the show was being developed, thousands of young Malaysian men auditioned for it. Out of thousands, ten young Muslim men were chosen, and then sequestered in a hostel on the grounds of a mosque. Here, they prayed, studied Islam (you don’t want to make a mistake in front of a TV audience of millions) and were not allowed to use cell phones, watch TV, go to movies or even use the internet. That’s how seriously the show’s producers wanted these men to take the show.
On Friday night, the final show was filmed live from a large Malaysian theater and Islamic scholar and Malaysia’s grand mufti (the head man in the Malaysian Islamic religion), Hasan Mahmood, chose Muhammad Asyraf as the first winner of ‘Young Imam’, and the crowd went wild. Only 26 years old, Muhammad Asyraf is married, and won a scholarship to a Saudi Arabia university, a car, a job as a prayer leader in a Malaysian mosque and a trip to Mecca – the goal for every Muslim at least once in their life.
‘Young Imam’ was such a massive cultural phenomena in Malaysia and in other Muslim countries, it’s already being talked about as connecting young Muslims even more with their mosques and their faith. There’s also likely to be a second season soon. ‘Young Imam’ also gave Malaysians an idea about how difficult becoming an imam is and how much work and study is involved, which hopefully gives them even more respect for their own imams as well as for Muhammed Asyraf, who was proclaimed an imam above nine other well-qualified Muslim men.
Scholar wins Malaysian TV’s Young Imam contest – BBC