KUALA LUMPUR—The U.S. has “American Idol.” Britain has “The X Factor.” Malaysia, one of the world’s more progressive Muslim nations, has something rather different—a televised search for the country’s most eligible young religious leader.
“Young Imam” might look familiar at first glance. Ten good-looking male contestants in sharp-looking suits are assigned to sing and complete a series of complex tasks. At the end of the show, the studio lights dim, the music drops to a whisper, and a clutch of young hopefuls step forward nervously, waiting hand-in-hand to find out who will be sent home that night.
Instead of a record contract or a million-dollar prize, though, the last imam standing wins a scholarship to the al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, a job leading prayers at a Kuala Lumpur mosque and an expense-paid trip to Mecca to perform the Haj pilgrimage.
The sole judge who decides who stays and who goes each Friday in prime-time isn’t an aging pop star or talk-show host. He’s the turban-wearing former grand mufti of Malaysia’s national mosque, Hasan Mahmood. Last week Mr. Hasan stifled a sob as he eliminated 25-year-old Sharafuddin Suaut from the show for stumbling over some of the finer points of Islamic theory.
It’s an unusual portrayal of both Islam and of the vital job of imam—a broad role whose duties range from leading prayers to helping sort out community problems. Izelan Basar, a channel manager at Kuala Lumpur cable network Astro Entertainment Sdn. Bhd., devised the show’s format with the help of local religious authorities to help smooth over any sensitivities.
While Malaysia generally takes a moderate approach to Islam and has tried to put a modern spin on the faith for years, there are strong conservative undercurrents here. Three Muslim women were for the first time caned here earlier this year for breaching Islamic Shariah laws by having extramarital sex. In recent days police and government officials have warned that al-Qaeda-linked agents have tried to recruit young Muslims from the country’s universities.
Astro EntertainmentTaufek Noh slips a ring on the finger of his bride, Zilawati Abusan, in a televised ceremony.
“Young Imam,” though, has developed a strong following just three weeks into its first season—providing some evidence that, despite the rise of fundamentalist practices in recent years, Malaysia remains by and large wedded to a more open, tolerant form of the faith.
Fans sign onto Facebook to heap praise on the aspiring young mullahs, including some prospective mothers-in-law hoping to marry off their daughters. Some viewers say they have been inspired to take another look at their faith, especially after Mr. Sharafuddin—the first imam eliminated—tearfully said in a “Survivor”-style taped exit video that he would pray hard to learn from his early departure.
“These young imams are modern, and we need that. Muslims these days are very progressive,” says Hafizul Fadly, a 27-year-old shipping analyst and fan of the show. “After 9/11, it’s good for us to show the true picture of Islam.”
Others simply appear to be smitten. “I like. I’d vote for you, hi, hi, hi,” one person identifying herself as Nur Ainatul Fitriah wrote one of the contestants, 22-year-old Hazran Kamal, on the show’s Facebook fan-page.
It’s easy to see how the young imams might send Malaysian hearts aflutter. Dressed in matching robes or suits, much like a Western-style all-boy pop group, they were selected for the contest after months of rigorous auditions.
Most caught the producers’ ear with the quality of their voices when reciting verses from the Quran. Some are still students, while others work in business or financial services.
One contestant, Taufek Noh, works as a motivational speaker. “I think this might give me an edge,” he says during a brief break in taping.
The show’s organizers then tested the contestants on general knowledge and geography to make sure they were up to the intellectual rigors of the show.
“They have to be able to speak on a wide range of social issues. We made them talk about all kinds of things, like the environment and UFOs,” Mr. Izelan recalls.
Each week, “Young Imam” goes out of its way to confront the contestants with situations they might have to face one day as real imams. In the first episode, the young contenders were sent out to prepare unclaimed corpses for burial—an essential rite in Islam.
Mr. Taufek, the motivational speaker, says, “It’s a tough contest, but if we want to be imams and lead our community, we should expect to face difficult challenges any time, any place.”
In the following show, the contestants ditched their suits and black Muslim caps to don sports shirts to head out with the police on a midnight raid on a gang of teenage motorcycle street racers in the southern town of Johor Baru. The young imams—none of them much older than the street racers—herded the bikers into a room and tried to wean them off their racing fix by lecturing them about Islam.
The imams themselves are largely unaware of the excitement they have stirred.
For the past month they have been cloistered in a hostel on the grounds of a federal mosque here in Kuala Lumpur and, to better help them focus on their religious studies, are banned from watching TV, reading newspapers or going online. They’re not even allowed to follow the World Cup soccer tournament that’s captivating the rest of Malaysia. The last few survivors will stay there for another two months, when the show’s finale will be broadcast live from a theater.
The only moment of respite so far came when Mr. Taufek was allowed out briefly to marry his fiancee, Zilawati Abusan, in an elaborate, televised wedding on June 11.
The other contestants made the most of the break to advance their own cause: They officiated at the ceremony as part of the show.
—Celine Fernandez contributed to this story.Write to James Hookway at email@example.com