Young men dressed in sharp suits and Muslim prayer hats stand on a brightly lit stage, arms linked.
The chief judge of a new reality TV show calls out one of the contestants’ names.
“I regret to announce that young leader Syakir has reached the end of the road.”
Dramatic music plays as all the contestants hug.
Imam Muda, or young leader, is the first show of its kind.
The winner gets a full scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia, a car, and a job as an imam at one of the main mosques in Kuala Lumpur.
Contestants, all under the age of 28, are tested on their Islamic knowledge. Each week they face challenges, from counselling troubled teens to preparing the dead.
The TV format may be familiar. But it is one that Astro Oasis, a Muslim lifestyle satellite channel, hopes will breathe new life into its Islamic programming.
The show, which first aired on 28 May, is made by Astro Oasis in collaboration with the Malaysian government’s Islamic affairs department.
Producers say it is aimed at helping young Muslims engage with religion, by teaching them what it takes to be an imam. It aims to show that an imam’s work extends beyond the mosque into all aspects of Islamic life.
Malaysia has been hailed as a moderate Muslim nation, but it is always struggling to find the right balance between Islam and modern life.
This reality TV show claims to have found the right mix, by searching for a religious leader who young people can identify with.
‘REACH OUT’Aran, 26, is a bank official who was among the 10 chosen to take part in the programme.
He tells me the show is a good way to spread the teachings of Islam.
“Younger people are interested in reality TV and that’s why I joined this contest, so that I can reach out to more young people.”
The show has gained a loyal following online. The show’s Facebook web page has more than 30,000 fans.
A few of the contestants, including Aran, even have their own dedicated fan page set up by their admirers.
He is unaware of all of this. The contestants live together in a hostel for three months, limiting their contact with the outside world.
“We are not allowed to read newspapers, browse Facebook or even use the telephone,” he says.
But this is not a popularity contest. Viewers do not get to vote.
An Islamic scholar and former imam is the only one who can decide which contestant gets to move on to the next round.
Candidates undergo the same training as other aspiring imams do, such as formal testing on religious theory and knowledge.
But they also tackle social issues involving young people, like motorcycle gang members and unmarried, pregnant teenagers.
Show creator Izelan Basar says they are looking for the ideal imam – one who is well versed in spirituality and current affairs.
“There are two levels of audition. One is to ask him lots about religious knowledge and (the) second stage is about current issues and current affairs,” he says.
“For example what do you know about (the) environment? What do you know about the monetary system, the economy? That is what we want. An imam who is balanced between the world we live in and the life after.”
YOUTH APPEALThe formula seems to work. Imam Muda airs on primetime every Friday night.
Syed Ja’afar Al Hussaini and his family try to watch every episode.
“The show is informative because I get to learn new things myself and refresh my Islamic knowledge,” he says.
His four children, wife and mother-in-law gathered to watch the programme as contestants turned up at a halal slaughterhouse to inspect whether chickens were being prepared according to Muslim law.
It is a side of imams that the eldest son, Syed Muhammad Shafiq, rarely gets to see.
The 22-year-old says he would go to the mosque more if the imam was closer to his own age.
“The old generation of imams tend to only be in the mosque,” he says. “They tend to only mix with the old people, because the way they think is quite orthodox.”
A young imam would relate better to younger people and become a role model for them, he believes.
Critics of the programme say this is not the way to choose an important figure in the Muslim community.
But Haji Ramli bin Othman, who became an imam the conventional way 24 years ago, says he is happy with the quality of the show’s mentors and Islamic scholars who will choose the imam.
“It is just like an interview not through the real process of interview but it’s through a different type of channel so I think it’s OK, it’s all right.”
He is in charge of the At Taqua mosque, where two of the contestants are delivering a sermon during Friday prayers to a packed audience of 3,000.
This is one of the few chances the public will get to meet the contestants.
“Their presentation was quite normal, just like a normal imam would perform so there was no hiccup,” says Mustafa Kamal Abdullah.
But another man leaving the mosque was not nearly as impressed.
“Well I thought he was overdoing it. It was not natural.”
The contestants have a tough audience to please – and so far the audience is undecided.
The man who wins this reality TV show gets to be an imam.
But it is the community who will need to be convinced that the young Muslim leader is worthy of the title.