Malaysia’s latest reality television star is brimming with boyish charm, quiet confidence and stage presence. Crowned last Friday, Muhammad Asyraf Mohd Ridzuan is no run-of-the-mill entertainer. He is Malaysia’s next top imam.
Over 10 weeks, the 26-year-old ousted nine others in the reality TV programme Imam Muda, or “Young Imam”, to clinch the coveted prize of a job at a prestigious Malaysian mosque, an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Mecca and a scholarship to al-Madinah International University in Saudi Arabia.
Oozing the same razzmatazz appeal as Britain’s ‘The X Factor’, Imam Muda is the brainchild of the Muslim lifestyle cable channel Astro Oasis and JAWI, a branch of the state’s Islamic affairs department.
Instead of the song and dance routine though, contenders face weekly challenges such as performing the Islamic ritual of cleansing two unclaimed corpses, preaching to young delinquents hauled in after a police raid and counselling unwed pregnant girls at a woman’s shelter.
Chosen from a pool of over 1000 applicants, 10 aspiring imams were housed in a mosque hostel with no access to the outside world for a period of three months as they underwent training in public speaking, Qu’ran recitation and Islamic doctrines.
The show’s creator Izelan Basar hopes that Imam Muda will make Islam more appealing to the nation’s young Muslims by portraying it as a religion that is relevant to modern times.
To this end, its producers were guided by feedback from a survey about the type of imams that the young wanted at their mosques.
Izelan summarises its target audience’s views thus: “They said, ‘We want someone who can talk on the same wavelength, who can be one of us, an imam who can play football, can talk about the World Cup, can talk about the environment and UFOs, for example'”.
Judging from its official Facebook page which has garnered nearly 65,000 fans as I write this, the show is a runaway hit. Thousands who tuned in to last Friday’s finale would have been delighted to find out that season two is scheduled for next year.
Yet Imam Muda’s success at capturing the imagination of the Muslim masses has a darker side. The TV phenomenon feeds into a public fascination with charismatic clerics, who have not always been good news for Malaysia.
One in particular, Ashaari Mohammad, sticks like a sore thumb in Malaysia’s post-independence history.
In the late 80s and early 90s, the enigmatic preacher headed the Islamic revivalist group known as al-Arqam which boasts a following of some 10,000 Muslims. With Ashaari fashioning himself as a messianic figure, al-Arqam began to look like a cultish movement.
Alarmed at his increasing popularity, the government reacted by banning the organisation in 1994. Ten years later, it detained Ashaari under the internal security act and subsequently restricted his movements in a bid to stem his influence.
Though there’s no suggestion Asyraf will turn into another Ashaari, the show’s emphasis on personalities is cause for concern. Imam Muda seeks commodified clerics (“ideal sons-in-law” as Izelan describes the contestants) and rewards the well-rounded individual rather than the theology. Doesn’t this make Imam Muda complicit in the Islamic sin of shirk, or idol worship?
Finally, the public voting system that has come to define most reality shows is markedly absent in Imam Muda. Elimination is left to the discretion of Hasan Mahmud, a former grand imam of Malaysia’s national mosque.
Yet surely such a major national decision should not depend on the whims of one man, even if he is a respectable cleric. If Imam Muda is to be the de facto way for Malaysians to decide their next top imams, then the people must decide – with the caveat that they should be encouraged to look critically at the candidates, and see beyond the charisma. In any case, the last thing the Muslim world needs is another unelected leader.
(By: Nazry Bahrawi / guardian.co.uk)