Malaysia's got the 'Imam factor'
An Islamic reality TV show that made its contestants counsel promiscuous teenagers and bury corpses named a 26-year-old mosque prayer leader as Malaysia's top role model for young Muslims.
Producers voiced hopes of launching similar versions of Imam Muda, or Young Leader, in other Muslim-majority countries after the Malaysian show's first season became the most-watched programme ever to air on pay-television network Astro's Islamic channel.
Muhammad Asyraf Ridzuan beat a 27-year-old Islamic schoolteacher who studied at Egypt's Al-Azhar University to win the competition in an event broadcast nationwide from an auditorium packed with spectators who secured highly coveted tickets.
It was the culmination of a 10-episode run to find a young man whose religious devotion could inspire other Malaysian Muslims of his generation.
Boyish-looking Muhammad Asyraf's victory earned him prizes that mixed the spiritual - a new job as prayer leader at a prestigious Kuala Lumpur mosque and an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Mecca - with the secular, including a car, iPhone, laptop and 20,000 ringgit (£4,081) in cash.
"I want to be a prayer leader who is friendly to youths, cool and relaxed," Muhammad Asyraf said after embracing his tearful mother and wife at the end of the event. "I want to play football with the kids in my neighbourhood and still be a spiritual leader."
The show put 10 young men - including a bank officer, a farmer and some university students - through weekly tests of their religious knowledge and social skills.
Its debut in May riveted audiences who watched the contestants perform Islamic ablutions on two corpses left unclaimed for weeks in a morgue. They also buried the bodies amid a sombre reflection on their own mortality.
Subsequent episodes forced participants to tackle community issues. They counselled unmarried pregnant women and teenagers detained by Islamic authorities on suspicion of having sex, spoke to troubled couples contemplating divorce and slaughtered chickens and goats according to Islamic principles.
A three-member judging panel of religious scholars slowly eliminated various participants, leaving Muhammad Asyraf and his rival, Hizbur Rahman, to tackle theological questions and demonstrate their skills in reciting verses from the Koran while wearing long, black robes in the final.