By Sean Young
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The 10 young men have washed corpses according to Islamic rites, cried while counseling unmarried pregnant women and joined a police crackdown on teenage motorcycle racers - all before judges on national TV.
A Malaysian cable station has given a reality show makeover to its Islamic programming, and it's taking this moderate Muslim-majority country by storm.
The show, called "Imam Muda" or "Young Leader," is halfway through a 10-week run. With its blend of doctrine and drama, it is a natural fit for Malaysia, a Southeast Asian nation that has tried to defend its Islamic traditions while also welcoming high-tech industry and Western culture. It's these parallel strains in society that the program taps so successfully.
The producers say they want to find a leader for these times, a pious but progressive Muslim who can prove that religion remains relevant to Malaysian youths despite the influence of Western pop culture.
Even the prizes combine both worlds: An all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Mecca and a car.
"This is not like other programs that have no religious values," says the show's chief judge, Hasan Mahmud Al-Hafiz, a former prayer leader at Malaysia's national mosque. "We have no shouting or jumping. We provide spiritual food. We're not looking for a singer or a fashion model."
In 21st century Malaysia, it's a formula that works. The producers say the show has become the Islamic-themed channel's most-watched program ever.
"We try not to miss a single episode, because we find that we learn new things about our religion," says Fauziana Ismail, a 25-year-old nurse, who watches it with her husband and his parents every week.
More than 1,000 men auditioned for the show. They were made to recite prayers, given tests on Islam and asked questions on current affairs such as naming world leaders. Background checks were done to ensure none had unsavory pasts.
In the end, 10 were left, including a bank officer, a farmer, a cleric and some university students.
Most of the contestants, photogenic men between 18 and 27, could pass as models. In some episodes, they appear in well-tailored suits and ties, albeit with Muslim caps on top. In others, they don traditional flowing robes, or simply fashionable slacks and shirts.
"We want to prove that our young Muslim Malaysians can keep up with the times," said Izelan Basar, the show's creator and manager of the cable channel. "We chose the brightest, most devout men for this program - young men whom our female viewers now want for their husbands or sons-in-law."
Besides the pilgrimage and the car, the prizes include a job as prayer leader in a major mosque, a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia, 20,000 ringgit ($6,400) in cash and a laptop.
The contestants are sequestered in a mosque hostel with no access to family, friends or cell phones. They spend much of their time being tutored in Islamic studies. The cameras start rolling when they're out on assignments.
"I want to fulfill my responsibility to my religion and my community by being here," said Taufek Noh, a motivational speaker, during a break in filming at a mosque auditorium.
The 27-year-old was allowed time off to get married on June 12. He spent only one night with his bride before being whisked back into seclusion with the other contestants.
"My new wife and I are sad to be separated, but we accept that it is Allah's will for us. If it is also Allah's will for me to win, then we will be thankful," Taufek said with a confident smile.
The show isn't Malaysia's first religion-based reality show, but it has generated more public excitement than its sedate predecessors, such as "Akademi Al Quran," in which participants underwent training to recite Quranic verses.
An "Imam Muda" Facebook page has drawn 25,000 fans and comments dissecting the contestants and hailing them as role models.
For their first major task, the contestants put on face masks and medical gowns to perform Muslim ablutions on two corpses that had gone unclaimed for weeks in a morgue. They also buried the bodies, reflecting at the cemetery on their own mortality.
In another episode, tears flowed freely among the men as they provided religious counseling for residents of a women's shelter and a home for abandoned children.
The show's tone is often somber. In the episode on death, the host intoned: "When our time comes, nobody can delay death by even a second. Old people die, children die. Are we ready for death?"
In the first five weeks, a three-member judging panel of religious scholars ousted only two contestants, saying their social skills and knowledge were relatively weak.
Even then, it inflicted minimal anguish. After announcing one of the eliminations in an auditorium without a public audience, chief judge Hasan embraced the contestant and prayed for Allah to bless him.
The other men hugged each other and wept on camera, speaking earnestly about the bond of brotherhood they had forged.