New York: While TV shows elsewhere lure participants by cash bonanza and cars, the top prize in a reality show in Malaysia, which has cast a spell on viewers, is the winner becomes an Imam.
Turning an Imam is not only the top prize, with winner also getting a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia and an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Mecca.
The competition is called "Imam Muda" or "Young Leader," which the New York Times described as "a Malaysian venture into religious-themed reality TV."
With a unique prize, come a different set of rules and challenges that the contestants must follow and master.
Before each episode, for instance, the contestants gather to recite a prayer. The challenges include washing corpses in preparation for burial and ensuring that animals are slaughtered according to Islamic law, NYT reported.
The show began in May with 10 contestants who were selected from thousands of applicants. Participants between the ages of 18 to 27 must prove to be a good Imam in both practice and theory.
The show has already acquired a big following in the country especially among women.
"If you have a husband in your family with that kind of knowledge, people will look up to you," said Malina Ibarhim, a 32-year-old banker, who tunes in with her folks.
And viewership will rise tomorrow when the winner is picked from the remaining two competitors in a live show.
The show down to become the first Imam Muda is between Hizbur Rahman bin Omar Zuhdi, 27, and Asyraf bin Mohammad Ridzuan, 26.
For most of the show, the contestants have been confined to a hostel, cut off from family and friends, newspapers, television and the Internet.
So far, the men have had to counsel wayward teenagers, console elderly people abandoned by their children and display their Quranic knowledge, NYT reported.
During the grand finale, they will be required to debate religious and news topics, as well as recite passages from the Quran, according to The Times.
The two finalists have spent recent days in their hometowns, giving sermons and organizing community events.
Commentators noted that the popularity of the show pointed to the growing Islamization of the people, while the TV show creators said that it was a way of making Islam relevant to young people.
"In every religion, the toughest challenge is to attract the youth," said Izelan Basar, creator of the show, noting that most of the country`s imams were older men.
The producers told applicants "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." The judge each week is Hasan Mahmood al-Hafiz, a former national grand Imam.