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Muslim clerics star on TV reality show

By Dan Rivers, CNN
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Contestants compete to be a Muslim Cleric
  • Malaysia's reality TV show 'Young Imam" has been a huge hit
  • Ten young Muslim clerics competing to win job at a mosque
  • Program makers hope it will engage more young people with religion

(CNN) -- It may look like "American Idol" or "The X Factor", but the contestants aren't vying for money or a record deal.

This is "Imam Muda" or "Young Imam", Malaysia's TV talent show where contestants compete to become a Muslim Cleric.

The slick TV promotion promises: "The show that will change your life, the eternal quest of our very being."

But aside from the overblown claims, the producers are serious about ripping up the rule book of religious programming.

Channel Manager of Astro Oasis TV Izelan Basar says: "Our objective is just to attract the youngsters closer to Islam, that's the main objective. Then it becomes: how are we want to do it? The approach is how are we going to make it interesting for the young. For any religion how to attract the young is a huge challenge."

  • Malaysia
  • Islam
  • Religion

The winner will get a full-time job at a prestigious mosque, a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia and an all expenses paid pilgrimage to Mecca.

But their journey to reach those prizes is more like reality TV, than po-faced religious quest. Each episode features the contestants completing different challenges.

So far they've had to counsel married couples going through relationship problems, prepared an HIV positive corpse for burial and deliver a sermon in front of hundreds of worshippers.

Each week, one or sometimes two, hopefuls are voted off by a panel of experts. Tension builds as the presenter reviews the young men's performance and then finally reveals who is being sent home.

There's no Simon Cowell, instead a former Grand Mufti -- equivalent of an Arch Bishop -- is one of those critiquing their every move.

As we filmed two contestants were voted off the show, including a distraught Nuri Ali Arbain.

"So far I am very sad with these results ...I did the best in my exam, my practical, I don't where mistake is actually," he said.

For ten weeks, contestants have been cut off from the outside world. They were unable to watch the football World Cup, instead having to play their own games.

More than a thousand applicants were whittled down to ten finalists, and millions of viewers across Malaysia are expected to tune into the dramatic conclusion this evening.

The producers hope the program will spark debate and inform people about the work of Imams. Its fans say it is a reflection of Malaysia's open, modern and tolerant form of Islam.

The show even has its own Facebook and Twitter accounts, part of a conscious effort to reach out to young viewers and make Islam relevant in the twenty first century.

Whoever wins, a second season seems a certainty. For a religion that is often portrayed as staid and conservative, this is nothing short of revolutionary.

Read more about religion in the modern world at CNN's Belief blog