- Associated Press - Saturday, July 31, 2010

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (AP) - An Islamic reality TV show that made its contestants counsel promiscuous teenagers and bury corpses has named a 26-year-old mosque prayer leader as Malaysia’s top role model for young Muslims.

Producers voiced hopes Sunday 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 program to ever 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 late Friday 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.

The 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 ($6,400) 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 Friday’s event. “I want to play football with the kids in my neighborhood 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 somber reflection on their own mortality.

Subsequent episodes forced participants to tackle community issues. They counseled 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 Quran while wearing long, black robes at Friday’s final showdown.

“Our target is not just personal victory but the victory of a society and the victory of Islam itself,” said Muhammad Asyraf, whose enjoys playing badminton and listening to religious songs.

Zainir Aminullah, executive director of Astro Entertainment, said the network hopes to develop a second season and help Muslim-majority countries spearhead their own versions of “Imam Muda.”

“Judging from the initial response, it’s very encouraging,” Zainir said. Producers declined to reveal viewer figures for the show, but its Facebook fan page has nearly 60,000 members.

Spectators at the finale said the show proved that religion remained relevant to young Muslims in countries like Malaysia, which maintains Islamic traditions while being open to high-tech industry and Western culture.

“We know music and dance shows, but this is different,” said Farah Zainudin, a 38-year-old businesswoman. “It’s good for the young generation in Malaysia to get some lessons on Islam to further their knowledge.”

Malaysian TV talent shows for singers and dancers have been popular for years, but previous religion-based programs, such as one that trains participants for Quran recitals, have been relatively sedate and attracted less attention.

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Associated Press writer Julia Zappei contributed to this report.