Celebrating Star Imams: Trading Faith With Celebrity Currencyby Helmy Sa'at
Hundreds of young men auditioned. Some wore jeans and t-shirts while others were more conservative in their dressing by opting for an ankle-length shirt, with long sleeves. As a performative signifier, their choice of dressing showed that this group of young hopefuls came from a diverse background. Eventually, 10 young men were chosen to be part of the show, which was broadcast live nationwide.
Familiar Yet Different
Yes, it is a reality competition show. However, it is not a singing talent contest. You might be mistaken based on the over-familiarisation of the above-mentioned selection process after watching endless hours of such shows on television. To be precise, it is a Western-style reality TV show ‘Imam Muda’ or ‘Young Imam’ (Religious Leader), which first started airing on a Malaysian TV network in 2010. ‘Imam Muda’ became an instant hit. The primetime show pitted these young men against each other in various ways encompassing recitation of the Quran, counselling couples on the brink of divorce, washing of corpses and even leading Friday prayers in one of the big mosques of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Every minute of it was religiously filmed, edited and beamed for public consumption which was devoured in the millions, every week.
Its popularity went beyond the shores of Malaysia. It returned in season 2, bigger and shinier with more than a thousand hopefuls from the region vying for the top 10 spots. Subsequently, the intersectionality of religion and reality shows has spawned many other similar shows over the years, such as ‘Ustazah Pilihan’ (Chosen Female Religious Teachers), ‘Pencetus Ummah’ (The Originator of the Ummah) and Da’i Pendakwah Nusantara (Religious Preachers of the Archipelago), to name a few. These shows perpetuated the same proven TV recipe of a hit show. The concept has even been replicated in other parts of the region and the world, such as Indonesia and the Middle East.
The verdict is clear: There is money to be made from the commercialisation of religion.
Opportunism Overrides Faith
The power of money is a strong motivating factor and definitely a win-win situation for participants and the broadcast channel. In a show whereby the winner takes all, must the transmission of Islam through the process of crowning only one individual deemed as a worthy young religious leader in the hopes of proselytising and attracting young people be built upon crushed dreams and ambitions of the other contestants? Are the others not good enough?
Was the decision by a panel of judges without any input from the larger community reflective of the majority preference? More importantly, does Islam need rebranding as a religion?
In the process of polishing these gems to be deemed worthy of leading the ummah, worldly gains were dangled right before their eyes. The winner was promised a car, a MacBook, an opportunity to study in Saudi Arabia along with a grand cash prize to boot. In the balance of things, winners’ achievements are built upon the failures of losers. As the balance is too far skewed in favour of worldly pursuits of fame and tangible gains, alas the viewers and Islam as a whole are at a the losing end.
Simply, Islam and Muslim viewers have been manipulated, abused and exploited for views and advertising revenue. At the same time, the viewers are indirectly complicit in supporting such entertainment cloaked in the veil of religiosity, thus creating opportunities for being misled in their love for Allah and Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, who was the last messenger of God.
A recalibration of jihad that comes with grand worldly prize — fame and fortune. A jihad which is no longer about the global ummah that has always been diverse and juggling multiple identities at any one time.
Idolising Fallible Imams
Over the years, the contestants’ alluring smiles and, at times, innocent gaze, caused the hearts of female viewers at home to skip a beat had led to the creation of another monster. Participation in such shows created opportunities for cults of personalities to emerge which sadly has occurred time and again. How does it truly deepen one’s love of Islam?
Unfortunately, scandals in later years began to envelope these groups of contestants whose personal lives have been wrecked by their own doing. From marital woes caused by infidelity and sexual misconduct to the cliche of nude selfies circulating online. Whose fault is it exactly for placing them on the pedestal when their true selves prove that they are just as fallible and not worthy of the title imam and the title’s accompanying duties and responsibilities? Has interest in Islam been extinguished when one’s favourite imam who has reached celebrity status is plagued by scandals?
In essence, Islam’s reputation is tarnished by these fallible humans who happened to be at the right place at the right time when trying their luck to build a following as imams. Alas, the very demographic these star imams have been recognised to attract and lead have not only been disappointed but left disgusted.
Islam took a hit after hit as the sins of these individuals are closely tied to their thin veneer of religiosity in the first place.
Beyond Mainstream Media
Instagram first launched in 2010. Now, it has over a billion monthly active users. Meanwhile, Twitter has over 200 million daily active users. Facebook has almost three billion monthly active users positioning it at the apex of the social media landscape globally! With the inextricable relationship of social media in our daily lives, such cults of personalities have been further perpetuated and buttressed in the online landscape. These star imams have also harnessed the power of social media to their advantage. It has become much easier to click ‘follow’, ‘like’ and then comment on an account and its accompanying posts of an individual which aligns with our likes and dislikes, including our sense of spiritual piety that extends to daily religious practices.
Albeit opportunities to connect with many more people online have been amplified and multiplied, there is a time and space to never forget cultivating our immediate offline relationships, especially with Allah. Islam does not need star imams who are trading faith and religious piety with celebrity currency to uplift their own status to a point where it takes precedence over Allah and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.