Malaysia’s reality TV Islamic preachers face a ‘test from God’

Like so many fundamentalists or evangelicals of all religions:
He is not the first reality television star to fall from grace and is unlikely to be the last, but when the young celebrity Islamic “preacher” Syed Shah Iqmal was charged with rape, unnatural sex and outraging the modesty of one of his female followers, it seemed like half of Malaysia had an opinion.

Syed Shah Iqmal Syed Mohammad Shaiful, 25, more commonly known as Da’i (a term for those who invite people into the religion), had grown immensely popular following his stint in the show Da’i Pendakwah Nusantara (“Nusantara Preacher”), in which contestants competed to be the next big celebrity preacher.

But it was his subsequent scandal, which follows that of other celebrity preachers before him – such as Abu Sufyan who in 2019 caused a scandal by leaving one pregnant wife and divorcing another – that has really shone the spotlight on this relatively new form of Islam-based reality TV.

The genre has become increasingly popular among ethnic Malays by offering a “consumerist” version of Islam, says Dina Zaman, the founder of Iman Reseach.

“When I look at these shows, it reminds me of the K-popsagas: suicide, toxicity in the industry, everything turned into a moneymaking venture,” she says. “But for many working-class Malays, when they see a Malay person doing well it becomes aspirational, that sort of social capital. All these young men get to be ‘hot’ for the next few years because of the spotlight given to them by these shows.”

Winners of the shows receive prizes such as a trip to Mecca to perform the haj pilgrimage, a job as an imam at a local mosque or even a full scholarship to universities in other Muslim countries.

Not coming out on top, however, is not necessarily a failure – some contestants on shows such as Imam Muda (“Young Religious Leader”) or Pencetus Ummah (“Community Catalyst”) go on to receive a healthy measure of fame, much like Syed who, despite only placing fourth, has enjoyed endorsement deals, a recording contract, acting gigs and a formidable social media following.

As in most reality shows, contestants are chosen for their on-screen charisma – rather than their religious credentials, says Firdaus Wong Wai Hung, a popular independent preacher.

“It is an open secret that whenever we are dealing with reality programmes, it is not necessary for the best candidate to be selected. Sometimes they will consider a mixture of participants to increase the commercial value of the programme.

“Some might be selected based on their good looks, some might be selected based on their poor family background, and so on,” he explains.

This was echoed by civil society group Sisters in Islam, which promotes women’s rights within an Islamic framework.

“Producers and creators of this show are great in forming a religious-concept show – everything came on point in commercialising a religion for television sake; from the props to the music, lighting and the attire, as well,” the group noted.

The danger, said SIS, came from the lack of official credentials held by these contestants. “Doesn’t this gravely undermine processes and procedures issued by state religious councils? In the name of entertainment, anything is possible.”

But these shows – which get contestants to participate in challenges such as preparing bodies for burial, reciting verses from the Koran and taking tests on Islamic theory – modernise religion in a way that appeals to younger Muslims and also accommodates a burgeoning middle class.

“Such celebrity preachers draw support from segments of Muslim youth and aspiring middle-classes. They might not have a strong religious education yet are eager to become more pious,” says Hew Wai Weng, a research fellow at the National University of Malaysia’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies.

“Instead of traditional ways of learning Islam, they look for fun and easy ways of learning Islam. Hence, they do not expect the preachers to talk about an in-depth or critical understanding of Islam.”

Source: Malaysia’s reality TV Islamic preachers face a ‘test from God’