Film follows struggle of gay Muslims

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) For six years, filmmaker Parvez Sharma traveled to 12 countries interviewing gay and lesbian Muslims. In one mosque, he found two lesbians praying for their desire to be replaced by love. An Iranian man lifts his shirt to reveal his back riddled with lash marks. An Egyptian refugee finds freedom dancing for an appreciative audience in France.

Sharma’s film, “A Jihad for Love,” opened in New York on May 21 for the start of a nationwide tour with stops in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Washington. The film is produced by Sandi DuBowski, whose 2001 award-winning film, “Trembling Before G-d,” traced the lives of gay Orthodox and Hassidic Jews.

Sharma, a 34-year-old gay native of India, said the film is as much about defending his Muslim faith as lifting the veil on Islam and homosexuality. His film, he says, is part of a broader “battle for the soul of Islam.”

“Post-Sept. 11th in America, I made a very conscious choice, which was I was already out as gay man, but I needed to come out as a Muslim,” he said.

“It was really the act of coming out as a Muslim that gave me the power to make the film. And I think that was the premise of the film; very much it was about taking back Islam. It was about taking back language around Islam, even the title of the film `A Jihad for Love.”’

The word “jihad” is taken to mean a personal struggle for holiness rather than its more popular connotations of a violent “holy war.”

Sharma and DuBowski track that struggle for holiness in the lives of open and closeted Muslims. The pair found asylum-seekers in the West who struggle to reconcile their faith with their sexual identity, as well as a lesbian couple living openly in Turkey and an outspoken gay imam in South Africa.

Making the documentary taught Sharma about Islam’s diversity. “Jihad” features Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the power of love. One scene Pakistani men celebrating a 16th-century Sufi mystic, Shah Husain, who fell in love with a Hindi man.

Sharma said being a gay Muslim is not that different from being a gay Christian or Jew, since all three monotheistic faiths rely (in part) on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to condemn homosexuality.

However, unlike Islam, Christianity and Judaism have experienced Western-style reform movements, with their emphasis on freedom and personal identity. And while gay Christians or Jews can be isolated or ostracized, openly gay Muslims can face death sentences in some cases.

DuBowski, 37, said the greater distinction can be seen between the orthodox and liberal streams within all three faiths. “Maybe gay Muslims and gay Orthodox Jews have more in common than sometimes gay Orthodox Jews and gay Reform Jews,” he said.

Culture also plays a powerful role. In Islamic societies, family ties are paramount, marriage is expected and individuality is downplayed, Sharma noted.

“That’s one of the reasons why the subjects of the film also find it hard to leave Islam,” Sharma said. “Islam, the way that it is practiced today all around the world, it’s a religion of community, it’s a religion of family, it’s a religion of food, of music, everything you do really.”

Still, the film detects open challenges to the status quo. Many of the documentary’s subjects, for example, interpret Islamic theology for themselves.

In South Africa, openly gay imam Muhsin Hendricks advocates for “ijtihad,” or independent reasoning _ a practice of interpretation that died out in the ninth century when Islam became institutionalized. Hendricks, 40, argued that the first verse of the Quran says it was given to those to are conscious of God _ not just the clergy.

In one scene, Hendricks debates Maulana A.K. Hoosen, an Islamic scholar, who denies the possibility of personal interpretation.

“Homosexuality is a crime not only in Islam but in every divine religion, and is punishable in Islam by death,” Hoosen said. “The only difference among the jurists is how that person should be killed.”

Hendricks said the film has “come at the right time” as Islam encounters the modern world and the notion of Islamic law continues to evolve. “It’s a necessary debate that needs to happen in the Muslim community worldwide,” he said.

“Jihad” has screened in 15 countries, and while conservative Muslims have condemned the film, DuBowski said there have been no extreme reactions.

Ultimately, Sharma said the film is a tribute to Islam.

“This film is actually, surprisingly, a defense of the religion. It’s not an attack on the religion because all of these people talk beautifully about the religion and the reason to stay within the religion,” he said. “So they become the most unlikely defenders of the faith, as do I in the act of making the film.


Photos from `A Jihad for Love’ are available via

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