Film director explores homosexuality in the Muslim world

Jonathan Spollen
10 Min Read

CAIRO: Since 9/11 there has been heated debate over Islam’s compatibility with ‘liberal values.’ Issues such as the role of women and the freedom of Muslims to choose their religion are rarely out of the media’s spotlight. Another issue that has attracted considerable attention, and arguably most controversial of all, is that of homosexuality in Islam.

According to all commonly accepted interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Islam. Sexual relations between people of the same gender have variously been referred to by Sheikhs, Imams and other Islamic experts as the result of “illness and “the work of Satan. In this way, Islam has much in common with Judaism and Christianity.

However, while gay and lesbian life is now open and thriving in many non-Muslim countries, it is still very much an underground phenomenon in the Muslim world. And it is this phenomenon that Indian filmmaker and journalist Parvez Sharma explores in his new film “A Jihad for Love.

As a homosexual and self-described “devout Muslim, the issue of homosexuality and Islam is a doubly personal one for Sharma. He had long been accustomed to encountering prejudice toward his sexuality, but living in America in the post-9/11 world, he found his faith had come under attack too.

“I was deeply aware that the Islam I always knew was certainly not the Islam that was now under attack from within and without. It was necessary when I started filming to try and correct the discourses of violence and intolerance around Islam. The subjects in this film, and indeed the filmmaker, are coming out as Muslims first, and gay or lesbian second, Sharma told Daily News Egypt in an email interview.

By exploring homosexual life in Muslim countries and communities, Sharma’s film challenges both intolerance toward Muslims in the West by tackling a universal issue of individual liberty, as well as intolerance toward homosexuals in the Muslim world, by offering an alternative perspective on Islam.

Certainly, Parvez Sharma did not lack the energy, or the faith, for the task. By the early 1990’s he was writing about gay and lesbian issues for a national newspaper in India, evoking an “overwhelming level of support in the process. Sharma knew the medium of film, however, would best enable him to spread his message. And picking up the camera, he believes, was something that “the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) would approve of as an act of courage that befits a true Muslim.

To make “A Jihad for Love, Sharma embarked on a six-year journey, during which time he would film in 12 countries and in nine languages, amassing over 400 hours of footage. In not one of those countries – which included Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt – did he have governmental permission to film, so he and his crew would add tourist footage onto their tapes in case they were seized by the authorities. Fortunately for him that never happened.

The resulting film depicts a reality that will scramble the preconceptions of many viewers. Sharma reveals a Saudi Arabia with a flourishing – albeit highly secretive – gay community; attitudes to homosexuality in Turkey and India that are “more open; and in Egypt, homosexual life is possible “if you exist within the parameters of secrecy and engage in your sexual preference in ways that are not public.

“What is important to note here is that in most Muslim communities, homosexuality is definitely tolerated unless people adopt Western personae of gay or lesbian – and this is true across the board. The problem starts happening when you decide to take on a political and social identity and construct your public persona around your sexuality.

One scene in particular illustrates this point. A former Imam, who was forced out of his community for coming out as a homosexual, is driving in his car with his two daughters, and asks them what they would feel if he was arrested. The eldest replies that she would hope his death was quick – that he would be killed with the first stone, instead of having to suffer through a barrage.

Moreover, the identities of the majority of Sharma’s subjects were concealed for the film, and most have their faces blurred out or their figures silhouetted when they are onscreen. An Egyptian who worked as an associate producer on the film asked to have his name removed from the credits for fear of possible repercussions.

Gaining the trust of the people he worked with, in fact, was one of the greatest challenges Sharma faced while making the film, and one of the reasons it took so long to produce. He had to work with his subjects on an individual basis, and says the fact that he is “as Muslim as my subjects was crucial in getting people to talk. “If I was a white, Western filmmaker wielding the camera, this film would certainly not have been made.

Ultimately, Sharma hopes that his film will open up a debate within the Muslim world about the place of homosexuals within it. He holds that the Quran is the literal word of God but insists there is nothing in it that outlaws homosexuality.

“The Quran does not talk about homosexuality at all. What it talks about is the story of the fate of Qaum Lut or the Nation of Lut. That story has nothing to do with consensual homosexual relations – it is about male to male rape, and hospitality. Many Muslims understand this already and many more need to. The holy Quran does not condemn homosexuality and the Hadith of our beloved Prophet have been misinterpreted for centuries by men.

However, most interpretations of the Quran bear testimony to the fact that Prophet Lut, the nephew of Ibrahim, was sent as a warning to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who initiated this “heinous practice. Before them it was unknown. In this connection the Quran says: “We also sent Lut. He said to his people, ‘Do you commit indecency such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For you practice your lusts on men in preference to women; you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.

Whether Sharma will succeed in convincing fellow Muslims of his case or not, “A Jihad for Love has already elicited a massive response – positive and negative – both where it has showed, and where it has not. A feature story about the film on Al-Arabiya’s website precipitated an avalanche of comments praising and condemning the film, and Sharma admits that he has received a number of threatening emails.

Nevertheless, his plans to take “A Jihad for Love to audiences in the Muslim world remain undeterred. He is currently trying to get it accepted to the Cairo International Film Festival, and will also try to enter it in the Abu Dhabi and Fajr (Iran) film festivals too.

“Islam is ready for this film. I want Muslim audiences to benefit from this film because [it] was made by a fellow Muslim, with a Muslim camera and with Muslim subjects. Why should it not be shown everywhere within our Ummah? Why can we all not see it and then engage with it and learn from it instead of hurling critiques at each other.

“Allah has created gay and lesbian Muslims with the same love he has given to all of his creations and we need to understand that. No one Muslim has greater claim to Islam than another one.

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