[21 May 2009]
Parvez Sharma’s well-meaning but fundamentally flawed documentary, A Jihad for Love, aims to lift the veil on the seemingly intractable conflict between homosexuality and sharia, or Islamic religious law. But the film, which follows a diverse cast of characters across 12 countries in episodic encounters attempting to reconcile their sexuality with their faith, is undermined by the director’s aspirations. The geographical and spiritual scope of the film is so ambitious that resources are spread thin, interviews cut short, and in the end, what could have been a focused and moving portrayal of two or three very charismatic subjects, turns into a project that, at 81-minutes, feels simultaneously meandering and slight.
Co-produced by Sharma and Sandi DuBowski — who himself sought to reconcile faith and sexuality in the documentary Trembling Before G-d. a film about homosexual orthodox Jews, A Jihad for Love is a survey of practicing Muslims that illuminates Islam through 16 different personal accounts of faith, both in their religion and in themselves.
The Arabic word jihad has English language associations of “holy war”, but in fact the word may be translated much more generally as “struggle”. As Albert Habib Hourani writes in A History of the Arab Peoples, the word is “a general injunction to strive in the way of God.” In a mixture of re-appropriation and sensationalism, Sharma employs the word to describe the process the documentary’s subjects grapple with as they search to find a place for their romantic desires within the context of a religion that shuns their sexuality.
A Jihad for Love focuses on Muslims from South Africa to India, and Egypt to Iran, all working to find their way within varying degrees of religious affiliation in a variety of regimes intolerant of their identity and proclivities. These snapshots, which begin with two lesbians praying in a Mosque and bookending with an intensely sympathetic and articulate imam in Johannesburg, South Africa, provide a window into an array of cultures stereotyped and pigeonholed throughout the West.
Sharma, a Muslim gay filmmaker born and raised in India, worked in broadcast and radio journalism (including a stint as a producer for Amy Goodman’s powerful news program Democracy Now!) before setting to work on this project, his first feature documentary and a seven-year labor of love. The film is a co-production with the UK’s Channel 4, France’s ARTE, Germany’s ZDF and Australia’s SBS, and despite its tendency to feel like an NPR featurette at times, A Jihad for Love proves a valuable introduction to the intersection of sexuality and faith for a community likely undereducated or ignorant about either milieu.
But in its quest to give voice to gay Muslims, A Jihad for Love fails to take full advantage of its potential and evolve from a collection of loose character sketches into a cohesive narrative. Sharma’s subjects refer to the word jihad as a jihad ul-Nafs, or struggle with the self and a struggle in the context of Islam, but the struggles vary from nation to nation, and with devotion of practice.
Mazen, one of 51 Egyptian men arrested in a gay club in Cairo in 2001, was granted political asylum in France and moved to Paris, where he lives what appears to be a relatively happy life among expatriates from Morocco and elsewhere. His struggle differs from that of the South African imam (Mushin Hendricks), who is threatened by hate speech by those who oppose his views, but who lives in a country in which his exclusion appears limited to reconciling his sexuality with his faith. In turn, Hendricks’ jihad differs from that of Amir, an Iranian man charged with crimes relating to his sexuality. Amir was forced to flee his hometown of Shiraz and immigrate to Turkey after being brutally beaten.
The primary deficiency of the otherwise enlightening documentary is that it implicitly groups together nations with vastly differing systems of government and individuals who live strikingly different lives. To compare repression of homosexuality in Egypt, a ostensibly secular state with Islam as the official state religion, to Iran, in which sharia is instituted as state law and whose oppression of homosexuals is an explicit corollary of religious government, is to make disingenuous, and perhaps dangerous parallels. The very act of treating these forms of oppression similarly blurs the line between various incarnations of prejudice, in turn obscuring fundamental truths about government power, religion and discrimination.
(Only Saudi Arabia and Iran’s judicial systems are governed through sharia, though many other states have incorporated religious law into family jurisprudence and other matters. Though Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution proclaims that “Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation”, efforts to codify sharia as official state law have been unsuccessful.)
Sharma stays out of the documentary, opting to let the film’s subjects speak for themselves, which they do eloquently, in Arabic, French, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu and English. But much of the broader context of the conflict is lost in translation. In a strange turn of events, the appearance of two mufti, or legal scholars —a severe and dour Sunni towards the beginning and a younger and at least rhetorically more tolerant Shia—provide more background on the seemingly intractable conflict.
It is too bad that the entire documentary doesn’t profile Mushin Hendricks, the Muslim and gay imam who was forced to resign from his position at two madrassas when he came out. Hendricks, whose father and grandfather were active in the Muslim community in Cape Town, actively teaches an interpretation of Islam that is contrary to orthodox interpretation.
Hendricks is one of the few subjects of Sharma’s documentary that doesn’t ask to have his face digitally blurred (the practice is so rampant in A Jihad for Love that at one point the filmmaker jokingly digitally blocks out the face of a penguin). Hendricks actively wrestles with issues that don’t blur the political and the religious. His story is that of an imam lobbying for tolerance in Islam while actively practicing ijtihad, or independent, individual reasoning. This narrative seems a world away from the Iranian nationals forced to flee their homeland to Canada via Turkey through human rights applications for political asylum. Hendricks is certainly practicing a form of jihad, but the individuals in Egypt and Iran are engaged in a struggle that is at once more basic and more profound than the act of striving towards God: they are struggling to survive.
“What do you say?” asks an incredulous Maulana A.K. Hoosen of Hendricks. “That homosexuality is permissible in Islam? Is that what you’re promoting? We would consider you a murtad, an apostate and out of the fold of Islam.”
Hoosen continues, “No person can make interpretations to suit his desires, or her desires when you have clear cut verses … So you want we to leave the text and accept some human being’s opinion? You’re just playing with semantics.”
In fact, Hendricks is practicing ijtihad , an approach with a history far too complicated and controversial to delve into here. But at the root of the Mufti Hoosen’s assertion is an irreducible truth that all major religions struggle with: the reconciliation of scripture and social progress. The march of political progress threatens textual interpretations of many religions, and interpreters of these texts are charged with balancing tradition with modern truth.
Another imam, Syed Kalbe Jawad, says that the practice of homosexuality is “unnatural”. Though he calls homosexuality a “disease” and advises psychological treatment, he allows that, “no matter how big the crime, if you seek forgiveness at God’s doorstep, you don’t need forgiveness from mortals at all.” Jawad notes that, “If the One above forgives you, then the world has no right to judge you.”
“We have to find a space for us within Islam,” Hendricks muses, towards the end of Sharma’s ultimately moving film. At a time in which religious intolerance has grave consequences that reach far beyond the mosque, the church and the temple—far into the public and private lives of citizens and civilians—Hendricks’ struggle reflects a dilemma that has grave ramifications for us all.