Calling for “A Jihad for Love”

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You know that director Parvez Sharma is serious about

focusing on women in Islam when he opens his debut documentary, A Jihad for Love, with a lesbian couple

at prayer. Kneeling in a mosque with their faces obscured on-screen, the pair

implores Allah to “Protect us from committing acts you won’t forgive. Help us

remove this desire and replace it with love.”

Neither utterly frustrated nor hopelessly conflicted, the

women embody the timeless and universal question at the heart of A Jihad for Love: Why do humans long for

acceptance from faiths, institutions and communities that reject them? In

positing an answer as it relates to devout Muslims, director Sharma delivers a

refreshingly lesbian-inclusive film that holds instructive value for anyone seeking

a richer understanding of Islam, the world’s second largest and fastest growing

religion.

Like other major belief systems, Islam exhibits a spectrum

of views on homosexuality, from more widely acknowledged condemnation based on

a few verses of the Qur’an and the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed,

to lesser-known interpretations that allow space for same-sex love. Both

perspectives drive A Jihad for Love,

where ultimately, the glimmers of independent reasoning, or ijtihad, outshine the persistence of

orthodoxy and make the film a hopeful viewing experience rather than a bleak

exercise.

Billed as the first-ever feature documentary to explore the

complex global intersections between Islam and homosexuality, the film took

over five years and cost $2 million to complete. Sharma, an out gay Muslim,

produced A Jihad for Love with Sandi

Simcha DuBowski, director of Trembling

Before G-d
, the acclaimed 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox

Jews attempting to navigate their faith and sexuality.

A Jihad for Love

is primarily a film about Islam created in response to the suspicion and

outright hostility toward Muslims following Sept. 11, 2001. Even the title

reflects a pointed effort to reclaim the word jihad, which in contrast to its inflammatory connotation in

mainstream American media, for ordinary Muslims means the religious duty to

“struggle” or “strive,” in a peaceful sense, toward improvement.

“There is a profound battle for the soul of Islam,” Sharma,

35, explained over the telephone from his home in New York City. “I was really

concerned to make a film that would set the record straight about Islam. I took

Islam’s most unlikely storytellers.”

Filmmaker Parvez Sharma

The cast of unusual suspects includes more than 10 gay and

lesbian Muslims filmed in 12 countries and nine languages as they try to

reconcile their religion and sexual orientation, with varying results and

different degrees of disclosure. Notably, about half the film traverses lesbian

landscapes, which the Indian-born Sharma covered as a print journalist for The Statesman in 1994, marking the first

major newspaper presentation of lesbians within India. He remains committed to

lesbian visibility now in his career as a filmmaker.

“I find that gay cinema has been in decline ever since the

great films of the ’80s like The Times of

Harvey Milk
,” Sharma observed. “After that, the majority of gay cinema was

focused on trash. I have been troubled by the inordinate focus on the sexual

lives of gay men.”

As a screen remedy, Sharma unveils a diverse range of

practicing Muslim women at different stages of acceptance with their sexual

orientation. What they share is the struggle to accommodate both Islam and

homosexuality in their lives.

Sana, a fiery 20-something survivor of female genital

mutilation from Yemen, lives in Paris among the refugee diaspora, where she

articulates feminist viewpoints, such as the observation that Mohammed approved

women for political roles in the sixth century. Dressed in a black T-shirt with

silver lettering that reads, “Au nom d’Allah J’aime les Femmes,” and with her

face concealed, she finds a resolution for religious lesbians in

the Muslim belief about the nature of God.

“If we know that God is benevolent, merciful and great,” she offers, “then God

must have created us this way.”

 

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