The documentary film A Jihad for Love follows the lives of gay and lesbian Muslims living in places around the world, including Egypt, Iran, India, Turkey, Canada, and France. The film follows these individuals in underground subcultures for homosexual communities in Muslim countries and as immigrants to the West where their lifestyles are more acceptable in public. The main storyline of the film centers on a homosexual Imam from South Africa, Muhsin Hendricks, who was once partnered with a woman in an arranged marriage, is now divorced and is still close with his three children. He says at one point that the marriage was out of guilt for having feelings towards men and pressure to conform with religious norms in the Muslim community in Capetown.
Whereas other documentaries have followed the lives of gay and lesbian Muslims, A Jihad for Love stands out in the fact that it shows the faces of many of the people featured in the film and it adds depth to their dramatic and sometimes tragic stories. Also, the film stands apart from others in that it goes straight to the text and, in many cases, shows gay, lesbian, and straight Muslims debating the Quranic references to homosexuality, including Imam Muhsin Hendricks from Capetown, debating the issue with a heterosexual Imam with traditional views and beliefs.
In the end, the film’s strength is that it puts an actual face to the diversity in the worldwide Muslim community, a view of Islam we do not always see because it is hidden in secret, or taking place at underground parties, or even violently oppressed from public expression. Another strong point worth noting because it is much more subtle is that the film tackles the issue of homosexuality from a Muslim angle, making the issue largely one of interpretation of religious texts. Rather than labeling the sexual act as right or wrong, or natural or unnatural, it depicts gay and lesbian Muslims going straight to Islamic texts to interpret the verses from the Quran for themselves, taking away very different answers.
All of this additional depth also adds complexity to the intersection of homosexuality with issues of law and humans rights, issues that are difficult to frame and talk about even in a secular political setting. Because of this, and despite the strong points of the film, it could be said the documentary’s shortcoming is that since it does tackle homosexuality and Islam from such a wide angle (it is filmed in 12 countries and in nine languages) that the stories seem somewhat disconnected and the message of the film can get lost. One older women, however, reiterates the message best at a workshop for Muslim social workers led by Imam Muhsin Hendricks himself, and I will repeat it here so it will not be lost for readers. She says,
We are not dependent on the Imams and the clergy, each Muslim man and woman, they have been commanded to go and learn for themselves, they have been commanded to challenge the status quo. Islam commands us to learn from the cradle to the grave.
It seems that the issue of whether homosexuality is forbidden or permissible, healthy or harmful, in Islam will inform the way we learn from each other in future debates about religion and human rights. It is part of the larger dialogue about the transformation of negative images and stereotypes about Islam into a more accommodating and diverse perspective on the religion. For this reason, if for none other, A Jihad for Love is worth viewing for yourself.
If you do see the film, or have already seen it, we at Inside Islam would like to hear what you think. What are your thoughts on homosexuality in Islam and about A Jihad for Love? Are there any other related films or documentaries you would recommend? Send us your reaction via email or leave a response in the comments section below.