Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010
Islam and Homosexuality
In 2002 I began a long and lonely journey, daring to visit some of the darkest corners of the taboo that permeates the consciousness of that unlikely character: the gay or lesbian Muslim. Now, in 2010, I am happy to report that the film that came out of that journey, A Jihad for Love, has been seen by an estimated eight million people in fifty-nine nations.
Lives have been and continue to be transformed. Questions continue to be asked. The answers are not always easy or available. I certainly speak with many of the contradictions of my own jihad or struggle intact, contradictions I find mirrored in the religious text I choose to follow—the Qur'an.
I write with fierce urgency because I realize now more than ever that some of our most bitter battles in this new decade of this new century will be fought on the front lines of religion.
The generations that will follow us will deal with the consequences of rising extremisms in every faith. A very quick look into even our own fabric here in America, the profoundly religious and moralistic society we all live in, makes one realize that the gay marriage debate in this nation is fundamentally about the Church.
In making A Jihad for Love, I traveled to the very heart of orthodoxy and reached a conclusion that perhaps is not immediately appealing to all of you.
In my lifetime, I do not see Islam coming down with a uniform edict saying that homosexuality is permissible. But then again, a ruling of such a nature that would be acceptable to all Roman Catholics cannot be imagined as coming down from the Vatican either.
The case of Islam becomes further problematized because there is no single kind of Muslim. More than a billion Muslims inhabit this planet, and they inhabit geographic, linguistic, and cultural spaces that are enormously different. In fact, nothing in the religion can fall into the problematic monolith discussed most often in the media in Western societies. Sunni Islam in itself, being the religion of the majority, has four major schools of thought: the Hanafi, the Hanbali, the Maliki, and the Sha'afi. They have never quite agreed on what to do with "the homosexual." The Shias in Iran thrive on a culture of disagreement that permeates all of the corridors of learning, which always lead up to the holy city of Qom.
Let Us Prioritize People's Stories, Not Textual Debates
As A Jihad for Love explains, the Qur'an appears to be pretty specific about homosexuality, and debating context and semantics is un-Islamic. Many scholars within Islam have also argued that the very ijtihad, or independent reasoning, that the gay Imam from South Africa, Muhsin Hendricks, brings up eloquently at the end of the film, is not an option because the doors to that were closed in the seventh century. And some who have agreed with the premise of the need for ijtihad have also said the exercise is not available to every Muslim, but only to the most learned alim (men of learning) in the Ummah (worldwide community of Muslims).
This note of pessimism I strike, however, should be heard more as a note of caution as we rush into seeking solutions that are merely theological. For our times, history has seemingly been divided into an easy before-and-after narrative following September 11. Much is made every day in the media and in the countless books produced since of the need for an Islamic Reformation. As I traveled first to make and then to share my film, I realized that the process is ongoing and if anything, the moment for Islamic reformation is now. We are living it. The question that comes with that knowledge is whether the "problem of homosexuality" is or even needs to be on the front burner for the many debates that Muslims need to have.
Having met more imams and religious figures over the years than I can count on my fingers, I realize a few things. Theological bickering can often be counterproductive, especially when you engage in questions of context and language and especially when the majority does believe that the book itself is the literal word of God.
Perhaps in that time of Jahilliyah, the pre-Islamic period of ignorance, even the troubled and unlettered Prophet of Islam—on hearing that first command, Ikra, which means "Recite," from the angel Jibreel or Gabriel—did not comprehend the extent of the theological universe built with language in all of its contradiction and nuance. Clearly the Prophet did lay the foundations of an egalitarian system, and perhaps he truly did create the first ever written constitution, in the Meccan Constitution in the city formerly known as Yathrib.
However, within that constitution and certainly in the seemingly rigid theology that would follow his own lifetime, the language and the pronouncements were a product of the times.
Some progressive Muslim voices claim that the Prophet himself was a true man of his times. Islam, surprisingly, was laying forth a sexual and moral universe with rules and codes that had mostly been unavailable to the Jews, the Christians, and yes, the polytheists that inhabited Arabia 1,430 years ago. So while I have always believed that an egalitarian sexual revolution of immense proportions lay at the very heart of our religion's birth, much of the advance made in those times for creating a framework for human sexuality was limited within the institutions of heterosexual marriage. And because of this and because of my knowledge of the contexts now created for those who dare to re-engage with the Qur'an through the lens of modernity and the many academic discourses thus provided, I do not feel that a purely theological solution to what I have earlier referred to as the problem of the homosexual is possible.
The theological debate that many within Islam have been engaged in for centuries often omits consideration of the impact religious rulings have on believers' lives. Theology and the rules that bind it often ignore the human experience and refer to homosexuality as an object, a behavior, and a sin, without recognizing that sexual preference can be a major constituent of the religious self.
For this reason, in A Jihad for Love, my approach was, rather than engaging in theological bickering, to show the very human dilemmas faced by these remarkable Muslims. Only in telling their stories are we able to get past the theological damnation that they suffer. We, and indeed our religious leaders in any of the monotheistic religions, need to realize that words in our holy books can and often do leap off the page and have a very real effect on people's lives.
I know, as a Muslim, that I am not supposed to "mess with the Qur'an." But as a believer and a defender of my faith, I also feel that ideally the ultimate relationship lies between the individual and his or her God. But clearly we do not and have not lived in an ideal world.
How Religion Will Change
I have treaded a fine line, in this post-September 11 world, knowing that I need to be a defender of Islam and also critique what I think needs to change. And that leads to an ultimate and simple analysis for me: it is the "true believers" who will create reform within their religions. In Islam we have this concept of hudood, or boundaries. The believers who work within the bounds of respect, a necessary discipline that faith imposes, will perhaps be the true harbingers of some kind of change. And the change will most definitely not be a uniform theological solution that represents all Muslims.
These are interesting times. In Europe and America, the fear of Muslims is a very real thing. Some Muslims at least claim that America's first Muslim president has now been elected, despite Barack Obama's self-identification as a Christian. In the streets of Cairo, for example, the discussion of Mr. Obama being a new beacon of hope for Muslims often ends with his middle name. And though this new president made his religious preference very clear in order to win the 2008 election in a deeply Christian nation, under Islam's laws of patriarchy he would indeed be either a Muslim or an apostate. The latter is a title I have been familiar with, even though I remain mostly fatwa-free.
I feel perhaps that in this new world we inhabit, there will eventually be a deeper understanding of what may need to be done in this new century in which "the problem of religion" is probably the single biggest challenge and issue for humanity.
For me the question of Islam, therefore, has in some ways been of greater interest than the question of homosexuality. There has always been the fundamental and even more profound disconnect of trying to be a defender of my faith, a mujahid, or one who is engaged in jihad. But my jihad of course is one of love. I dared to take on this title for my film after a considerable amount of thought and indeed after traveling to the very heart of my religion, which I now realize is as troubled at its core as any religion grappling with twenty-first-century issues with texts that are centuries old.
Current Debates about the Real Meaning of Jihad
In Egypt, the very heart of Islamic thought, where I spent a considerable amount of time, I came across a debate that continues to rage today. I befriended several Arab journalists who were reporting on the work of Syed Imam al Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl. He was one of the first members of al-Qaida's top leadership council and had penned The Essential Guide to Preparation in Peshawar in 1988, and the book did become exactly that to a generation of violent jihadis, often tacitly supported by the United States, which was eager to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. He later wrote The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge. Ayman al-Zawahiri, to this day Osama bin Laden's right hand man, praised the book as a victory from almighty God and even edited the thousand-page text to remove the barbed criticisms of the modern jihadi movements.
Dr. Fadl has been in an Egyptian prison since 2004 and has written a new work called Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World. In it he proclaims, "We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that." The book has shaken the very foundation of al-Qaida's intellectual construction and (perceived) superiority. Ayman al-Zawahiri has been forced to react and a debate has raged in Arab society and its theological elite.
Dr. Fadl also said that September 11 has been a catastrophe for Muslims. Zawahiri was forced to react in a 200-page letter available online, but clearly the foundation of the violent ideologies that claim to represent Islam had been shaken. Unfortunately not much of this debate, or indeed any of the debates in the Muslim worlds, are well reported in our media.
Because of Dr. Fadl's work, I know that I have some sanction in claiming the word jihad as my own and taking it back to its original Arabic, literal meaning of a struggle, of a "struggle in the way of God." Nothing has given me greater pleasure than watching "Western" audiences queue up outside innumerable box office windows asking for "two tickets for Jihad, please." I feel that in my own small way I have contributed meaningfully to the discourse on Islam that will dominate the lives of at least a few generations. As a homosexual, however, I realize profoundly that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—all the religions of the book—will not be able to reconcile their theologies with their homosexuals in our lifetimes.
Why Solutions Have to Be Homegrown
Pride marches or the re-creation of the gay ghettos of the West will never be the solution in Tehran or in Islamabad.
I have witnessed the endless debates that diasporic Muslims engage in, within the cool air-conditioned corridors of Western academia, employing the languages of emancipation developed mostly in the West. In Cairo, in Delhi, or in Jakarta, the realities of life—beyond the taps that run dry or the power outages that punctuate days and nights—are completely different.
The limited and limiting languages of Western labels and constructs are just not an option. Being a recent transplant into the West myself, I have marveled at the need for constant labels and self-identification that many minorities in majority Caucasian societies have felt. I have seen just how profoundly the lines between the public and the private have been blurred in many of these nations and how little of that is still permissible "back home." So from "person of color" (a disingenuous term, in my humble opinion) to L and G and B and T and Intersex and Queer and Two Spirit, I have realized that these categorizations perhaps serve their constituents in the West better than they ever would in the problematically labeled "third world."
If anything, even a cursory look at Islam's many histories reveals a dichotomous and simultaneous celebration of homosexuality and invisibility of the sexual life.
Much of that need for invisibility remains couched in the sanctity of the institution of heterosexual marriage and the centrality of the family unit. So for example, I can say with confidence that the majority of Muslims with same-sex desire in Muslim societies would choose to live within heterosexual marriages.
For that reason the solutions—if indeed there is a need for any—within "Islamic" cultures will need to come from the Muslims who inhabit them.
Indeed if there is to be a Jihad for Love at all, the mujahids will have to begin with a belief in the sanctity of the Qur'an and hopefully then find a way to move beyond the limits of theology. They will undoubtedly need to be Muslims. Will they be good Muslims or bad Muslims? And who gets to decide that? That has always been the question.
Parvez Sharma is a New York-based Muslim writer and filmmaker. He blogs regularly at www.ajihadforlove.blogspot.com and is the winner of the prestigious GLAAD media award for Outstanding Documentary in 2009. Portions of this article appeared in Parvez Sharma's foreword to Islam and Homosexuality (Praeger, 2010), edited by Samar Habib.
Sharma, Parvez. 2010. Islam and Homosexuality. Tikkun 25(4): 40