Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Parvez Sharma on Islam and Homosexuality

". . . a dichotomous and simultaneous celebration of homosexuality
and invisibility of the sexual life."

The Wild Reed’s 2011 Gay Pride/Queer Appreciation series continues with an excerpt from a highly informative article by Muslim gay writer and filmmaker Parvez Sharman (right) on Islam and homosexuality. This article was first published in the July/August 2010 issue of Tikkun. (NOTE: To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)

In 2009, Sharman’s A Jihad for Love, the world’s first film on the co-existence of Islam and homosexuality, won the prestigious GLAAD media award for Outstanding Documentary. In making A Jihad for Love, Sharma spent five-and-a-half years documenting the lives of gay and lesbian Muslims in twelve countries. His subjects include a gay imam in South Africa, an Egyptian who fled to France after his imprisonment and torture, and a lesbian couple in Turkey.


. . . 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 s 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.

. . . As a homosexual . . . 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.

. . . 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. [These words of Sharman's just as readily describe the situation within Roman Catholicism!]

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. [This is similar to the approach local Catholics are taking in the struggle for marriage equality in Minnesota. See, for example, here.] 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.

. . . 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. [This brings to mind author Mark D. Jordan's observation in his 2002 book, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism, that Roman Catholicism is "officially homophobic" yet at the same time "intensely homoerotic."]

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.

To read Sharma’s article “Islam and Homosexuality” in its entirety, click here.

Following is a May 20, 2008 Democracy Now! interview with Parvez Sharman about his film A Jihad for Love.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Coming Out in Africa and the Middle East
To Be Gay in Iraq
In Afghanistan, a "Widespread, Culturally-Sanctioned Form of Male Rape"
The Blood-Soaked Thread
In the Garden of Spirituality – Karen Armstrong
In the Garden of Spirituality – Zainab Salbi

For The Wild Reed’s Gay Pride 2010 series, see:
Standing Strong
Growing Strong
Jesus and Homosexuality
It Is Not Good To Be Alone
The Bisexual: “Living Consciously and Consistently in the Place Where the Twain Meet”
Spirituality and the Gay Experience
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Worldwide Gay Pride

For The Wild Reed's Gay Pride 2009 series, see:
A Mother’s Request to President Obama: Full Equality for My Gay Son
Marriage Equality in Massachusetts: Five Years On
It Shouldn’t Matter. Except It Does
Gay Pride as a Christian Event
Not Just Another Political Special Interest Group
Can You Hear Me, Yet, My Friend?
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Worldwide Gay Pride

Image: Vincenzo Aiosa.


brian gerard said...

What a great post, Michael. So helpful to hear from people living outside our culture. Thanks

Sage said...

This is a beautiful and beautifully rendered post Michael. Parvez Sharma is a facebook friend of mine and "A Jihad for Love" I believe, is a most important documentary along with Sandi DuBowski's, "Trembling Before G-d." I have been running a series on my own blog for the month of June entitled, "Gay Pride 2011." I had always planned to compose my final post today on "Trembling Before G-D" and "A Jihad for Love" citing the enormous contribution I believe these two films have made to the ongoing dialog surrounding the intersection between sexuality and religion/spirituality.