Words are subtly redefined in Parvez Sharma’s sympathetic yet oddly strangled documentary about homosexuality in the Muslim world. Jihad, as the film’s title suggests, is no longer a holy war to be violently waged, but a “struggle with the self,” says one soft-spoken Islam scholar, stripped of his teaching positions in South Africa after coming out. Later in the film, another Koranic word is introduced, a handy one you wish more people knew about: ijtihad, or “independent reasoning.”
Globehopping from Turkey to Egypt, Pakistan to France, A Jihad for Love, like Sandi DuBowski’s 2001 Trembling Before G-d, presents many difficult stories told by many tearstained faces. (Friends nearby are often fuzzed out, for fear of reprisals.) Imprisonments, beatings and personal shame haunt the doc’s brave testifiers, who revel in their sexual identity while still hoping to retain a devout sense of faith. The toughest scenes are their confrontations with clergymen who, despite gentleness, point to textual passages that strictly forbid.
This material is the fruit of years of research, but ultimately, an unanswered question haunts A Jihad for Love (and proves its undoing): Why would gay Muslims stay true to a religion that hurts them? Shots of beautiful mosques and kneeling supplicants pad out a brief running time that still feels too long because we’ve already heard of the abuses; Islam’s strict social censures are not news. Sharma forgets to push his subjects to a deeper truth—not on the courage to recognize one’s self and bear the consequences, but to leave dead things behind.