July 10, 2008 — -- A new film about gays and lesbians in the Muslim world is challenging notions of right, wrong and religiosity in Islamic culture.
Filmmaker Parvez Sharma says his film "A Jihad For Love" is an effort to shed light on the social and spiritual struggle of homosexuals who are devout Muslims. It tells the story through personal narratives of gays across 12 countries. In the film, Sharma compiles a vision of Islamic life through the eyes of the gay faithful.
"I felt it really important to empower gay and lesbian Muslims to tell the story of Islam," Sharma told ABC News.
Sharma, who is gay, said he was driven to make the film in part by the desire to "come out as a Muslim" after Sept. 11, hoping to broaden public perception about the diversity of Islam's followers.
The stories in the film are intimate, with main characters that include a gay Imam in South Africa, a lesbian couple in Turkey, homosexuals in Egypt and a group of gay Iranians fleeing the country to seek asylum in Canada.
The characters struggle with their societies, some escaping persecution and abuse. They have strong bonds with their families, but forge a second family among other gay believers.
Muhsin Hendricks, an Islamic scholar in South Africa, openly and actively engages other Muslims in discussions about homosexuality. Hendricks came out on his radio show, setting off an angry and threatening response from listeners of the show.
"I think Muhsin should be thrown off a mountain or burned or something like that," we hear one caller say.
"We should bring back the death penalty for this guy. He's bringing down the name of Islam," says another.
In the film, Hendricks voices the scholarly opposition, trying to overturn an interpretation of Islam as categorically against homosexuality. He argues that the book of Lot, with its condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah, condemns sinners for molestation and rape -- not simply for being gay.
"We cannot find answers within orthodox Islamic thinking. We have to use one of the principles of Islam, 'Ijtihad,' meaning independent reasoning, to find a place for us within Islam," he says. In opposition, another fellow Muslim in the film accuses Hendricks of interpreting Islam to suit his life choices.
Hendricks describes how he lived before coming out, married to a woman in hopes that traditional family life would change his sexual preference. His life as a closeted gay Muslim was cloaked with depression and secrecy, which he sees as a common and potentially suicidal combination for gay Muslims who bury their sexual preference.
It is Hendricks who coins the term "love jihad" in the film, referring to the inner struggle of gay Muslims reconciling their faith with their sexuality.
In another narrative Kiymet, a lesbian living in Turkey, describes how she bridges the two.
"My atheist friends always ask me, how can you be a lesbian and have such religious faith? For me each has its own place. If God has planted this love in my heart, then it is legitimate," Kiyamet says. She lives in relative freedom, but laments the closeted lives of other lesbians in Turkey.
"Women like us are captives in another life. We are prisoners. There are girls in the southeast [of Turkey] and remote areas who are lesbians but cannot lead lesbian lives."
In another scene, three lesbians discuss the Koran and its implications for women.
"The Prophet Muhammad did an enormous number of things so that women could participate in public affairs, including politics. For me, Muhammad was a feminist," says one woman.
She goes on to describe how she would profess her lifestyle while speaking to God on judgment day.
"I have loved women and it was not a sin, because my loving a woman caused no harm. I only loved Allah, my one God, I only loved.'"
Sharma says it is the religious commitment of the film's characters that makes the strongest impact.
"Muslims who watched the film actually also are very surprised by the intense religiosity of the people profiled in the film. When you show to a Muslim a person who is as devout, if not more devout than them, then you are presenting a conundrum," Sharma told ABC News.
"You are presenting someone who is living by the Quran, is living by the book, and is still deeply struggling with this idea of their homosexuality."
Given the sensitive topic, Sharma put himself at personal risk by making the film. As he traveled through the Muslim world, he sometimes posed as a tourist or charity worker. He made copies of his raw footage, in case the originals were confiscated by authorities.
Now that "Jihad for Love" is made, it is showing in the West and in countries with significant Muslim populations, like India and Turkey. Sharma has yet to show it anywhere in the Arab world.
"I certainly don't imagine that the film is going to show in a movie theater in the region, but I think in universities, private homes, conferences, and maybe the film festival in Dubai," Sharma told ABC News, adding that he was turned down from last year's film festival for fear of a public backlash.
"There will be a way to show the film, but when you're working with religious orthodoxy it is critical to work with respect and with a lot of patience."
Haifa Jedea contributed to this article.