A Jihad for Love: Being Gay in the Muslim World

Is it easier to be gay in the Muslim world than straight? In Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its adherence a puritanical strain of Islam, it’s forbidden to mix with an unrelated person of another gender. That makes dating straight near impossible but dating gay quite easy, even undetectable (within limits). A gay man in the Atlantic’s Kingdom in the Closet put it this way: “It’s a lot easier to be gay than straight here. If you go out with a girl, people will start to ask her questions. But if I have date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won’t even come up.” It’s a fascinating turnabout of expectation.

And that got me wondering: What does it mean to be a gay Muslim? First time director Parvez Sharma set out to an answer just that question, and 5.5 years + 12 countries later he’s painted a study in contrasts: from relatively moderate Turkey to fundamentalist Iran to the the opening scenes with Muhsin Hendricks, South Africa’s openly gay Imam.

We watch a group of young Iranian men flee their homeland for safety in Canada. We meet Mazen, a member of the Cairo 52, and hear his stories of being tried and imprisoned simply for his sexual orientation. We travel with lesbian couple Ferda and Klymet as Klymet meets mom-in-law for the first time.

But more than anything we see people searching for acceptance — from family, the law, their religion. And, particularly in the last case, we see so many of them denied. Time Out New York asks the question perhaps many of us have:

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.

But that fundamentally misses the point of the film. What Sharma does brilliantly is show why Islam is very much alive in the hearts of his subjects — the calls to prayer, the value of family, the deeply held teachings of Muhammad, the beautiful writings on paper. If anything, the film shows us why it is so difficult, so painful for gay Muslims to make just that choice — the intractable choice between earthen love and love for God. And it shows why the work of people like Muhsin Hendricks, the gay Imam working to reconcile homosexuality and Islam, is so important.

The real power of A Jihad for Love, though, comes in quieter moments. Words between lovers, a phone call to a mother far away. It’s deeply humanizing. There’s a scene about halfway through the film when Mazen (of the Cairo 52) dons belly dancer garb and dances among his friends, men and women, gay and straight. The camera lingers on him — we see clear joy in his eyes. It’s a beautiful thing seeing someone express themselves, be themselves, without fear. You see into their soul. And, in showing us that, A Jihad for Love is a special document indeed.

For more, Watch the Trailer. A Jihad for Love is showing exclusively at the IFC Center in NYC, but it really deserves to open wider. We last connected with gay issues over at GayGamer.

7 Responses to “A Jihad for Love: Being Gay in the Muslim World”

  1. 1 David Simon

    Meh. I was about to say that I’m looking forward to when this arrives at my local artsy theatre, but it just went out of business. Meh again.

    Well, at least there’s always NetFlix.

  2. 2 Jason

    Yeah, that’s one depressing thing about the emergence of online distribution, ain’t it — smaller theaters struggle. I suppose the upside is that smaller films like this that would only be seen by a few on the big screen have a second chance.

  3. 3 Bi Muslim Dude.

    I was interested in this film till i came across these two sentences :There’s a scene about halfway through the film when Mazen (of the Cairo 52) dons belly dancer garb and dances among his friends, men and women, gay and straight. The camera lingers on him — we see clear joy in his eyes.

    I guess being Middle Eastern and gay means there as to be the obligitry dress up as male belly dancer segment. Talk about cliched tripe.

  4. 4 Jason

    Bi Muslim Dude: I’m not gay or Muslim, so I certainly wouldn’t attempt to say what ought to be offensive or not. But I will say that the dance sequence isn’t presented as a singular reality but rather a part of one person’s reality. (Honestly, I didn’t realize it was such a cliche — it’s interesting to hear your perspective.) Each segment focuses on different people in different circumstances, so the belly dancing bit was just one small part of that and, overall, the movie left me with a feeling of diversity rather than stereotype. (The website has an overview of the people it follows.)

    If you do see the film, I’d be interested to hear what you think, but I certainly respect your right to be concerned.

  5. 5 interesting

    gay or more significantly bisexuality is relatively common in countries where mix interaction between the two genders is forbidden. it is almost a default. I, being a heterosexual muslim female do feel concerned about these issues.

    The real question becomes, what does it mean to be gay? or bi for that matter?
    Is it mere fantasizing about sexual encounters, is it dreaming or is actually having a long term relationship with someone of the same gender.

    If you say the prior statement, then research shows that “heterosexual” people have some or another fantasy and even encounter and if you say the latter then majority of the gay guys in middle east have not that experience.
    Half of them dont even know what is going on besides their practice of sodomy.
    thanks to Western movies the whole culture of gay identity has been brought to light to the arab guys at least and many of the realize what they are doing is in fact a homosexual act and soemthing they dont want to be associated with.
    others offcourse do claim to be gay and know it is wrong by the religion but are helpless in the sense they say that God will change them etc.

    either way, it makes me sad because what this means is less muslim men for us muslim women……..

  6. 6 darko


    The fear that gay males are competition is a fairly typical view of Arab/Muslim women towards gay males. The typical male Arab gay feels the same towards women.

    The source of the conflict here is that most males who indulge in homosexual activity are doing so because of sexual deprivation. And once they are married, they ditch their gay partners.

    Conversely the women have to endure unfaithful husbands after marriage.

    The resulting heartbreak on both sides is the source of all the animosity and resentment.

  7. 7 Stephanie

    Hmm, that must be something very hard to deal with. It is hard enough being white and gay but being muslim and gay, you are just asking for trouble. But I say do what you want and do as you will. All people deserve that right and I surely won’t be the one to stop them.

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