I first beheld Parvez Sharma’s A Jihad For Love at its Sydney premiere in 2007. As I sat to watch it, I felt as though my research career into gender and sexuality in the Arab world was unfolding before my very eyes. It was for this reason that I approached him in 2009 to provide the foreword to what became a seminal collection under the title Islam and Homosexuality. With Sharma’s latest film, A Sinner in Mecca, premiering in theaters nationwide this month, I’ve had to revisit his previous works to give the new film the critical reading it deserves. In contrasting the two films, it is evident that A Jihad for Love is about every other gay or lesbian Muslim who may be suffering religious persecution, while A Sinner in Mecca is about just one. For this reason A Sinner in Mecca is a very intimate filmic experience; Sharma really opens himself up to tremendous vulnerability, putting his deepest personal wounds on display for us to treat as an exhibit. It takes tremendous courage to display this kind of vulnerability and love.
At the outset, A Sinner in Mecca, is visually difficult to watch. The claustrophobia induced by the heavy crowding, the instability of the hidden camera Sharma takes with him throughout his pilgrimage, and the protagonist’s evident melancholia in digging into the dark recesses of his personal and familial history, all ensure that we have a necessarily unpleasant viewing experience. The absence of pleasure, however, is what points to the gravity of the subject of the film. The subject is Sharma himself, a gay Muslim man from India, whose early encounters with Sufi Islam are being challenged institutionally by the rise of Wahhabi influence globally. What is more, Sharma carries with him an ever-present, irrevocable grief – a relationship with his beloved mother who was never able to fully accept his sexual orientation and who is no longer with us. Sometimes, A Sinner in Mecca feels like an extended eulogy, not only for Sharma’s relationship with the most important woman in his life, but for the Islam he knew as a child: one of forgiveness, lightness and the intoxication of love.
Taking us through Mecca, we, a non-Muslim audience who is not permitted entry into the holy city, get to see what the Hajj looks like in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. We see scores of buses carrying pilgrims, we see far too much rubbish on the streets and intense over-crowding. We get to see the air-conditioned super malls featuring multinational companies like Starbucks and the deluge of commerce that the Saudi government has built into a “Mecca of Capitalism.” We see the remnants of a pre-Islamic history being slowly erased as the pilgrim continues on in his progress. The harshness of the Hajj experience is never decorated for us as anything other than hardship. It is a painful progress; it involves suffering and a great deal of confusion on both a literal and psychic level. It is through undergoing this process that Sharma finally emerges with an answer to his conundrum: would Islam [and by extension his mother] accept him as a gay man?
Sharma has made progress in his tireless pursuit of this existential question since A Jihad for Love came out in 2007. Back then, Sharma appeared to favor orthodox methodologies of interpretation in which homosexuality is forbidden. He appeared to take for granted that it is not theologically sound to question the interpretative tradition, or to situate the emergence of prohibition historically. While he fell short of saying modern or alternative interpretations are disingenuous, there was a level of un-interrogated acceptance that this may very well be the case. Sharma further illuminated on this point in his foreword to Islam and Homosexuality: “I do not feel that a purely theological solution to … the problem of the homosexual, is possible.” Instead, Sharma wished to focus on 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, a sin, without recognizing that sexual preference can be a major constituent of the religious self,” Sharma wrote in 2009. I could not help but feel that at least some of the filmmaker’s suffering could have been alleviated by some of the remedial, liberationist theology on this subject that we can trace back at least a thousand years with Hassan al-Basri and that filled the pages of Islam and Homosexuality. Had he done so, the title of the film, A Sinner in Mecca, may have been ironic if not different.
Ultimately, however, A Sinner in Mecca, is less about sexual orientation than it is about the centralization of Islam and its current confinement to Wahhabism as a fallacious, anachronistic and myopic site for Islam’s birth. When we enter the labyrinths of the pilgrimage, a site that draws Muslims from all around the world, that brings together men and women, Sunnis and Shiites, rich and poor, and when we are made participants in the drawn-out symbolism and rituals of the hajj, be they circling the Ka’ba or stoning the devil, then the epistemological scaffolding needed to talk about LGBT rights disintegrates completely. For this reason, A Sinner in Mecca devotes itself to talking about homosexuality and Islam in ways that are not terribly familiar to the film’s predominantly Western audience. On this topic, Sharma had reflected in 2009 that “I have witnessed the endless debates that diasporic Muslims engage in, in the cool, air-conditioned corridors of Western academia, employing languages of emancipation we have developed mostly in the West. In Cairo, in Delhi, and 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.” We can now add Mecca to the list of those sites in which the usual language with which we discuss emancipatory or liberationist theology is not able to function. Sharma’s answer to this conundrum is evident in both A Jihad for Love and A Sinner in Mecca: his focus is on the lived experience, the language of common humanity, the language of yearning for acceptance, the need to belong; the language of love, loss and suffering.