Parvez Sharma – Battling for the soul of Islam

As a gay Muslim, Indian-born filmmaker Parvez Sharma risked his life documenting his pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. His film A Sinner in Mecca is a personal quest to reconcile his faith and his sexuality. ‘I’m no longer worrying about whether Islam will accept me. The question is: can I accept Islam?’

If Saudi authorities had realized that Parvez Sharma (1975) is a gay activist, they would have probably never allowed him to do the hajj. Yet as fate would have it, the annual pilgrimage attracts so many believers that the Indian-born filmmaker was able to slip through the cracks.

Armed with an iPhone and a firm belief that God is on his side, Sharma traveled to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in the Muslim faith. The journey resulted in A Sinner in Mecca, a documentary that delves into what Sharma calls ‘the battle for the soul of Islam’.

In his personal quest to reconcile his faith with his sexuality, Sharma risked life and limb. Filming the hajj is strictly forbidden. ‘I felt like I was back in the closet, not only as a gay Muslim, but also as a filmmaker.’ Fortunately for Sharma, the pilgrimage took place in an age where ‘nearly everybody has a smart phone’. For the most part, he was able to hide among fellow pilgrims taking selfies, a practice so widespread that the authorities had no choice but to tolerate it.

The footage shows a side of the hajj that is not holy at all. In one scene, Sharma talks to a Pakistani man who admits he took part in the honor killing of his sister-in-law. In another, a husband describes how his wife was groped by other pilgrims after the couple was accidentally separated circling the Kaaba, a building at the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca.

Findings like these have triggered both admiration and outrage. At a screening in London, Sharma was followed outside by angry Saudi women who kept harassing him on the street. He regularly receives death threats. ‘It’s a heavy burden to carry, but I’m trying to ignore it.’

After his pilgrimage, Sharma is no longer struggling with the question if Islam will accept him. ‘The question is if I am able to accept Islam,’ he says. ‘I can, but only on my own terms: as a religion of inclusion, redemption and reform, which is urgently overdue.’

It will be up to the Muslim community to define that reform, says Sharma. ‘If there is going to be a gay rights movement of any kind in the Middle East, it has to be compatible with their own culture. It won’t be for us to decide.’

By Jeroen Ansink