For a gay filmmaker, filming in Saudi Arabia presents two serious challenges: filming is forbidden in the country and homosexuality is punishable by death. For filmmaker Parvez Sharma, however, these were risks he had to assume as he embarked on his Hajj pilgrimage, a journey considered the greatest accomplishment and aspiration within Islam, his religion. On his journey Parvez aims to look beyond 21st-century Islam’s crises of religious extremism, commercialism and sectarian battles. He brings back the story of the religion like it has never been told before, having endured the biggest jihad there is: the struggle with the self.
A SINNER IN MECCA audaciously enters a world that has been forbidden to non-Muslims for 14 centuries. The filmmaker documents his journey on nothing more than an iPhone and two smuggled, tiny cameras. On these never-before-filmed streets of ancient Mecca, he joins 4 million Muslims, from the majority, peace-loving pilgrims fulfilling a lifelong calling, to brutal jihadists for whom violence is a creed. They have all entered Mecca for the world’s largest pilgrimage: the Hajj.
This film unflinchingly showcases parts of the dangerous ideology that governs today’s ISIS and how much it has in common with Saudi Arabia’s sacred doctrine, Wahabi Islam. Cabals within the secretive Saudi monarchy have allegedly funded both Al-Qaeda and ISIS over the years. On the streets of Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s most famous son, Osama bin Laden, is sometimes referred to as Sheikh Osama, using the prefix for a learned Muslim man. It is into this Saudi Arabia the filmmaker, an openly gay Muslim man, enters. He is looking to find his own place within an Islam he has always known, an Islam that bears no resemblance to the bastardized versions creating havoc around the Muslim world, in almost daily battles in Europe—where the film will be broadcast by two of its biggest television networks, Arte and ZDF—and in North America.
With A SINNER IN MECCA, the Muslims of Islam are given agency to tell the complex, and now violence-marred story of their faith. And in their midst: a longing Muslim, already labeled an infidel, wondering if he can finally secure his place within this religion that condemns him.
This is the frontline of Islam. This is the Saudi Arabia they don’t want you to see.
When he embarked on the most challenging journey of his life, openly gay and Muslim filmmaker Parvez Sharma was a marked man—publicly labeled an infidel for making the blasphemous argument that Islam and homosexuality could co-exist. Following the release of his 2008 film, A JIHAD FOR LOVE, a fatwa (religious opinion) condemned him for the sin of apostasy. Reacting to the fatwa and the film, a commentator on a Saudi website posted, “If I could kill him with my own hands, I would. I am sure Allah will take care of that.”
Parvez’s remarkable journey in his new film, A SINNER IN MECCA, takes him from his home in New York, the mecca of freedom, to a Mecca that is anything but home, and subsequently back to his birthplace in India. It was the tenth anniversary of September 11th when Parvez reached Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich nation that is an ally to many western countries, and a country where Muslims like Parvez are beheaded. As his plane touched down in Medina, Islam’s second holiest city, the Middle East was in flames, the Arab Spring unfolded into a bleak Islamist winter and Osama bin Laden was dead.
The time is ripe for this film. One-sixth of all humanity is Muslim and Islam remains the world’s most contested religion. Misguided caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad reliably ignite worldwide violence. Recent examples include the inexcusable carnage at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the murders in Copenhagen. The need to understand the world’s fastest growing religion has never been more urgent. Daily battles are being fought in the media over this oft-misunderstood faith. With this film, it is Islam’s ultimate insiders, its Hajji pilgrims, who get to tell the story of their faith.
Every able-bodied Muslim is commanded by Allah to embark on this spiritual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Islam’s heart beats here. Equipped with nothing more than my faith and my iPhone, I leave my 21st-century life in America and arrive in Saudi Arabia, where the Islamic calendar, much like its subjugated citizenry, is stuck in the 1400s. In Mecca, I weep as I behold the sight indelibly marked on my mind and on every prayer rug I have known since I was a child: millions of devotees in white robes circling a large black cube, the Kaaba. As I gather courage to film on my iPhone I ponder: “Surely Allah allowed me here, because he accepts me as I am.”
For centuries, Muslim pilgrims were the only keepers of the secrets of Mecca. Mecca is the most visited city in the world, yet forbidden to all but followers of Islam. My unprecedented journey, which forms the core of A SINNER IN MECCA, reveals for the first time some of those secrets. This film offers a first look into that forbidden world, and into the faith that at once demands and withholds so much from its faithful. But during my time in Saudi Arabia, especially in Mecca and Medina, surrounded by four million believers from every corner of the planet, I discover the United Nations of Islam.
A SINNER IN MECCA is a provocative road-trip through the fault lines of Islam. It is a groundbreaking revelation of an Islam never seen or heard from before and hopes to significantly change the rhetoric and debate around this religion.