In a film industry often criticized for exploiting a fear of Muslims, Mahershala Ali received a standing ovation as he achieved a historic feat 20 minutes into Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony, becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.
His supporting actor win for Moonlight, the story of a young black man coming to terms with his sexuality, drew praise from the Muslim American community on Twitter, and it could not have been more timely.
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U.S. President Donald Trump’s order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations resonated at the award ceremony, having prompted Iranian director Asghar Farhadi to opt out of attending. Farhadi’s film, The Salesman, won the Oscar for best foreign language film.
But in Ali’s acceptance speech, and in words spoken afterward, his reaction to his historic achievement was understated and subtle. He made no mention of his religion in his speech, but thanked his wife - who had given birth to their daughter four days earlier and who shares his Muslim faith.
“It’s not about you, it’s about these characters,” he also said. “You are a servant. You’re in service to these stories and these characters.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times following the ceremony, however, he addressed the question of his spirituality and the significance of his win.
“Regardless of theology, or however you see life, or relate to worshiping God - as an artist, my job is to tell the truth and then try to connect with these characters and people as honestly and deeply as possible,” Ali told the Los Angeles Times, adding that spirituality can be a doorway to “more empathy for these people you have to advocate for.”
“I’m proud to own [being Muslim] and I embrace that. I just feel blessed to have had the opportunities that I have had.”
And in an Instagram post following the Oscar show, his message was just as simple, just the words: Blessed journey.
The Academy does not track every award winner’s religion, but a number of other known Muslim actors and movie makers have been previously nominated for Academy Awards. The late Omar Sharif was nominated for Lawrence of Arabia but didn’t win.
On Sunday night, Ali also became the first African American man in more than a decade to win an Oscar.
In an interview with the Radio Times, Ali spoke about his experiences being black and Muslim in the U.S.:
“If you convert to Islam after a couple of decades of being a black man in the U.S., the discrimination you receive as a Muslim doesn’t feel like a shock. I’ve been pulled over, asked where my gun is, asked if I’m a pimp, had my car pulled apart,” Ali said in the interview. “[Some] Muslims will feel like there’s this new discrimination that they hadn’t received before - but it’s not new for us.”
Across social media, viewers - Muslim and non-Muslim - reacted to Ali’s win, many evoking references to Trump.
But not all social media reactions appeared positive. Initially, Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s envoy to the United Nations, posted a tweet that noted Ali’s win, saying “that’s a first.” But soon after, she deleted it. As the Hindustan Times notes, Ali belongs to the Ahmadi minority sect of Islam. In some countries such as Malaysia and Pakistani, Ahmadis have been reviled - and even persecuted - by some hard line Sunni Muslim groups as heretics or infidels.
Ali, who converted to Islam from Christianity in his 20s, opened up about his spirituality last month in a compelling speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“My mother is an ordained minister. I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do back flips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, you put things to the side and I’m able to see her and she’s able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown. And that stuff is minutia. It’s not that important.”
In an extensive interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Ali spoke of his prayer-filled childhood, with a grandmother who was also an ordained minister in the Baptist Church.
“I prayed every day of my life, and that was instilled in me as a kid, and as I’ve gotten older, that’s just matured in me,” he said.
But when he was about 13, he started asking his father questions about Christianity, who made clear to him that he embraced other faiths. He died in 1994, when Ali was 20. A few years later, when Ali left for graduate school at New York University, he started to become more exposed to other beliefs, and continued to question his own. “I couldn’t ignore it anymore,” he said.
His first time he went to a mosque was with the woman who would become his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim.
“She was coming to terms with whether she even wanted to be Muslim, because her father is an imam,” Ali said. “And I was looking for my anchor or the thing to bring structure to my spiritual walk. She was almost coming out of it, and I was going into it.”
A week later, on Dec. 31, 1999, he had a sudden urge to visit a mosque in Brooklyn, and in the middle of a sermon, he started to cry.
“There was this connection that pierced through it all for me,” he said. “And I felt like I was in the right place.”
A man touched him on the shoulder, asking him if he was Muslim. When he responded that he wasn’t, the man asked: “Do you want to be?”
“And I said, ‘Yes.’ So he took me up to the imam, and I made my pledge.”
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