On Sunday, Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor making him the first Muslim to win in the actor category with a slight caveat. Ellen Burstyn, who practices Sufism, won a Best Actress Oscar in 1975, but says she doesn’t identify with any one religion.
With roles in the box-office smash “The Hunger Games” and popular Netflix shows “House of Cards” and “Luke Cage,” Mahershala Ali has been a working actor for over ten years. But this year, Mr. Ali truly came into his own with the role of Juan in the Oscar winner “Moonlight” where he played a mentor/father figure to a young man growing up low-income in Florida who also happens to be a drug-dealer.
In this interview with The Hollywood Reporter, given before his Oscar win, Mr. Ali talks about his decision to join the Islamic faith:
“So I went with [my wife] and her mother to the mosque in Philadelphia. I remember watching the imam give the khutbah, or sermon, and then we’re making the congregational prayer. And I started crying. I didn’t quite understand why I was crying, because the prayer was in Arabic and I couldn’t understand Arabic. And I’m just crying in a way that I hadn’t quite experienced before.
“A week later, it was Christmas break for school, and I just happened to stay in New York. It was Dec. 31, 1999. I woke up and thought, ‘I have to go to the mosque,’ and I go to this mosque in Brooklyn, and it’s packed. It’s multiple stories, and I’m all the way in the back, and they do this sermon in English and in Arabic, and they go to make the prayer — ‘In the name of God the gracious and the merciful. All praise is due to God alone’ — and the same thing happens to me, and I just start crying. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was beyond explanation. There was this connection that pierced through it all for me. And I felt like I was in the right place. And this guy touches me on the shoulder and says, ‘Are you Muslim?’ And I say, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘Do you want to be?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ So he took me up to the imam, and I made my pledge.
“….Now, I’m just dealing with the things that all men and women deal with when we recognize our faults. We all have to do work to be our best selves, to civilize ourselves in the way we see fit. I’m dealing with the things that keep me from being the fullest person I can be.”