Mahershala Ali becomes first Muslim to win acting Oscar

(RNS) Ali, 43, who converted to Islam in 1999, won for best supporting actor.

Actor Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for best supporting actor at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

(RNS) With his win for portraying a drug dealer with a father’s heart in the film “Moonlight,” Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to take home an acting Oscar.

Ali, 43, won in the best supporting actor category Sunday (Feb. 26), topping much bigger names, including Jeff Bridges for “Hell or High Water” and Dev Patel (who is from a Hindu family) for “Lion.”

Ali discussed his 1999 conversion to Islam earlier this year on the radio show “Fresh Air,” describing to host Terry Gross his visit to a Philadelphia mosque with his future wife.

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“And I just had such a strong reaction to the prayer,” he said. “I felt really grounded at that time, and so to be in this prayer and the imam is doing the prayer in Arabic, and I don’t understand a word of Arabic, but I just remember these tears just coming down my face, and it just really connecting to my spirit in a way that felt like I needed to pay attention to that.”

Ali has roots in multiple faiths. His mother was a Pentecostal Christian who gave him a biblical Hebrew birth name, Mahershalalhashbaz. He attended a Catholic college before converting to Islam.

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Four days before receiving the Oscar, Ali and his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, had their first child, a daughter.

Ali, who is originally from Oakland, Calif., is an Ahmadi Muslim. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is an Islamic sect that reveres a 19th-century Indian religious leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a messiah. Members of the Ahmadiyya community were swift to celebrate his award.

“Congratulations Mahershala Ali,” one of them wrote on Twitter, “first #Muslim & Ahmadi to win an Oscar.HardWorker, Well deserved!”

Also at the Oscars, “The White Helmets,” a documentary on the Syrian civil war, won in the best documentary short category. Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara read a statement from Raed Saleh, the leader of the civil defense group featured in the documentary.

“We’re so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organization is guided by a verse from the Quran: ‘To save one life, is to save all of humanity.'”

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Saleh reportedly didn’t attend the ceremony because of “intense air strikes across the country” in Syria.

And Asghar Farhadi, Iranian director of “The Salesman,” which took home the Oscar for best foreign language film, boycotted the ceremony to protest President Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.

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