When he took the stage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January to accept his best male actor in a supporting role prize for Moonlight, Mahershala Ali had a choice. He could deliver a safe, warm, gracious speech that would earn him kudos in the moment but would be forgotten the next day. Or, he could speak out against Donald Trump’s infamous “Muslim ban,” which was in effect and not yet blocked by the courts.
Other speakers that night had delivered and would deliver speeches denouncing the ban, from Stranger Things‘ David Harbour to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But Ali has a special connection to the ban: He himself is Muslim, having converted 17 years ago when visiting a mosque with his now-wife, Amatus Sami-Karim. So when the Moonlight actor chose to speak out about he and his Christian mother coming together after his conversion, it was extraordinarily powerful.
Ali is Ahmadi Muslim, part of a movement seen as “heretical” by other Islamic sects, according to BBC News. The key difference: Ahmadis believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the movement in the 19th century, was a prophet. Muslims of other sects believe Muhammad to be the last prophet.
Still, Ali would be the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar if he wins — with the caveat that at least one previous winner practices a blend of Sufism, another branch of Islam, and other religions. That winner: Ellen Burstyn, who won in 1975 for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
In 2006, Burstyn gave an interview to a faith-based publication called Beliefnet. She explained her process of exploring