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Mahershala Ali | The First Muslim Actor to win an Oscar



Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali, the winner of multiple prestigious awards, is one of the most talented American artists in the world. In 2017, he created history by winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting role. 


Mahershala Ali has gained universal recognition for his role in the 2016 movie, Moonlight. He has won two Academy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and one Golden Globe Award. His acting career spans over two decades with many inspirational instances. 

Early Life 

On February 16th, 1974, Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore was born in Oakland, California, USA. He was named after Prophet Isaiah’s second son. When Mahershala was born, his parents were in high school. His mother was 16, and his father was 17. His mother, Willicia Goines, was taken to an ordained Baptist Minister of Hayward Baptist Church. Later on, Mahershala’s mother decided to walk on the same path as her mother and devote her life to Christianity. Mahershala’s father was an agnostic. 

Mahershala grew up in Hayward, 5 miles away from Oakland, CA. It was a peaceful city, mainly populated by working-class people doing blue-collar jobs. Mahershala’s parents decided to split when he was three years old. His father, Phillip Gilmore, was a talented artist. He wanted to pursue dancing and acting as a career. Before the split, Phillip got the opportunity to be invited to Soul Train, an African American-focused music dance show. He won $2,500 from the show and came home with a sports car. He decided that he wanted to move to New York and pursue a career in performing arts which resulted in the divorce. Mahershala’s mother was devastated by her husband’s decision. It was the first traumatic experience for Mahershala. 


Growing up, Mahershala and his father remained close. He used to visit his father occasionally in New York, and both spoke regularly to each other. Six years after the divorce, Mahershala’s mother decided to remarry. There was a feeling of sadness that lingered over Mahershala for years. He couldn’t derive what it was, but he was deeply saddened. He grew up in a highly religious home. A day didn’t pass by without him praying. Prayer was deeply instilled into him. His mom and stepdad were strict. Growing up, he was not allowed to date or went out. Now and then, he used to fall into arguments with his stepdad. During this time, he witnessed some life-changing events as well.

Teenage Years

At a young age, Mahershala started witnessing the discrimination of race and its effects on his community. He saw his cousins going to jail for robbery and narcotics. It was poverty that pushed his cousins toward such crimes. After some time, he learned that his friend’s mother is also a drug dealer. The people of his community were doing these businesses secretly to provide for themselves. Some of his friends, whom he admired, got killed. The ones who got killed weren’t ordinary or unkind people. They were geniuses in one field or another. Some of them were academically driven, artistic, or athletic. 

Mahershala was scared. He was able to understand the reason behind the deaths of his friends. In one way or another, all of them decided to choose a path that led them to a life-ending situation. But he was unable to ignore the fact that they were no more. Mahershala became borderline depressed and developed insomnia. He saw his close friends, family members, and his dad’s friends dying every year. Some died due to the AIDS epidemic, and some to gun violence.

College Life 

In 1992, at the age of 18, Mahershala decided to move in with his grandparents. During his teenage years, he developed a strong liking for basketball. He was good at it, earning him a scholarship at St. Mary’s College. He was pursuing a degree in Mass Communications. In college, he was approached by a professor named Rebecca Engle. She asked him to act in Othello, a tragedy written by William Shakespeare. Her suggestion came as a shock to him. But, simultaneously, he saw himself as someone who could perform on the stage because of Rebecca’s thoughts towards him.

Soon, he acted in a play called Spunk, which he saw with his father. It was a revolutionary moment for him because his college consisted of 90% white people, and to do a black play in front of them was not expected. After the play, he realizes that this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life. 

Life-Changing Incidents 

In 1994, Mahershala called his dad’s best friend two years later to ask her about his whereabouts. She told Mahershala that his father was no more and had died from a prolonged illness. Mahershala did not mourn the death of his father. He didn’t want to upset his grandparents. He felt that he needed to be strong. However, on the inside, he felt defeated.

In 1996, Mahershala graduated from the SMC with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications. Following graduation, he worked through a deep sense of loss and felt motivated, knowing that he shared a similar passion with his father. He wanted to pursue his master’s degree at New York University. For the same, he enrolled in the acting program at NYU. Upon reaching, he felt a deep regret in his heart that his father never got to see him act. He was in his town, and he felt connected to him. Around the same time, he started questioning his spirituality and relationship with God. He realized that his religious identity was based upon his mother’s spiritual beliefs. After that, he decided to explore other religions. 

Spiritual Journey

At the age of 23/24, Mahershala started reading books. He read everything from reincarnation to self-help books to religious books to gain information about different beliefs. While studying at grad school, he met Amatus, a practicing Muslim he married later. Her father was an Imam, and Mahershala found her extraordinarily independent, strong, and kind. 

Once, he visited a mosque in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with Amatus and her mother. Mahershala was watching the Imam give the Khutbah (sermon). Then, they started the congregational prayer. Suddenly, tears started flowing through Mahershala’s eyes. He couldn’t understand a word because he didn’t know Arabic. He started crying as he had never cried before. For him, it was an unforgettable experience. 

The Decision

On December 31st, 1999, Mahershala decided to stay in New York during the Christmas break. Suddenly, he woke up and felt he needed to go to the mosque. He ran to a mosque in Brooklyn. It was jammed with people. It had multiple stories, and he was standing in the back. The Khutbah ended, and the prayer began in Arabic and English. He heard the words, “In the name of God the gracious and the merciful. All praise is due to God alone.” Again, the same thing happened.

He started crying and couldn’t understand why. He felt a connection with God. Seeing him cry, a man approached him. He touched him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you a Muslim?” Mahershala said no. The man asked, “Do you want to be a Muslim?” Mahershala said yes. The man took him to the Imam, and he made his pledge. 

Life after conversion 

After converting to Islam, Mahershala changed his last name to Ali from Gilmore. After conversion, his mother didn’t talk to him for years, and his friends were confused. Mahershala came across many hurdles after converting. His car was pulled over frequently. He was asked where his gun was or if he was a pimp. Things changed drastically for him after the 9/11 attacks. After that, he was questioned at the airports and banks due to his ethnicity and religion. 

New Beginnings 

After pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree from NYU, Mahershala began his career as a regular on Crossing Jordan and Threat Matrix. In 2004, he got a breakthrough role in the sci-fi series The 4400. He landed his first significant film role in 2008 in David Fincher’s fantasy romantic drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button alongside Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Following its success, he played a supporting role in The Hunger Games film series and House of Cards. 

Worldwide Recognition 

Between 2009-2015, Mahershala acted in several successful movies and TV series. However, the 2016 movie, Moonlight, changed everything for him. In the film, he plays the role of a drug dealer who later becomes a mentor to Chiron, the film’s protagonist. His performance was impeccable, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In 2018, Ali played the role of Dr. Don Shirley in the critically acclaimed Green Book alongside Viggo Mortensen. The part landed him his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. 


In 2019, Mahershala played the lead role in HBO’s successful crime drama, True Detective. It was the third season of the famous TV series and received positive reviews from the audience and critics. The following year, he starred in a comedy-drama series Ramy. He got a nomination for both roles at the Primetime Emmy Awards. Besides this, Mahershala will be portraying the role of a superhero with supernatural abilities, Blade.

Also read: Mindy Kaling | The Multitalented Star of American Television

How old is Mahershala Ali?

Mahershala Ali is 48 years old as of 2022.

Is Mahershala Ali married?

Yes, Mahershala has been married to Amatus Sami-Karim since 2013.

What is the ethnicity of Mahershala Ali?

Mahershala Ali is an Ahmadi Muslim.

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