Mahershala Ali and the importance of Black Ahmadis in America

Mahershala Ali has won the Oscar for best-supporting actor – an accolade many had expected – for his performance in Moonlight, the critically acclaimed story of a black gay man’s coming of age.

Ali had already picked up awards from the Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice, and the NAACP Image award. During his acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild, reflecting on his own experiences, he said: “I think what I have learned from working on Moonlight, you see what happens when you persecute people, and they fold into themselves.”

Muslims have won Oscars in various categories over the years but none in acting roles. Previous winners include Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and director Asghar Farhadi – whose earlier film A Separation won the foreign film Oscar in 2012. His latest film, The Salesman, was screened in London’s Trafalgar Square hours before the ceremony. Farhadi did not attend the ceremony in protest at Donald Trump’s efforts to bar people entering the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. His latest film would go on to win Best Foreign Language Film.

In Moonlight, Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer whose tender moments with the young protagonist Chiron provides him with a surrogate father figure who imparts life lessons bundled in moments of deep affection and unwavering acceptance.

Juan lives with his partner Teresa. It is within this orderly household that the problems of the external world – be it in school – or at home are forgotten. External contradictions fall by the wayside.

Within the swollen silences of dinner, the narrative is punctuated in the language of close affection. No judgements are made of Chiron. When it seems like the world has turned against him, Chiron is taught a powerful lesson about acceptance and to reject the hateful labels others apply.

Perhaps the most iconic and beautiful example of this loving bond between Juan and Chiron concerns the former teaching the latter to swim.

As Hilton Als writes, Moonlight “undoes our expectations as viewers, and as human beings, too”. For Ira Hilton III, the surrogate relationship between Juan and Chiron “speaks volumes for how Jenkins wants us to view relationships between black men.” Shane Thomas praises the universality of Moonlight, and for its assiduous and precise direction.

Stories concerning the religious identity of Mahershala Ali, however, have created their own momentum.

Born Mahershalalhashbaz (the longest prophetic name in the Bible) Gilmore in 1974 to a mother who was an ordained Christian minister, he converted to Islam in 1999, joining the Ahmadiyya sect in 2001.

His spiritual interest also included attending a Baha’i meeting and flirting with Buddhism. Yet, his defining moment of religious and spiritual clarity came from the act of prayer inside a mosque. Ali described this moment as: “I could not understand a word of the prayer, but ironically, they were tears of understanding. For the first time in my life, I knew where I was, spiritually speaking.”

Ali’s embrace of the Ahmadiyya sect should not be erased. It’s too important given the persecution Ahmadis face in Pakistan and countries like Indonesia.

A Faith Matters report titled, ‘Sectarianism, Extremism and Hate Crime, the Impacts on the Ahmadiyya Community,’ explored the complexities and root causes of this form violence and prejudice.

It’s a product of a wider extremist narrative which exploits the sensitivities around the blasphemy debate in Islam. It seeks to define Islam through its own narrow interpretations. This interpretative lens allows fundamentalists to dictate the narrative and define others as ‘outside’ of Islam, which helps normalise banal, everyday forms of prejudice, including the decision to boycott Ahmadi-run businesses. The murder of Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah made this sectarian issue headline news.

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, deleted her congratulatory tweet after users pointed out that Ali’s Ahmadi beliefs. This deletion generated its own controversy.

Nor should we erase the historic role of Ahmadi missionaries in black communities in early twentieth America. An important figure in Mahershala Ali’s religious journey was the Chicago native Abdul Karim. The Ahmadiyya movement has maintained a missionary presence among black communities in Chicago since 1935. Within the city limits of Chicago stands the Al-Sadiq Mosque, which remains one of the oldest mosques in the United States.

Some of the earliest independent black mosques took inspiration from Ahmadi teachings. The first mosque in Cleveland was later established by the former Ahmadi Wali Akram. Some black converts established their own mosques to accommodate the growing black consciousness and scholarship around Islam. Before the rise of the Nation of Islam (NOI), Ahmadi missionaries offered “the first multi-racial model for American Islam”. This influence, according to the academic Edward C. Curtis, reached Elijah Muhammad, a religious leader in the NOI, who had “regularly quoted, verbatim, from Ahmadi literature, including Ahmadi translations of the Qur’an”. Ahmadi missionaries had converted around 10,000 people by the 1940s.

A key figure in the early days of the Ahmadi missionary work in the United States was Muhammad Sadiq, who arrived in Philadelphia on February 15, 1920. A year later, with the help of other Muslims, Sadiq had launched the monthly periodical The Muslim Sunrise to challenge negative stereotypes about Islam in the press.

Sadiq used the periodical to argue that Islam could resolve the racism Christianity had failed to answer. He contended that Islam and the Arabic language would unite all people of African descent. This post-colonial message came at a time of great social discontent and racist violence.

In a post-9/11 context, Ali himself has spoken openly about the prejudice he’s faced. This included having his bank accounts frozen and learning that he was on an FBI watch list. His wife stopped wearing the hijab following acts of hatred and prejudice. Ali told the Radio Times: “But I will say if you convert to Islam after a couple of decades of being a black man in the US, the discrimination you receive as a Muslim doesn’t feel like a shock.”

Ali’s big cinematic break was in David Fincher’s 2008 fantasy drama ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.