Mahershala Ali won the first award at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, picking up the trophy for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a multilayered drug dealer in “Moonlight.” He’s also a practicing Muslim, a real rarity among the exclusive club of Oscar winners.
While Ali is likely the first male Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar (the Academy doesn’t exactly track winners by religion), he’s not the first winner or nominee to identify with the religion.
Ellen Burstyn, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1974 for her starring role in Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” has studied Sufism, another branch of Islam.
In a 2006 interview with religious online publication Beliefnet, Burstyn explained how she started her exploration into the religion.
“Oh, it started with reading,” she said. “I was reading the work of Gurdjieff. And Gurdjieff led me to the Sufis, and then I met a Sufi teacher. And then I traveled to Europe and I climbed the Alps and went up to a Sufi camp conducted by Pir Vilayat Kahn; I was initiated up there.”
Omar Sharif, arguably Hollywood’s highest-profile Muslim actor of all-time, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
While Sharif scored a Golden Globe for that same role — as well as one a few years later for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama for “Doctor Zhivago” — he never won an Oscar.