Oscar nominated actor, Mahershala Ali, whose birth name is Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore. In the Bible, that’s the name of the prophet Isaiah’s second son, and it means “divine restoration” or “speedy to the spoils.” His mom, Willicia, had a dream about it and felt very strongly it should be his name. The actor who grew up with a mother, and grandmother who were ordained ministers, spoke with THR about his journey to believing what he believes.
‘I WAS TRYING TO FIND OUT WHY I BELIEVED WHAT I BELIEVED’
I was around 23 or 24 years old when I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I was going back in time and trying to find out why I believed what I believed, and it always ended with my mother, and with what I was told — not my own epiphany or studies.
I started reading a few books on everything from reincarnation — The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav — to As a Man Thinketh [by James Allen], to The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. I was taking in information that was beyond the canon of literature that I had been exposed to, to really take some ownership of my spiritual beliefs.
‘LOOKING FOR MY ANCHOR OR THE THING TO BRING STRUCTURE TO MY SPIRITUAL WALK’
When I was in grad school, I met Amatus, who later became my wife, though there was a [period of 12 years] when we weren’t really in contact. She’s artistic, extraordinarily independent, very straightforward, very intelligent, kind. She’s really high-functioning — morally, ethically and socially.
She was in undergrad, studying acting at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing. She was coming to terms with whether she even wanted to be Muslim, because her father is an imam. And I was looking for my anchor or the thing to bring structure to my spiritual walk. She was almost coming out of it, and I was going into it.
A week later, it was Christmas break for school, and I just happened to stay in New York. It was Dec. 31, 1999. I woke up and thought, “I have to go to the mosque,” and I go to this mosque in Brooklyn, and it’s packed. It’s multiple stories, and I’m all the way in the back, and they do this sermon in English and in Arabic, and they go to make the prayer — “In the name of God the gracious and the merciful. All praise is due to God alone” — and the same thing happens to me, and I just start crying. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was beyond explanation. There was this connection that pierced through it all for me. And I felt like I was in the right place. And this guy touches me on the shoulder and says, “Are you Muslim?” And I say, “No.” And he goes, “Do you want to be?” And I said, “Yes.” So he took me up to the imam, and I made my pledge.
When I told my mother, it was a little bit clumsy. I got on the phone and she wasn’t excited about that, in large part because at that time she believed there’s only one route to heaven, through Christianity. It probably took 10 or 12 years until she really embraced it. My mother is as spiritual as she is religious. She likes to have a good time, but she has an extraordinarily serious quality about her. She lives with the awareness that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, that everything is about the next life. She basically told me she accepted that was my path, and she’s been really supportive of that choice. We are in an extraordinarily positive place today.