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American Nun’s Road to Islam

PHILADELPHIA – Joining the Catholic Church for decades as a nun, many think it is hard to believe that Sister Betty Hewitt has actually reverted to Islam, and now studies Arabic to better know the Qur’an.

“People might think it’s a dramatic thing to go from being a Catholic nun to being a Muslim,” Ali, 71, told The Philadelphia Inquirer at her Haddon Heights home.

“But it’s not,” she said. “The values are identical.”

However, Ali’s journey to Islam is still impressing.

Growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, Ali said “everybody in my neighborhood was Catholic.”

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The 50s were a period where expressions like Holy Communion, confession, rosaries, saints, hymns, holy water, blessed medals, relics, Mary, the pope and crucifixes, dominated her life.

She belonged to Most Blessed Sacrament parish at 56th Street and Chester Avenue, home then to the largest Catholic grammar school in the world.

“We had 3,400 pupils. A hundred children in each class,” Ali marveled.

After grammar school she entered West Catholic High School for Girls, two miles from home. Seven orders of nuns taught at West, “but the Sisters of St. Joseph taught English,” she said. “I loved English classes, and I loved the Sisters of St. Joseph.”

As she approached graduation in 1962 she announced to her parents she wished to join the St. Joseph sisters. “Whatever will make you happy will make us happy,” they said.

Ali was teaching in April 1980 at St. Francis of Assisi parish school in Germantown when she got an offer teaching religion in a high school that fall.

“It was my dream assignment, and out my mouth I said: ‘I can’t do it. I’m planning to leave.’ ”

Ali, 36 at that time, shook her head at the memory. “I’d never had a conscious thought of leaving. Never,” she said.

Her superiors instructed her to “write a letter to the pope” explaining her reasons for wanting to be released from vows.

Writing to the pope, she did not tell Rome she also found herself questioning core Catholic beliefs such as Jesus’ physical presence in Holy Communion.

Finding Islam

After moving between different jobs, Ali substitute-taught in Catholic grammar schools, then began a career as an insurance claims examiner.

Her sister was killed along with her husband and their daughter by an assassin who missed them for another target.

Later on, she met Mohsen “Mo” Ali, a naturalized citizen and civil engineer from Egypt, three years her junior, and “the first Muslim I’d ever met.”

They met again at a restaurant that Monday “and it was like instant, instant, instant heavy-duty magic,” she said. Two years later they were married.

“He said prayers every day,” she said, “but he didn’t worry about the things he didn’t do,” like miss a Friday prayer service.

“He would say the most important thing was just to help other people as much as you can, and that’s what he did.”

“We just lived our lives” with no thought to her ever converting.

Then one day in 2006 he said, ” ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to Mecca together?’ and I’m thinking, ‘You have to be Muslim to go.’ ”

At this moment, she paid her first visit to the new Muslim American Community Center then rising in Voorhees.

“Do you think you might ever become Muslim?” the center’s founding president, Zia Rahman, asked.

“Never,” she replied.

“Why not?”

“I said, ‘Because I’m American and I believe women are equal to men.’ He said, ‘Women are equal to men in Islam.’

“So I said, ‘I don’t think I can ever wear a head scarf.’ And he said: ‘You don’t have to wear a head scarf. You just have to dress modestly.’ ”

She started reading the Qur’an and a 2007 biography of the prophet Muhammad by Karen Armstrong, herself a former nun, “and I started coming around.”

The Quran, she found, was studded with references to Abraham and Moses, and “Jesus is mentioned more than Muhammad.”

” ‘Love your neighbor and practice forgiveness,’ that’s the core of all the Abrahamic religions,” she concluded.

On Dec. 8, 2008, her husband stood by her at the mosque as she recited in Arabic Islam’s simple declaration of faith: La ilaha illallah, Muhammad rasool Allah, or: “I testify that there is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”