As a girl, Betty Hewitt attended Sunday Masses spoken in Latin. As Sister Catherine Robert, she prayed along in English. These days, Betty Ali studies Arabic to better know the Quran.
Philly.com “People might think it’s a dramatic thing to go from being a Catholic nun to being a Muslim,” Ali, 71, said last week at her Haddon Heights home. “But it’s not,” she said. “The values are identical.”
Did she also become a man?
After taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and armed with an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s in theology, she taught happily in parish schools around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Camden, and Maryland.
“I loved teaching. I loved the children,” Ali recalled with a fond, faraway look. “The whole fit was right for me.” But just as Sisters of St. Joseph would modernize and finally discard their traditional habit, Sister Catherine Robert’s Catholic identity was evolving.
So I wrote to the pope . . . and I explained that I had been studying [summers] at a liberal Catholic college, University of Dayton, and been opened to so many new ideas. “And I said I could no longer wear this habit because so many strangers just assumed I . . . agreed with everything the church taught, like [its ban on] contraception.”
She did not tell Rome she also found herself questioning core Catholic beliefs such as Jesus’ physical presence in Holy Communion. She would stop going to Mass but still saw herself as Catholic.
In 1983, at a singles’ dance at a church in Blue Bell, Hewitt 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.
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.’ ” Mo’s question started her thinking about “the need for community,” and when he decided to pay a visit in 2006 to the new Muslim American Community Center then rising in Voorhees, she joined him.
“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.’
She started reading the Quran 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 rose before the congregation to recite in Arabic Islam’s simple declaration of commitment: La ilaha illallah, Muhammad rasool Allah, or: “I testify that there is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
The people who do violence in the name of Islam are, she says, “mentally ill” or “lost souls.”