Mary Ali, co-founder of the Institute of Islamic Information & Education, died of complications of leukemia on Tuesday, 6 December, in the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Mrs. Ali, 72, had lived in Chicago since 1967, except for four years spent in Saudi Arabia.
She was a friend and mentor to many young Muslims in Chicago and elsewhere in America, particularly young women, many of whom called her "Mary Auntie."
With Christian roots in a small town in Iowa, Mary Ali seemed an unlikely prospect to become a leader in the Muslim community in Chicago.
But an investigation of Islam for a high school essay and a friendship with a Muslim man who would later become her husband led her to convert.
"The logic and simplicity of Islamic teachings really attracted her," said her daughter Nilofer Ali-Rodgers. "She decided Islam was the right faith to follow."
Mrs. Ali grew up as a Christian in northwest Iowa. Her first look at Islam came when she was assigned to choose a world religion for a high school essay subject.
After getting a bachelor's degree at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, she pursued a master's degree and worked in a university research lab on a cholesterol study.
A young man, M. Amir Ali, who was helping with the study by sending samples from Pakistan, came to study at the school.
"While working together, the two discussed Islam," Ali-Rodgers said. "She had some questions about Christianity."
By the time the couple married in 1967, Mrs. Ali already considered herself a Muslim, although she had not yet told her husband. She became a Muslim on her wedding day, her daughter said.
The couple moved to Chicago after her husband was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois here. They became involved with the Muslim Community Center on North Elston Avenue in Chicago not long after it started.
Many of those involved at the center were immigrants from Pakistan and India with backgrounds very different from Mrs. Ali's.
"We grew into that space together," said Seema Imam, like Mrs. Ali an American convert to Islam from a small town in the Midwest. "But it was a very warm and welcoming community and she became very much a leader."
Mrs. Ali had a special interest in young people, many of whom were the children of immigrants.
"I was one of the first Muslim youths she mentored," said Dilara Sayeed, who was about 5 when she first met Mrs. Ali. "She had a powerful influence on us. She really helped you to form a new American Muslim identity."
Young people she mentored went on to careers in medicine and law, and some run mosques, Sayeed said.
"That internal confidence came from Mary Auntie," Sayeed said.
In 1985, Mrs. Ali co-founded the Institute of Islamic Information & Education in Chicago. its mission is: "to elevate the image of Islam and Muslims in North America by providing accurate information about Islamic beliefs, history and civilization to Muslims and non-Muslims."
Mrs. Ali is survived by another daughter, Aamina Ali-Ahmed; sons Dawood and Umar; a sister, Helen Gosch-Cabezas; and eleven grandchildren.
Graydon Megan, "Mary Ali, 1939-2011 -- Iowa schoolgirl became Muslim leader" Chicago Tribune December 10, 2011
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Reproduced with permission from Islam Today