Quick, identify this scene: At dusk, believers flock to a shrine, following the pounding of drums. They come to hear the rhythmic chanting of a living saint. A leafy stimulant is passed around, and the men and women chew it until they reach a transcendent state, rocking and dancing and chanting along with their leader until, exhausted, they collapse at dawn.

Is it a Native American ritual? An ancient Christian cult? A Grateful Dead concert? No, it’s Islam — as practiced several decades ago in Harar, Ethiopia, where hundreds of shrines dot the ancient walled city and men and women chew qat leaves for relaxation and religious inspiration.

This description of Thursday night ritual worship comes from Sweetness in the Belly, a novel, released earlier this year in paperback, by anthropologist Camilla Gibb. The novel follows the story of Lilly Abdal, an orphaned British girl raised as a Sufi Muslim in North Africa, as she creates a life for herself in traditional Harar, only to ripped from the city during the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime.

While the novel delicately traces the haunted emotion of refugee life — Lilly cocoons herself with fellow Ethiopian exiles in London — it also tells a religious story. Lilly starts out as a thoroughly traditional North African Muslim girl: She memorizes Qur’an with the Sufi master who has adopted her and obediently accepts the insular, male-dominated world around her.

As a teen-ager, she lives with a poor family in Harar, teaching the children to memorize the Qur’an while performing the everyday tasks of poverty and tradition: hauling water, grinding grain, visiting neighbors and honoring the saints. Her world expands when she falls for a doctor at the nearby hospital and is led toward the sins of hand-holding, kissing and more. Just as she is struggling to reconcile her haraam longings with her narrow religious devotion, she suddenly finds herself uprooted and dropped, a stranger, into London.

Lilly works to keep the religion and ritual she knows: burning incense to lift prayers to the saints, caring for fellow Ethiopians and immigrants who need help. But the religion she finds at the mosques in Britain is strange to her:

This is what happens in the West. Muslims from Pakistan pray alongside Muslims from Nigeria and Ethiopia and Malaysia and Iran, and because the only thing they share in common is the holy book, that becomes the sole basis of the new community; not culture, not tradition, not place. The book is the only thing that offers consensus, so traditions are discarded as if they are filthy third-world clothes. “We were ignorant before,” people say, as if it is only in the West that they have learned the true way of Islam.

Lilly refuses to accept the strict, Wahhabi-inspired preaching she hears at the London mosques, where the Sufism she practices is derided as superstition and wrongful religious innovation. Instead she moves toward a quasi-secular spirituality, still attached deeply to her tradition, yet allowing herself to love and maybe marry a Hindu man — something forbidden by the religious law she once embraced unquestioningly. For Lilly, religion is embedded in the smells and dust and laughter of a particular place and time. Unlike fellow Muslims in Britain, she is unwilling to simply extract the theological commonalities and distinguish between “true Islam” and “mere culture.”

In this sense, Lilly rejects the globalized, homogenized Islam she sees in the West. She belongs to a religion of the particular, of the past, and when those traditions can’t fit into her new, Western life, she lays them lovingly to the side.

Although Lilly’s voice exists loudly in this novel, it is but a small peep in the religious marketplace of Islam today. Wahhabi or not, many if not most Western Muslims adhere to the idea that cultural practices must be stripped from the religion to reveal a pure, true core — the essence of faith. The weakness of this approach has been well-argued by Dr. Umar Farooq Abd-Allah, a long-time American convert to Islam (see his article, “Islam and Cultural Imperative.”) This voice, however, remains a minority, and the remnants of an Islam rooted in place and time may be found, in the West at least, only among the older generation, who sit quietly in the corner, whispering to the saints.

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