People constantly adapt. So do their beliefs.

Like Christians, Italians, Ohioians, and any other group of Americans, Muslims in America vary dramatically in how they apply what they believe to their lives. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Marzia Sarwary helps daughter Hawaa adjust her hijab at a makespace meeting to discuss religion in McLean, Va.

Adaptation is constantly at work in biology. What succeeds in one place often needs amending in another. Sometimes the change is superficial. A chameleon temporarily sports a new color. Sometimes the change is so profound that it’s hard to connect the dots. The family resemblance between parakeets and dinosaurs or whales and their land-based ancestors takes some serious scholarship.

Religious beliefs adapt, too. They emerge in one culture – 6th century BC Nepal, Ur of the Chaldees, Roman-era Israel, 6th century AD Arabia. They grow up clothed in the colors, traditions, language, and metaphors of their native lands. Then they go on the road. Time, geography, and circumstances change them. Some of the adaptations are superficial. Most of us no longer anoint our heads with oil, measure height in cubits, or rend our garments in distress. Ancient dietary guidelines and scriptural references to ewe lambs and lion’s whelps can mystify a 21st-century reader.

Moral standards are perhaps the most difficult to reconcile when religious tradition meets modern society. Is it right to marry someone of another faith, charge or pay interest, shake hands across gender lines? How much is essential to believers; how much got attached to the religious message in its journey through history?

In a Monitor cover story, Lee Lawrence explores Islam in America. At one level, she is looking at how Islam has traveled from its tribal, desert origins into the raucous pluralism of American culture. At another level, she is looking at the ever-changing thinking of individuals who are Muslims and Americans.

First and second generations differ. Brothers and sisters differ. Americans from Iranian, Somali, Indonesian, Pakistani, or 30 other cultural traditions differ. They might or might not adhere to Muslim modesty codes. And which codes? Those handed down by the Quran? By an imam? By a mom? A young American Muslim might dress like her classmates or be stylishly conservative. That can mean a colorful scarf or the full hijab. And the next day or two years later, a different choice may be made.

Adaptation isn’t just a two-way street. It is a multilane superhighway. American culture thrives because of it. If not, we’d all still be wearing knee breeches and only mouthing the self-evident truth of universal equality. Adaptation opens the door to innovation and freedom, which is how the future is made not just in New York and Los Angeles but in Cairo and Kabul. 

A second-generation convert to Islam may partner with non-Muslims on a restaurant venture and (like believers of other faiths and nonbelievers with scruples) figure out how to accommodate a public that doesn’t share a belief in alcohol abstention. There are workarounds. There are compromises. That can take place at a locavore cafe in Putney, Vt., or a Mexican cantina in the United Arab Emirates. 

Some non-Muslims wonder if Islam is different because of its harsh sanctions on blasphemy and apostasy, the strictures of sharia, the militancy of fundamentalists. But as a Pew Research Center poll last year made clear, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims vary vastly on those issues by age, region, and education.

In other generations, suspicions ran deep about the commitment of Roman Catholics and Jews, Germans and Japanese to the American idea. The American idea has proved resilient so far. Why wouldn’t that be the case as Muslims enter the American mainstream? 

Cultures adapt. They change America. America changes them. And individuals are always changing their minds. 

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

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