In late 19th century, Islamic saints-day festivals (mawlids) became the subject of strong criticism. A festive tradition that until then had been central to the religious and communal life of Egypt was now increasingly criticised for being backward and un-Islamic. Mawlids, popular festivals that combine the atmosphere of a fair with the ecstatic spirituality of Sufism, were not only problematic for the new models of nation and religion, criticising them was also functional for the demarcation of these. Constructs of this type are characteristic for the project of modernity that is defined through binary distinctions, with labels such as 'backwardness' and 'un-Islamic innovations' serving as distinctive markers of modernity and authenticity. This development was not a consequent continuation of an earlier Islamic tradition, nor was it a simple takeover of European colonial concepts and disciplining practices. It was the product of a creative and selective synthesis of the two, producing novel interpretations of both Islam and modernity that, in the course of the 20 th century, have managed to gain a hegemonic position in much of the Middle East. This emergence of Islamic reformism and modernism from a synthesis with colonial discourses compels us to rethink a currently popular endeavour in Islamic studies: the study of Islam as a discursive tradition.