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.
In contrast to a line of studies that inquire how Muslims try to solve the problem of living piously in a society dominated by materialist tendencies and secular rationality, in this article I turn the question around and problematize the will to live piously and the focus on self-discipline. In everyday lives of young men from the Nile Delta region, the Islamic revivalist project of creating comprehensive moral and civic virtues uneasily coexists with other less total aims and ideals, notably community and family bonds, romantic love, success and self-realization. I attempt to take these contradictions seriously and dwell on the ways people live them and their attempts to make sense of their lives. In particular, I look at the ways people employ the normative registers of religion, love and aspiration in their lives, the promises each of these ideals entail and the options that are available should any of these promises fail.