Writing the history of modernity entails a certain conceptual contradiction. The idea of the ‘modern’, after all, expresses a sense of ‘now’, the contemporary moment, the world as it currently exists. By its very nature, modernity implies a drawing away from the past. It is future oriented, looking ahead to new possibilities. To speak of modernity in a past tense still seems a little jarring. Even if proclamations of ‘postmodernity’ at the end of the last century encouraged us to relegate modernity to a historical epoch, there is a sense that modernity is still very much with us. In popular parlance, such phrases as ‘the modern world’ or ‘in this modern age’ are powerful shorthands, conveying the rhetorical power of modernity to wipe away all that is deemed to stand in its path. The ‘modern Middle East’ is another of those shorthands, one often present in the titles of university courses, or of academic surveys of the region. Yet what exactly does it mean? Precisely how did this region become modern and what has modernity implied for the societies of the Middle East? As the following historiographical sketch illustrates, these questions of modernity have long over – shadowed the field of Middle Eastern history.
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