This paper considers the roots of the dissonance between political modernity and Islamic societies. It argues that primacy has to be given to the analysis of different paradigms of 'ethical life' which are ways in which ethical-political categories are organized within society. A distinction is made between 'nomocentric' and 'rights-based' paradigms of ethical life, the former associated with a system of moral duties and the latter with a system of political and ethical rights accorded to the individual. I argue that the emphasis on a nomocentric paradigm of ethical life has the effect of suppressing the development of a rights-based ethical and political discourse in large enough segments of the society to limit a progressive change toward political modernity. I further analyze the ways in which forces of social and economic modernisation play a role in antagonizing the relation between modernity and the more traditional forms of ethical life which predominate in Islamic society and political/ethical thought.