This article highlights a ‘soft’ distinction in the regulation of human conduct which emerged through various epochs of Islamicate history: between adab as the marker of an ethical and literary tradition, on the one hand, and the normative claims covered by shari‘a and drawing particularly on the exemplary sayings of Prophet Muhammad, the hadith corpus, on the other. Adab became a counterpoint to the hadith-shari‘a discourse by relying on non-Prophetic and, in this sense, non-divine sources of knowledge. The first part of the study reconstructs the trajectory of adab in pre-colonial times while the second part explores crucial transformations occurring under the impact of European colonial modernity, whose discourse propagated a strongly autonomous notion of secular civility. The interventions of several Muslim reformers of the era contributed to make adab the hub of an autochthonous type of secularity. Here adab still works as a marker of a soft distinction – only that it now becomes a ‘double distinction’: both between a mundane and a prophetic tradition within the Islamic ecumene, and between an emerging Muslim secularity and the European colonial one.