As he approaches the start of his second year of the IIS’ Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities, Aqil Visram is reflecting on his journey so far, and the year ahead.
Inspired by an insight gained from a fellowship during his undergraduate degree in Toronto, he is stretching himself with new experiences even if they sit outside his comfort zone.
Aqil was born in Toronto where he also grew up. Before 2022 he had left North America on just three occasions: once to visit London, once to Paris and a trip to Lisbon for the Diamond Jubilee. During the final year of his undergraduate degree, he undertook a fellowship that sparked a fire in him:
“I ended up working on a project on pleasure and Muslim ethics, in which I learned many lessons from mediaeval Muslim thinkers. It's led me to reflect on how I can incorporate these lessons into my daily life and grow as an individual – and one of the ways was to step out of my comfort zone and push myself to learn and do new things. And it is that which brought me to the IIS, to cut a long story short!”
He continues: “I knew for a long time that I wanted to do Islamic Studies, and the IIS was very much on my radar. It's sort of like a dream. Being so far away from home was also a major consideration for me but I wanted to push myself to new places, and it's been a wonderful chance to get to know people from different cultures and traditions that I had previously little to no exposure to. In this way, I like to think of the IIS as a convivencia – a term often used in reference to medieval Spain (Al-Andalus) and the confluence of different peoples in a harmonious society, but perhaps equally applicable to the pluralistic community at the Institute.”
This diversity has expanded his world view. He ponders that: “When we hear news about things that are happening elsewhere in the world, they may not impact us directly and can seem distant. But, once you know somebody who's from the place or going through the experience, it changes your view. It becomes real for you, and you appreciate the experiences of others in a way that you could not before.”
Over the summer of 2023 Aqil went off to Jordan for a month along with his course mates. This was his first visit to the Middle East, and he was both nervous and excited:
“Of course, there's the social aspect to the trip: it was a month with my cohort in a totally different part of the world, a totally different country and environment that I’ve not experienced before. While we were there, one thing that particularly interested me was the language programme. With one other student I had a chance to study classical Arabic to build on the Arabic background we had before we came to the IIS. This was my first rigorous exposure to the classical form of Arabic. It also means that next year we may get to work with some translations which will be fun.”
On his return to London, as well as getting back into his studies and possibly those translations, Aqil’s focus is on leading a small team of students in organising the first IIS/AKU-ISMC Graduate Conference: Methodologies in Islamic Studies. The conference is a pioneering collaboration to showcase student-led research at both institutions and promises to be a fascinating day.
Aqil tells us: “We have a many original research papers being presented by students, and it'll be a fantastic opportunity for engagement with faculty and each other. The Jamat around the world are invited to join online and participate too, and in the evening we have a concert which will be streamed live on Ismaili TV.”
This is another new experience for Aqil: “It’s a first for me, organising an event on this scale, and it’s the first time there has been a student conference at the IIS, so we are all hoping it will be a success. I hope people will be able to join us online and in person for a lively day of learning and exploring ideas, and that they will stay on for the musical showcase.”