JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Aqil Visram

March 16, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

Aqil Visram is a 2021-22 JHI Undergraduate Fellow (Dr. Michael Lutsky Undergraduate Award in the Humanities). He’s completing a double major in Islamic Studies and Economics and a minor in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. His project at the JHI is titled “The Virtuous Muslim: The Pursuit of Pleasures in Islamic Ethical Discourse”.

JHI: What are your main research interests?

AV: I’m fascinated by the history of religion and civilization, particularly in the Islamic world. My research focuses on the Ismaili tradition in the medieval and early modern periods, though I am also interested in Islam more broadly, and its religious, political, and intellectual history. I have also participated in community-engaged Research Opportunity Programs where we mobilized academic knowledge on Muslim history and thought. Recently, I began investigating 18th through 20th century Ismaili history in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, and intend to pursue graduate research in this area next year.

JHI: What research project(s) are you working on now at the JHI and why did you choose it?

AV: This year at the JHI, I am investigating medieval Islamic ethical discourse for its discussion on “pleasure,” virtue, and the levels of the soul (nafs). The medieval Muslims offer an elaborate hierarchy of the soul that appears to have ancient Greek origins but is characteristically “Islamic,” especially in its emphasis on a final judgement and accountability to God. My work also provides insights into their views on the purpose of human life, character refinement and the cultivation of virtue, alongside the role of pleasure as a motivator for human action.

This project grew out of my interest in medieval Islamic discourse. It has taken me on a journey through over 250 primary sources written by Muslim philosophers, theologians, and mystics across the medieval period, and allowed me to imagine myself in their religious and historical context. However, beyond the enriching background it provided on medieval Islam, this project facilitated a personal reflection on pleasure, ethics, and how I can be the best version of myself. It would not be an understatement to say that this project changed my life!

JHI: What experiences are you hoping for while you’re at the JHI?

AV: My experience at the JHI was an excellent opportunity to expose myself to a research-intensive environment as I prepare for my graduate program. Even though, like the rest of the University, we’ve been flipping between digital interactions and in-person sessions, I’ve learned a lot by listening to and engaging with the diverse inter-disciplinary research of all the fellows. Outside the seminars, the senior fellows and JHI staff are always there to support the undergrads and provide a fruitful learning environment in any way that they can. The vibe among the undergrads (within and outside my discipline) was also very warm and welcoming, and we learned a lot from one another as we traversed the JHI together. I’m looking forward to the final stretch of the year!

JHI: Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by.

AV: Apart from enjoying the soul-stirring reflections on pleasure and ethics that I’ve encountered throughout my research; I am also an avid Bollywood fan. One of my favorite movies is Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Not Come). It is the story of a cardiac patient who lives out the end of his life, constantly aware of his impending doom and seeking to live every day to the fullest by forging relationships with those around him.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

AV: I have been playing competitive tennis since I was 8 years old, and as a junior, I competed in a few national and international-level tournaments. I’m also a tennis instructor certified by Tennis Canada and the Tennis Professionals Association.