Conversation with: Ibrahim Tahir – Founder of Wardah Books
By Vaishnavi Pumynathan & John Stanley Marsh
We sit down with Mr Ibrahim Tahir, founder of Wardah Books as he tells us his story on the joy of reading and setting up shop specialising in books on Islam in the English language.
Q: Does the name Wardah have any special significance?
Ibrahim: “The word Wardah means rose in Arabic. The representation of a rose is prevalent throughout Islamic poetry and literature as it signifies The Beloved. We chose the name based on this spiritual connection to Islam.”
Q: The bookshop is located along Bussorah street in Kampong Gelam and resides in a century old shophouse. What inspired you to select this location?
Ibrahim: “Kampong Gelam had various Malay printing and publishing houses since the late-1800s which helped expand Muslim literature within the region. We felt it was quite natural for us to open our bookshop here to continue being the living embodiment of this legacy.”
Q: What influenced the book collection?
Ibrahim: “The best way to think about our selection of books is to think about what would interest a literate Singaporean Muslim. The collection spans from foundational knowledge of the Quran to the Hadith sayings of the Prophet as well as the different Shariat practices of Islam. At our core we also have a focus on Islamic spirituality and the purification of the heart but we do not exclude books pertaining to philosophy, politics, regional and world history. We also include books for children that provide insights into arts and sciences from an Islamic point of view.”
Q: What are some of the more popular books or genres?
Ibrahim: “What I have noticed is there are two main types of books – the classics and the new. The classic books such as Hamza Yusuf’s Purification of the Heart or Al-Ghazali’s The Beginning of Guidance are the ones where people are constantly reading, generation upon generation. For books that are currently trending, they would be titles like The Quranic Prescription by Madiha M. Saeed, MD which is about looking at the Quran’s to lead a more holistic and healthy life.”
Q: Do you recall some of the earliest books that you have read and how did they shape your perspective of the world?
Ibrahim: “Every book that you read forms a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of your consciousness. It is sort of the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ and I think it applies even more when it comes to reading. Every book that you read has an influence on your thoughts. Personally, one of the books that had a great impact would be The Book of Assistance by Imam Abdallah al-Haddad. The book is made up of short chapters of theological matters and practical ethics which covers the wide breadth of Islam is a very holistic manner. It has help me look at Islam as a big picture.”
Q: In this digital age where people’s attention spans and platforms for consuming content have been significantly altered, why is it important to continue reading a physical book?
Ibrahim: “In my opinion, content from books is still being sought after and consumed albeit less often as information in online platforms. Books however, are still the gold standard when it comes to learning. You learn values through good literature and books are so simple yet illuminating that they are still relevant in this regard. Besides the content of books, other aspects of reading a book have their merits. You have to be aware of the environment you are in when you read a book, you follow the author’s train of thought and you can make your own judgments after reading without prejudice when you are absorbed in what you are reading. This is critical for any civilization where you can understand another’s perspective. It evokes a very real engagement whereas social media is more short-term, emotional and less constructive. Books as a medium force you to be calmer and enable you to rationalise your thoughts. That deeper appreciation towards what you are reading adds to the value of books. This goes beyond a single reader, especially if you have a community of readers.”
Q: Now that Wardah books offers a hybrid platform in both online and physical books, what changes have you noticed in the book selling market over the years?
Ibrahim: “Although we are hybrid, the anchor of our bookshop remains the physical space here in Kampong Gelam – That unique ambience steeped in literary history and culture. We place community first and that is very important to us. We have an online element, but our ethos is still the physical bookshop. That is the competitive advantage we have over the giant online-only stores like Amazon and Book Depository. The space that we have here is something online stores cannot provide. The bookshop embraces you and invites you into the state of discovery. While digitalisation is important, we cannot forget that heritage of areas such as Kampong Gelam cannot be replicated anywhere in the world or online. It is something you should experience in person.”
Q: What are some of the events and programmes that Wardah Books have?
Ibrahim: “We have four main events. Firstly we have a ‘Silent Book Club’ which happens on the first Sunday of every month. Readers come together and introduce the books they are currently reading and go on to silently read for an hour in our space. Secondly, we have our traditional ‘Book Club’ where everyone reads the same book, based on a booklist, and discusses the topics in the book. Thirdly, we have author events, where we hold sessions with book authors. Lastly we have Read Aloud sessions for children where books are socialised and where hopefully we can instill the value of learning through books.”
Q: What are some of your book recommendations?
Ibrahim: “I usually resist giving out book generic recommendations as interests vary greatly among different readers. One book that has been very close to my heart and that was pivotal to me when setting my book shop would be Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Basically it is about how every aspect of life has become subject to the demands of entertainment.”
58 Bussorah Street