On Singapore’s Bussorah Street lies a flourishing Muslim bookshop called Wardah Books, which has been around ever since owner Ibrahim Tahir opened its doors 19 years ago. His late mother, whose favoured flower was the rose, had always daydreamt of opening a bookstore of her own. Fond of wordplay and layered meanings, he named the shop Wardah (Rose), reminiscent of the Beloved (saws) in Islamic spirituality, and the rose-and-nightingale symbolism in Sufi poetry. Wardah Books’ team of six booksellers provide a temporary home to books in categories ranging from Qur’an studies, fiqh, and sirah, to prayer manuals, sufism, history, poetry, art, children’s books, and much more. The store is also known for its book club, therapeutic book advice, reader’s digests, and author talks. We sat down for an interview with Ibrahim Tahir himself, and learned about establishing a thriving ecosystem of knowledge, the act of intentional reading, the power (and hard work) of an independent bookstore, and books as companions.
Could you take us back to the beginning of Wardah Books?
“We started off as a distributor as we found that many of the books that were available in the US and the UK were not being sold in Singapore. After a few years of importing, we realised that these books didn’t sell, even though they were really good. Most of the bookstores at the time were selling books in Malay, and they had only one shelf for our books. So we decided to open our own space. This is the keyword here: a space, as opposed to what online retailers do. The first shop we opened was a little corner shop, with just two bookshelves, one huge sofa, and an even bigger coffee table. When you walked into the bookshop it looked like someone’s living room, transplanted onto the high street. We added more shelves later, but this ethos of a transplanted living room has always been crucial.”
This is what a bookstore is supposed to do: to bring you to a mental space where you can imagine yourself reading, being brought to a certain degree of stillness in order for you to read and begin the life of the mind, and the life of the soul.
“This is so poorly acknowledged in our general workspheres, in our needs and our bank accounts. The bookstore, by not shouting it out, should communicate that it is a place for readers. We don’t believe in having book sales or driving up sales artificially. The most important thing for us is extending and fostering a reading community. Once you have that, you can have any number of bookshops on the same street as you like. They will all survive, because of this community.”
Is the bookstore as a space the main link that keeps you connected to your readership?
“Definitely. Especially now with Covid, some of the bookshops in Singapore have completely moved over to an online presence. I think this is a huge mistake. However much the business in your physical store declines, it is your rooted anchor to the community, to the physical space.”
Your one advantage over the likes of Amazon and Book Depository is that you have a space embedded in the community, to whose needs you are responding. If you give up that stronghold that you have within the minds of the people, you’re going to lose it all.
“We’ve always been located in Kampong Glam. The name of this neighborhood refers to the tree species that used to grow here. It has always been a place of reading and scholarship in the Malay world. On this short street—it’s only about 500 metres—there were about five bookshops starting from the 1840s. Ever since there have been bookshops here, but we are the last ones standing so we feel the burden, the responsibility. If nothing, the presence of a Muslim bookshop in a multicultural space in Sinagpore, where Muslims are a minority, is a passive signal to all communities that Muslims are interested in intellectual life. That Muslims are interested in spiritual life, in growing, in truth, in seeking knowledge, in learning. Without saying anything, just the presence of a functioning bookshop communicates that to anyone who passes by. Again, I come back to the importance of having a space. Yes, we are commercial. Yes, we are capitalist, we have to make a profit. But the reason why we make a profit is to carry on and be sustainable. We, by default, because we are the last in a long line of booksellers, carry the flag. But it’s a struggle.”
Would you say that companies such as Amazon are a big reason why your work is challenging? Or do the challenges lie elsewhere?
“There are different challenges. The primary challenge is the fall in readership in our community. People nowadays are not reading. Not sustainably, not systematically. They’re not reading intentionally. That, to me, is the biggest issue within our community, and globally. If you have a community that is not reading, there is not much hope for civilisation. We’ve seen that happening to, for instance, the US. When people are not reading, they’re influenced by emotion, by dictators or leaders who know that the population is ill-informed and who use their ignorance—for lack of a better word—in order to control and subjugate the populace. It’s not only ignorance, it’s a complete lack of love for knowledge. It is tragic, given that our Muslim community, founded by our Prophet (saws), is rooted in knowledge, rooted in learning, in reading, in books. The reason why we have such high regard for the Christians and the Jews, is because we consider them People of the Book. The book, and reading, is so important to our community and is our inheritance.”
The second challenge, of Amazon and all these other booksellers… I shouldn’t call them booksellers but supermarkets. They treat books as commodities and use them to capture your information, your preferences, in order to sell you more things.
“The problem with Amazon is that it wants to be the only store. Their monopolistic approach is completely non-competitive. This is not done. You do not sell books this way—with algorithms. All these retailers sell the same commodities, and the only thing that sets them apart is the price. The pedagogy that you’re teaching your consumers is that the criteria for everything is price; the value of things and service disappears into the background. All you do as a customer is to get the best price, like a hunter-gatherer. Forget about building a community, supporting a local bookshop. No-one wants to be the guy who pays two dollars more for a book in order for a local bookstore to survive. The money that people spend in our bookshop goes back into the community. You can’t say the same if you buy from Amazon, because they underpay their employees, and they employ a tiny amount of workforce in comparison to the labor that is needed.”
The central idea that shines through in your words is building a reading community. How do you try to reach the people who aren’t reading?
“I have no idea. The least that we can do is retain the people we have. To go out and capture new readers is a very big task and it might be beyond the scope of what we can do as a bookshop. That should be the responsibility of educators, of parents, of people who interact with children. In the media environment that we’re in now, we are adult readers challenged by YouTube, Facebook… I’ve seen those who used to be avid, heavy readers just scrolling on autoplay on YouTube now, for hours. This is quite a tragedy. I refuse to be pessimistic—everybody thinks that books are on their way out—because if we don’t have optimism it means we give up. Even if we manage to reel over one reader, that’s what we have to do.”
You’ve mentioned intentional reading before, and how it is often lacking. Could you say something more about that?
“First of all people don’t know how to browse books anymore. When you walk into a library or a bookshop, you can be in a discovery mode or you can be in a mode where you have a specific interest that you are cultivating. When I talk about intentional reading, this is something that’s missing when you’re just reading whatever you come across. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—an important feature of a bookshop is that you discover what you need—but there’s a certain intentionality, a certain interest in a subject that you have to have, that perhaps over time will lead you to reach mastery of it on your own. Why am I reading this? Why am I spending a huge amount of my time on this book? That’s what I mean with intentionality.”
Wardah Books has its own book club and organises talks with authors as well. How do you establish a connection with authors?
“Writers and scholars read books as well, and Singapore is a very international place. So a lot of authors come to our bookshop. That’s how we get in touch with them and know them. Whenever I find a book that I really like, I reach out to the writer.”
We have to see ourselves as part of a network: the bookstore, the publisher, the editors, the book designers, the subject specialists, the authors, the readers. We are all part of an ecosystem, and we need to be aware of each other for there to be a vibrant scene. To know the author enriches your appreciation of a book.
“Some authors send me their draft and ask me what I think of it, so they reach out to me as a bookseller as well. It works in two ways. People outside the industry often look at booksellers as cashiers, as people who are there to swipe their credit card. But we do much more than that. At Wardah we understand the importance of this ecosystem, and we make use of it.”
I can imagine people have a very romanticized image of what it entails to run a bookshop. Could you describe what a typical day for you looks like?
“This idea of the bookseller sitting in his corner, perusing his books… It has never been my experience, nor my nature. It has been work, work, work. It’s also physical work because the books are heavy! I still do a lot of reading and writing throughout my day. The first thing I do after morning prayers is write. Every morning I journal. The newsletters I send out to Wardah’s readers is a product of all the journaling and the reflections that I do. And of course there’s the reading that I do. All this is part of the process.”
“On the business side there is the ordering of books from sooo many publishers. You have to keep track, because each publisher has their own style and way of working. This consumes a lot of time, but it’s not all we do. We have to cruise the book market to know what’s coming ahead, and need a relationship with the publishers so we have a heads up of what’s coming, in the middle of the year, the end of it, and even next year. We need to be ahead of the curve and need to have the book in our warehouse before the news gets out. You also need to have a pulse in the community, to know which books they need. Open communication is key in that regard. When stocks come in, we process them. We scan through new titles to place them into categories. If there’s a new book on the Qur’an, our team needs to understand where this book fits in the whole realm of subjects related to the Qur’an. Whether it’s a book that focuses on tafsir, whether it’s suitable for beginners, whether it offers a new, more controversial view on a subject. Then we send out our emails to our customers and schedule our social media posts for all these new books. We also try to invite authors for author events, and we organise the book club, which is now online, to provide people with tools to get more out of their reading.”
“Our team is quite diverse and that is important, because as a bookstore we don’t have a cookie-cutter approach to customer interaction or even recommendations. If you approach a bookseller you get a different approach, a different type of relationship. Statistically the number of bookshops, the number of books being published, and the number of books sold have actually increased. These are not indicators of an industry closing down—despite what journalists indicate.”
How have reading trends evolved over the years?
“The number one trend is: guys are not reading. Women are. The guys are stuck at home on Playstation 5. When a child, especially boys, does not see their father reading, does not see what it is for their father, their role model, to turn to books and to be dedicated to a life of reading, it’s a problem. When we started the bookshop in 2003, our clientele were mainly men. Now, it’s about 90 percent women. Publishers know that women are reading a lot, which is reflected in books that are specifically being published for women.”
This is quite ironic, since it’s generally easier for male authors to get published. So there’s a gender imbalance in that most published authors are men, whereas the readership is mostly female.
“That’s right. This might be changing though. More female authors are being published, including Muslim women. ʿUlamaaʾ [scholars] publishing books tend to be male, definitely, because of how madrasas are structured etcetera. But more general books, and certainly books of fiction, are written by women.”
Are there other trends you’ve noticed over the years? Which categories and topics do well?
“The category that does very well is what we call, for lack of better wording, wellness, covering issues such as mental health, socialization… People turn to books that can help them out with for instance feeling isolated. This is definitely the case in urban societies. People who read a lot tend to scoff at these books, but I do think they are important and I don’t regard them as lightweight. They help people at their lowest; they might save lives. You’re looking at the needs of your community and there are some Islamically grounded books in that category that are really good. Once people have found their place and are more ok with themselves and their surroundings, I love to see that they continue to read and explore other subjects.”
One component I particularly liked on the Wardah Books’ website is the Bookseller’s Desk. Since you’re a reader yourself, I was wondering about the bookseller’s shelf and I would like to ask you a few shorter questions about specific books you read. Is there a book you go back to every once in a while?
“These would be the books of Imam al-Ghazali. I picked up my first book of al-Ghazali when I was eighteen. When my first child was born, the first book I read to her in the hospital was Deliverance from Error. She didn’t understand a word of it. But if there’s one author I go back to again and again, it’s al-Ghazali.”
“There’s this amazing thing that Imam al-Ghazali does, unlike any other writer, classical or contemporary. He seems to know where you are as a reader when you’re reading what you’re reading. So when you’re reading a section, he anticipates your question and internal dialogue. He sort of says: hold on, I’ll get to that later. He really takes the reader by the hand, and that’s why his books have survived over a thousand years. More contemporary, I read everything that Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad writes, and anything by Abdal Hakim Murad.”
These books are like life companions to you.
“They are good friends in a way, although Abdal Hakim Murad is the only person I know personally. Of course he might not feel this way, but it feels as if I know him because he is in my head all the time. They say you are what you eat, but you also are what you read. Reading is a very interior act, and books become the fabric of your life, of your personal biography. At the age of eighteen, during my two and a half years of compulsory National Service here in Singapore, I had al-Ghazali as my companion, day and night in the bunk. Alhamdulillah, having these books is such a niʿma [blessing].”
“One of the most momentous days for Wardah Books was when the Egyptian scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl came to the shop and he sat on the floor, surrounded by books he had pulled out. We closed the shop and he was there until midnight, pulling out books and talking about them. He was so into it. I asked him to write in our guestbook, and what he wrote was: ‘Alhamdulillah for the poverty of my ʿilm.’ In relation to everything else, we are a fuqaraaʾ [poor]. MashaʾAllah.”
Is there another book that has been of incredible spiritual value to you?
“That would be A Spirit of Tolerance by Amadou Hampate Ba, about the life of the Malian sheikh Tierno Bokar. It was transformational for me, in the way I saw things around me and the way I saw my own journey into spirituality.”
Which books are you currently reading?
“I have different kinds of readings. I still work as an editor, so I read manuscripts a lot and read many art books for that. I also read plenty of magazines, such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and The London Review of Books and The Bookseller for my work. At the moment I’m reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Travelling Home by Abdal Hakim Murad. They accidentally kind of go hand in hand. I do a lot of note-taking while I read; reading and writing always coincide. I cannot read without writing, which makes the process much slower. Fiction I read faster, and I do read both fiction and non-fiction. Before reading Anne Frank, I was reading Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library.”
As a last question, which book would you like to recommend to our readers?
“I get this all the time when I’m in the shop, and it’s quite hard. I always turn it around and ask: ‘Which books do you like to read? Which topics are you interested in? What about the world do you want to change?’ I try to make it more intentional. One day someone came in and was asking for books about marriage. So I asked her: ‘What do you think you need?’ She paused a while and said she wanted to do something about her anger. None of the generic marriage books talk about that, so I recommended her to pick up Hamza Yusuf’s translation of Purification of the Heart, and look at the issues of anger and jealousy. She started reading the chapter on anger, and I didn’t realise it, but she began to cry. She was standing there, reading, and looked up and said: ‘That’s exactly what I need.’ So there is no generic answer to this question. Each person is different. What is useful depends on where you are at the moment.”
Wardah Books is located on 58 Bussorah Street, Singapore. Buying books is possible in store or on their website, where you can also find out more about their activities and book news. Their handle on social media such as Facebook and Instagram is @WardahBooks.
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