#HHWT Explorers: Meet The Man Behind Singapore’s Very Own Wardah Books


Shasha Dania •  May 09, 2019

[Updated 23 April 2020]

Tucked away in a shophouse on Bussorah Street is Wardah Books, a bookstore dedicated to providing quality reading material for Singapore's Muslims. The shelves are full of books on a wide range of topics including (but not limited to!) Sufism, Islamic history and philosophy, modern critical theory, and Singapore literature. They even have shelves dedicated to children's books about Islam, to foster a creative and inquisitive mind from young!

We got to talk to Mr Ibrahim Tahir, the owner and founder of Wardah, about the history of this now-iconic bookstore and some of his thoughts on the meaning of reading in today's fast-paced society.

Note: Wardah Books' physical store will be closed until the end of Singapore's COVID-19 Circuit Breaker period, but you can still order their books online! ? Shipping will still take place for all orders to Singapore and Malaysia, and Singapore customers can get free shipping for orders above SGD50. International orders to other countries are still closed until further notice. Do note that delivery times may be extended during this period.

1. Could you give us a quick introduction to Wardah’s beginnings: What’s the story behind Wardah Books, and what did you have in mind when you set up the shop? Are there any interesting stories behind the Bussorah Street store?

Wardah Books started out in February 2002. Our first premises was at 709C North Bridge Road. We were there for about 2 years until we were unceremoniously evicted. We had no place to go so I asked my friend who had a carpet shop at 58 Bussorah Street if he could sub-let the upstairs rooms for our bookshop. He agreed and we started operations on the second floor of a carpet shop. What was supposed to be a temporary solution became permanent when the owner of the carpet shop said he wanted to relocate to Orchard Road. He asked if I would like to take over the whole premises. I said I would, and we have been here ever since.

2. Wardah is a beautiful name for a shop. Why did you choose this name, and what does it personally mean to you?

Wardah means rose in Arabic. There are many layers of meaning to Wardah. One is the literal meaning of the rose, which is my late mother's favourite flower. The other significance is the root letters of the Arabic w-r-d, which is also the root letters for 'wirid', the Arabic word for litany or the practice of dzikr. Sufism informs a lot of what we do at Wardah Books, so that is why the dimension of the litany is important for our name.

3. There’s often a lot of pessimism about the print publishing industry - what made you decide to set up a brick-and-mortar shop?

The pessimism seems to have gone away in the last few years. The dark clouds have parted and the Islamic publishing industry is, in relative terms, booming right now. We started out before this boom and we built capacity over the years. This means we are in a good position now, in terms of relationships with customers, suppliers and publishers. Our reputation and our brand took years to develop.

It was important to start a physical shop, and it remains important now because people need the space of a bookstore in order to get acquainted with books and it is often where the ideas these books contain are first socialised.

4. And how do you decide what books to bring in?

I generally bring in books that interest me personally. As a result, the curation can be a little idiosyncratic.

5. How is running Wardah today different from when you started: is there any recent trend in the customers that you’ve observed?

Nowadays we're using computing much more to track inventory, sales, purchasing and so on. When we started out it was all manual. Handwritten ledgers, receipts and all that. Recent trends in customers? The main shift is that I am seeing a rise in female readership over males. When we started out the gender balance was about equal. Young men are not reading. And this is a worrying trend.

6. Books, knowledge, and learning have been so important to Islamic culture for centuries - how do you see Wardah’s role within this larger picture?

Near zero. Our role is very circumscribed. We are a bookstore operating and serving the needs of Singapore Muslim readers.

7. Continuing from before, do you see Wardah as continuing this tradition, or revitalizing it in some way?

I have no pretensions about Wardah being involved in any revitalisation. The main work of literacy and revitalisation is carried out by learning institutions and every single Ustaz and Ustazah who guides the Ummah. They are the true backbone of any revitalisation. Wardah Books is peripheral to this.

8. It's not always a smooth ride to run a bookstore. What were some of the challenges over the past 17 years that have been personally or spiritually testing? How did you overcome these obstacles?

There have been many challenges, but most of them stem from the supply chain. It's tough and often unpredictable work importing so many books from overseas on a weekly basis, making sure all our shipments come through in a timely manner. Too fast and the shipments all bunch up, exhausting space and booksellers; too sporadic and our inventory thins out and key titles go out of stock. I can't really overcome this problem: it's a quiet kind of chaos that is always at the back of my mind.

9. What’s your favourite book of all time?

I can't really answer this question.

10. What book did you read recently that had an impact on you? What lessons did you draw from it that you’d like to share with others?

I recently read 'To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters' by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. It is a work about the English essayist and art critic John Ruskin. The most significant lesson from this book is encapsulated in this paragraph:

All true opinions are living, and they show their life by being capable of nourishment; therefore of change. But their change is that of a tree - not of a cloud.

11. “The Secret Gift of Reading is Time.” I’ve seen this quote on your website - could you elaborate on what it means and is there any advice our readers could draw from it?

The ambiguity and mystery of this phrase are intentional. And I want people to reflect on it and derive their own interpretation.

12. You have several reading lists on your website - which ones would you recommend to a non-Muslim, and to a Muslim? Or are there specific books you would recommend for these 2 types of people?

Although I have reading lists on my website, I am not a fan of them. Reading is so individual. Readers grow and readers change, so what they read cannot be prescribed in a generic way.

13. Finally, is there any advice you’ve garnered from lessons learnt over the years, or experiences had, that you’d like to share with our readers?

Make time in your day for serious reading. I cannot overstate the importance of this.

Wardah Books

Opening hours (regular): 10AM - 9PM (Mon-Sat), 10AM - 6PM (Sun, PH)

- Do note that these hours may change during Ramadan

Address: 58 Bussorah Street, Singapore

Website | Facebook | Instagram