Salaam Dear Reader,
The way we think about reading promotion should be the same way we think about protecting species: ecosystem conservation. The ecosystem consists of habitat and communities of organisms. For our purpose, habitat can be thought of as libraries, bookshops, and quiet places to read, while communities of organisms are authors, publishers, logistics chains, booksellers, and of course, readers. As much as technocrats love to 'disrupt' industry, there is good reason to conserve what works.
At Wardah Books we favour conservation as a means towards helping readers flourish. But this does not mean that we just keep on keeping on; change is an important part of conservation. It is in this spirit that we are renovating our space at 58 Bussorah Street. Not only house more books but to provide more seating on the upper floor for readers seeking an oasis to read. We will also be refreshing our website to make it more reader-centric, with frequently updated bookseller-curated collections to help readers discover books they might otherwise miss.
On the publishing side of things, it has been another great year, though supply has been beset with problems and delays due to pandemic-related stoppages. But we get by, Alhamdulillah.
And so for our annual wrap up, the booksellers of Wardah Books have chosen our favourite titles of the year.
Here are the books in no particular order:
And for the little ones,
Connection to the Prophetﷺ is one of the great blessings of this Ummah. For Muslims, the Prophetﷺ is not a historical, distant figure. Rather he is never far from our thoughts. Even the form of our movement in prayer is from himﷺ and the words we utter in supplication are from himﷺ. What innervates this connection is love. And the greatest blessing for the lovers is to be granted the vision of the Prophetﷺ. This book describes the legal status of these dreams, stories about those who have been granted these visions, and describes the means to achieve the vision of our Masterﷺ.
Purchase this book: Muhammadan Visions
This work really comprises two parts. The first part is Muhammad Isa Waley's masterly and comprehensive overview of the science of contemplation within the Islamic tradition, both pre and post-Ghazali, even situating contemplation as a healing practice that we may nowadays think of as cognitive behavioural therapy. Following the pioneering work of the late Prof Malik Badri, Muhammad Isa Waley prefers to translate al-Tafakkur as contemplation rather than meditation - though it may be noticed that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who wrote the preface, clearly prefers the term 'meditation'. Whichever term we use, it is clear that tafakkur lies at the heart of Islamic spiritual practice.
The second part of the book is the translation itself. Imam al-Ghazali's Ihya methodology is here on full display. He defines contemplation, he catalogues its merits, and describes the various grades and methods of contemplation. It almost goes without saying that tafakkur is much needed for our times firstly for healing our battered hearts and minds, and ultimately for realigning our priorities, lifting our aspirations above this transitory world so that we may walk the path of salvation.
Purchase this book: Book of Contemplation
The dominant view today is that morality is subjective and relative. This book seeks to uncover the flaws in this view, the historical antecedents that led to this view and looks at ways to recover morality in our time. In Sacks’ view, if we do not recover morality and move away from rampant individualism, humankind is doomed. As we have seen throughout this pandemic and what we will see in the decades to come as we grapple with climate change, societies based on self-interest are unsustainable.
Much of the discussion throughout the book pivots around the three basic institutions of society: market, state, and morality (underpinned by religion). Morality is born when we focus on the other. But in our times, when social media is the oxygen of public life, the 'other' is the 'audience' or the 'follower', while we are the performer. The mode of engagement is fundamentally different. On social media, character is trivialised as personality, and likes take the place of respect.
This book will be one of the titles we will read for the book club in 2022.
Purchase this book: Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times
This work lays bare the key pedagogy of social media: that something only has value when it commands attention: likes, shares, views, follows, upvotes. This pedagogy looms large over both our online and offline lives to such an extent that even if we are somehow not on any social media, we nonetheless live in a society dominated by the attention economy. People share articles they don’t read, they enjoin ‘praying for’ something even as they continue to scroll their social media feed, they comment without understanding or context; because there is no time for reading, no time for ‘prayer’, no time for context in the all-consuming attention economy.
There are many books on the ills of social media, but this is the only one that comprehensively presents the Islamic perspective and antidote. Omar Usman's book is replete with action plans and steps to help us reconfigure, reframe and recover our agency, our intentionality, our time, and yes, our lives.
Purchase this book: Fiqh of Social Media
This book makes the case that while the amount of compassion we can have are in some ways baked in our genetics, there is room for conscious growth. We cultivate kindness in ourselves by making the right choices, going through the right experiences, and building the right habits. The author makes us reflect that the various choices we've been making and thoughts we've been having are burying our ability to be kind and compassionate towards others and to ourselves.
While not necessarily an 'Islamic' book, the reader will find themselves drawing parallels with lessons from the books of tasawwuf. The war for kindness is in fact part of the greater war – the war against our lower selves.
Purchase this book: The War for Kindness
Amid the eruptions in past years about authoritarian brutality, racial discrimination, sexual abuse, economic inequality, disenfranchisement, the question of justice is always front and centre. This book, written with precision and clarity by one of the giants of contemporary Islamic scholarship, the late Imam Muhammad Sa'id Ramadan al-Buti, boldly reframes the question of justice. The Imam clarifies instead the meaning of tribulation and of blessing; and their human responses: namely patience and gratitude. He then moves on to the divine purpose of tribulation and of blessing, and of man's role in the cosmos.
In short order, the Imam recalibrates how we should view the world, our place in it, and our everlasting reality in the Hereafter. In terms of genre, this book is closer to Prince Ghazi's A Thinking Person's Guide to the Truly Happy Life (one of the best books of 2018) than to works of theology or of social justice. And this is a good thing. Because we all need better ways of thinking about our lives in order to lead better lives.
Purchase this book: Man and Allah's Justice on Earth
This is a compilation of Quranic and Prophetic invocations, arranged in what is known as the Wird al-Salam (Litany of Peace). The invocations have been specifically selected to bring peace and tranquility to the heart, complete with commentary for each invocation, outlining associated Hadith and practices surrounding each.
Meant to be read every morning and evening, the invocations in this wird are efficacious in bringing the one who recites them out of the dark cellar of anxiety and into the light of Prophetic radiance. This work has brought solace to many readers over the past year.
Purchase this book: Prayers for the Anxious Heart
More than eleven years in the making, this work by Khir Johari sets the bar very high for books on the cultural anthropology of food. And when it comes to cultural anthropology of the food of Malay world, well, we have seen nothing like this. It is the kind of book you never knew you needed, until you see it. The depth of research is profound, and the deft writing draws you in like no other 600-page book.
Like a seasoned dinner host who knows how to hold your attention, Khir takes you by the elbow and guides you effortlessly from technical ethnographic definitions to quoting breezy song lyrics by Momo Latiff; from step-by-step recipes for sayor chelok to deep dives in feature sections discussing the biography of Ishak bin Ahmad, a Malay scientist who was the Assistant Inspector of Fisheries in Singapore in the 1920s. Ishak bin Ahmad also happens to be the father of Yang di-Pertuan Negara President Yusuf bin Ishak.
Something else I did not know I needed was Khir's persistent use of the old Malay spelling (so, bĕtek as opposed to betik for papaya). Apart from the well taken points Khir makes in his preface about Malay spelling, to me the old spelling feels more deep-seated, more grounded, and seeing the words spelt in the old way immediately re-connects me to the Malay spoken by my late grandmother with her softer, more expressive vowels; an earthier language whose vocabulary you could nudge with your fingertips, and whose grammar was love. Perhaps I am getting sidetracked, but Khir's book will make you feel things. And I suppose this is the power of food. And what a glorious power it is, radiating from every Malay kitchen and dinner table.
Purchase this book: The Food of Singapore Malays
The genius of this book is its sheer utility. Yes, you have all the stories here from the Quran: from the story of the creation of Prophet Adam to the ship of Prophet Nuh, from the story of the beauty of Prophet Yusuf to the Migration of the Last Prophetﷺ. It's all there, all written very well and illustrated charmingly, with content and language all ascertained to be age-appropriate by educational psychologists.
But to us what makes this book tick over from good to great is the subject index. You want to tell your children a story about honesty? No problem, look at the subject index under Honesty. Looking for a story about respecting parents, you'll be reading the story of Luqman and his son in no time. Very helpful and very good for story time.
Purchase this book: Stories from the Quran
Here and now, in the depths of a global pandemic, out-of-control inequality, and unmitigated climate change, Yusuf Islam publishes an over-the-top optimistic book. The book is based on Yusuf's eponymous 1971 hit song and is beautifully illustrated. But you miss the point if you think that Peace Train is about wishful thinking. Rather it is about radical optimism and belief in Divine support that change will come, even, as Yusuf sings, when 'I'm on the edge of darkness'.
After all, as Abdal Hakim Murad reminds us in Travelling Home (one of the best books of 2020): "The Prophetﷺ loved optimism."
Purchase this book: Peace Train
This book is a celebration. Told from the perspective of a Muslim child, it takes us through how she and her Momma tackle a subtle but pervasive form of discrimination towards minorities with long names. A story beautifully executed with a memorable lesson in 'pushing back' with kindness, grace, and beauty, as is the Prophetic way.
Purchase this book: Your Name is a Song
One of the most heartwarming books of the year, this might be the closest thing to a Shamail for young children. It is a wonderful read-aloud book. The Prophetﷺ is so beautifully described — the text remains faithful to classical Shamail literature. There won't be a dry eye in your home when you read this to your little ones at bedtime. We should all teach our children to love the Messengerﷺ, and this is a good place to start.
Purchase this book: The Prophet ﷺ Described
Now that we have run down our list of the best books of the year, here are the books that did not make the list but deserve special mention because they are each groundbreaking in their own ways.
May we be among those who love knowledge.
Allah, al-'Alim, and His Prophet ﷺ, al-Muallim, know best.