Forgotten Muslims in Poland

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By Khalequz Zaman,USA

The Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita Polska) is a country located in Central Europe. Poland’s capital and largest city is Warsaw (Warszawa), and is bordered on the north by the Baltic Sea and Russia. East is surrounded by Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine; the south by the Czech Republic and Slovakia; and Germany surrounds the west.

The famous Muslim Arab geographer and historian, Al-Mas’udi was one of the first to state about the western Slavic tribes. He also spoke about the influential Muslim rulers of Spain and their explorations of the political and military power of the Slavs. The first written account of Poland State of prince Mieszko I was written by a Hispano-Arabic Jewish merchant and representative of the Caliphate of Cordoba, Ibrahim ibn Jakub, whose work was later available in an Arabic journal of Al-Bakri. During that time, Muslim merchants had reached in Poland.

This is demonstrated by the large number of Arab coins found in numerous archaeological sites all over present Poland. Until the 14th century which marked the arrival of the first settlers, Poland had little sustained contact with Muslims. Although Muslims were involved in the earlier Mongol invasions of the 13th century, these encounters were purely military and left no signs of permanent settlement in any parts of Poland.
In the 14th century, the Tatars settled on the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, creating some of the first Polish-Lithuania communities in the area. Tatars is a name for a Turkish tribal group of Eastern Europe, as well as a collective name of other various peoples in Asia. The Tatars escaped from their native land at a time when they were engaged in civil wars. They migrated west and settled in Lithuania, which was part of the Polish empire subjected to the rule of the Polish king. Today, Tatars live in the central and southern parts of Russia, Ukraine, Moldavia, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

The Tatars were welcomed in Poland because of their exceptional and trustworthy soldiers. Some were employed into the Polish military institution. However, in the late 14th century Grand Duke and his brother, King Wladyslaw Jagiello, started to settle the Tatars in the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands. The Lipka Tatars, as they are known, traveled from the lands of the Golden Horde and served in the Polish-Lithuanian military. The largest of such groups to arrive to the area was a tribe who in 1397 rebelled against their former protector and search for asylum in the Grand Duchy. The Tatars under his command were all granted a szlachta (nobility) position, a custom that was preserved until the end of the Commonwealth in the 18th century. The Tatar cavalry used both as combat and exploration troops took part in many of the fights against the external armies in the 15th century and later, including the battle of Grunwald in which the Tatars fought commanded by their leader, Jalal ad-Din khan.

In the 16th and 17th century additional Tatars, who were mostly of Crimean origin, found protection in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It is estimated that in 17th century Poland, there were around 15,000 Tatars in the Commonwealth for a total residents of 8 million. Numerous royal privileges, including the ability for internal autonomy granted by the monarchs of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Apart from religious freedom, the Tatars were allowed to set up mosques, marry local women and bring up their children in the Islamic faith, uncommon in Europe of that time. This was a flourishing era of the Polish Muslims. Some reports from that time mention that they numbered about 200,000, and built as many as 260 mosques. The May Constitution granted the Tatars representation in the Polish Sejm (Parliament).
The Lipka Tatars fought against the Commonwealth during the Lipka Uprising of 1672. The cascade accompanied by a subsequent period of endless wars caused the szlachta of central Poland to associate the Muslim Lipka with the invading forces of the Ottoman Empire. This, along with the Counter-Reformation endorsed by the Vasa dynasty, led the Sejm to slowly limit the freedoms of the Polish Muslims. Although King John Casimir of Poland tried to limit the restrictions on their religious freedoms and prevent the destruction of their ancient rights and privileges, the gentry opposed.

In 1672, during the war with the Ottomans, the Lipka Tatar regiments stationed in the Podolia region of south-east Poland. The area had been previously uncontrolled by the Commonwealth at the start of the Polish-Turkish wars. The combats continued until the end of the 17th century with the Peace of Karlowice in 1699. In the beginning the Lipka fought for the victorious Turks, unfortunately, their camp was soon divided between the supporters of the Turks and those who were dissatisfied with the Ottoman rule. After the treaty of Buczacz the Tatars were granted lands around the strongholds of Bar and Kamieniec Podolski. They were given some freedom but these new rights enjoyed by their community within the Ottoman Empire were much less compared to those within the Commonwealth.

In 1674 after the Polish victory at Chocim, the Lipka Tatars who seized the Podolia for Turkey from the stronghold of Bar were surrounded by the armies of Jan Sobieski. A treaty was struck so that the Lipka would return to the Polish side under the condition that their early civil rights and freedoms would be returned. The Tatars were pardoned by Sobieski and most of them took part in his battle against Turkey subsequent in the wonderful victory in the battle of Vienna. Although by 18th century most of the Tatars serving in the military had lost their own language and began to use the Slavic languages. With time many of the Lipka began to accept the Polish customs and traditions, with the result that many of them started to ignore their religion. Those who held to their Islamic religion and Tatar traditions formed an organization called the Federation of Polish Muslims (FPM). This led to formation of a distinct Muslim culture of Central Europe, in which elements of Muslim orthodoxy mixed with religious tolerance and a relatively liberal society. For example, the women in Lipka Tatar society usually had the same rights as men, were granted equal status and could attend common non-segregated schools. 

By the start of the 20th century, Lipka Tatars had become so assimilated into Polish society that they united with their Catholic Polish in the mass migrations for the United States, giving rise to American Polonia. They founded their own mosque in Brooklyn, New York, which is still in use today. In 1919, at the outbreak of the Polish-Bolshevik War, Tatar officers serving with the Polish Army started forming a Tatar cavalry regiment fighting alongside the Polish Army. This unit transformed into a squadron after the war, continued the traditions of Tatar military formations of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and became one of the most notable achievements of the Polish Tatar community in 20th century.

With the restoration of Polish independence, the Tatar community of Poland numbered around 6,000 people mostly living the regions of Wilno, Nowogródek and Bialystok Voivodeship. A huge community of the Lipka Tatars stayed outside of Polish borders, mostly in Lithuania and Belarus. Although small, the Tatar community formed one of the most energetic national minorities of Poland. The Muslim Religious Association (MRA) focused on preserving the Muslim faith and religious beliefs. At the same time the Cultural and Educational Association of Polish Tatars worked on the preservation and strengthening of Tatar culture and traditions. In 1929 a Tatar National Museum was formed in Wilno and in 1931 a Tatar National Archive was formed. All the Muslim people employed into the army were sent to the Tatar Cavalry Squadron of the 13th Cavalry Regiment, which was allowed to use its own uniforms and banners. The Army Oath for Muslim soldiers was different from the one taken from soldiers of other denominations.

During and after World War II, the Tatar populations of Poland underwent the fate of all the civilian populations of the new German-Soviet and later Polish-Soviet borderlands. The Tatar intellectuals were in large part murdered, while much of the civilian population was under attack by post-war expulsions. After the war, the majority of Tatar settlements were seized by the Soviet Union and only three remained in Poland (Bohoniki, Kruszyniany and Sokólka). However, a considerable number of Tatars moved across to the Polish side of the border and settled in numerous locations in eastern Poland as well as in western and northern Poland. When the Communist regime took over the power in the country, their lands were taken away; numerous mosques were closed, and deported countless Tatars to Siberia as slave laborers. 

Today, about 5,000 Tatar immigrants remain in and a much larger and active Tatar community lives in Belarus and Lithuania. In 1971, the Muslim Religious Association (MRA) was restarted and since 1991 the Society of Muslims in Poland (SMP) is still active. During the following year, the Association of Polish Tatars (APT) was restored. Most of the remaining Muslims have a very limited understanding of Islam, mainly due to the lack of Islamic educational establishments. The old Tatar mosques are used for Eid festivals and cultural gatherings. There is a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of Islam among the Tatar population. There is also some unwillingness on the part of the Tatar population to join with other Muslims.

However, some things have begun to change due to the younger generations becoming interested and involved in mainstream Islam. They have learned the Arabic language and begun to travel to Muslim countries to see how they function; they tend to participate in fasting more often than the older generation, and try to meet more people who believe in Islam. Marrying within the Tatar circle has also become a central value to the younger generation of Polish Tatars. Today, it is quite popular to be a Tatar Muslim in Poland. It seems to be the Tatar Muslims have successfully produced a long lasting legacy in Poland from which everyone can benefit.



A Taratra mosque

The Lipka Tatar mosque in Bohoniki

Apart from the traditional Tatar groups, since the 1970s Poland has also been home to a small but growing immigrant Muslim community. In the 1970s and 1980s. Poland attracted a number of students from Muslims countries. Most of them were members of communist parties from Arabic, African, and Southeast Asian countries. Many so called Muslim Arab students were agents of Baath or communist regimes from Iraq and Syria, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt. They terrorized each other in the Universities campuses of Poland. They were bad students and similarly bad Muslims. Their main objectives to coming Poland were having polish prostitutes, alcohol, and finally evangelization by the very active Polish Roman Catholic Church.


A  msqoue in Poland

Mosque in Gdansk

There were also examples of respectable students and Muslims from Arabs and non-Arabs countries. They not only presented their Islamic lifestyle in Catholic Poland, but also attracted many polish people to the Islamic religion. After their graduation, many decided to stay in Poland. In the late 1980s this community became more dynamic and well organized. They constructed new mosques and praying houses in Warsaw, Bialystok, Gdansk (built by the Tatar community), Wroclaw, Lublin and Poznan. There are also prayer houses in Warsaw, Bydgoszcz, Krakow, Lódz, Olsztyn, Katowice and Opole. They set the Muslim Students Association (MSA) in Poland in 1989, and they began Sunday schools for children.

Remarkably, the most devoted Muslim students for propagating Islam to Poles were students from the Muslim countries oppressed by Communist and dictatorship. Students from South Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Algeria who initiated the first Quran classes for Tatar children. They also started a program of propagating Islam to young polish students. Since the overthrow of Communism in 1989, other Muslim immigrants have come to Poland. A moderately prominent group is Turks and Muslims from the former Yugoslavia. There are also smaller groups of immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and from other countries, as well as a small refugee community coming from Chechnya.

According to recent records there are an estimated 30,000 Muslims including some 2,000 Tatar extractions among 38 million of Christians Poles. Muslims make up less than 0.1% of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic population. This tiny fraction of Muslims in a sea of Catholicism has waged a struggle for 600 years to preserve its identity. Muslims were mistreated by both Catholics and the Communists; the history of the isolated Muslim community is both wonderful and painful. Before World War II, there were more than 20 mosques in Poland and now there are only three mosques (Gdansk, Kruszyniany and Bohoniki). Warsaw’s only mosque is a converted family home. In spite of these obstructions, the Islamic community is a booming religious minority in Poland. In view of their small numbers, the Muslims of Poland do not have any economic of political impact in the affairs of the country.

Among their problems is the lack of Islamic activity, plus the fact that the Polish people know very little or nothing about Islam. As for lack of Islamic activity, this is due mainly to lack of funds, while the contact between the Polish Muslims and Islamic organizations in other parts of the world is insignificant. As if that was not enough, the Polish people, in general, have a very negative view of Islam and Muslims, due to their exposure to anti-Islam propaganda. Many Poles have wrong idea about Islam and Muslims and believe in the superiority of Christianity over Islam, in terms of mental, social and economic capabilities

Muslims are often identified as third world citizens. Existing publications based upon the true teachings of Islam are, unfortunately, not easily accessible by the general public. Bookshops, schools and libraries tend to only hold copies of Islamic literature written by non-Muslims. The Islamic Circle of Poland (ICP), whose activities include the publication of books in the Polish language, organizing lectures aimed at introducing Islam to the Polish people, and strengthening the Islamic faith in those who already are Muslims.

1. Kopanski AB. Sabres of two easts: Muslims in Eastern Europe. Institute of Policy Studies, 1995, Islamabad, Pakistan.
2. Prazmowska AJ. A history of Poland. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, London, New York.
3. Historia Islamu w Polce. Oficjalna strona Muzulmanskiego Zwiazku Religijnego w RP. 2006.

Khalequz Zaman, University of Virginia School of Medicine, ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Jan, January 10, 2013
Very impressed to read in haste this article on forgotten muslim. In fact, in Russian there is a state called Tatarstan, the capital is Kazan. The tartars are friendly and hard working people in Russia. Now one can meet many tartars in Moscow where they have a mosque and follow Islamic tradition.

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