Europe was never Islamised: The case of the Polish Muslim Tatars

Muslim Tatars in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus – known as the Lipka Tatars – lived in these countries as a religious and ethnic community since the 14th century

Europe was never Islamised: The case of the Polish Muslim Tatars

Walaa Quisay‏ - United Kingdom

Hung by the entrance of a small wooden building in the little Polish village of Bohoniki is a Qurʾānic verse. “Verily, the Believers are brothers.”

I had arrived at the Polish capital of Warsaw in late September after reports of so-called ‘anti-Islamisation’ protests swept the streets. Nearly 5,000 protesters, worried about the influx of Muslim refugees, called for a halt to the Islamisation of Europe. In the metropolitan capital, protesters chanted, “Islam will be the death of Europe.” Indeed, the fears of the ‘Islamisation’ is not unique to Poland. The immigration debate has reached an all time high with the arrival of Syrian refugees – many of whom Muslim – to Europe. The notion of an alien and belligerent religious culture imposing its presence emanates from the narrative put forth by these protesters.

Far from the hustle and bustle of Warsaw, I travelled to the Eastern border of Poland with Belarus. I arrived at Zajazd Tatarski – a small inn in the Tatar village of Kruszyniany. The inn was modelled after the old Tatar settlements in the village. It had a homey feel to it, reminiscent of my own village near the Egyptian delta. The village of Kruszyniany, with its small population of 160 people, was once one of the many centres of Islam in Europe. The majority of the young Tatar families now live in the larger town of Białystok where there are more jobs. There, they attend the mosque and send their children to the Islamic Sunday school.

The Muslim Tatars in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus – known as the Lipka Tatars – lived in these countries as a religious and ethnic community since the 14th century. They served in the military among the troops of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the time, they formed the largest Muslim community in Europe after the expulsion of the Muslims by the Reconquista. Not only grand in numbers, the Lipka Tatars held positions of esteem in the commonwealth. Although having a non-Christian nobility was virtually unheard of in Europe, the Lipka Tatars were just that. As a new community, they intermarried – with the blessings of the throne and the Church – with local Polish and Slovak women and their offspring were to remain Muslim. In turn, the Lipka Tatars had a great affinity to Poland and fought in every Polish war up to the present. Although some were Christianised through conversion and marriage, many retained their Islamic faith alongside their integration in the wider Polish society.

Not far from the inn stood one of the oldest mosques in all of Europe – the Kruszyniany mosque. In modern Poland, there were three Tatar mosques and cemeteries adjacent to them. The Kruszyniany and Bohoniki mosques still stand while the mosque in Studzianka was destroyed during WWII. The mosque had a humble wooden green structure. The mosque keeper, Dżemil Gembicki, a Tatar himself, explained the cultural and religious practices of his community. “Only major prayers are preformed in this building,” he explained. The Tatar families living in Białystok go back to visit the village in Eid and in the summer holidays, and there they use the mosque facilities. “Between the two great wars there were seventeen Tatar mosques in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus; after WWII only eight survived.” He explained that the Kruszyniany mosque was only spared because it was used as a hospital during the war; however, the majority of the population fled the village, and those that returned only did so ten years after the war was over. Many Lipka Tatars never returned to Poland, let alone Kruszyniany. In fact, Polish Tatar refugees founded New York’s first ever mosque, which bears striking architectural resemblance to the Kruszyniany and Bohoniki mosques.

The Muslim cemetery is only a few minutes away from the mosque. It tells the story of the Tatar presence in Kruszyniany better than any book could hope to. With the oldest grave dated back to 1699 and the newest to only a few months ago, it shows the religious and cultural developments of the community. The most interesting of which is intermarriage. The Tatar community intermarried with both the Christian Orthodox and Catholic communities since their arrival. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how there has never been any stigma surrounding interfaith marriage. In fact, the village created its own dynamic to maintain a religious balance. If a Muslim Tatar woman was to marry a Catholic man, the children must be raised Muslim. If a Catholic woman was to marry a Muslim Tatar man, the son will take up after his father while the daughter will take up after her mother. On some of the graves, you find both flowers and candles, as each part of the family commemorates the death of their loved ones through their own religious traditions. There is also no stigma associated with religious conversion. Dżemil pointed to the grave of a Catholic man who was married to his Muslim Tatar wife for decades and only converted to Islam a day before he died. He was buried side-by-side with the Muslims and there were candles on his grave as well as flowers.

The Polish Tatar religious traditions may be a little hard to gauge, but it is important to understand them in their historical context. It is also essential to remember that their religious, social, and political experience is unique; it is not representative of the experience of various Tatar communities around Europe (such as that of the Volga Tatars, Crimean Tatars, Romanian Tatars, ect). I asked the Imam of the Kruszyniany mosque, Imam Janusz Aleksandrowicz, about his community past and present. “ We were not banned from practicing religion during the Soviet period; however, we were completely cut off from the Muslim world. We could not go there to study religion. There was a decline in faith and practice because we were isolated from the Muslim world.” Religion was passed down only from the parents and the grandparents. He explained that when he decided to study religion himself in Bosnia and then in France, it was because he found that religious knowledge was greatly lacking after years of communist seclusion. Imam Janusz went on to say, “Kruszyniany was a great symbol of coexistence; Muslims lived side by side with their Christian and Jewish neighbours; WWII changed all of that… As my mother would say, and she was a young woman at the beginning of the Great War, ‘these small villages would help one another without any religious discrimination.’”

Imam Janusz expressed both concern and hope for his community. "The problem with our Arab brothers who do daʿwah, is that despite their good and pure intentions, they expect the communities to discard centuries of acquired tradition instantly; they don't understand that real change will take generations. We have a big task ahead of us here in Poland." He explained that although there is a long road ahead, more and more Muslims and non-Muslims want to understand the faith and that is a step in the right direction.

After my meeting with Imam Janusz and as I was heading back to the inn, I got invited by one of the Tatar families for some tea, apple pie cake, and halawa. Three generations sat together around the table eating and laughing while their mischievous kitten jumped from one lap to another. The living room where we sat was decorated by pictures of Mecca and Qurʾānic verses. The matriarch of the family greeted me with a big hug and a cup of tea and cake. We shared stories of Eid traditions, halawa recipes, and they spoke about the football game they were going to see later that night. After a lovely evening, I excused myself and headed back to the inn. The next day, my trip to Kruszyniany and brief visit of Bohoniki was over. I hugged Danuta, the inn keeper, who treated me like her granddaughter throughout my stay. I promised to go back for a visit the next year.

The tiny Muslim community of Kruszyniany was not just living proof that the fears of the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ were ludicrous. Islam has in fact always had a presence in Europe. Also that believers were truly and have always been brothers.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 15 Aralık 2015, 13:21