by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska
The year was 1395.
Tokhtamysh and his Tatar Muslim army were rushing to the northeast across the vast steppes of Ukraine, unsure of what was to come.
The journey was long and strenuous, but the warriors were disciplined nomads skilled in horsemanship and accustomed to hardship.
Tokhtamysh’s army was escaping the battlefield of the Terek river, looking for safety after a humiliating defeat at the hands of Tamerlane, the ruler of the Timurid Empire.
For the Golden Horde – Tokhtamysh’s khanate, this was the beginning of a prolonged decline.
The army was heading to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which under Vytautas the Great was in a period of its greatest territorial expansion, looking to take control of lands in the east.
In exchange for military support in the fight against Tamerlane, Tokhtamysh offered Vytautas the rights to rule the entire Kievan Rus, including Moscow.
In the Polish history, for 600 years Tatars have always fought for Poland, from the Battle of Grunwald to September 1939 as separate Tatar units of the Polish army.
KRZYSZTOF MUCHARSKI, A POLISH TATAR
While the joint campaign to regain power over the Golden Horde eventually failed, Tokhtamysh’s army and their descendants remained in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
They settled in the centre and the state’s borderlands and became its loyal defenders. In the following centuries, Tatars took part in all major battles in the region.
In 1385, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland formed a union which later transformed into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the largest and most populous states in the 16th and 17th century Europe.
But it was only John III Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, who invited Tatars to the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian borderland in the second half of the 17th century.
In exchange for fighting alongside the Polish-Lithuanian army, he granted Tatars lands stretching over 150km in an area around the city of Białystok, inhabited by various cultures and religions, including Jews, Orthodox Belarusians, and Catholic Poles.
Tatars largely belonged to the privileged class and many received noble titles and coats of arms in return for their service.
As they were allowed to marry local women, Tatars soon lost their language, but they retained their faith.
“In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Tatar community was unique within Christian Europe, excluding Russia. It was a Muslim group which was in minority, but was tolerated,” Adam Balcer, lecturer at the Warsaw University’s Centre for Eastern European Studies at Warsaw University, told Al Jazeera. “At the time, in Spain Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity or expelled.”
In Poland, Tatars were not only allowed to practise their faith, but acted as intermediaries between East and West.
I would compare Polish Tatars to the Catholic Church in the West. It is a light version of Islam.
TOMASZ MISKIEWICZ, MUFTI OF POLAND
A recent discovery by a team from the University of Nicolaus Copernicus in Torun, led by Joanna Kulwicka-Kaminska and Czeslaw Lapicz, found that as early as in the second half of the 16th century, Polish Tatars translated the Quran into the Polish language.
The Tatar translation for years remained a mystery for scientists, since the Slavic text – the northeastern borderland variety of Polish, was written with Arabic alphabet and it took several years of research to decipher the original text.According to Kulwicka-Kaminska, it was the third – after Italian and Latin – translation of the Quran into a European language.
“It was most likely in the second half of the 16th century that the first translations of religious writings into Slavic languages – spoken by the Tatar community – appeared, as only in these languages it was possible to introduce Muslims to the rules and teachings of their faith,” Kulwicka-Kaminska told Al Jazeera. “It was to ensure for the Tatars their continued ethnic separation and cultural identity, which already in the 16th century was identified only by Islam.”
The authors of the translations remain unknown, but they were certainly part of an educated clergy elite, maintaining ties with the Muslim East and speaking both oriental and Slavic languages.
In the following centuries, Tatars continued to be present within Polish elite circles and, as Balcer explains, in the interwar period, they were overrepresented among judges, in the army, and politics.
In 1919, at the request of the chief of state Jozef Pilsudski, a Tatar regiment was formed and its soldiers hoisted symbols of the star and crescent.
Today, there are 35,000 Muslims overall in Poland and at least 2,000 Tatars.
Their faith, physical appearance and cuisine are among the only features they have inherited from their ancestors.
The architecture of two old mosques located in the villages of Kruszyniany and Bohoniki resembles Catholic and Orthodox churches.
“We are Muslims who grew up among Christians”, said Maciej Szczesnowicz, the head of the Muslim parish in Bohoniki. “Together with Catholics and Orthodox Christians, we organise joint prayers for peace and justice in the world. Priests and bishops come over here and pray together in our mosque.”
Although Tatars maintained their identity for 600 years, there is a fear that they will gradually abandon their culture.
“I would compare Polish Tatars to the Catholic Church in the West. It is a light version of Islam,” Tomasz Miskiewicz, Mufti of Poland and Chairman of Poland’s Muslim Religious Association, told Al Jazeera.
“There are places where Friday prayers do not take place at all and places which are increasingly becoming history. It is a drift away from our identity.”
Inter-religious marriages are becoming common among the younger generation.
“It used to be unthinkable, there were such situations, but it was a taboo”, says Dagmara Sulkiewicz, a Tatar religion teacher from Białystok. “Two weeks ago, I was invited to a real Tatar wedding. But it is a relic”.
Growing Islamophobia affects the community, although some Tatars say they do not experience discrimination in their daily lives.
“Tatars experience Islamophobia less than other Muslim communities in the country, partially because of their historic presence and also due to the fact that there are few religious signs that would make them easily recognisable as Muslims,” Konrad Pedziwiatr from the Cracow University of Economics told Al Jazeera.
“Therefore, the strategy of not recognising Islamophobia is partly connected with the secularisation of the group”.
Yet, over the past years mosques were vandalised several times with images of the Celtic cross, a pig or even a symbol of the Kotwica – a World War II emblem of the Polish Underground State often used by the far right.
“People who paint those things lack basic awareness. In the Polish history, for 600 years Tatars have always fought for Poland, from the Battle of Grunwald to September 1939 as separate Tatar units of the Polish army,” Krzysztof Mucharski, a Polish Tatar, told Al Jazeera.
“I found the Kotwica symbol particularly surprising as in the past it was used by Tatars fighting in the Polish underground.”
But despite problems, Polish Tatars are not only proud of their Muslim heritage, but also their Polish roots.
“We are a bit of a rabbit pulled out of a hat to surprise the world that there is a group like us, that is assimilated and devoted as citizens,” Miskiewicz says. “We are Poles.”