Today there are around 35-40,000 Muslims in Poland, including Poles, Tatars, Arabs, Turks, Palestinians. The majority of Poland’s Muslims (around 11-13,000 people) live in Warsaw.
Despite being an overwhelmingly Catholic country, since the 1970s, Poland has also housed a small but swelling immigrant Muslim community. These newcomers join the country’s tiny, sporadic Tatar communities to make up the fabric of Poland’s diverse Islamic community.
A Small but Significant Tatar Footprint
Tatars have been in Poland since around the 14th century. Local rulers employed them because of their fame as fearsome horse-borne warriors.
The small Polish village of Kruszyniany houses the descendants of Muslim Tatars who arrived in Poland in the 1700s. Home to just 160 people, a mere 10 of whom are Tatar Muslims, this tiny village on the Belarusian border still has its own mosque. In March 2010, Kruszyniany played host to Britain’s Prince Charles, on his official visit to Poland! There’s a fascinating article about Kruszyniany and Poland’s Muslim Tartar community at Dawn.com.
The four remaining Tatar families cohabit peacefully with their Catholic and Orthodox neighbors. At the end of World War II, some 300 Muslim Tatars lived in the village and today; Kruszyniany remains a spiritual home for Poland’s 5,000 Tatars. Mustafa Jasinski is 99, and the oldest member of the community. He is also the imam of Bialystok, a city of 295,000 people, 40 kilometers west of Kruszyniany and home to most of Poland’s Tatars.
On Fridays, Jasinski leads prayers in Bialystok’s Islamic centre, which was once a city library. The sermon is in Polish, although the verses of the Quran and the prayers are in Arabic. A curtain separates men and women.
Community member Lila Smolska, who’s in her seventies, told dawn.com: “I pray in Polish in my heart and recite the prayers in Arabic, the ones our grandparents taught us.”
‘I feel Polish, then Tatar, then Muslim’
Interweaving Cultures and Customs
The story of how Tatars got to Kruszyniany goes like this: In 1679, Poland’s King Jan Sobieski ran out of cash to pay his Tatar troops, so he awarded them land in an area including the village of Kruszyniany. The oldest grave in the village cemetery dates to 1699, and its headstone is etched in Arabic. The Tatar language was originally related to Turkish, but ceded to Polish when the Tatars married locals.
Tatars from across Poland still chose Kruszyniany as their last resting place, and the graveyard reveals the blending of the two cultures. On the headstones in Polish, the names mix Islamic tradition and local language. Szachidewicz, for example, with its classic Polish “icz”, is derived from “shaheed”, Arabic for witness, or martyr, of the faith.
We Like It so We Think We’ll Stay…
During the ‘70s and ‘80s Poland also attracted students from socialist-aligned Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern and African countries, many of whom decided to stick around. By the end of the ‘80s this community had developed and grown to become more active and better organized. Today you’ll find mosques and praying houses in Warsaw, Białystok, Gdańsk (built by the Tatar community), Wrocław, Lublin and Poznań. There are also praying rooms in several other Polish cities.
Since the overthrow of Communism in 1989, other Muslim immigrants have arrived in Poland, including Turks and Muslims from the former Yugoslavia. There are also smaller groups from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries.
In February 2010 plans were unveiled to launch an Islamic center, including a mosque in Warsaw. The Centre of Islamic Culture, mainly financed by a Saudi investor, includes architectural plans for an 18-metre high minaret on the three-story building. In addition to the prayer room, the centre will also host library with a multimedia room, art gallery, restaurant, café and shop.