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The Muslims in Poland: Their origin, history, and cultural life

jan peczkis|Saturday, May 21, 2011

This was originally an article in the October 1942 issue of the JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY. It features Poland's indigenous Muslims, who were the descendants of Tatars that had settled in Poland several centuries ago. "Whereas all other Muslim peoples established themselves in Europe as conquerors (omitting the majority of Muslims in Yugoslavia, who are of Serb origin and were converted to Islam by their Turkish conquerors), the Polish Tatars inhabit a region never touched by a Muslim invader..." (p. 163). "So it came about that a Muslim tribe enjoying almost all civil rights could flourish in Poland at an epoch characterized by bitter struggles between Christianity and Islam." (p. 172).


Unlike the Jews, who effectively remained a separate nation on Polish soil right up to the Holocaust, Poland's Muslims had Polonized themselves by the end of the 17th century. (p. 172). Only their Islamic faith and certain practices distinguished them from Christian Poles. Even during a brief period during which non-Catholics faced discrimination under the Jesuit-influenced reign of King Sigismund III Vaza, the Polish Tatars who did not emigrate "redoubled their zeal to serve their adopted country." (p. 170).

One distinctive feature of Poland's indigenous Muslims was their unswerving loyalty to Poland. They participated in the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. (p. 165). In later centuries, the Polish Tatars fought with Poles against the Cossacks, Swedes, and Russians--so much so that they were celebrated by Henryk Sienkiewicz. (p. 171). A Polish Tatar, Colonel Ulan, became an inspiration for uhlans--the mounted lancers. The Polish Tatars took part in the Kosciuszko Insurrection, and made Kosciusko their own hero. (p. 171). After the Partitions, Russian enticements failed to sway the Polish Muslims' loyalty to Poland. (p. 172).

The Polish Tatars' unwavering loyalty to Poland continued:

"Many were the Tatars who took part in the insurrections of 1831 and 1863." (p. 173).

"Remaining true to their ancient traditions, the Polish Tatars formed a cavalry regiment during the Polish-Russian War of 1919-1920." (p. 174).

In the interwar period, Olguierd Kryczynski, a descendant of Polish Tatars, repudiated any form of separatism, and reaffirmed the loyalty of Poland's Muslims. He commented: "It was the doctrine of the rights of small nations, wrongly understood, which led, after 1918, to the Balkanization of Europe." (p. 178).

The centuries-long conduct of Polish Muslims contrasts with that of Polish Jews. How would the history of Polish-Jewish relations have been different had Polish Jews behaved more like Polish Muslims?
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