The first ever written account of Poland was recorded by the Muslim Caliphate of Córdoba's 10th-century envoy, Ibrahim ibn Jakub. A continuous presence of Islam in Poland began in the 14th century. From this time it was primarily associated with the Tatars, many of whom settled in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth while continuing their traditions and religious beliefs. The first significant non-Tatar groups of Muslims arrived in Poland in the 1970s. Currently the total number of Muslims in Poland is estimated at around 31,000
Poland had little prolonged contact with Islam until the 14th century with the advent of the first Tatar settlers. Although Muslims were involved in earlier Mongol invasions in the 13th century, these had a purely military character and there are no traces of settlement or conversion of any parts of the Polish population.
On the other hand, the first accounts of the Polish state of Mieszko I were written by a Hispano-Arabic merchant and diplomat of the Caliphate of Córdoba Ibrahim ibn Jakub and later published in an Arabic chronicle of Al-Bakri. Other Muslim merchants arrived in Polish lands at that time, as can be seen by a large number of Arab coins found in numerous archaeological sites throughout modern Poland.
In the 14th century, the first Tatar tribes settled in the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Skilled warriors and great mercenaries, their settlement was promoted by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, among them Gediminas, Algirdas and Kestutis. The Tatars who settled in Lithuania, Ruthenia and modern-day eastern Poland were allowed to preserve their Sunni religion in exchange for military service. The initial settlements were mostly temporary and most of the Tatars returned to their native lands after their service expired. However, in the late 14th century Grand Duke Vytautas (named by the Tatars Wattad, that is defender of Muslims) and his brother King Wladyslaw Jagiello started to settle Tatars in the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic borderlands. The Lipka Tatars, as they are known, migrated from the lands of the Golden Horde and in large part served in the Polish-Lithuanian military. The largest of such groups to arrive to the area was a tribe of Tokhtamysh, who in 1397 rebelled against his former protector Tamerlane and sought asylum in the Grand Duchy. The Tatars under his command were all granted szlachta (nobility) status, a tradition that was preserved until the end of the Commonwealth in the 18th century. Light Tatar cavalry, used both as skirmishers and reconnaissance troops took part in many of the battles against the foreign armies in the 15th century and afterwards, including the battle of Grunwald in which the Tatars fought commanded by their leader, Jalal ad-Din khan.
In 16th and 17th century additional Tatars found refuge in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, mostly of Nogay and Crimean origin. Since then until the 1980s the Muslim faith in Poland was associated primarily with the Tatars. It is estimated that in 17th century there were approximately 15,000 Tatars in the Commonwealth for a total population of 8 million. Numerous royal privileges, as well as internal autonomy granted by the monarchs of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth allowed the Tatars to preserve their religion, traditions and culture throughout the ages. The most notable military clans were granted with Coats of Arms and szlachta status, while many other families melted into the rural and burgher society. The first Tatar settlements were founded near the major towns of the Commonwealth in order to allow for fast mobilization of troops. Apart from religious freedom, the Tatars were allowed to marry Polish and Ruthenian women of Catholic or Orthodox faith, uncommon in Europe of that time. Finally, the May Constitution granted the Tatars with a representation in the Polish Sejm.
Perhaps the only moment in history when the Lipka Tatars fought against the Commonwealth was during the so-called Lipka Rebellion of 1672. The "Deluge" and the ensuing period of constant wars made the szlachta of central Poland associate the Muslim Lipkas with the invading forces of the Ottoman Empire. This, combined with the Counter-Reformation promoted by the Vasa dynasty led the Sejm to gradually limit the privileges of the Polish Muslims. Although King John Casimir of Poland tried to limit the restrictions on their religious freedoms and the erosion of their ancient rights and privileges, the gentry opposed. Finally, in 1672, during the war with the Ottomans, the Lipka Tatar regiments (numbering up to 3,000 men) stationed in the Podolia region of south-east Poland abandoned the Commonwealth at the start of the Polish-Turkish wars that were to last to end of the 17th century with the Peace of Karlowice in 1699. Although the Lipkas initially fought for the victorious Turks, soon their camp was divided onto the supporters of the Turks and a large part of Tatars dissatisfied with the Ottoman rule. Although after the treaty of Buczacz the Tatars were granted lands around the fortresses of Bar and Kamieniec Podolski, the liberties enjoyed by their community within the Ottoman Empire were much less than those within the Commonwealth. Finally, in 1674, after the Polish victory at Chocim, the Lipka Tatars who held the Podolia for Turkey from the stronghold of Bar were besieged by the armies of Jan Sobieski, and a deal was struck that the Lipkas would return to the Polish side subject to their ancient rights and privileges being restored. All the Tatars were pardoned by Sobieski and most of them took part in his campaign against Turkey resulting in the brilliant victory in the battle of Vienna. The Lipka Rebellion forms the background to the novel Pan Wolodyjowski, the final volume of the Nobel Prize winning historical Trylogia of Henryk Sienkiewicz. The 1969 film of Pan Wolodyjowski, directed by Jerzy Hoffman and starring Daniel Olbrychski as Azja Tuhaj-bejowicz, was one of the largest box-office success in the history of Polish cinema.
Although by 18th century most of the Tatars serving in the military had become polonized, while the lower classes of the Muslim community gradually adopted the Ruthenian language (the predecessor of the modern Belarusian language), the Sunni and tatar traditions were preserved. This led to formation of a distinctive Muslim culture of Central Europe, in which elements of Muslim orthodoxy mixed with religious tolerance and a relatively liberal society. For instance, the women in Lipka Tatar society traditionally had the same rights as men, were granted equal status and could attend common non-segregated schools.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Lipka Tatars had become so integrated into Polish society that they joined their Roman Catholic brethren in the mass migrations for the United States that gave rise to American Polonia, even founding their own mosque in Brooklyn, New York, which is still in use today. In 1919, at the outbreak of the Polish-Bolshevik War, two of the Tatar officers serving with the Polish Army Col. Maciej Bajraszewski and Capt. Dawid Janowicz-Czainski 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 (according to the 1931 national census ), mostly inhabiting the regions of Wilno, Nowogródek and Bialystok Voivodeship (1919-1939)s. A large community of the Lipka Tatars remained outside of Polish borders, mostly in Lithuania and Belarus (especially in Minsk, the capital of the Belarusian SSR). Although small, the Tatar community formed one of the most vibrant national minorities of Poland. The Muslim Religious Association (est. 1917) 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 created in Wilno and in 1931 a Tatar National Archive was formed. All the Muslim people drafted 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 and was sworn in presence of Ali Ismail Woronowicz, the Chief Imam of the Polish Army.
During and after World War II, the Tatar communities of Poland suffered the fate of all the civilian populations of the new German-Soviet and later Polish-Soviet borderlands. The Tatar intelligentsia was in large part murdered in the AB Action, while much of the civilian population was targeted by post-war expulsions. After the war the majority of Tatar settlements were annexed 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 several locations in eastern Poland (esp. in Bialystok and nearby towns) as well as in western and northern Poland (esp. in Gdansk and Gorzów Wielkopolski). Nowdays no more than 400 - 4,000 Muslims of Tatar origin live in Poland and a much larger and active Tatar community lives in Belarus and also in Lithuania. In 1971 the Muslim Religious Association was reactivated and since 1991 the Society of Muslims in Poland is also active. The following year also the Association of Polish Tatars was restored.
The 2002 census showed only 447 people declaring Tatar nationality.
In November 2010, a monument to Poland's Tatar poulace was unveiled in the port city of Gdansk at a ceremony attended by President Bronislaw Komorowski, as well as Tatar representatives from across Poland and abroad. The monument is a symbol of the important role of Tatars in Polish history.
“Tatars shed their blood in all national independence uprisings. Their blood seeped into the foundations of the reborn Polish Republic,” President Komorowski said at the unveiling.
The monument is the first of its kind to be erected in Europe.
Changes in recent years
Apart from the traditional Tatar communities, 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 many socialist-aligned Arabic-speaking states of the Middle East and Africa. Many of them decided to stay in Poland. In the late 1980s this community became more active and better organized. They have built mosques and praying houses in Warsaw, Bialystok, Gdansk (built by the Tatar community), Wroclaw, Lublin and Poznan. There are also praying rooms in Bydgoszcz, Kraków, Lódz, Olsztyn, Katowice and Opole.
Since the overthrow of Communism in 1989, other Muslim immigrants have come to Poland. A relatively prominent group are Turks and Muslims from the former Yugoslavia. There are also smaller groups of immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and from other countries, as well as a small refugee community coming from Chechnya.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community established itself in the country in the 1990s and has a small community, a following of 30 members in Warsaw.
The exact number of Muslims living is Poland remains unknown as the last all-national census held by the Central Statistical Office in 2002 did not ask for religion.
There are two contemporary Polish Muslim religious leaders: Tomasz Miskiewicz and Jakub Szynkiewicz.