Performance of Identity of Polish Tatars

From Religious Holidays to Everyday Rituals

by Barbara Pawlic-Miskiewicz (Author)
©2018 Monographs 290 Pages


The book presents the Tatar community in a new perspective, with its rituals and strategies that allow it to maintain the identity and distinguish itself, using categories of performance and performativity which – despite problems with normative definitions – have permanently entered a dictionary of culture analysis. The author describes and analyses Tatar religion-based customs and traditions, key moments of human life, as well as selected aspects of everyday life, which may be considered within the category of performances of identity. Tatar performances are deeply rooted in religion: Islam is a fundamental part of their identity and element of distinction. Following and performing the religious rules is strictly connected with the notions of ethnic identity and self-identification. Religious performances also serve them to preserve the figure of a Muslim Tatar.
This book is a unique work documenting the life of the Tatar ethnic minority.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication
  • Epigraph
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Performance studies
  • 1.1 Ritual and performance
  • 1.1.1 Ritual
  • 1.1.2 Performance
  • 1.2 Performances of identity
  • 2 The history of Tatars
  • 2.1 The origins of the group
  • 2.2 Islamisation
  • 2.3 Tatars on the territory of the Republic of Poland
  • 3 Islam
  • 3.1 Prophet Muhammad
  • 3.2 The Quran
  • 3.3 The rules and obligations of faith
  • 3.4 The religious writing of Tatars
  • 4 Religious holidays
  • 4.1 Ramadan Bayram
  • 4.2 Kurban Bayram
  • 4.3 Mawlid and Ashura Bayram
  • 5 The rites of passage – rites of life’s turning points
  • 5.1 Birth and adhan
  • 5.1.1 A pattern of a typical Tatar tradition presented by imam Stefan Mustafa Jasiński
  • 5.1.2 Pattern according to mufti Tomasz Miśkiewicz
  • 5.2 Lahi
  • 5.3 Marriage
  • 5.3.1 Pattern according to imam Stefan Mustafa Jasiński
  • 5.3.2 Pattern according to mufti Tomasz Miśkiewicz
  • 5.4 Funeral
  • 6 Rituals of everyday life
  • 6.1 Cuisine
  • 6.2 Healing and magic
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix 1: Biograms of persons
  • List of charts, pictures and illustrations
  • Bibliography
  • Index of names


It is commonly believed that turning thirty is a kind of a turning point in one’s life – a time for reflection, a moment of summing up own achievements as well as an attempt to check if the strategies we have adopted in our private and professional lives are efficient and satisfactory.

For me too that time turned out to be important, especially with regard to my own history, origins and a wider look at the past and the present. The scholarly study undertaken by me is a result of who I am, what family I originate from and what elements I absorbed from the early years. In personal and the family’s micro-history there are aspects common to most Tatars. Namely, my mother’s entire family was Tatar from time immemorial. Men, traditionally, worked in the tanning industry. My grandfather’s father, Aleksander Aleksandrowicz, was an uhlan and served in a Tatar regiment in Vilnius. The consequences of World War II affected my family as well – after the borders were shifted in 1945, the family found themselves in a foreign country. Thanks to family’s help and the repatriation action, my grandparents came to Poland in 1957 to the Recovered Territories. My mother and her sister grew up in the new reality. The grandparents were taken away from their farm in the countryside, far from their close family and friends who were also Tatars. They lived in Oleśnica near Wrocław, among other repatriates from the Eastern borderland and people arriving from Central Poland. The only support system they had were the four Tatar families who lived in the same town as well. Far from the previous centres of the Tatar community, without mosques and mizars, they tried to keep, although discretely, their traditions and religion. The post-war reality did not favour revealing too much of one’s personal history, therefore, it should not come as a surprise that they did not manifest the fact that they belonged to another ethnic group which was so little known to Poles, who regarded the word ‘Tatar’ as a synonym for a barbarian invader.

Sometimes, certain images run through my head:

The first one – a flat in Oleśnica – a ceramic board with Arabic letters; a small carpet hanging on the wall with an image of a temple with soaring towers and a black shape, half-covered with a cloth; on a bookcase, two leather-bound volumes with golden letters saying K – O – R – A – N; a long crossed out row in a school report, where the grade for a religious class should be; familiar faces with slightly slanted, dark eyes. ←13 | 14→

The second image – Wrocław, a villa by the Franciscan monastery, adapted for the needs of a Muslim centre; the upper floor covered with a soft carpet, where Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Chechens, Kenyans and Poles – including myself – pray to one God.

The third image – Białystok – a row of women in a small room, dressed in a modern manner, with scarves and shawls on their heads, all wrapped in different ways; the calling of an imam, hands raised in prayer, quiet whisper, bowing, prostration, singing, candies, lots of candies – each dedicated to somebody’s health or peace for the dead.

The fourth image – Bohoniki – a dead bull hanging on a hook, men in suits standing next to it, women wearing elegant coats, a crowd, a hubbub, joy. Cuts of meat chopped into smaller pieces, old and young hands, held out eagerly to get a piece of the “blessed food”.

The fifth image – Białystok – tension, a dress with golden appliqué design, a veil, ram’s skin, a spencer covering the neck and shoulders; a thumb, prepared and ready to be connected with the thumb of the fiancé – a theologian, imam and Polish mufti.

Where shall I start the story, the observation, the research? Here and now or with the memories and recollections of the elderly or with my own story? Or maybe I should reach back to a few centuries ago? I started with my own memories and experience because it is thanks to them that the subject of this thesis was established – from my own life experience and a desire to learn more about the things that concern me in the most personal of ways. Being raised in a Tatar family, maintaining relations with the community, a husband – a Tatar from a long line of Tatars – they all directed my focus of ‘I – the researcher’ towards a deep analysis of the performances of identity of one of the smallest ethnic groups in Poland; performances – holidays and rituals – that allow the community to construct and maintain an identity as well as to create communitas. In the beginning, I took on the approach of the anthropologist, sir Raymond Firth, concerning the research of one’s own community:

←14 | 15→

As Thomas H. Eriksen mentions, modern anthropology embraces the whole world, including the places which to anthropologists are home, and the fieldwork carried out there, depends on the researcher’s skills. Depending on their attitude, they will use the acquired analytical apparatus either to research their own, familiar or accustomed to environment, taking advantage of knowing the language, rules and tradition or they will give in to the temptation of an excessive comfort of being in a well-known area, and will become ‘home blind’, disregarding some issues3. When carrying out the research and writing this book, I constantly checked if I did not surrender to the ‘blindness’. The aim of this work is to describe and analyse the religious holidays and the rites of passage of the Polish Tatars, but also to present the peculiarity and phenomenon of cultural practices and religious rites as well as to recreate the performative scripts of certain actions – a whole array of which allowed Tatars to maintain their religious identity on a foreign land; the identity, thanks to which and through which, a sense of separate ethnic and sometimes national identity has been kept. Having lived among Polish, Lithuanian or Belarussian communities for centuries, Tatars lost many of their distinctive features like language, dress and folklore. In the light of this loss, almost the last, albeit the most important, element of their cultural and ethnic identity that remained is the religion and its attributes: mosques, mizars (cemeteries) and – used during liturgical rituals only – the Arabic language and the items connected with the religious cult, like muhirs and prayer books.

I tried to get to the genesis and break down the rules and principles into their constituent parts which, in the intergenerational transmission, were passed on orally and absorbed through participation, without asking additional questions. The ordinary members of the community accepted the writings from old khamails or qitabs4, distributed by imams and muezzins, unquestioningly. Moreover, the reconstructed and consolidated performative scripts are also important in terms of the model of religious education used. Some teachers, especially of the Arabic origin, or young devout believers put an emphasis on cleaning the ‘Tatar Islam’ from all the local influences and solely following the Quran and the Sunnah – the tradition of prophet Muhammad. A process of abandoning the Tatar tradition is being observed, and defining oneself as a Muslim, comes to the fore.

Another aim is to protect the tradition from oblivion which, due to the dying of the older Tatar generation and the ongoing process of assimilation, may ←15 | 16→become distorted and eventually lost. To an extent, it is in line with the postulate formulated as early as 1939:

Another good reason to take this subject on was a lack of materials solely dedicated to customs and traditions – unique and undergoing changes which stemmed from social and cultural transformations taking place in Poland over the years. This is an ongoing process; therefore, it is important to analyse the available sources and to draw from the knowledge and experience of the ‘witnesses of tradition’ – living people born in the 1920s and the 1930s – who remember the old times. The pieces of work published to date are dedicated to history mostly (Selim Chazbijewicz, Aleksander Ali Miśkiewicz, Jan Tyszkiewicz)6, the history of the Tatar settlement on the territories of the former Republic of Poland (Jan Tyszkiewicz, Artur Konopacki), army and Tatar service in the Polish army, the research of the ethnic group and its changes throughout centuries (Katarzyna Warmińska), material monuments – writings and architecture (Andrzej Drozd, Marek M. Dziekan, Henryk Jankowski, Arkadiusz Kołodziejczyk, Czesław Łapicz, Tadeusz Majda) as well as the history and general rules of Islam (Janusz Danecki).

The first research on Tatars was carried out by Antoni Muchliński in the 1850s, he published a treatise, Risale- i Tatar i Lehz, from 1558. During the time of the Second Polish Republic (1918–1945), among the Tatar community, an intellectual elite was established which started the studies of the group’s history. They were carried out, among others, by Leon, Olgierd and Stanisław Kryczyńscy, mufti Jakub Szynkiewicz, and Ali Woronowicz. It was also important that scholars, like Julian Talko-Hryncewicz, Lucjan Krawiec and Jan Jerzy Tochtermann, were interested in these topics. The most important work from that period, which is still relevant in many aspects and has been a precious resource and an inspiration for the research on the community of the Polish Tatars, is a complex scholarly monograph by Stanisław Kryczyński, entitled Tatarzy litewscy – próba monografii historyczno etnograficznej [Lithuanian Tatars – an attempt at a historical and ←16 | 17→ethnographical monograph]. It was published as the third volume of „Rocznik Tatarski” in Warsaw in 1938. It was based on source and archival materials, historical religious writings and field research carried out by the author. In twelve chapters, it presented issues concerning the history of the settlement, tribal and ancestral traditions, the names of places and people, physical and psychical features, traditional professions, material culture, religious life, education and writings, the language and alphabet (the remains of the Tatar language, the Arabic language and borrowings from the Turkish language), ritual customs, cemeteries as well as magic and healing. The scholarly significance of the monograph grew after World War II and it became the basis for further research in the situation where many representatives of the Tatar community died during the war and along with them, precious documents and materials7.

Despite its undeniable advantages, Kryczyński’s monograph does not fully present the performative scripts of religious holidays and rituals. Another wave of scholarly interest in the subject of Tatars started in the 1970s and lasts until today. In the case of some works, descriptions of customs, holidays, presentation of origins, roots of behaviours, gestures, preserved traditions, rituals based on the religious rules and a specific character of the group were in the margins of the works dedicated mainly to the history of the group. Interesting and precious from this perspective are the works of Selim Chazbijewicz, Aleksander Miśkiewicz or Artur Konopacki – Tatar authors who wrote about their own ethnic group, history and traditions. However, their works leave the readers still wanting more.

Facing the ongoing assimilation with the local community and the gradual dying out of the elderly – the passers on of the tradition – the next generations of Tatars can find it problematic to reconstruct the scripts of certain holidays or rituals, based on their published descriptions only. Religious actions and the rites of passage have not yet been a subject of a separate and complex elaboration. My desire was to present a phenomenon which is a Tatar community living in Central Europe for more than 600 years. In studying the rituals and strategies, which have allowed the group to preserve their identity, I used a new perspective – employing the category of performance studies and performativity – which, despite problems with a normative definition, have entered the dictionary of cultural studies for good.

The subject of my research were the performances of identity of the Polish Tatars. Tatars, Polish Muslims, as an ethnic and religious minority are a subject ←17 | 18→of interest of researchers – historians, linguists and sociologists. In individual scientific works, topics that are thoroughly researched include the origins of the group, the history of the settlement and military science, Polish-Tatar relations, material legacy, or religion. However, actions undertaken by Tatars have not been described and analysed in detail. These actions include the celebrations of religious holidays or the rites of passage as well as daily life rituals specific to the group, which often represent a particular transformation of the Islamic rules and are additions in relation to the order established in the Quran and the Sunnah. It is in them that the cultural identity is revealed, and the range of behaviours and gestures created serves to form and maintain the identity and distinctiveness of the group. Despite the constant process of assimilation and integration with the Polish community in the spheres of social, political and cultural life, Tatars have maintained a sense of an ethnic and cultural identity. What can explain this situation is religion – Islam – which is total and regulates all the spheres of life of its followers. In the case of Tatars, Islam enables an ethnic self-identification.

The religiousness of Tatars often differs from the Quranic canon. The important reasons which influenced these changes were: the environment in which they lived and an attempt to enrich their own rituals with the elements observed in the practices of their Christian neighbours. A term ‘Tatar Islam’ could even be introduced into the discourse, in which the basic rules received a superstructure resulting from the local tradition, folk culture and Christian religion. The repetitions of holidays and the repeating rules used during the organisation of the rites of passage – adhans, weddings and funerals – have built a Muslim and a Tatar identity at the same time. In the case of Tatars, the ethnic and religious self-identification are inseparably linked. The local content, penetrating their own culture, eliminates some of the family-related content, modifies other elements and creates a syncretic content. This process led to the elimination of many external indicators of belonging to the civilisation of Islam, at the same time creating a unique value.

In this book, I present the performances of the Polish Tatars. And here comes the first introductory remark. In the scholarly literature, there is a dispute regarding the proper ethnonym of Tatars – the Tatars of the former Republic of Poland, the Tatars of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Tatars, Polish or Lithuanian or Belarussian Tatars. The discussion is a result of a complex ethnogenesis of the group and it is also an expression of a complicated political and ethnic situation of the lands inhabited by this minority, namely the Central and Eastern Europe, which includes the territories of three current countries: Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. For the purpose of this research, I chose the term ‘Polish Tatars’ which I understand as an ethnic group which ←18 | 19→has identified itself with Poland and defined itself as Tatars-Poles, independently of borders and political relations, and who inhabited the north-eastern parts of Poland until the outbreak of World War II. While after 1945 and the shifting of borders, the group remained in traditional Tatar communities like those in Sokółka, Suchowola, Bohoniki and Kruszyniany and moved from the lands of the current Lithuania and Belarus, settling down in the Western lands and cities such as Gdańsk, Szczecin, Gorzów Wielkopolski, Trzcianka, Wrocław and Oleśnica.

Another initial remark concerns the answer to the question who the Polish Tatars are. Is it a national, an ethnic or only a religious minority? It is quite difficult to call Tatars a national minority, as they have never postulated the creation of their own country. They quickly lost the close relations with the other Turkish ethnic groups and their mother tongue. Many scholars propose to treat Tatars as a religious minority, while Tatars themselves prefer to use the term ethnic minority. Even though the research carried out by Julian Talko-Hryncewicz before World War II showed that Tatars lost many of their distinctive anthropological features, I am inclined to use the term ‘ethnic minority’ or ‘ethnic group’.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Islam Ethnic identity Performance studies Islam in Poland Ethnic minority Cultural heritage
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018., 290 pp., 108 fig. b/w, 2 tables

Biographical notes

Barbara Pawlic-Miskiewicz (Author)

Barbara Pawlic-Miśkiewicz is a researcher in Cultural Studies, author and coordinator of cultural and publishing projects and editor in the publishing section of the Muslim Highest Board of the Muslim Religious Union in Poland. Her field of research includes the history and tradition of Polish Tatars, as well as protection of memory and Tatar cultural heritage. She set up the foundation Salam Polska.


Title: Performance of Identity of Polish Tatars
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