The Muslim Community in Belarus. History and Interesting Facts
The Tatars have lived on Belarusian soil for about six hundred years, most of them coming from the Crimea and from the steppes of the Volga. Today’s descendants of the Mongolian-Tatar hordes, who originally came to do their military service in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the behest of Grand Duke Vytautas, are more or less totally assimilated into Belarus society from a language and cultural point of view. To all intents and purposes they have lost their native language, although Arabian is still used when practising their religion. There are exceptional cases of them observing their traditions and keeping their faith and to a large extent their Tatar names. Belarusian Moslems belong almost exclusively to the Sunni faith.
In 1994, the first Belarusian congress for Moslems took place. The outcome was the proclamation of an independent muftiate. The first mufti was Ismail Alexandrovitch. Abu-Bekir Shabanovich has held office since 2005. According to the census of 2009, there are about 30,000 Moslems in Belarus, but this figure is increasing thanks to a moderate Moslem immigration (Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kurds and Turks). There are thirty Moslem communities registered in Belarus today. Nearly a third of the communities have their own mosques. They are a central gathering place for practising religion and coming together. Most of the mosques are relatively new (end of the 20th century). The mosque in Ivje (built in 1882) is one of the centres of the Moslem faith in Belarus and is considered an important monument of Belarusian wooden architecture.
Its older counterpart, the mosque in Novogrudok (built in 1855) – another place with roots dating back to times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – shares the sad, recent history of many places of worship in Belarus. Believers were allowed to pray in the mosque up until 1953 but then the Bolsheviks confiscated it and turned it into six flats. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the mosque was returned to the community, who converted it back to its original form. All mosques in Belarus were traditionally built of wood, simple in appearance with no special ornaments. The plain external architecture matched the interior. This normally consisted of a prayer room (divided into two halves: the front part for men, the back for women), a mihrab (a prayer niche for the imam) and a minbar (a pulpit from which the imam gives his sermon). There were also minarets, but in Belarus these had more of a decorative or symbolic significance. They usually bore a close resemblance to the bell towers of Belarusian Orthodox and Catholic churches.
A new mosque is currently under construction in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, as the old Minsk mosque – at the time the only one in Belarus to be built of stone – was demolished in the 1960s. At around the same time the misar (Tartar cemetery) was also destroyed. The Great and Little Tatar Streets were renamed. In this way, the Soviet government tried to destroy the Tatars’ ethnic identity. Fortunately, the situation changed in the course of time.
During Perestroika (a process introduced by Mikhail Gorbatschev in 1986 to modernise the Soviet system) numerous laws were passed in connection with freedom of religion and minority rights, providing the requisite legal basis for a cultural revival of the Belarusian Tatars. In 1989, the first Tatar cultural organisations were established in Minsk and Grodno and in the summer of 1991 they merged to form the Association of Tatar Moslems “Al-Kitab”. Another important association was founded in the winter of 1994, the Moslem Religious Association of the Republic of Belarus. These organisations soon started coordinating the activities of the 26 Tatar Moslem communities in Belarus.
As already mentioned, one of the largest Moslem communities in Belarus is to be found in the little town of Ivje. This town is remarkable in as much as four confessions (Orthodox, Catholics, Jews and Moslems) have lived here in harmony, peace and mutual respect for centuries.
During the week Moslems pray at home, but come together in the mosque in Ivje on Fridays for a joint service (Salāt). The mosque in Ivje has open doors and all guests are heartily welcome. So that one’s thoughts can concentrate entirely on God, this mosque is also divided into two rooms: the front one for the men and the back for women. In Ivje, as elsewhere, Friday prayer – one of the five pillars of Islam – is an opportunity for many believers to come together in the mosque. Alcohol consumption is forbidden on the evening before prayer. The service is held in Arabian as the use of the Russian translation of the Koran is not allowed during the service. In order to be able to read the Koran, many Tatars are learning Arabic again today.
Directly behind the mosque in Ivje, there are many greenhouses full of tomatoes. Growing tomatoes is an occupation typical of the Tatars in Ivje. In small towns like Ivje there are few jobs and wages are low, so the people are compelled to be resourceful.
Nearly every Tatar family has a greenhouse made of wood in its garden, where they grow tomatoes. The red fruit from Ivje is known to be particularly tasty, so traders come from as far afield as Russia and the Caucasus to haggle with the Tatar producers over the best price.
Hospitality is all-important here. If you need help in Muravshizna (a Tatar neighbourhood), you can knock on any door and ask. There’s a good chance that you’ll be asked in for a chat over tea and biscuits.
Over the centuries, Tatar rites and customs have changed and many were assimilated during the Soviet period. Therefore, for example, a Tatar wedding differs very little from a Belarusian one. However, the formal ceremony is not the wedding but the Nikāḥ (Arabian: marriage contract). This ritual still takes place in the mosque. The imam informs the couple of their rights, blesses them and signs the marriage certificate, though this is not legally binding. Inter-ethnic marriages with Belarusians, Poles, etc. often take place but they have not led as yet to complete assimilation.
Tatar children in Ivje go to state nursery schools and schools. Before the Second World War there was a Moslem school here where the children learnt the basics of the Koran and Arabic. Today, the Tatars use Arabic almost exclusively in the mosque. In this respect, the imam plays a key role. The imam officiates on an honorary basis.
When the former imam in Ivje retired from office on the grounds of age, the present imam was elected directly by the community. He was the person in whom the community had the greatest trust.
Major festivals such as the Moslem Feast of Sacrifice and the Breaking of Fasting are celebrated together in the community. According to tradition, meat is distributed to the members of the community and the oldest and most respected members of the community receive presents. Traditional Tatar dishes are prepared for these joint feasts: Tatar pilaf, urama (a kind of doughnut), chak-chak (nuts with honey) and many more.
Discover the diversity of religions in Belarus on our Circular tour of Belarus and pay a visit to Ivje and the residents of the village.