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Manuscripts of Lithuanian Tartars as a Phenomenon of Writing in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Compared to the other non-Christian communities, the sociocultural history of Tartars in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is characterized by the process of cultural assimilation, which makes it stand apart from other religious communities. Cases of individual determination to convert from Islam to Christianity were more frequent in the Tartar community; linguistic assimilation was also taking place in this community at quite a fast pace. Notwithstanding the absence of the common language and linguistic links, the Tartars soon took over the Ruthenian language used locally and later the Polish language. The linguistic assimilation of Tartars was predetermined by many reasons, such as mixed marriages (via which the system of Slavic names was taken over as well), a sparse community, absence of the common language uniting the Tartars speaking various dialects of the Turkish language (Arabic was used exclusively for religious purposes, with the majority of the population unable to speak it, therefore it could not unite the community from the linguistic point of view). During the period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the main distinctive feature singling out Lithuanian Tartars within the entire society and uniting them into a Tartar community was the religion professed by them.

A compromise between the sacred letters and everyday language

The changes introduced during the Reformation proved that local spoken language could be adapted in religion. Furthermore, the most important religious texts could be translated into them. The Tartars living in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania found the following solution: the alphabet of the Arabic language (consisting of 29 letters of the Arabic alphabet and several letters taken over from the Persian alphabet, suitable to convey the Slavic sounds), was adjusted to record originally the texts of the  Ruthenian language and later those of the Polish language. The persons sharing their faith but not speaking the Arabic language were offered the texts of religious and secular nature, household tips and even translation of Quran.

The literal translations of the Quran (with clarifications), completed by the Tartars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, are considered to be the first translations, performed in the East European languages.

The researchers of today have access to the surviving manuscripts of Lithuanian Tartars recorded in the Ruthenian (Byelorussian) or Polish languages in Arabic characters, dated back to the 17th-19th centuries. Unfortunately, the earlier manuscripts, recorded in the 16th century, did not survive. The tradition of caligraphic rewriting of manuscripts was interrupted in the mid-20th century. The Tartar manuscripts, recorded in Arabic characters and used in everyday life and religious practice, were particularly highly appreciated. They were inherited, sometimes by will.

Quite often the Tartar manuscripts, written in a specific way, were called kitabs (the Arabic word for book). Actually, the term kitabs meant large-format and large-scale books, containing texts of a different nature and purpose. Kitabs provided information on the Muslim rituals and traditions one was supposed to strictly observe; they also included narratives about the prophet Muhammad or his sayings (such texts were called hadiths) and descriptions about the Eastern legends and folklore. During the everyday practice of religion, prayer-books called khamails were used. They contained prayer texts in Arabic or Turkic languages, with the explanations of prayers in Polish or Ruthenian given alongside, so the praying person could understand them. Such explanations made it possible not only to repeat incomprehensible prayers but also gain insights into their content. Side by side with prayers, the khamails included Muslim chronology, daily tips, interpretations of dreams and prophecies. An important and exclusive group of Tartar manuscripts is made by the so-called tefsirs, that is, Quran, retelling of its content and related comments in the Polish language. It was sought to make every Muslim understand the most important religious text. After the solution was found how to convey the essential truths and dogmas of faith, tefsirs were supplemented not only with folklore plots but also with didactic narratives and sermons. Such attempts were aimed not only at vivid illustrations of certain examples of religion, but also at demonstrating the advantages of Islam over other religions and also at validating the status of Islam as a true and genuine religion.

Religious controversy

Even though all the manuscripts handwritten by Tartars are unique from the point of view of their presentation, many of the texts should not be regarded as the creative outcome of the Tartars living in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They abound in legends and narratives taken over from the Eastern (Arabic) countries. Furthermore, they are influenced by the verbal tradition of local Tartars or the borrowed verbal tradition.

Uniqueness is characteristic not only of the above mentioned tefsirs, but also of the religious polemics between a Tartar and a Jew or, more seldom (at least in the known manuscripts) between a Tartar and a Christian, construed in the Tartar manuscripts. In all likelihood, this religious polemics was created and adapted in the environment of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The structure of polemics between a Muslim and a Jew, handwritten in the Lithuanian Tartar manuscripts, is identical to that of the structure found in the texts of anti-Semitic or anti-Christian polemics. In them, different interpretation of certain passages in the Holy Scripture as well as the differences between rituals and customs and other controversial issues were contended. Among the currently known cases of religious polemics between Muslims and Jews, several topicalities could be identified as most heatedly discussed and argued. Among them, first and foremost, is the origin of the Muslim predecessor Ishmael, the necessity of observing the ritual washing of one’s hands and feet as well as the reflections on the posture to be observed during Muslim prayers (the position of prostration). For example, in the polemics staged in the manuscripts, Muslims blamed the Jews: ‘You attribute yourselves to the  branch of Abraham, yet you fail to behave according to the teachings of his faith; you don’t even wash your hands and feet before praying, which should be regarded as non-compliance with the main precepts of Abraham. “And as the Lord was at first filled with joy, looking at you, doing you good and helping you reproduce your numbers, the Lord will be just as joyful exterminating and killing you, and you will be removed from the earth.” No doubt, threatening all those who failed to observe the strict rituals and customs to receive such a fate must have been a powerful tool to influence the Muslims living in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, moralizing them in a way.

Do You Know?

The Tartars took over the tactics used in religious polemics, when alleged fallacies of an opponent are denied, using the opponent’s religious texts. In their polemics with the Jews, the Tartars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania used the arguments based on The Old Testament of the Bible translated from Hebrew by Simon Budny. It was through the texts created within their community and functioning in this community that the Lithuanian Tartars got involved in the religious controversy going on in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė