The Lipka Tatars (also known as Belarusian Tatars, Lithuanian Tatars, Polish Tatars, Lipkowie, Lipcani or Muślimi) are a group of Turkic-speaking Tatars who originally settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the beginning of 14th century. The first settlers tried to preserve their shamanistic religion and sought asylum amongst the non-Christian Lithuanians. Towards the end of the 14th century, another wave of Tatars - this time, Muslims, were invited into the Grand Duchy by Vytautas the Great. These Tatars first settled in Lithuania proper around Vilnius, Trakai, Hrodna and Kaunas and later spread to other parts of the Grand Duchy that later became part of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. These areas comprise present-day Lithuania, Belarus and Poland. From the very beginning of their settlement in Lithuania they were known as the Lipka Tatars. While maintaining their religion, they united their fate with that of the mainly Christian Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. From the Battle of Grunwald onwards the Lipka Tatar light cavalry regiments participated in every significant military campaign of Lithuania and Poland.
The Lipka Tatar origins can be traced back to the descendant states of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan - the White Horde, the Golden Horde, the Crimean Khanate and Kazan Khanate. They initially served as a noble military caste but later they became urban-dwellers known for their crafts, horses and gardening skills. Throughout centuries they resisted assimilation and kept their traditional lifestyle. While they remained very attached to their religions, over time however, they lost their original Tatar language and for the most part adopted Polish. There are still small groups of Lipka Tatars living in today's Belarus, Lithuania and Poland, as well as their communities in United States.
The name Lipka is derived from the old Crimean Tatar name of Lithuania. The record of the name Lipka in Oriental sources permits us to infer an original Libķa/Lipķa, from which the Polish derivative Lipka was formed, with possible contamination with the Polish lipka "small lime-tree"; this etymology was suggested by the Tatar author S. Tuhan-Baranowski. A less frequent Polish form, Łubka, is corroborated in Łubka/Łupka, the Crimean Tatar name of the Lipkas up to the end of the 19th century. The Crimean Tatar term Lipka Tatarłar meaning Lithuanian Tatars, later started to be used by the Polish–Lithuanian Tatars to describe themselves.
In religion and culture the Lipka Tatars differed from most other Islamic communities in respect of the treatment of their women, who always enjoyed a large degree of freedom, even during the years when the Lipkas were in the service of the Ottoman Empire. Co-education of male and female children was the norm, and Lipka women did not wear the veil - except at the marriage ceremony. While nominally Islamic, the customs and religious practices of the Lipka Tatars also accommodated many Christian elements adopted during their 600 years residence in Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania while still maintaining the traditions and superstitions from their nomadic Mongol past, such as the sacrifice of bulls in their mosques during the main religious festivals.
Over time, the lower and middle Lipka Tatar nobles adopted the Ruthenian language then later the Belarusian language as their native language. However, they used the Arabic alphabet to write in Belarusian until the 1930s. The upper nobility of Lipka Tatars spoke Polish.