The Islamic world is wide and various, its points of view almost as numerous as its people. And Islam in China, with its long tradition of women-only mosques, provides a good illustration, says Michael Wood.
In the middle of the plain of the Yellow River in Henan province is the city of Kaifeng. The old capital of the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years ago, it was one of the greatest cities anywhere in the world before the 19th Century – and a meeting place of peoples and faiths.
In the narrow alleys of the old town are Buddhist and Daoist temples, a shrine to the Goddess of Mercy, always teeming with people. There are Christian churches, and Muslim mosques – both religions came in the 7th Century (China has some of the oldest Muslim communities outside the Near East).
There is even the last remnant of China’s Jewish community, which came from Persia and perhaps Yemen too, in the Song Dynasty.
Most fascinating though, are the women-only mosques, and even more surprising is that they have female prayer leaders – women imams.
The main women’s mosque is close to the central men’s mosque, across an alley lined with food stalls with steaming tureens and white-capped bakers making the local spiced bread.
The prayer leader here is Guo Jingfang, who was trained by her father, an imam at the men’s mosque.
She took me through Kaifeng’s winding alleys, stopping on the way to hold animated chats with neighbours and to pick up an order from the local cake maker, until finally we came to the ornamental gate of what looked like a little Confucian temple. Inside was a tiny flagged courtyard with a tiled roof festooned with vines and yellow flowers.