Sa'dullah Khan, an Islamic leader, was shocked when he heard about a domestic-violence case in which a man invoked the Arabic word daraba from the Koran as justification for beating his wife.
Using the Koran in this way was wrong, thought Khan, who then dug into the religious text to prove his point. The word, he said, has 11 translations, one meaning "to strike." His research led to an entire chapter mainly on domestic abuse in a book titled "Dimensions of the Qur'an."
"The oppressive use of the Koran is from mostly a cultural or a chauvinistic influence," Khan said Saturday during a domestic-violence workshop at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
In the first Los Angeles conference focusing on Muslim domestic violence, several speakers echoed Khan's observations. Religious text, they said, should not be interpreted or abridged to support family violence.
The conference is part of the Peaceful Families Project, an Islamic-awareness program funded with a $76,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The project is targeting 10 cities, including Chicago, Dallas and Minneapolis.
Violence in the family is a learned behavior, one that husbands may have experienced in childhood, a cycle that wives might inflict on their children, said project creator Sharifa Alkhateeb.
If the destructive pattern is to be stopped, she said, families must take an honest look at their culture and upbringing and separate it from what the Koran advises.
"Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will; nor should ye treat them with harshness," one verse reads.
Yet, misinterpretations of the text abound, Khan said.
If there is marital discord, Khan said, the Koran advises a couple to try to talk out their conflict. If this does not succeed, then a cooling-off period is recommended. Only as a final resort, he said, is there a reference to daraba, and that may be just a tap on the arm or a symbolic strike with a folded handkerchief, as cited by Muslim jurists.
Despite many Koranic verses that describe women's equality to men, domestic violence surfaces in the Muslim community just as it does among all cultures, religions and races, said Laila Al-Marayati of the Muslim Women's League.
Niswa, a Muslim women's organization that runs a shelter in Los Angeles, helped 250 women last year from Southern California as well as some from abroad.
In just the last six months, 16 women have lived at the safe house, said Rohida Khan, who runs the shelter.
The topic of domestic violence is so taboo within the Muslim community that even imams and other religious leaders often prefer to ignore the matter, several speakers said.
Many women don't have a collegial relationship with an imam, whereas men may be more comfortable with a male religious leader, said Sa'dullah Khan, who is an imam.
For many new immigrant Muslims, Saturday's conference also offered practical help, explaining options here, such as restraining orders and child-protective services.
Nisreen Malhis, 41, of Whittier, saw the conference, attended by about 50 men and women, as a welcome contrast to the typical images of Islam and women who are afraid to stand up for their rights.
"Our religion encourages women to be independent . . . have our own way of thinking," said Malhis, a Palestinian who left the West Bank more than two decades ago. "But unfortunately, the culture often abuses that."