I used to think that if Muslims really understood the life of Muhammad, they would stop believing in him. If Muslims knew that Muhammad tortured a young Jewish man to death to get his money, and then had sex with his 17 year-old wife the same night, wouldn't that cause them to think twice? (and no, this is not linguistic hyperbole; the Arabic text says that Muhammad "aathaba" the young man and that is the only Arabic word I know for torture). If they realized that while visiting one of his wives Muhammad got turned on by the beautiful Egyptian Christian girl he had given her as a slave, lied to his wife to get her out of the house while he had sex with the girl, and then composed an entire chapter of the Quran threatening to divorce his wife because she was unhappy when she found out - wouldn't that make you at least question your faith in Muhammad as the perfect man, the greatest example, the person you want to follow the rest of your life?
Now I'm not so naive. Following are two personal examples that help explain why Muslims continue to believe.
1. The Power of Denial
When Ahmad walked into my house in Riyadh, the first thing he noticed was the Arabic Quran and the biography of the life of the Prophet lying on my coffee table. Like any good Muslim, Ahmad was not about to pass up an opportunity to do "dawah".
"I see you are interested in Islam," he said. "Tell me, what do you think of Muhammad?"
My reply was not what he expected. I picked up Ibn Hisham's "Al Sira Al Nabawiya", opened it to a particular page, and handed it to Ahmad. "Why don't you read this?" I asked, "Then tell me what you think of Muhammad."
And so Ahmad read "Umayr ibn Adiy's Journey to Kill Asma bint Marwan". The full story is described here. Muhammad had told one of his followers to "Take care of" a poetess who had written a poem he didn't like. After the man killed her while she was sleeping, he reported back to Muhammad. Perhaps bothered by guilt or fearful of retribution, the man asked Muhammad if anything would happen to him. Muhammad reassured him the murdered Jewess was not worth two goats butting their heads together.
I watched Ahmad's face change and visibly grow pale as he read the story. He finished it, and handed the book back to me. "I didn't know that," he said. "I never heard that story."
But it only took a few seconds for the mental programming of 30 years of Islamic denial to kick in. "Muhammad didn't really send that man to kill the poetess," Ahmad informed me. "When he told that man to 'take care of her', he meant he wanted the man to write some poetry to counter her poetry. He didn't really want him to kill her."
2. An Entirely Different Perspective
I was watching the Muslim shaykh on TV explain the hadith where a woman's hand was cut off for theft. This woman had a habit of "borrowing things, and then denying she had borrowed them". When Muhammad learned of it, he ordered that her hand be cut off. Her tribe was shocked; this type of punishment had never been applied before, and even the people she had stolen from did not want her hand amputated. They asked one of their leaders to go to Muhammad and plead for mercy for the lady.
Muhammad's face grew angry as he listened to the leader. "By Allah," he thundered, "I would cut off the hand of my daughter Fatima if she was caught stealing. This punishment will be carried out!"
And it was. Muhammad's young wife Aisha commented that she often saw the woman walking around with her missing hand, and the woman had "done a good repentance". I imagine she had.
I saw the story as a vivid example of the barbaric civilization Muhammad wanted to establish. But the Shaykh on TV interpreted it completely differently. He praised the unflinching obedience of Muhammad to Allah (for it was Allah, after all, and not Muhammad, who ordered hands amputated for theft). He loved the justice brought by Muhammad; the Prophet of justice would apply the same rule of law to his own daughter that he did to a stranger.
Putting these two incidents together gives some evidence of why Muslims continue to believe, no matter what they learn about Muhammad. The "denial syndrome" is alive and well in the West, where Muslim apologists deny with impunity facts about Muhammad that are well known in the Arab world, or give the "lite low cal" version of Islam to unsuspecting Americans. The "totally different perspective" is flourishing in the Middle East, where Arab apologists not only acknowledge but take great pride in the aspects of Muhammad's life that are uncompatible with Western concepts of a 21st century civilization.