I believe that Muslims carry in their minds a vison of the mythical person they imagine Muhammad was. At Muslims and the Seerah I describe how they deny aspects of their Prophet's biography that do not fit that image, and at Muslims and the Hadith I note that even Hadiths considered authentic for over a millennium are now suspect if they do not support the view Muslims have of their Apostle. How do they handle troublesome portions of the Quran?
Now that more Kafirs are learning Arabic, Muslims no longer claim that Muhammad's command to beat disobedient wives (004:034) (yes, the Arabic is in the Imperative form) only means "they can give them a light tap as a last resort" (and yes, I realize Muslims believe Allah, not Muhammad, authored the Quran). The verb he used, daraba, has always meant a strong blow. A boxer who receives a strong darab to the head has just received a knock-out punch. When American fighter aircraft daraba Jihadist safehouses in Iraq and Afghanistan, they flatten them to the ground. Homes of Hamas suicide bombers that are daraba by Israeli gunship helicopters are no longer standing. Even Muhammad used that word when he promised that believers who killed salamanders and geckos with one hefty darab would receive a heavenly reward.
So Muslims are now abandoning that argument. Their latest defense, articulated recently by Professor Nasr Abu Zayd at a lecture in the Netherlands, is, "Although it is true the Quran allows Muslims to beat their wives, they should not do so because Muhammad never did."
In one sense, I guess that's a good thing. If I were a Muslim wife who refused to have sex with my husband because of my fear that his second wife might carry a sexually transmitted disease, I'd rather have a husband who didn't beat me because Muhammad didn't beat his wives than a husband who did (incidentally, the courtesy that a husband might seek his wife's permission before marrying other women, or at least inform her in advance, never even crossed Muhammad's mind and millions of Muslim wives have been shocked by the news ever since!).
As could be expected, Muslim women reach for Dr. Abu Zayd's explanation like a drowning person lunging for a life preserver, only to discover it is attached to nothing. Just a few minutes of careful thought shows the weakness of the position. In the first place, as we have already noted, the Quranic injunction to beat disobedient wives is a command from Allah. Since when has Allah taken kindly to his servants ignoring his commands? Secondly, the beating is only to be given as a last resort. Troublesome wives are first to be warned, and if that is not successful banished to separate beds. Did Muhammad have any disputes with his wives that went beyond stages one and two and called for a trip to the woodshed? I invite any Muslim scholar to show me where any of Muhammad's wives continued insubordination after they were admonished and sent to separate bedrooms. Thirdly, even if the Prophet had struck his wives, how would we know? Do you honestly think the scholars who collected the Hadiths would have included stories of their Prophet mistreating his spouses? Sahih al-Bukhari lived 250 years after Muhammad, and during his lifetime whittled over 300,000 Hadiths down to the several thousand he included in his collection. For over two centuries the image of the Perfect Prophet had been inculcated into the minds and hearts of Muslims. I find it impossible to believe that any Hadith of Muhammad slapping one of his wives across the face would have made it into the final cut. Finally, is the way Muhammad did treat his wives any better than beating them? What could be worse than lying to your wife to get her out of the house so you could have sex with the beautiful slave girl you had given her, and then creating an entire sura of the Quran, chapter 66, in which you claimed God had given you permission to divorce your wife if she refused to keep silent about the affair?
The verse discussed above from Surat al-Nisa (Quran 4:34), is not the only troubling text in the Quran when it comes to marital relations. Millions of people enjoyed the movie The Parent Trap when it reappeared in 1998, just as an earlier generation enjoyed the same story when the original movie was made in 1961. It is the delightful story of two young sisters who scheme to get their divorced parents back together again. That could never take place in Muhammad's Islam. For some strange reason that might have made sense in 7th century Medieval Arabia but certainly makes no sense today, Muhammad stipulated in al-Baqarah (Quran 2:230) that a divorced woman could only return to her husband after she married and divorced a second husband. This has actually become a racket in Muslim countries where husbands can easily divorce their wives in a fit of rage by simply declaring three times that she is divorced. The husband wakes up the next morning with no-one to prepare his coffee, realizes he made a rash mistake, and decides he wants her back again. He finds someone called a Muhallil, pays him a certain amount of money to marry-rape-divorce the woman, and then takes her back again. Young girls have committed suicide rather than undergo this humiliation.
It is not only Muhammad's unique way of reuniting divorced couples that seems strange to a 21st century reader, his lack of historical understanding is as well. I've had the privilege of walking through the same valley that Muhammad walked as a young man on the camel caravans between Mecca and Syria. Carved into the rocks of the mountains on either side of the valley near Medain Saleh are enormous rooms with inscriptions written above them. One could easily believe, as the young Muhammad did, that people must have once lived in the homes they carved in those rocks. A local folk tale included in the poems of Umayya Ibn Abu Salt, whose poetry Muhammad loved to listen to, was that a hero named Saleh had once created a giant camel from those rocks whose milk fed the entire tribe. It was not a great stretch of the imagination to declare years later in the Quran that Saleh really was a Prophet who, like Muhammad, was not accepted by his people. The Quran declares in considerable detail that Saleh was from the Thamud tribe that had lived thousands of years before, just a few generations after Noah, and they were the people who lived in those cave dwellings (a much more detailed discussion including the Quranic texts is given here).
The problem is simply that the Quranic rendition is not true. Archeologists agree that it was the Nabateans who had lived in Petra over two millennium ago who moved up the coast into Arabia and built tombs for their departed just as they had in Petra. The Thamud tribe lived further north in Arabia, thousands of years later than "the time of Noah" as given in the Quran, and never lived in the Nabatean tombs.
Earlier in this post I mentioned Professor Nasr Abu Zayd, who now lives and teaches in the Netherlands. He is an Egyptian who had the bizarre experience of having the Cairo Appeals Court order his wife to divorce him because he suggested that parts of the Quran were applicable only at the time of Muhammad and should not be practiced today. He and his wife left Egypt for Europe, and he has never returned.
What I find interesting is that even though Professor Abu Zayd was declared Murtedd, an Apostate, in Egypt, he is very much a Muslim who believes as all Muslims do that the text of the Quran was given verbatim from God to Muhammad. Even realizing that the Quran is a document that cannot be applied to 21st century civilization is not enough to release him from the grip that Muhammad has on him. Like all Muslims who find their identify in following Muhammad and who cannot imagine life without him, he continues to believe in the Prophet whose image is burned into his mind and heart.