To prove a theory, scientists observe natural phenomena or conduct controlled experiments. If the results confirm the theory, it passes from being merely a theory to a scientific principle.
In the world of belief and ideas, the process is the same. If you have a theory about what a particular group of people believes, listen to them carefully and read their writings. If what you learn confirms your theory, you can conclude it is correct. It might not be as easy to prove as natural science, but it is no less true.
My theory is that Muslims have a wishful, fanciful, idealistic view of the person they want their Prophet to be. The conviction that Muhammad was a wonderful and perfect man is inculcated into their minds and hearts before they take their first steps or utter their first sentences. Many of them spend the rest of their lives defending him from harm. They are emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually incapable of honestly examining aspects of his life and teachings, as portrayed in their own texts or exemplified in the lives of their coreligionists, that go against their childhood impressions of who he was. Their identify is wrapped up in him, and they cannot imagine life without him. I have recently noted that they even reinterpret the Sira, Hadith, and Quran to fit in with their view of who Muhammad was.
One way to confirm or deny this theory is to carefully read books about Muhammad written by educated, Western Muslims. The best way to do this is with the book in one hand and Islam's original texts in the other. That's the only way to really determine whether the author is being faithful to his or her own history, or is trying to manipulate that history to deceive the reader.
If the thought of personally studying early Islamic texts and history seems too daunting or time-consuming, just read very thoughtfully. Early in her book The Muslim Next Door, Sumbul Ali-Karamali writes, "I was always taught that I would go straight to hell for gambling, along with drinking alcohol, engaging in unlawful sex, and committing homicide." She then describes how as an adult she avoids alcohol to the extent of refusing to cook with vanilla extract. Note that her cooking practices are not based upon rational, clear thought, but on what she learned as a child about the God of Islam. He would send her to hell for drinking a glass of wine, and now her children eat French toast without vanilla.
Ms. Ali-Karamali is not the only American Muslim who looks at the Prophet with rose-tinted glasses. In No god but God, Reza Aslan describes Muhammad's practice of robbing trade caravans as follows, "Just to make sure the Quraysh got Muhammad's message challenging Mecca's religious and economic hegemony over the Peninsula, he sent his followers out into the desert to take part in the time-honored Arab tradition of caravan raiding. In pre-Islamic Arabia, caravan raiding was a legitimate means for small clans to benefit from the wealth of larger ones. It was in no way considered stealing (italics mine), and as long as no violence occurred and no blood was shed, there was no need for retribution. The raiding party would quickly descend on a caravan - usually at its rear - and carry off whatever they could get their hands on before being discovered. These periodic raids were certainly a nuisance for the caravan leaders, but in general they were considered part of the innate hazards of transporting large amounts of goods through a vast and unprotected desert."
So robbing caravans carrying the foodstuffs entire Arab tribes depended upon for survival was just a matter of boys will be boys, like university students on spring break in Daytona? Tell that to Amr bin al-Hadrami. He was leading a trade caravan carrying dry raisins, leather, and other goods when Muhammad's marauders decided to attack. Historian Ibn Ishaq records that the Muslims determined to kill as many caravan personnel as possible before making off with the booty. Amr was killed with an arrow, the others were taken prisoner and later released for ransom, and Muhammad was given one-fifth of all the stolen merchandise.
The truth is that most of the people who migrated with Muhammad from Mecca to Medina were poor ex-slaves with no skills or trade. They joined illiterate Arab tribespeople in Medina who had migrated north from Yemen a few generations before and both worked for and stole from the Jewish majority who had lived in Medina for six centuries and were excellent farmers and tradesmen. The Muslims quickly put themselves in opposition to the Jews, and rather than meeting their economic needs by forming their own trade caravans found it easier to plunder the caravans of others.
In Footsteps of the Prophet, Tariq Ramadan continues the tradition of manipulating material from Muhammad's biography to bolster his own image of the Prophet that he learned as a child in Switzerland. I have discussed here Tariq's claim that Abu Bakr set the Muslim slave Bilal free in Mecca "as an example of the Prophet's emphasis on human rights". In reality, all Abu Bakr did was trade Bilal for a younger, stronger, black non-Muslim slave. The clear message communicated was not one of human rights, but that Abu Bakr was himself a slaveholder and Muslims have more value than non-Muslims.
The most recent book I read along this line is Omid Safi's Memories of Muhammad. It's difficult to do a usual review of the book, since it is merely more of the same style and methodology. In the early pages, Omid shows an "iconic image of the Prophet from the author's personal collection" that he describes as follows, "It is a lovely depiction of a kind, gently, yet resolute Prophet, holding on to the Qur'an and looking straight at the viewer with deep and penetrating eyes. He is depicted as a handsome man, with deep Persian eyes and eyebrows, and wearing a green turban."
This is the image of Muhammad that Omid holds in his heart, and this is the person he portrays. He describes Muhammad's "marriage" to Safiyya (also spelled Sofiya) as follows, "Safiyya was of a Jewish background. Her husband had been killed during the Battle of Khaybar, and she herself was reported to have been of a deeply pious nature. Muhammad offered her a choice of remaining Jewish and going back to her own people or becoming Muslim and marrying him. Her answer was: "I choose God and his Messenger."
I would find this description of Muhammad's relationship with Sofiya shocking were it not so normal coming from Muslim writers. Sofiya was of the Al Nadir tribe in Medina, one of the city's three leading Jewish tribes. Her father and other relatives had used the Hebrew Scriptures to refute Muhammad's claim that he was a Prophet sent to them from God. His response was to create verses condemning them that found their way into the Quran and in particular surat al-Baqarah. Quran 2: 101,102 is one example among many accusing these Jews of deliberately following Satan rather than submitting to Muhammad. Soon afterwards Muhammad claimed (God told him, of course) that the Al Nadir were plotting to kill him, and he led his army to attack them. They were farmers, not soldiers, and his attack consisted of cutting down the palm trees that provided their sustenance and establishing a blockade against them until they agreed to his terms of exile from the city. He stole their property and goods, allowing them to leave with only what they could carry on their camels. Some of them went to Syria, but the 16 year old Sofiya and her family took refuge in the nearby agricultural town of Khaybar.
Less than a year later Muhammad conquered Mecca with 10,000 soldiers and immediately turned his attention towards Khaybar. Sofiya's father and brother were beheaded, and her husband Kinana was tortured to death by Muhammad for refusing to reveal the source of hidden treasure (yes, Arab historians use the word "torture" to describe Muhammad and his soldiers branding Kinana's chest with hot iron before cutting off his head and yes, Muhammad was personally involved in the event). As the supreme brutal act of a conqueror proclaiming supremacy over his victims, Muhammad raped the wife and daughter of his Jewish enemies. Someone else had already claimed her, in accordance with law established by Muhammad for female prisoners of war, but recognizing the significance of personally having the daughter of the ruling family Muhammad exchanged two women to ravish Sofiya himself. One of his warriors even stood guard outside Muhammad's bedroom the entire night, for fear that she might attempt revenge on the 60 year old man who had killed her entire family and was now forcing himself upon her.
Omid Safi would have us believe this young girl willingly gave herself to Muhammad and wanted to marry him. Would any sane woman choose to sleep with the man three times her age who had just beheaded her father, brother, and husband? What were her options? The protection he offered her as a member of his household (even though she lived with Aisha's constant scorn and jealousy as a beautiful Jewess) was better than being sold as a slave for horses and weapons as Muhammad had done with other Jewish women in Medina.
Omid Safi teaches at the University of North Carolina. I don't expect him to change his views about Muhammad; he has too much invested. As Tariq Ramadan, Reza Aslan, and others have discovered, defending Muhammad is a lucrative gig in America. There are always books to be written and talks to be given reassuring nervous Christians and Jews in their churches and synagogues they have nothing to fear from Islam.
What I do find interesting is that UNC is also the academic home of Bart Ehrman, a former evangelical Christian who as a result of his questioning and scholarship has concluded the Bible is not the Word of God, Jesus is not the Son of God, and Christianity is not true. I don't know if UNC has academically prostituted itself, as have other well-known universities and professors, to Middle East Shaykhs, Emirs, and Ayatollas in exchange for money (often millions of dollars) to teach a brand of Islam the sponsor would approve (anyone who has lived in Saudi Arabia, as I have, realizes the supreme importance of pleasing your sponsor if you want to keep your job). But it is an expression of 21st century academic irony in America that UNC is unable or unwilling to hire an ex-Muslim to teach in the Islamic Department who as a result of his or her study reached the same conclusion about Muhammad, the Quran, and Islam that Dr. Ehrman did about the faith of his youth. There are such people available, but hiring them involves risks major universities are unwilling to take. It's much safer to give students the "scholarship" of believers such as Dr. Omid Safi.