Those who promote Islam often do so by proclaiming how wonderful Muhammad was and what a great example his life is to humanity today. Through speaking to many Muslims and non-Muslims about Muhammad it has become clear to me that most of them have never read the original documents on his life, and they are unaware of many things he did. One of these is Muhammad's use of torture.
The earliest biography (sirat) of Muhammad's life is the work of Ibn Ishaq (85-151 A.H.) who was born in Medina. In this we learn of Muhammad's actions after he had conquered the towns of Khaybar. This event is also accepted and recorded by Ibn Kathir .
THE REST OF THE AFFAIR OF KHAYBAR
Kinana b. al-Rabi`, who had the custody of the treasure of B. al-Nadir, was brought to the apostle who asked him about it. He denied that he knew where it was. A Jew came (T. was brought) to the apostle and said that he had seen Kinana going round a certain ruin every morning early. When the apostle said to Kinana, "Do you know that if we find you have it I shall kill you?" he said Yes. The apostle gave orders that the ruin was to be excavated and some of the treasure was found. When he asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr b. al-`Awwam, "Torture him until you extract what he has," so he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad b. Maslama and he struck off his head, in revenge for his brother Mahmud. (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, translated as, The Life of Muhammad, (tr. A. Guillaume), Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 515.)
This action of Muhammad teaches us a very important point about his character. He was the type of man who used torture to achieve his goals. In this case he wanted the treasure of the tribe of al-Nadir.
The custodian of the treasure would not give it to him, therefore Muhammad gave the order to have him tortured. Muhammad's companions knew how to torture someone and proceeded to do so. This is the type of man Muhammad was. He could be merciful and forgiving if he wanted to be, but he could also have someone tortured for money to expand his empire. In this regard Muhammad is like many kings and dictators throughout human history.
It is terrible that what most people know about Muhammad is only half the truth. Those who promote Islam and Muhammad should be honest enough to tell the whole story of his life. We need to know all of Muhammad's life before we can decide whether he is a wonderful example.