That is quite a reputation to live up to. It's also one that has led many non-believers to question how such a supposed moral giant can have done the things that he did...like, for example, torturing people to death as a punishment.
Let's look at the evidence.
This hadith is repeated several times in Bukhari from many different sources. It also appears in several guises in the other most trusted collection of hadith - Sahih Muslim. It is thus considered beyond doubt by Sunni Muslims to be the authentic words and actions of the Prophet
volume 8, Book 82, Number 796:Narrated Anas:Now we need to reflect upon this for the full import of what we have just read to sink in. God's best effort at creating a moral hero, who is to act as a role model for humanity until the end of time, whose tiniest actions and sayings will be pored over and from which laws and codes of behaviour will be derived which billions will have to follow (sometimes on pain of death)... thinks torture as a means of retributive punishment is acceptable.
A group of people from 'Ukl (tribe) came to the Prophet and they were living with the people of As-Suffa, but they became ill as the climate of Medina did not suit them, so they said, "O Allah's Apostle! Provide us with milk." The Prophet said, I see no other way for you than to use the camels of Allah's Apostle." So they went and drank the milk and urine of the camels, (as medicine) and became healthy and fat. Then they killed the shepherd and took the camels away. When a help-seeker came to Allah's Apostle, he sent some men in their pursuit, and they were captured and brought before mid day. The Prophet ordered for some iron pieces to be made red hot, and their eyes were branded with them and their hands and feet were cut off and were not cauterized. Then they were put at a place called Al-Harra, and when they asked for water to drink they were not given till they died. (Abu Qilaba said, "Those people committed theft and murder and fought against Allah and His Apostle.")
It is interesting that even some Muslims apparently believe that Muhammad's actions were so extreme on this occasion that he was chastised by God for over-stepping the mark:
When the Apostle of Allah . . . cut off (the hands and feet of) those who had stolen his camels and he had their eyes put out by fire (heated nails), Allah reprimanded him on that(action), and Allah, the Exalted, revealed: "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution or crucifixion."(Abu Dawud, no. 4357)Hence it seems that the infamous verse 5:33...
The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter;... was actually revealed to temper the barbarous actions of the Prophet after he had tortured the thieves. Which of course begs the question: How can it be that the best human acted so badly that God himself needed to intervene? (Even if it was only to say, "On reflection, oh Prophet of mine, I think crucifying someone or chopping off their hands and feet is probably better that gouging their eyes out, don't you?")
And let's not forget of course (just out of academic interest) that the punishment of crucifiction and chopping off hands and feet from opposite sides was Pharaoh's preferred means of discouragement, as revealed in this verse from the Qur'an:
"Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on apposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross."That would be the same wicked, degenerate Pharaoh whom God punished for being a cruel tyrant to the Jews, by drowning him in the Red Sea would it? Yup. (Am I alone in finding the logic of the moral lessons we are being asked to learn here a little ambiguous?)
"He has transmitted strange and even abominable tales unsuitable even for the minds of superstitious Berbers and old Sudani women." (Taht Rayah al-Haqq) .Strange and abominable tales indeed. But if you're a Sunni (majority) Muslim I'm afraid you just have to swallow it.
Or, of course, you could ask your Immam how he explains the apparent contradictions highlighted above.
So how do Muslims who know about the torturing of the camel raiders justify the actions of Muhammad?
Rather confusingly one explanation seems to rely upon the very verse that Abu Dawad (quoted above) said was revealed to chastise the Prophet.
Muhammad, they say, was simply following the advice given in the Qur'an in verse 5:33. Since the camel raiders had apparently tortured the shepherd, Muhammad was doing what he had to do by punishing them in the same manner: they poked thorns into the eyes of the shepherd so Muhammad branded their eyes in turn. The problem, of course, with this explanation (apart from Abu Dawad saying the verse that Muhammad was following was revealed AFTER he tortured the thieves to chastise him!) is that the sahih hadiths don't mention the fact that the camel raiders tortured the shepherd. Is it not strange, to say the least, that the hadiths which mention (in stomach churning detail) what Muhammad did to the thieves, fail to mention the fact that the thieves tortured the shepherd and that all the Prophet was doing was paying them back? So where then does the story of the thieves torturing the shepherd come from? www.islamiclife.com refers mysteriously to "other sources" in its explanation (reproduced below). In fact, the story appears in the Islamic biographies of Muhammad, the authenticity and reliability of which Muslims have been keen to question since they also contain many stories that they would rather were not regarded as true*.
It is clear that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prescribed the hands and feet to be cut off in accordance with the Islamic laws concerning hiraabah (armed robbery). What doesn't appear in this narration is the reason for branding their eyes with heated pieces of iron. This is explained in other narrations where it states that this was the punishment because they had done the same thing to the sheperd whom they killed. As Shaykh Abdul Khaliq Hasan Ash-Shareef states about this narration:As an example of tortuous semiotics and logic chopping this takes some beating. We can't take the example of Muhammad torturing the camel thieves as suggesting that Islam regards such actions as permissible because Muhammad didn't torture them out of personal vengeance. No, that's right... he did it because he was simply following the rules as clearly stated in the Qur'an. Forgive me if I'm being dense here, but doesn't that mean the Qur'an DOES permit torture?
It should be made clear that those people who came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) were Muslims and they were sick. The Prophet advised them to go to the herd of camels and to drink their milk and urine (as a medicine). When they became healthy, they killed the herder of the Prophet and drove away all the camels that were allocated for sadaqah (charity). When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) came to know about this, he applied the punishment for Hirabah on them. Hiraba means killing people, robbing their money or raping women by an armed group of people. The punishment for Hirabah is mentioned in the Qur’an. Allah says:
“The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His Messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom” (Al-Ma’idah: 33).
As for branding their eyes, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) branded the eyes of the people of `Ukl or `Uraina with iron because they killed the herder and branded his eyes with iron. Imam Ibn Hajar stated the differences of opinions among scholars and he said, “The killing that took place (that is, in reference to the above hadith) was in retaliation and Allah Almighty says,
‘And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you’ (Al-Baqarah: 194).”
All in all, using this story as evidence in favor of the permissibility of torturing people in Islam is refuted by the fact that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) applied the punishment for Hirabah on them and that he did not do so for personal vengeance.
Another justification some Muslims seem to think acceptable is that Prophets in the Old Testament were violent and sadistic so what right has anyone got to criticise Muhammad? Answering Christianity does this rather spectacularly. See here. This works only if debating with a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, of course...and even then it seems a strange justification: "OK, our Prophet was cruel on occasions , but then so were yours". Think that's bad? A Muslim acquaintance once tried to justify Muhammad's torture by asking if it was any worse than the carpet bombing of Dresden....I'm serious.)
*This is how islamgreatreligion describes the difficulty of believing the autobiographies (where we find the references to the camel raiders torturing the shepherd)
There are about 600 Hadiths in Ibn Ishaq’s book “Sirat Rasullah” and most of them have what appears to be questionable (at best) isnads (chains of transmissions) . But the later hadith collectors (Bukhari, Muslim, etc) rarely used any material from the Sira (because of the lack of quality and authentic isnads). It is important to note that Muslims follow the Quran and the Hadith 100% only. Not the Sira. There are almost as many poems as hadiths in Ibn Ishaq, but later commentaries tend to view them as worthless because they feel so many of them were forged (by Muslims). Alfred Guillaumme, translated it in English in his own monumental work “The Life of Muhammad”.
So Muslims follow the Qur'an and hadith 100% only. Except, that is, when some other source contains something to make Muhammad seem slightly less cruel or hypocritical....