Q. What is the relationship between belief in tawhid [editor: i.e. the recognition of the Oneness of God] and morality? I am asking with the intention of [asking a] follow-up: For those individuals who were born into a polytheistic faith but who are morally and ethically very upright, what does the Qu'ran say of their judgment? I know that associating partners with Allah (SWT) is one of the biggest sins, but I am having trouble grasping why someone who lives honestly, sincerely, generously, etc. should be so severely punished. Are we not judged on the basis of our actions?
A: Recognizing and affirming the Oneness of Allah, i.e. tawhid, is the epistemoloical and ontological basis of morality in our religion (din). Professing that there is no god but God (la ilaha illa llah) implies that one affirms that no one decides that an act is right or wrong but Allah and that none decides the relative degree of rightness or wrongness of an act but Allah.
So, if a person is raised as a polytheist (mushrik) and dies as such, we affirm that they will not be treated unjustly by Allah in the afterlife. Qur'an: "Nor is Allah unjust to His slaves".
Note: One should strive to achieve certainty (yaqin) on this point, since it is a basic element of our belief (iman) and doubt about this matter is akin to thinking badly of Allah which is an enormity (i.e. a major sin), at the very least.
Specifically, there are several possibilities:
Case 1: If a polytheist (mushrik) is presented with Islam during his life and accepts it, he becomes Muslim, thereby and, assuming that he dies on Islam, will enter the Garden.
Case 2: If he refuses Islam after it is offered to him, he is a disbeliever (kafir). If he dies in that state, he is promised an eternity in the Fire and forbidden entry into the Garden, as indicated by numerous univocal, clear passages (ayat) of the Qur'an and mass-transmitted prophetic traditions (ahadith). Again, Allah will not have wronged them or treated them unjustly in the least.
Case 3: If the prophetic invitation to worship the One God never reached him (e.g. he lived during the period between two prophets or he was never informed that there was a Prophet named Muhammad that invited people to surrender to God by recognizing that there is no god but Him) and he dies in this state, then some of the religious scholars (`ulama) affirm that he is not punished in the afterlife because Allah does not punish without sending a Messenger. Qur'an: "We do not punish until we send Messenger". Others of the `ulama hold that he may be punished as a disbeliever polytheist because the natural inclination towards recognition of the One God (fitra) that Allah has created in human beings is evidence enough against him. Allah knows best. Whatever the case, we affirm that Allah will not have treated them unjustly in the least.
N.B.: As Muslims, we should avoid giving preference to our own ethical intuitions (i.e. suppositions and whims as to what should be right and wrong or how relatively right or wrong some acts should be compared to others) over Allah's statements. It is simply not for a reasonable person--not to mention a Muslim--to say to himself, "Well, a person who behaves in a manner that seems good or moral to me, but just happens to do what the Creator of the Heavens and Earth has said is the worse act that can be done (i.e. associating partners with God), should be judged acceptable by God and not punished." Islam, i.e. Surrendering to God means, among other things, recognizing him as the Judge (al-Hakam). We are judged on the basis of (more precisely, the intention behind) our actions. In our ethical system, the basis of actions that is associated with salvation in the afterlife is belief (iman) in God and the Last Day.
N.B.: As for describing a person who does not recognize God as God as living honestly or sincerely, clearly people who are not yet believers can have good personality traits and do acts that are apparently good. Not only do we not deny this but we affirm it since Allah affirms it in the Qur'an. But going the next step and suggesting that apparently good deeds, without belief (iman), must be acceptable to God (whereas Allah stresses good deeds and belief in the Qur'an), because these criteria are consistent with our own ethical intuition, is logical inconsistent with tawhid and runs contrary to revelation.
May Allah guide us to the best in this world and the next.
The Needy Slave of Allah,
Taha bin Hasan Abdul-Basser