I have been reading more Islamic law and continue to find it interesting. One issue implicit but not yet explicit in what I have read is the title of this post.
Islamic law classifies actions into five categories. An obligatory action is one which God will reward you for doing and punish you for not doing. A recommended action is one which you will be rewarded for doing but not punished for failing to do. A neutral action is one for which you are neither punished or rewarded, whether or not you do it. An abhorrent action is one which you are rewarded for not doing but not punished for doing. A forbidden action is one which you are rewarded for not doing, punished for doing.
Which sounds perfectly clear, unless you are an economist. To an economist, all costs are opportunity costs—the cost of doing X is the value of whatever you have to give up in order to do it. The cost of an A on the final might be a missed party the weekend before and several Friday evenings earlier in the quarter spent studying instead of going on dates.
From that point of view not being rewarded is a form of punishment, not being punished a form of reward. To make sense of the legal categories, one needs to somehow define a neutral point, a baseline, relative to which reward and punishment are measured. If you do nothing that deserves either punishment or reward, what happens to you when you die? Oblivion? Limbo? Heaven, but a tourist class version?
The same issue is raised by a different part of the law. Adult Muslims are obligated to obey Islamic law, subject to divine punishment if they don't. But the dominant philosophical position in Islamic law holds that one cannot tell by reason alone what is good and what is evil—it requires revelation. So what happens to someone who has never received God's word, having lived in a time and place with no prophet to deliver it and no transmission of the words of any past prophet?
In medieval Catholicism, the analogous question was the status of the virtuous pagan. Christ was necessary for salvation; what happened to people who lived decent lives but had the bad luck to be born before the incarnation? Dante's answer was that almost all such people ended up in a relatively pleasant part of Hell, where the only torture was separation from God. A special few were saved, by Christ (during the time between crucifixion and resurrection) coming down to Hell to fetch them out—the "harrowing of Hell."
The Muslim answer was more tolerant than the Christian, since it did not require the pagans to be virtuous. They did not obey God's commands, not having heard them, so did not get rewarded. But they were not responsible for disobeying the commands, not having heard them, so did not get punished. Even if they sinned.
Which gets us back to the question I started with. If they were neither rewarded nor punished, what happened to them when they died? What was the default afterlife?
And I cannot resist the temptation to end with a link to Rudyard Kipling's account
of the fate of someone who did nothing good or bad. Ever.