It is generally understood that Islam unconditionally allows Muslim men to marry Jewish and Christian women. However, the placement and context of the Qur’ānic verse which permits such marriages show that it is desirable that certain conditions be met if such a marriage is to take place. Needless to say that the Qur’ān has been revealed as a coherent Book. It is not a disjointed collection of verses as is generally believed. There is profound structural and thematic coherence in it. Each verse has a definite context and until and unless this context is carefully considered, the true implications of a verse can usually not be ascertained. Disregarding the context of a verse often leads to serious misinterpretations which distort the stance of the Qur’ān. It is therefore of paramount importance that each verse be interpreted in the light of its context.
Consider now the context of the related verse. The following verse immediately precedes it:
الْيَوْمَ يَئِسَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ مِن دِينِكُمْ فَلاَ تَخْشَوْهُمْ وَاخْشَوْنِ الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ الإِسْلاَمَ دِينًا(5: 3)
This day the disbelievers have abandoned all hope of vanquishing your religion. Have no fear of them: fear Me. This day I have completed your religion for you and completed My favour upon you and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. (5:3)
Consider next, the verse under consideration:
الْيَوْمَ أُحِلَّ لَكُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتُ وَطَعَامُ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْكِتَابَ حِلٌّ لَّكُمْ وَطَعَامُكُمْ حِلُّ لَّهُمْ وَالْمُحْصَنَاتُ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَالْمُحْصَنَاتُ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ إِذَا آتَيْتُمُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ مُحْصِنِينَ غَيْرَ مُسَافِحِينَ وَلاَ مُتَّخِذِي أَخْدَانٍ(5: 6)
This day all things good and pure are made lawful to you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful to you, and yours to them. Lawful to you are the chaste among the believing women and the chaste women among the People of the Book, provided that you give them their dowers and desire chastity neither committing fornication nor taking them as mistresses. (5:6)
It is clear from the above mentioned verses that these directives pertain to the period when the supremacy of Islam had been established in Arabia – when the disbelievers had lost all hope of overcoming the Islamic forces and the Muslims had become an unconquerable force. It was in these circumstances that the Muslims were permitted to marry Jewish and Christian women. Moreover, it is evident from the verse that only virtuous and upright women among the People of the Book were allowed to be taken in marriage. It is evident that in such conditions and circumstances, there was virtually no possibility of the Muslims being influenced by their religious directives and cultural traditions. Instead, there was a far greater possibility that such marriages would positively influence the women of the People of the Book by inducing them to accept Islam.
By analogy, therefore, such marriages today seem desirable only in societies where the cultural traditions and legal injunctions of Islam hold sway.