It is commonly believed that Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim “Ahl-e-kitaab” women. Let us thrash out this matter in the light of Quranic injunctions.
Before scrutinizing the Quranic verses in this regard, the term of "Ahl-e-kitaab" needs to be understood. This term, in Quran, has NOT been used to mention any particular religion; in fact, the Quran uses this term to describe those peoples who were following any book revealed before Quran. These peoples, in Quranic terminology, are not essentially Jews or Christians; these may also be Muslims. This fact is endorsed by the Surah Hashr-2 which reveals that " this is He who expelled from their houses those who became "kafir" out of "Ahl-e-kitaab"; it means all "Ahl-e-kitaab" are not “kafir”. At other places too( e.g. Ale Imran-113, 114) in Quran, mention has been made about "ahl-e-emaan" among the “Ahl-e-kitaab”. Briefly speaking, the term "Ahl-e-kitaab" in Quran, is used to mention group of people who were given revealed books before Quran; this group of people includes Jews and Christian as well as Muslims which-before having belief in Quran- believed in books revealed before Quran.
The Quranic text which is mostly relied upon to justify Muslim men's marriage with non-Muslim "Ahl-e-kitaab" women is Surah Maidah-5 which states that "..... food of those who were given scriptures before you is lawful for you (Muslims)……. and lawful are for you "Muhsanaat" of those who were given Book before you(Muslims). In this verse, the word "Muhsanaat" is mistakenly used with meanings "free and pious women"; in fact, in this verse, its meanings are "married women". In fact, this word “Muhsanat” has also been used with the same meanings - i.e. married women - in the Surah Nisa-24.
A superficial analysis of Maidah-5 reflects that lawfulness of food of "Ahl-e-kitaab" for the Muslims is conditional one. For instance, if any "Ahl-e-kitaab" offers pork to a Muslim, such food would not be lawful for the Muslim. Similarly, lawfulness of "Muhsanaat"-married women- from "Ahl-e-kitaab" is also conditional one. There are two conditions described in the Quran in this regard. One condition has been enshrined in Surah Baqra-221 which forbids Muslims from marrying "Mushrikaat". And the second condition has been clearly elaborated in Surah Al-Mumtahanah- 10 which states that :"........ And hold not to marriage bonds with disbelieving women. From the direction " hold not to marriage bonds with disbelieving women", it is clear that not only marriage with non-muslim women is forbidden but also such previous marriage bonds which existed before revelation of this verse have been directed to be broken up. Surah Maidah-5 describes a general principle that Muslims are allowed to marry married women from "Ahl-e-kitaab"; whereas exceptions to this principle have been enjoined in Baqra-221 and Mumtahanah-10. Keeping in view these two exceptions and the fact that the group of "Ahl-e-kitaab" includes both non- Muslims and certain Muslims as well, we can clearly conclude that if non-believing women from "Ahl-e-kitaab" and " Mushrikaat" from "Ahl-e-kitaab" are not allowed to be married by the Muslims , then only one group of women from the "Ahl-e-kitaab" is left, which is lawful for the Muslims under Maidah-5, and that is the group of Muslim women from the "Ahl-e-kitaab".
It is quite clear from this analysis that word "Muhsanaat" used in Surah Maidah-5 means "married women"; it is misunderstanding to infer from this word that "all free women-Muslim or non-Muslim- belonging to 'Ahl-e-kitaab', are lawful for the Muslim men. Actually term "Ahl-e-kitaab" is used to denote both non-Muslim and Muslim groups of "Ahl-e-kitaab; only Muslim women from "Ahl-e-kitaab" are lawful for the Muslims.