[An explanation of Surah al-Ma’idah ayah 5]
Atheists are not the People of the Book
A large number of people are listed in the census records as Jews and Christians, however, not all of them really believe in the existence of God and, for that matter, do not subscribe to any institutionalized religion.
They do not accept the Torah and Injeel as Scriptures, nor do they have faith in Musa and Eesa aalyhi salaam as the Prophets of Allah. It is obvious that such people cannot be counted as People of the Book simply because their names are listed as Jews and Christians in the census records.
Atheists are not the People of the Book.
What does the ‘Food’ of the People of the Book mean?
Literally, ‘Ta’am’ means what is eaten which in the Arabic includes all kinds of eatables. But the majority of the scholars of the Muslim Ummah hold that Ta’am at this particular place refers to the meat of the animals slaughtered by the People of the Book because there is no distinction between the People of the Book and other disbelievers in eatables other than meat.
Dry eatables like wheat, chick peas, rice and fruit are open commodities and are lawful when received from any kind of disbeliever. Nobody differs about that. As for food which goes through human handling, the cautious practice is to avoid it since the purity [Taharah] of utensils and hands used by the disbelievers is not reliable. It is better not to use it without the urgency of need. But, this is a situation in which the probability of impurity is the same among idolators and the People of the Book.
To sum up, it can be said that the only possible legal difference in the ‘food’ of the People of the Book and other disbelievers is in the meat they slaughter. Therefore, in the present ayah, it is a consensus of the Ummah that the food of the People of the Book means their properly slaughtered animal.
The Wisdom behind the Lawfulness of the Slaughter of the People of the Book
The third question about the present ayah is why the slaughter of the Jews and the Christians, as well as marrying their women is made lawful for the Muslims, while all other non-Muslims have no such privilege. According to most of the Sahabah, tabieen and other mufasir of the Qur’an, the answer to this question is very simple. Although the Jews and Christians had distorted their original religion by making many alterations therein, yet their faith regarding these two aspects matched with the Islamic commands. That is, they consider it necessary to invoke the name of Allah on their slaughter as an article of faith and take an animal to be impure and unlawful as carrion without that due process.
[SOURCE: Maroof-ul-Qur’an by Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani]