The verses of the Koran are stated to be partly muhkam (decisive) and partly mutabshabih (allegorical). The Koran (11:1) explains the first designation by declaring that it is “a book whose verses are precisely, clearly or unambiguously set forth” (uhkimat). Here the purpose of muhkam is to provide clear guidance. With regard to the second designation, the Koran (39:23) says: “God has sent down the best speech, a mutashabih book (kitaban mutashabihan)”. The word mutashabih here means resembling one another in verbal expression.
The third and most controversial statement asserting that the Koran (3:6) is both muhkam and mutashabih “He it is Who has revealed the Book to you: some of its verses are decisive (muhkam), they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical (mutashabih).” The muhkam here refers to verses whose meaning is apparent and are in need of no interpretation. The mutashabih on the other hand cannot be readily understood and must therefore be needed its tawil.
The word muhkam is derived from hakama, meaning he prevented, whence ahkama, i.e. he made a thing firm or stable), is that of which the meaning is secured from change and alteration, and mutashabih (from shib-h, meaning likeness or resemblance) is that which is cosimilar or conformable in its various parts, and mutahabihat are therefore things like or resembling one another, hence susceptible of different interpretations. Therefore when it is stated that the whole of the Book is muhkam, the meaning is that all its verses are decisive, and when the Koran is called mutashabih (39:23), the meaning is that the whole of it is conformable in its various parts; while in the verse under discussion is laid down the important principle how verses susceptible of different interpretations may be interpreted so that a decisive significance may be attached to them. The Koran establishes certain principles in clear words, which are to be taken as the basis, while there are statements made in allegorical words, or susceptible of different meanings, the interpretation of which must be in consonance with the other parts and the spirit of the Book.
The example of the Koran’s involvement in human history, which also illustrates its timeless and transcendent dimension, is that of zahir and batin (outer and inner dimensions). Suffice it to say that the outer dimension is that apparent or public meaning suggested by the literal sense of a verse. Its inner dimension is the level or levels of meaning known partially to the elect few but ultimately to God alone. These two dimensions have also been identified with the muhkam and mutashabih of the Koran.
The Koran further (3:7) says: “But none knows its interpretation, save only God and those firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l ilm).” Imam Jafar Sadik said, “We are the people obedience to whom God has made obligatory, and we are the rasikhun fi’l ilm” Kitab al-Burhan fi Tafsir al-Koran (1:21). According to al-Safi fi Tafsir kalam Allah al-wafi (1:21), once Imam Jafar Sadi said, “We are the rasikhun fi’l ilm, and we know the tawil of the Koran.”