أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا إِلَى الْأَرْضِ كَمْ أَنْبَتْنَا فِيهَا مِنْ كُلِّ زَوْجٍ كَرِيمٍ
Awalam yaraw ilal-ardhi kam ambatnā fīhā min kulli zawjin karīm
Do they not look at the earth, how many of every splendid kind We have caused to grow in it?
(Sūratush Shu‘aā, No. 26, Āyat 7)
The verse above is a question to those who reject God – have they not seen the earth with the various things that grow out of it? It is a question that is reproachful, why do they not see the earth and what it produces? It is all around them yet they reject the truth hidden in it.
Everyone sees the earth around them, but the look that is referred to here is sight accompanied by thought. Hence the preposition ilā is used. Had it been mere physical sight there would be no need for that preposition. The question is not ‘do they not see the earth?’ rather it is ‘do they not look at the earth.’ The choice of words is critical in conveying the correct message.
Most people just see but do not go beyond the physical sight. To look and think about what you see leads to an understanding. Imam Ali (a) says: If the eyes of insight are blind the seeing with the eyes does not benefit. (Ghurarul Hikam, p. 41) To look with the inner eyes is a big step towards realizing the existence of a Creator. To really look at plants that grow on earth is to appreciate their beauty, their variety, their amazing structure, and their usefulness. Plants have been called the friends and servants of the human being, the plant world being the pharmacy of God. The subtle energies present in the plant realm include the fragrant world of flowers, the healing power of herbs, the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables . . . and more. There is much that is similar between the plant world and the human kingdom and hence the many references to trees and plants in Islamic literature.
The word zawj in this verse could refer to types of plants or it could be gender in plants. Tafsīr-e Namūneh says that the verse is referring to the fact that plants also have gender. This truth is also referred to in many other verses of the Quran (13:3, 31:10, 50:7). It is a scientific truth discovered much later by the world: that plants are either just male or female (monoecious) or some plants have both male and female parts (dioecious).
The word karīm in the verse signifies useful or beneficial. It refers to plants that are pleasant and add beauty to the world as well as plants that have nutritional and medicinal value. Every plant that grows on the face of the earth has some benefit for human beings, animals, and other creation. Some benefits are known already and some have to still be discovered.
There is much to be said about the plants that we see on the earth. Recite this verse next time you look at plants growing on the earth. Pause for a moment and think God consciously. Do not be from among those whom God reproaches through this question.
Sources: Āyatullāh Nasir Makārim Shirāzī (ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūne; Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān.