Al-Biruni’s “Economy of Nature” in Modern Biotechnology

Al-Biruni’s “Economy of Nature” in Modern Biotechnology

By Hwaa Irfan

It was with the naturalist, geographer, astronomer and astrologer Abu Raihan Muhammed ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (362AH/973 AD) that the concept of the “Economy of Nature” was presented in his “Alberunis India”. He wrote:

    “The bees kill those of their kind who only eat, but do not work in their beehives. Nature proceeds in a similar way: however, it does not distinguish, for its action is under all circumstances one and the same. It allows the leave and the fruit of the trees to perish, thus preventing them from realizing that result (for) which they are intended in the Economy of Nature. It removes them so as to make room for others.

    “If thus the earth is, ruined, or is near to being ruined, by having too many inhabitants, its’ ruler – for it has a ruler, and His All-Embracing care is apparent in every single particle of it – sends is a messenger for the purpose of reducing the too great number and of cutting away all that is evil.”

The age of biotechnology has only proven the relevance of the “economy of nature” though it be in the form of modern scientific terms in response to modern life. An example is the Whitewood Creek of S. Dakota, U.S. For over 100 years the creek ran gray and sterile from the Homestake Mines’ gold processing plant. Daily, lethal cyanide had poured into the stream, along with mercury, arsenic and sewage running through the surrounding Black Hills (SAPA PAHA), which is sacred to the native American Lakota Nation.

Regardless of the benefits of employment, a public outcry in the ‘70s resulted in a clean-up program. The problem remained on how to safely dispose of the effluent from the cyanide. Homestake biochemist Mr. Whitlock on sampling the water exposed to the poison, found cyanide-tolerant bacteria that actually fed on the poisons:

    “We designed a bioreactor, a series of tanks in which the cyanide effluent moves slowly past feeding bacteria. It worked…”

This function of nature was recognized by al-Biruni. He wrote in his “Chronology of Ancient Nations”:

    “Frequently, however, you find in the functions (actions) of nature that it is her office to fulfill some fault (some irregularity), but this only serves to show that the Creator who had designed something deviating from the general tenor of things is infinitely sublime. Beyond everything which we poor sinner may conceive and predicate of Him”

Beginning to appreciate all creatures of Allah (SWT) modern science has looked at microbes from a different view – understanding it’s ability to breakdown both natural and man-made waste. John. A Glaser of the Environmental Protection Agency said:

    “We can use this environmental process to clean-up the environment”

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Library (NEEL) found in ’99 that micro-organisms in the rock – 75 meters between the earth’s surface were eating away at radioactive waste and it does so much faster if fed with a diet of pollutants from leaky fuel tanks. NEEL’s site had been polluted with hexavalent chromium (CR6+) that can cause mutations, kill living cells, and cause cancer. Once inside the cells, CR6+ turns into another form of chromium, trivalent chromium (CR3+), which disrupts the ability to replicate itself!

Many of the newly discovered micro-organisms can change CR6+ into CR3+ while it is still outside the cell. Bacteria Arthrobacter oxydans emerged as the most effective at changing chromium to a less toxic form. This is another example of what al-Biruni spoke of hundreds of years ago. Since then, researchers have isolated thousands of useful microbes. The world’s most diverse “bug bank”, the American Type Culture Collection keeps over 55,000 microscopic cell cultures in frozen storage.

However, modern science has never been content with nature taking the lead. It is all too easy now to look to genetic engineering so that man can play God. Plant genes thought to allow accumulation of large amounts of metal in their tissues have been identified and cloned at the Purdue University, U.S. Associate professor of plant molecular physiology and principal investigator on the project, David Salt sees this in light of new options for plant breeders.

    “This is really one of the first tools that we’ve got to manipulate the process of metal hyperaccummulation”.
    The aim is to produce new crop plants that can clean up industrial contamination, new foods that fight disease and reduced work for some farmers. Is this progress? When nature takes on the job, the process is more thorough bringing everything back into balance. When we turn to science as a means to a solution, what must surely be fundamental is the intent. If the intent includes what Allah (SWT) provided for us to learn from, then the end justifies the means for this intent would be a guiding principle. If not, as al-Biruni wrote in his “Chronology of Nations
    “There are certain things which they turn around in a certain order, and which undergo transformations as long as there is a possibility of existing. If they, now, are not observed as long as they are in existence, people think them to be improbable, and hasten to reject them as altogether impossible.”

Seen as an economical way of dealing with the radioactive waste problem, recycling of such material has been occurring in the U.S. since 1996. Instead of isolating or eradicating radioactive metal and other materials from the public, the nuclear industry hopes to save or make money by selling materials contaminated with radiation.

The report, “Waste Lands: The Threat of Toxic Fertilizer” listed 20 fertilizers that contain levels of toxic metals that exceed the limits set on waste sent to public landfills. The study conducted by the national and state Public Interest Research Groups purchased fertilizers from 12 states. Tested by independent laboratory Frontier GeoSciences, the fertilizers were found to contain arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium amongst others. If not broken down adequately and ingested by humans via the produce grown, the effect of heavy metals in diet can result in higher levels of learning disabilities, hyperactivity, substance abuse, violent crime etc. In several different samples of prison inmates, violent offenders had significantly higher levels of lead, cadmium or manganese in their hair than the non-violent offenders.

May we hasten to the understanding that show us His abundance that sustains life and deters us away from the short-term benefits that leads to death emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually! The more we explore and try to understand His lessons through the veil of nature the less problems we will create for ourselves. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote on al-Birunis’ “Economy of Nature”:

    “The perfection and “economy” of the cosmos, however, is not to be judged by human standards at all. It is the Divine Wisdom which rules and orders the Universe and gives form to creatures, often in a manner which demonstrates the transcendence of Divine Wisdom and Beauty above any human criteria of purposefulness and harmony. Man discovers the harmony and beauty of Nature not by projecting his own limited perspective upon the cosmos, but by realizing his weakness and submitting to the Wisdom of the Creator.”

This was originally written 2001

Ascribe Newswire. “Scientists Uncovers Secrets of Metal-Eating Plants” National Gepgraphic. 08-18-01

Canby, T. “Bacteria: Teaching Old Bugs New Tricks” National Geographic 184:2 (1993) 36-60

Lazaroff. C. “Microbes Munch on Toxic Waste Beneath Idaho Lab” Environmental News Service. 03-14-01.

Lazaroff. C. “Toxic Waste Found in Fertilizers.” Environmental News Service. 05-09-01.

Hauter, W. “The Big Picture: An Activist Puts Radioactive Recycling in Perspective”. 01-18-01.

Nasr, S. “Islamic Cosmological Doctrine.” Thames & Hudson, U.K. 1978.

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