Mohammed Iqbal was born in Sialkot in the Punjab region of British India on November 9, 1877. His father, Shaikh Nur Muhammad, was a follower of the Islamic school of Sufi mysticism.
Iqbal benefited from the British educational policy and attended the Scotch Mission College at Sialkot, followed by the Oriental College at Lahore. By the time he received his master of philosophy degree, he had mastered English, Arabic, and Persian (Farsi), which before the English conquest of India had been the official language of the Mughal Empire.
He also knew the common language spoken in the Northwest Frontier region of India. Iqbal began writing poetry and essays in a style that reflected his many cultural heritages. From the beginning, Iqbal devoted his work to understanding and expressing the place of Muslims in the larger society of India and the world as a whole.
In 1905 Iqbal went to Cambridge, where he became interested in philosophy. Since Germany was the European center for philosophy studies, he went to the University of Munich, where he received a Ph.D. in philosophy on Russian metaphysics.
This demonstrated the influence of the Sufism he had learned at home from his father. The dissertation’s importance was realized in England, and it was translated into English. In 1908 Iqbal received a law degree in England and returned to India.
Once home, Iqbal tended to avoid the political arena. It was a time of political ferment among both Muslims and Hindus that would ultimately lead to the establishment of separate states for each group. Gradually, Iqbal became ideologically aligned with the All-India Muslim League and its leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In 1926 Iqbal was elected to the Punjabi Legislative Council.
Yet with a belief that would be strongly condemned by Islamic extremists, Iqbal’s view of the life of a future Muslim community remained decidedly liberal. To find a basis for Islam to exist and flourish in the modern world, Iqbal believed it was essential for Muslims to return spiritually to the time of the prophet Muhammad when Islam flourished in its purest form, before the worldlier period of the caliphates.
Iqbal’s comprehensive vision of philosophy was embodied in his work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, published in 1930. A second edition was published by Oxford University Press in Britain in 1934.
An accomplished poet and scholar, Iqbal drew on the rich heritage of Persian and Urdu poetry to express his belief in the ability of Western and Muslim thought not just to coexist but to enrich each other.
In 1930 as his commitment to a Muslim state grew deeper, Iqbal accepted the presidency of the All Indian Muslim League. However, there is still a dispute whether he envisioned a totally independent Muslim state, as Pakistan became under Jinnah, or one within a larger Indian political entity.
In the same year, he went to England to attend an Imperial Round Table discussion on the political future of India and its Hindu and Muslim population. He was recognized as a leader of modern Islamic intellectual life, and while he was in Europe he was feted by the Universities of Cambridge, Rome, and Madrid.
In the 1930s illness forced him to retire from public life and to pursue intellectual interests.