“The measure of a man is what he does with power.”
Watching The Godfather movies when I was a kid, I don’t think I really understood them much. To less observant viewers like my younger self, the movies romanticize the Mafia life. It was cool to see the characters immaculately dressed in three-piece suits, with their hair slicked back, and speaking in Italian slangs.
How could you not watch Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, and not want to imitate them in some way right? To a lot of people, their characters have become cultural icons of masculinity and power.
But having watched the movies, probably a hundred times now, I truly realize that these movies are meant to show how uncool the characters’ lives really are, and how onerous it is to be in a position of great power.
For one thing, to paraphrase Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone in the second movie, they’re all businessmen. Their loyalty is based on profit and self-interest. This means that they have no friends. They trust no one, not even their own family members (as is tragically represented in the second movie — not gonna spoil it for you). They live and breathe politics, as they are constantly worried about being manipulated or even assassinated.
Needless to say, it’s a hollow life. Forever imprinted in my mind is an image of Michael Corleone sitting alone, with all of his games won, all his enemies vanquished, and yet, all of his loved ones either dead or drifted apart.
It’s a horribly sad way to live when you’re an emperor, sitting atop your empire of dirt, with no meaningful relationships, with nothing but your riches.
With all of this being said, does it mean that it’s wrong to desire power? No, of course not. But there’s a way for us to think about power, so that we can use it in the best way. And for that, let’s turn to the Qur’an, specifically the 35th verse in Surah Sad.
In the verse, Allah teaches us a duaa (supplication) that Prophet Sulayman (a.s) made:
He said, “My Lord, forgive me and grant me a kingdom such as will not belong to anyone after me. Indeed, You are the Bestower.”
At first glance, this verse might strike us as odd, right? Why would someone — a prophet (a.s) — ask for forgiveness, and then ask for material wealth in such a way that it’s not just any material wealth, but a kingdom and authority that is special to him and him only?
The answer is that whatever power we might be granted with — it’s our pathway of securing our success not only in this life, but most importantly, in the next life.
In Islam, there’s a concept called sadaqah jariyah — gifts that keep on giving. It means doing acts of kindness that will continue to benefit other people, even after you die. So when you’re in the next life, rewards from these acts will still come streaming towards you. And that, is power used in the best way there is.
Very common forms of sadaqah jariyah include building a school or a hospital, planting a tree, advocating good causes. As for the former two examples, it doesn’t mean that you need to be an active member in doing these acts — because even if you simply support these acts by donating, it still counts as sadaqah jariyah.
Anyway, I mean to highlight a particular part of Prophet Sulayman’s prayer, and it’s that he asked Allah for a kingdom that was unique to him, that no one else in the future could have.
If we think about it, all of us have our own kingdom that’s unique to us. In terms of creating good art, Allah has blessed us with at least one craft or field that we’re naturally inclined towards, that we just love and could never explain why we do — and from that, innovative ideas can flow like water.
And on top of that, we’re all blessed with experiences (and DNAs) that are unique to us, that have never happened before in history, and will never be replicated in the future. We all have a story to tell.
If we could use this innate power that we have, if we could creatively put all of this together to serve other people — whether it is by writing, by teaching, by starting a business, whatever it may be — that could be the biggest form of sadaqah jariyah that we can ever do.
So that’s how we should think of power: as sadaqah jariyah.
Use your power and dream of having more of it, but always see it as a gift to continuously make other people’s lives better. See it as a way to please Allah.
If your idea of power is one of self-satisfaction, you will never be satisfied.
The secret to living is giving, as Tony Robbins would say. Isn’t that just right?