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, Rastafari God and King
Haile Selassie, Rastafari God and King

Rastafarianism, or the Rastafarian movement as adherents prefer to call it, is a religious movement which reveres the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, who as King of kings and Lord of Lords, and as the Lion of Judah, is seen as God incarnate, called Jah. The term Rastafarian comes from ras tafari, a title for Selassie, whom Rastafarians say is the earthly aspect of God and part of the Holy Trinity. The movement emerged in Jamaica among working-class and peasant black people in the early 1930s out of an interpretation of Biblical prophecy, black social and political aspirations, and the teachings of their prophet, Jamaican black publicist and organiser Marcus Mosiah Garvey, whose political and cultural vision inspired a new religion.

The religion has spread throughout much of the world largely through immigration and interest generated by reggae—most notably, the music of Bob Marley. By 2000, there were more than one million Rastafarians worldwide. About five to ten percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafarians.



Main article: Doctrines of Rastafari.

Rastafarian doctrine is syncretic. As every Rastafarian has an equal right to create doctrine it is hard to be precise on any one doctrine.


Most Rastas in the early stages of the movement did not vote out of principle. Ras Sam Brown formed the Suffering People's party for the elections of 1961, where he received fewer than 100 votes, but solely by standing for election his influence has been much greater than this.

In a famous free Peace concert in 1976 first Peter Tosh lambasted the audience including attending dignitaries with political demands that included legalising cannabis. He did this while smoking a spliff, a criminal act in Jamaica. Later Bob Marley asked both then Prime Minister Michael Manley, and opposition leader Edward Seaga on to the stage, and a famous picture was taken with all three of them holding their hands together above their heads in a symbolic gesture of peace during what had been a very violent pre-election campaign. This was also the campaign in which Manley took his healing rod on the election trail to try and persuade the Rastas to vote for him.


Main article: Rastafarian Vocabulary

Rastafarians believe that their original African languages were stolen from them when they were taken into captivity as part of the slave trade, and that English is an imposed colonial language. Their remedy for this situation has been the creation of a modified vocabulary and dialect, reflecting their desire to take back language and to confront the society they call Babylon.


Rastafarians claim to reject "-isms". They see a wide range of isms and schisms in modern society, and want no part in them. They reject the word Rastafarianism, because they see themselves as having transcended isms and schisms. This has created some conflict between Rastas and some members of the academic community studying the Rastafarian phenomenon, who insist on calling this religious belief Rastafarianism, in spite of the disapproval this generates within the Rastafarian movement. One possible reason academics call it Rastafarianism is to fit the structure of the English language. The Rasta perspective does not include a need to talk about religion in an analytical and objective way .


There are two types of Rastafarian religious ceremonies. A reasoning is a simple event where the Rastas gather; smoke "ganja" (or marijuana); and discuss ethical, social and religious issues. The person honored by being allowed to light the herb says a short prayer before doing so, and the pipe is always passed counterclockwise. A binghi or grounation is a holiday; the word is believed to refer to an ancient, and now extinct, order of militant blacks in eastern Africa that vowed to end oppression. Binghis are marked by much dancing, singing, feasting and the smoking of ganja, and can last for several days.

Important dates where grounations may take place are:

  • January 6 - Ethiopian Christmas
  • February 6 - Bob Marley's birthday
  • April 21 - The anniversary of Emperor Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica. Also known as Grounation Day.
  • July 23 - The birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie
  • August 17 - The birthday of Marcus Garvey
  • November 2 - The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie



The wearing of dreadlocks is closely associated with the movement, though not universal among (or exclusive to) its adherents. Dreadlocks are supported by Leviticus 21:15 ("They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.") and the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6.5-6. The hairstyle began partially to contrast the kinky long hair of black men with the straight hair of the white race. Dreadlocks have also come to symbolize the Lion of Judah and rebellion against Babylon.  In the United States, several public schools and workplaces have lost lawsuits as the result of banning dreadlocks. Safeway is an early example, and the victory of eight children in a suit against their Lafayette, Louisiana school was a landmark decision in favor of Rastafarian rights.

Rastafari associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey that one takes in the process of locking their hair (growing dreadlocks). It is taught that patience is the key to growing dreadlocks, which is a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality. Its spiritual pattern is aligned with the Rastafarian religion. People who do not understand the process sometimes mock the dreadlock style and make comments about the cleanliness of the locked hair. The way they form dreadlocks, with a black person's hair, is to not comb it. There is no twisting or braiding involved, and anything that makes the locking process easier or faster is regarded as akin to sacrilege among the Rasta faithful.

Many non Rastafari, however, of black African descent have adopted dreads as an expression of pride in their ethnic identity, or simply as a hairstyle, and take a less purist approach to developing and grooming them. The wearing of dreads also has spread among people of other ethnicities whose hair is not naturally suited to the style, who often go to extraordinary lengths to affect the look.

The word dread comes from Rasta terminology. For the Rastas the razor, the scissors and the comb are Babylonian or Roman inventions. So close is the association between dreadlocks and the Rastafarians that the two are sometimes used synonymously. In Rastafarian reggae music a follower of Rastafari may be referred to simply as a dreadlocks or Natty Dread, whilst those non-believers who cut their hair are be referred to as baldheads.


For many Rastas, smoking marijuana (known as ganja or herb) is a spiritual act; they consider it a sacrament which facilitates consciousness and peacefulness, bringing them closer to God. Many believe that cannabis originated in Africa, and that it is a part of their African culture that they are reclaiming. They are not surprised that it is illegal, seeing it as a powerful substance that opens people's minds to the truth, something the Babylon system, they reason, clearly does not want. They compare their herb to liquor, which they feel makes people stupid, and is not a part of African culture. While there is a clear belief in the beneficial qualities of cannabis it is not compulsory to use it, and there are Rastafarians who do not do so. Dreadlocked mystics, often ascetic, have smoked cannabis in India for centuries. The migration of many thousands of Indian Hindus to the Caribbean in the 20th century brought this culture to Jamaica. They believe that the smoking of cannabis enjoys Biblical sanction and is an aid to meditation and religious observance.
Biblical verses Rastafarians believe justify the use of herb:

  • Exodus 10:12 "... eat every herb of the land."
  • Genesis 3:18 "... thou shalt eat the herb of the field."
  • Proverbs 15:17 "Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith."
  • Psalms 104:14 "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man." Also see Spiritual use section of cannabis

However, then-Attorney General of the United States Janet Reno ruled that Rastafarians do not have the religious right to smoke ganja in violation of drug laws in the United States of America.

Rastafari Today

By the end of the 20th century women have become more important in the functioning of Rastafarianism. Previously, menstruating women were often subordinated to their husbands and excluded from religious and social ceremonies. To a large degree, women are given much more freedom now and contribute greatly to the religion.

Rastafarianism is not a highly organized religion. Most Rastas do not identify with any sect or denomination, though there are three Sects of Rastafari: the Nyahbinghi, the Bobo Ashanti and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. By proposing Haile Selassie as the returned Jesus the Rastafari is a new religious movement that has sprung out of Christianity as Christianity sprung from Judaism.

In 1996, the Rastafarian movement worldwide was given consultative status by the United Nations.

See also

History of Rastafarians, Rastafarian music, Reggae and List of Rastafarians.

External links

Last updated: 05-23-2005 13:54:01