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Rastafarianism is a religious movement that emerged in Jamaica in the early 1930s out of Biblical prophecy, black social and political aspirations and the teachings of the Jamaican-born black publicist and organiser Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Though Garvey's political and cultural vision inspired the movement's founders, who regarded him as a prophet, he never identified himself with the movement. There were about 1,000,000 Rastafarians world-wide in 2000. About five to ten per cent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafarians. Rastafarianism began among working-class black people in Jamaica, and remained for some while an advocate of black supremacy. Widespread advocacy of this doctrine was shortlived, however; most Rastafarians now espouse a belief that racial pettiness needs to be set aside, so that they and the world may seek the further progression of people, not race. Thus Rastafarianism has spread throughout much of the world through immigration. Middle-class people, white people, Asians, and Native Americans comprise minorities within the religion.



Rastafarianism's followers, known as Rastafarians or Rastas, believe that Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie I, last emperor of Ethiopia) remains a living messiah who will lead the world's peoples of African descent into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice. The term Rastafari comes from Emperor Selasi's pre-coronation name, Prince Ras Tafar Makonen.

Rastafarianism is a strongly syncretic Abrahamic religion. Rastas believe that they, and the rest of the black race, are descendants of one of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel. In the 10th century BC, Ethiopia was founded by Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who had visited Solomon in Israel. 1 Kings 10:13 claims "And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants." (KJV) Rastas interpret this as meaning she conceived his child. That black Jews have lived in Ethiopia for centuries, disconnected from the rest of Judaism by Muslim control of the Middle East and northern Africa, is uncontroversial; they are called Falashas; the existence of Falashas gave some credence and impetus to early Rastafarianism, as it seemed to validate the belief that Ethiopia was Zion. Some Rastafarians choose to classify their religion as Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Protestant Christianity, or Judaism. Some Israeli Rastas even consider themselves Islamic-Rastas . Of those, the ties to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church are most widespread, though discussed controversially in the clergy. Rastafarians believe that standard translations of the Bible represent changes created by the racist white power structure. They also revere the Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Negast.

To further confuse the issue of classifying Rastafarianism, one type of religious gathering (grounation) is similar in many ways to Jewish services, and may have descended from African-American slaves who converted to Judaism -- a number of Jews in the southern USA owned slaves -- and escaped to Jamaica. Some early elements of Rastafarianism were closely related to indigenous religions of the Caribbean and Africa, though they were largely purged by the Nyahbinghi warriors, dreadlocked Rastas who fought the corrupting power of some leaders who added these syncretistic elements to the Rastafarian doctrines.

Many Rastas believe that Jah (God) has had three incarnations. Melchizedek, Jesus, and finally Haile Selassie, the ultimate embodiment of Jah, were each saviors. Some also believe that the god of the white race is actually Satan.

For many Rastas, smoking marijuana is a spiritual act; they consider it a sacrament which facilitates consciousness and peacefulness, bringing them closer to God. Dreadlocked mystics, often ascetic, have smoked cannabis in India for centuries. The migration of many thousands of Indian Hindus to the Caribbean in the twentieth century brought this culture to Jamaica.

Rastas are immortalists who believe the chosen few will continue to live forever in their current bodies.

The Politics of Rastafarianism

Most Rastas do not believe in the inherent superiority of the black race, though many are Pan-African nationalists. One of the three major modern sects, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, have specifically condemned all types of racism, and declared that the teachings of the Bible are the route to spiritual liberation for people of any racial or ethnic background. In his famous speech before the United Nations, Haile Selassie said that until the colour of a man's skin makes no more significance than the colour of his eye there will be no peace.

Censored page is seen as sinful and decadent, though some Rastafarians are indifferent to homosexuality or accept it. Some cite this as a reason for the homophobia which is found in a lot of Dancehall and some Reggae songs. Persecution of homosexuals is common in Jamaica among Rastas and non-Rastas alike.


  • Babylon is an important Rastafarian term, referring to the white patriarchy that has been oppressing the black race for centuries through economic and physical slavery. Rastafarianism is defiance of Babylon.
  • I and I is a complex term, referring to the oneness of Jah (God) and every human. Rastafarian scholar E. E. Cashmore: "I and I is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness, the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we're one people in fact. I and I means that God is in all men. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of man. But man itself needs a head and the head of man is His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia." The term is often used in place of "you and I" or "we" among Rastafarians, implying that both persons are united under the love of Jah. See also: mysticism.
  • I-tal food has not touched modern chemicals and is served without preservatives, condiments or salts. Alcohol, coffee, milk and flavoured beverages, are generally viewed as not I-tal. Most Rastas follow the I-tal proscriptions generally, and some are vegetarians. Even meat-eating Rastas are forbidden from eating pork, as pigs are scavengers of the dead, as are crabs, lobsters, and shrimp, though other kinds of seafood are a Rastafarian staple.
  • Downpression replaces "oppression" because oppression holds man down instead of keeping him up (pronounced op in Jamaican patois.)
  • Irie refers to positive emotions or feelings, or anything that is good. Specifically it refers to high emotions and peaceful vibrations.
  • Livication replaces "dedication" to rid itself of a connotation of death.
  • Overstanding replaces "understanding", referring to enlightenment which raises one's consciousness.
  • Zion refers to either Ethiopia or the whole continent of Africa.
  • Everliving is used in place of everlasting.


There are two types of Rastafarian religious ceremonies. A reasoning is a simple event where the Rastas gather, smoke herb, 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:

Important symbols:

  • The flag. The colors green, gold and red (of the Ethiopian flag) are a symbol of the Rastafarian religion, and are frequently seen on clothing and other decorations. Red stands for the blood of martyrs. Green stands for the vegetation of Zion (here, Ethiopia, see below). Gold stands for the wealth and prosperity Africa has to offer. The lion is also an important Rastafarian symbol, symbolizing Africa as well as Emperor Haile Selassie, or Jah (God), himself.
  • Dreadlocks. The wearing of dreadlocks is also 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. 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 eight Lafayette, Louisiana children's victory in a suit against their school was a landmark decision in favor of Rastafarian rights. African American men and women have both joined in the cultural outbreak of dreadlocks. In the Nappy be Happy salons all over the United States dreadlocks are being taught and associated with an inner 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 maintenance of the hair is also a Rastafarian belief, which goes back to bible teachings on cleanliness.
  • Ganja. Rastafarians generally believe that the smoking of cannabis (known as ganja or holy herb) 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 there with."
    • Psalms 104:14 "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man."

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.


Rastafarianism owes its name to Ras (prince) Tafari Makonnen, whose coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1930) was seen as fulfilling Marcus Garvey's prophecy of a decade earlier:

"Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; for the day of deliverance is near."

Psalm 87:4-6 is also interpreted as predicting the coronation of Haile Selassie:

"I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; this man was born there. And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her: and the highest himself shall establish her. The Lord shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there."

Emperor Haile Selassie was crowned "King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah" and is according to Ethiopian tradition the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian kings descended from the Biblical King David. It should be noted that the title Negusa Nagast (King of Kings) has been a traditional title of the monarch of Ethiopia for centuries and is more usually translated as "Emperor". Likewise, Conquering Lion of Judah is an ancient title of that monarchy, not unique to the country's last reigning emperor. In addition, a claimed descent from Solomon (and, therefore, David) has been promulgated by several Ethiopian Imperial dynasties and is also not unique to the last Emperor.

Garvey believed in Pan-Africanism, the belief that all black people of the world should join in brotherhood and retake the continent of Africa from the white colonial powers. He promoted his cause throughout the twenties and thirties, and was particularly successful and influential among lower-class blacks in Jamaica, primarily in rural communities. Haile Selassie took the throne of Ethiopia in 1930 and almost immediately gained a following among what came to be known as the Rastas. Rastafarianism began as a network of similar religions, bound together primarily by their idea of an Ethiopian Zion. As Ethiopia was the only African country to escape colonialism, and Haile Selassie was the only black leader accepted among the kings and queens of Europe, the early Rastas viewed him with great reverence.

Haile Selassie himself was a devout Christian. He denied the attribute of divinity given to him by the Rastafarians. Nonetheless, he met with several Rasta elders in Addis Ababa and allowed Rastafarians and other people of African descent to settle on his personal land in Shashamane.

The first Rasta to fall foul of the law was prosecuted in 1934 for sedition for refusing loyalty to the King of England George V. He was called Leonard Howell. The British government would not tolerate Jamaicans loyal to Haile Selassie in what was then their colony. He was the most outstanding of the early leaders of Rastafarianism. He was imprisoned for two years. Upon his release, he founded the Pinnacle commune, believed to be the origin of the medical and recreational use of ganja or marijuana by Rastas. The herb also gained a spiritual significance as a holy sacrament among the above-mentioned Nyahbinghi warriors.

During the 1930s, depression wracked Jamaica and Ethiopia alike. Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 (see Second Italo-Abyssinian War), marking one of the major preceding events of World War 2. Haile Selassie, in exile in the United Kingdom, formed the Ethiopian World Federation to unite black support worldwide for Ethiopian sovereignty. After the war was over, he donated a large parcel of land (in Shashamane, Ethiopia) to allow black settlers to return to their homeland.

In 1954, the Pinnacle commune was destroyed by Jamaican authorities. By the 1950s, Rastafarianism's message of racial pride and unity had unnerved the ruling class of Jamaica, and confrontations between the poor black Rastas and middle-class white police were common. Many Rastas were beaten, and some killed. Others were humiliated by having their sacred dreadlocks cut off.

On October 4, 1963, Haile Selassie addressed the United Nations with his famous peace speech from which Bob Marley made the song 'War'.

Haile Selassie's April 21 1966 visit to Jamaica and meeting with Rastafarian elders gave a marked boost to the movement: his death in 1975 coincided paradoxically with the beginning of its most spectacular period of growth, sustained in part by the international popularity of reggae music in which Rastafarianism found expression, and of the world wide fame of believer Bob Marley. Because of Haile Selassie's visit, April 21 is celebrated as Grounation Day. It was during this visit that Selassie famously told the Rastafarian community leaders that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica. Liberation before repatriation .

Walter Rodney, a professor at the University of the West Indies, started a Black Power movement in 1968. Combined with Rastafarianism, both philosophies spread rapidly to various Caribbean nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, and Grenada.

During the 1970s, Rastafarianism mushroomed in popularity, both in Jamaica and abroad. Primarily, this was due to the connection between reggae music and the religion. Reggae was born from poor blacks in Trenchtown, the main ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica, who listened to radio stations from the United States. Jamaican musicians, many of them being Rastas, soon blended traditional Jamaican folk music, American R&B and jazz into ska, which was to form reggae under the influence of soul. Reggae began entering the international consciousness in the early 1970s, largely due to the massive fame of Bob Marley. Many orthodox Rastas refuse reggae as a form of commercial music and "sell-out to Babylon." Reggae and ska are not to be confused with the sacred music of the Rastafarians, called burru or nyahbinghi drumming.

Haile Selassie died in 1975. Since he was the Messiah of Rastafarianism, Rasta scholars and immortalists were divided on how to take his apparent death. Some believed he had transcended mortal flesh and lived on as a completely divine being. Others believed that he never actually died, and that his death was fabricated by Babylon (a term used to describe the present power structure of the world) in a popular conspiracy theory among Rastas.

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.

Modern structure

Rastafarianism is not a highly organized religion. Most Rastas do not identify with any sect or denomination, though there are three primary groups or houses within the religion: the Nyahbinghi, the Bobo Ashanti and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

See also: Rastafarian music, List of Rastafarians

External links

  • Scholarly profile: [1]
  • Shorter, more colloquial profile
  • Annotated bibliography of Rastafarian speech

Last updated: 02-07-2005 18:31:53
Last updated: 02-20-2005 20:11:59