What is Rastafari?
The Rastafari movement is a "messianic religio-political movement" 1 that began in the Jamaican slums in the 1920s and 30s. The most famous Rastafari is Bob Marley, whose reggae music gained the Jamaican movement international recognition.
There is significant variation within the Rastafari movement and no formal organization. Some Rastafarians see Rasta more as a way of life than a religion. But uniting the diverse movement is belief in the divinity and/or messiahship of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, the influence of Jamaican culture, resistance of oppression, and pride in African heritage.
The Rastafarian lifestyle usually includes ritual use of marijuana, avoidance of alcohol, the wearing of one's hair in dreadlocks, and vegetarianism.
- Date founded:
- Generally said to be November 2, 1930, the year Emperor Hailie Selassie I (1892-1975) was crowned, but based in a movement of the 1920s.
- Place founded:
- Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a black Jamaican who taught in the 1920s and is considered a second John the Baptist.
- About 1 million worldwide
Followers of the Rastafari movement are known as Rastafarians, Rastafaris, Rastas, or Ras Tafarians. The movement is named for Ras Tafari Makonnen, who was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia in 1930.
Rastafaris dislike the term "Rastafarianism" because they reject the "isms and schisms" that characterize oppressive and corrupt white society. The movement is referred to as "the Rastafari movement," "Rasta," or "Rastafari."
Rastafari developed in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1920s and 30s. In an environment of great poverty, depression, racism and class discrimination, the Rasta message of black pride, freedom from oppression, and the hope of return to the African homeland was gratefully received.
The Rastafarian movement began with the teachings of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a black Jamaican who led a "Back to Africa" movement. He taught that Africans are the true Israelites and have been exiled to Jamaica and other parts of the world as divine punishment.
Garvey encouraged pride in being black and worked to reverse the mindset of inferiority that centuries of enslavement had ingrained on the minds of blacks. Garvey is regarded as a second John the Baptist and famously prophesied in 1927, "Look to Africa, for there a king shall be crowned."
On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned emperor of Ethiopia (he ruled until 1974). At his coronation he took the name Haile Selassie, meaning "Might of the Trinity."
Selassie also took the titles, "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and King of the Kings of Ethiopia." These titles are traditionally given to Ethiopian kings and reflect the Old Testament emphasis of Ethiopian Christianity. For Rastafarians, Selassie's coronation was a clear fulfillment of Revelation 5:5, Ezekiel 28:25, and Marcus Garvey's prophecy.
Followers of Garvey's teachings believed that Selassie is the messiah that had been predicted, and that his coronation indicated the divine punishment was completed and the return to Africa would begin. Rastafarians named their movement for Ras Tafari and regarded the emperor as the physical presence of God (Jah) on earth.
Marcus Garvey himself, however, did not think highly of Selassie. He regarded him as an incompetent leader and in collusion with white oppressors after his defeat by the Italians and acceptance of British assistance to regain his throne. In 1937, Garvey wrote an editorial entitled "The Failure of Haile Selassie as Emperor."
Haile Selassie was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and he explicity denied his divine status as proclaimed in Jamaica. In a radio interview with Canada's CBC news in 1967, he said, "I have heard of that idea [that I am divine]. I also met certain Rastafarians. I told them clearly that I am a man, that I am mortal, and that I will be replaced by the oncoming generation, and that they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity." This denial has not deterred Rastafarians from believing the emperor to be divine.
As an emperor, Haile Selassie worked to modernize Ethiopia and to steer it into the mainstream of African politics. He brought Ethiopia into the League of Nations and the United Nations and made Addis Ababa the major center for the Organization of African Unity. Selassie was named Time magazine's Person of the Year for 1935 and was the first black person to appear on the cover in 1930. He was the only black leader recognized by the rulers of Europe. 2
The Rastafarian movement first became visible in Jamaica in the 1930s, when peaceful communities were founded in the Kingston slums. During this time the Rastafarians developed a distinctive style of language, hairstyle, art and music.
Leonard Howell emerged as an early leader of the movement. He taught six fundamental Rastafarian principles: (1) hatred for the White race; (2) the complete superiority of the Black race; (3) revenge on Whites for their wickedness; (4) the negation, persecution, and humiliation of the government and legal bodies of Jamaica; (5) preparation to go back to Africa; and (6) acknowledging Emperor Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being and only ruler of Black people. Many of these principles were subsequently abandoned as the Rastafarian movement developed.
Howell was arrested by the Jamaican government in 1933 for his loyalty to the Ethiopian emperor over King George V. This may have contributed to the decision to keep Rastafarianism leaderless and independent.
Haile Selassie met with Rasta elders in Addis Ababa in the 1950s. In 1955, he offered 500 acres of his personal land to black people wishing to return to Africa. Around 2,200 blacks, mainly Rastafarians, moved to the land (in Shashemene) during the 1960s. But poverty, a lack of acceptance by the Ethiopian population and disputes with the govenment that overthrew Selassie has caused that population to dwindle. The current population is estimated at 250. 3
A major event in Rastafarian history was Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica on April 21, 1966. Rita Marley, Bob Marley's wife, converted to the Rastafari faith after seeing Haile Selassie; she said she saw stigmata appear on him and was instantly convinced of his divinity. Further evidence of his divinity was seen in the fact that a serious drought ended with rain upon his arrival.
He told the Rastafarians that they should not seek to immigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica, a command that came to be known as "liberation before repatriation." As well as its profound religious significance for Rastas, the event helped to legitimize the movement. April 21 is celebrated as a Rastafarian holiday.
Selassie was deposed in 1974 in a military coup and kept under house arrest until he was apparently killed by his captors in 1975. Many Rastas believed that his death was a hoax, and that he lives on in hiding until the Day of Judgment. Others say that he lives on through individual Rastafarians.
The sacred text of Rastafarians is the Holy Piby, the "Black Man's Bible." It was compiled by Robert Athlyi Rogers of Anguilla from 1913 to 1917 and published in 1924. 4 The Holy Piby is a version of the Christian Bible that has been altered to remove all the deliberate distortions that are believed to have been made by white leaders during its translation into English.
The Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Negast, is also respected by Rastas, but less so than the Bible.
Rastafarians believe in the Judeo-Christian God, whom they call Jah. In general, Rastafarian beliefs are based in Judaism and Christianity, with an emphasis on Old Testament laws and prophecies and the Book of Revelation. Allegorical meaning is often sought in the Holy Piby.
Jah was manifested on earth as Jesus, who Rastas believe was black, and Emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie is referred to as His Imperial Majesty or H.I.M. (pronounced "him") and believed to still be alive - his death was a hoax and he lives in protection awaiting the Day of Judgment. Selassie is worshipped as divine. (Scriptural proof texts include Revelation 5:2-5, 17:14, 19:6, 22:16, Ezekiel 30, Psalm 9, 18, 68, 76, 87:4, Isaiah 9.) Rastafarians also honor Old Testament prophets like Moses and Elijah.
Rastafarians do not believe in an afterlife, 5 but instead look to Africa (called "Zion") as a heaven on earth. True Rastas are believed to be immortal, both physically and spiritually, a concept called "everliving."
An important Rastafarian concept is "I and I," which is said instead of "you and I." It emphasizes the oneness between humanity and God as well as the equality of all humans.
Another central concept is Babylon, which refers to the white power structure of Europe and the Americas. Rastas seek to resist Babylon, which once cruelly enslaved blacks and still continue to hold them down through poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and trickery. The greed and conceit of Babylon is contrasted with the humble simplicity and naturalness of the Rastas.
Rastafarians are perhaps best known for their religious use of marijuana, which grows plentifully in Jamaica. Rastas know it as ganja, the holy herb, Iley or callie, and believe it was given by God. Scriptural support is found especially in Psalm 104:14: "He causeth the grass for the cattle and herb for the service of man." Other texts interpreted to refer to cannibis include Genesis 3:18, Exodus 10:12, and Proverbs 15:17. In addition to ritual use, Rastas also use marijuana for medicinal purposes, applying it to a variety of ailments including colds. 5
Marijuana is used primarily during the two main Rastafari rituals: reasonings and nyabingi. The reasoning is an informal gathering at which a small group of Rastas smoke ganja and engage in discussion. The ritual begins when one person lights the pipe, or "chalice," and recites a short prayer while all other participants bow their heads. The pipe is then passed around the circle until all of the people have smoked. The reasoning ends when the participants depart one by one. (Also see Marijuana and Religion)
The nyabinghi, or binghi for short, is a dance held on Rasta holidays and special occasions (see below). These dances can last for several days and bring together hundreds of Rastafarians from all over Jamaica. They camp in tents on land owned by the host Rastas. Formal dancing takes place at night in a tabernacle especially set up for the occasion. The Rastas sing and dance until the early hours of the morning. In the daytime, they "rest and reason."6
There are several Rasta holidays, most of which center around events in the life of Emperor Haile Selassie. The most important celebrations are:
- November 2 - the coronation of Selassie
- January 6 - ceremonial birthday of Selassie
- April 21 - Selassie's visit to Jamaica
- July 23 - Selassie's personal birthday
- August 1 - emancipation from slavery
- August 17 - Marcus Garvey's birthday
One of the most visible practices of Rastafarians is the wearing of one's hair in dreadlocks. Dreadlocks have several purposes and layers of meaning for Rastafarians, including:
- the biblical command not to cut one's hair (Leviticus 21:5)
- the appearance of the lion's mane, representing strength, Africa, Ethiopia, and the Lion of Judah
- naturalness and simplicity, which are associated with Africa
- the Rasta's roots in Africa
The other main Rasta symbol besides dreadlocks, are the colors of red, gold and green. Red stands for the triumphant church of the Rastas as well as the blood of the martyrs in the black struggle for liberation. Gold represents the wealth of their African homeland and green symbolizes Ethiopia's beauty and lush vegetation. Black is often also included, representing the color of the Africans. Another important symbol is the Lion of Judah, which represents Haile Selassie as the King of Kings, Africa, and strength.
The most observant Rastas follow a dietary law called Ital. Ital food is food which is completely natural (not canned and free of chemicals and preservatives) and eaten as raw as possible. Old Testament prohibitions against pork and shellfish are part of Ital; most Rastafarians are vegatarians or vegans. Coffee and milk are also rejected as unnatural.
Rastafarians reject the use of alcohol, since it is a fermented chemical that does not belong in the temple of the body and it makes a person stupid, thereby playing into the hands of white leaders. This is contrasted with the holy herb of marijuana, which is natural and believed by Rastas to open their mind and assist in reasoning.
Rastafari Sects and Subdivisions
There are three main sects or orders of Rastafari today. All agree on the basic principles of the divine status of Haile Selassie and the importance of black images of divinity. Many Rastafari do not belong to any sect and the movement as a whole is loosely defined and organized.
The Nyahbinghi Order (a.k.a. Theocratic Priesthood and Livity Order of Nyabinghi) is named for Queen Nyahbinghi of Uganda, who fought against colonialists in the 19th century. This is the oldest of the orders and it focuses mainly on Haile Selassie, Ethiopia, and the eventual return to Africa. It is overseen by an Assembly of Elders.
Bobo Shanti was founded by Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards in Jamaica in the 1950s. "Bobo" means black and "Shanti" refers to the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, from which this sect believes Jamaican slaves are descended. Members of Bobo Shanti are also known as Bobo Dreads.
In belief, Bobo Dreads are distinguished by their worship of Prince Emmanuel (in addition to Haile Selassie) as a reincarnation of Christ and embodiment of Jah; their emphasis on the return to Africa ("repatriation"); and their demands for monetary reimbursement for slavery.
Members of the Bobo Shanti order wear long robes and tightly wrapped turbans around their dreads. They adhere closely to the Jewish Law, including the observance of the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and hygeine laws for menstruating women. They live separately from Jamaican society and other Rastafarians, growing their own produce and selling straw hats and brooms. They often carry brooms with them to symbolize their cleanliness.
The Twelve Tribes of Israel sect was founded in 1968 by Dr. Vernon "Prophet Gad" Carrington. It is the most liberal of the Rastafarian orders and members are free to worship in a church of their choosing. Each member of this sect belongs to one of the 12 Tribes (or Houses), which is determined by birth month and is represented by a color. 7
References & Sources
- "Rastafarians." Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions
- "Haile Selassie." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service (accessed August 2006).
- "About H.I.M. Haile Selassie." Jamaicans.com
- "The Holy Piby: The holy text of the Rastafari" - BobMarley.com
- "Rasta's Symbolism" - The Afrocentric Experience
- B. Chevannes, Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews (Rutgers University Press, 1998), 17-18.
- "The Rastafarian Orders/Sects." Jamaicans.com
- Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., The Rastafarians: Sounds of Cultural Dissonance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).
- Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., The Rastafarians: The Dreadlocks of Jamaica (Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores, 1977).
- E. Cashmore, The Rastafarians (London: Minority Rights Group, 1984).
- E. Cashmore, Rastaman: The Rastafarian Movement in England (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1979).
- B. Chevannes, Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
- B. Chevannes, Rastafari: Roots and Ideology (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994).
- P. Clark, Black Paradise: The Rastafarian Movement (San Bernadino: Borgo Press, 1994).
- G. Hausman, The Kebra Negast: The Book of Rastafarian Wisdom and Faith From Ethiopia and Jamaica (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).
- Kelleyana Junique, Rastafari? Rasta for You: Rastafarianism Explained (Athena Press Pub, 2004).
- W. Lewis, Soul Rebels: The Rastafari (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1997).
- J. Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5th Edition (Detroit: Gale Research. 1996).
- I. Morrish, Obeah, Christ, and Rastaman: Jamaica and its Religion (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1982).
- Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, ed., Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader (Temple University Press, 1998).
- J. Owens, Dread: The Rastafarians of Jamaica (London: Heinemann Press, 1979).
- R. Ringenberg, Rastafarianism, an Expanding Jamaican Cult (Jamaica: Jamaica Theological Seminary, 1978).
- W. Spencer, Dread Jesus (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1999).