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Rastafarianism is a religious movement which 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, generally seen as its originator. There were about 1,000,000 Rastafarians world-wide in 2000. An estimated sixty percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafarians. Rastafarianism began among working-class black people in Jamaica, but it has now spread throughout much of the world through immigration. Middle-class people, white people, Asians, and Arabs comprise minorities within the religion.

Rastafarianism's followers, known as Rastafarians or Rastas, believe that Ras Tafari remains a living messiah who will lead the world's peoples of African descent into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice.

Rastafarianism is an Abrahamic religion. Rastas believe that they, and the rest of the black race, are descendants of King David. 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 "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 to her own country, she and her servants." Rastas interpret this as meaning she conceived his child. That 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 Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Protestant Christianity, or Judaism. Of those, the ties to Eastern Orthodox churches are most widespread, though most Patriarchs do not recognize the status of Rastafarianism. In addition, Rastafarian-precursors, Christian sects founded by Marcus Garvey, were initially rejected by the Eastern Orthodox church, and some found a home as American Catholics[?], a group of Christians who follow most Roman Catholic tenets but do not accept the authority of Rome. To further confuse the issue of classifying Rastafarianism, one type of religious gathering ("reasonings") are similar in many ways to Jewish services, and may have descendend from African-American slaves who converted to Judaism and escaped to Jamaica. Some early elements of Rastafarianism were closely related to indigenous religions of the Caribbean and Africa, though these were largely purged by the "nyabinghi warriors", dreadlocked Rastas who fought against the corrupting power of the Elders and paganism. The religion is also related to Hinduism, as a result of the migration of many thousands of Indian Hindus to the Caribbean in the twentieth century. Dreadlocked mystics, often ascetic, who smoke cannabis have existed in India for centuries.

Rastafarians generally believe that the smoking of cannabis ("ganja") enjoys Biblical sanction and is an aid to meditation and religious observance. The wearing of dreadlocks is also closely associated with the movement, though not universal among (or exclusive to) its adherents. The colors red, green and gold are sacred to 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 masculinity as well as Emperor Haile Selassie, or Jah (God), himself.

Three important concepts:

  • "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" in Jamaican English, 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 tea 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.

Some other terms:

  • "Downpression" replaces "oppression" because oppression comes down from above
  • "Irie" refers to positive emotions or feelings, or anything that is good
  • "Livication" replaced "dedication" to rid itself of a connotation of death
  • "Overstanding" replaced "understanding", referring to enlightenment which raises one's consciousness
  • "Zion" refers to either heaven or Ethiopia

Biblical verses Rastafarians believe justify the use of ganja:

  • 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 for the cattle, and herb for the service of man."

Dreadlocks (or "dreads") are an important part of the Rastafarian religion. Dreads 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."). 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. 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.

Rastas believe that Jah has had four avatars. Moses, Elijah, Jesus Christ, and finally Haile Selassie, the ultimate embodiment of Jah, were each saviors. Many also believe that the god of the white race is actually Satan.

There are two types of Rastafarian religious ceremonies. A "reasoning" is a simple event where the Rastas gather, smoke ganja, and discuss ethical, social and religious issues. The person honored by being allowed to light the ganja says a short prayer before doing so, and the pipe is always passed counterclockwise.

A binghi is a holiday; the word is believed to refer to an ancient, and now extinct, order of militant blacks that vowed to end oppression. Binghis are marked by much dancing, singing, feasting and the smoking of ganja, and can last for several days.

  • January 6 - The ceremonial birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie
  • April 21 - The anniversary of Emperor Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica. Also known as Grounation Day[?]
  • July 23 - The personal birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie
  • August 1 - The celebration of Emperor Haile Selassie's liberation from slavery
  • August 17 - The birthday of Marcus Garvey
  • November 2 - The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie

Rastafarians use a version of the Bible called the Holy Piby[?] and believe that the more standard translations of its contents represent changes created by the racist white power structure. Rastafarians also revere a sacred text called the Kebra Negast[?], an Ethiopian holy book.

Table of contents


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; he shall be the Redeemer."

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 the conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah" and is believed by Rastafarians to be the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian kings descended from the Biblical King David.

Garvey believed in Pan-Africanism[?], the belief that all black people the world over 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 quartet of similar religions, bound together primarily by their reverence for the divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie. As Ethiopia was the only sub-Saharan African country to escape colonialism, and Selassie was the only black leader accepted among the kings and queens of Europe, the early Rastas viewed him with great reverence. Ironically, Selassie himself was a devout Christian who was indifferent to Rastafarianism.

One of the early Rastafarian preachers, Leonard Howell[?], described six fundamental tents of Rastafarianism:-

  1. hatred for the White race;
  2. the 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 return to Africa;
  6. acknowledgment of Emperor Haile Selassie I as the supreme being and the only ruler of the Black people.

After making these claims, Howell was arrested and imprisoned for two years for slandering and threatening the Jamaican government. Upon his release, he founded the Pinnacle Commune[?], believed to be the origin of the religious use of ganja by Rastas.

The violent racism of the original incarnation of Rastafarianism has been largely purged from the religion. Most Rastas no longer believe in the inherent superiority of the black race, though many are still Pan-African nationalists. One of the two 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.

During the 1930s, depression wracked Jamaica and Ethiopia alike. Italy under Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, marking one of the major preceeding events of World War 2. Haile Selassie, in exile in the United States, 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 Shashamane, Ethiopia[?] to allow black settlers to return to their homeland. In 1941, 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.

Haile Selassie's 1966 visit to Jamaica and meeting with Rastafarian elders (despite his own adherence to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) 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. Because of 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 immigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica.

Walter Rodney[?], a professor at Jamaica University[?], began the 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. Playing ska, the bands soon melded ska with traditional Jamaican folk music and American R&B, doo wop and soul to form reggae. Reggae began entering the international consciousness in the early 1970s, largely due to the massive fame of Bob Marley & the Wailers. Haile Selassie died in 1975. Since he was the Messiah of Rastafarianism, Rasta scholars were divided on how to take his apparent death. Some believed he had transcended mortal flesh and entered the kingdom of heaven, where he will judge Rastas soon, during the Time of Judgement. Others believed that he never actually died, and that his death was fabricated by "Babylon" (a term used to describe the white power structure of the world) in a popular conspiracy theory among Rastas.

By the end of the 20th century, Rastafarianism had toned down some of its previously strict rules. Homosexuality, for example, is no longer as despised as it once was, and gay-bashing in Jamaica has decreased from its legendary highs of the 1970s. In addition, women have become more important in the functioning of Rastafarianism. Previously, menstruating women were not allowed to cook, and were often 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 two primary groups within the religion: the Bobos[?] and the 12 Tribes of Israel[?]. In addition, most Rastafarians are part of the House of Nyabinghi[?], the last remnant of an earlier system from the 1950s, when Rastas were divided into combed and dreaded groups. The House of Combsomes[?] has died out, leaving only the House of Dreads (House of Nyabinghi) remaining. The House is run by a maximum of 72 Elders at any one time.

Related articles

Listing of noted rastafarians

External links

  • Scholarly profile: [1] (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/rast)
  • Shorter and chattier profile: [2] (http://www.camcnty.gov.uk/sub/cominfo/ethnic/rasta.htm)

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