The Rastafarian religious movement
has definite political undercurrents of
protest against the slavery and
repression of Black people. As a
religious movement, many components are
taken from Christianity, Judaism,
Hinduism and African Traditions.
The religion was inspired by Marcus
Mosiah Garvey (1897–1940), who
promoted the Universal Negro
Improvement Association in the 1920s
and spearheaded the Back to Africa
movement during the 1930s. It is also
inspired by the accession to the throne
of Haile Selassie I as the
Emperor of Ethiopia under his
pre-coronation name of Ras
Tafari, who is considered to be a
divine Messiah and the savior of all
Black people. The term Rastafari dates
from the coronation of Haile Selassie in
Marcus Garvey’s initiatives aimed at
raising self-awareness and self-respect
among Black people in Jamaica and the
USA, encouraging pride in their African
heritage. Consequently, the various
groupings which constitute the Rastafari
rejected European-oriented cultural
denominations and Christian revivalist
religions, developing their own identity
whilst awaiting redemption. Today they
are a world-wide movement.
Rastafarians began migration to the USA and UK from
Jamaica in the late 1950s and 1960s. Many links have been maintained
with the Caribbean and the original Jamaican movement through
Rastafari music and literature, as well as charismatic figures such
as Bob Marley.
Rastafarians believe in one God, Jah. They support their beliefs by
reference to numerous biblical texts which they interpret as
confirming that God is Black. They regard Jah both as a transcendent
deity and as present in all men. Their language, based on Jamaican
patois, uses many special words and tries to capture this unity of
man with Jah by the term ‘I and I’. Since Jah is seen as the God of
life, Rastafarians do not accept that the righteous can die and they
believe in reincarnation.
The second key element of Rastafarian belief relates to salvation,
which can only be realized by Black people through their return to
Africa, the Black Zion, after liberation from the evils of the
White-dominated western world, which is frequently referred to as
Babylon. Africa is regarded as a spiritual focus, a true home,
heaven on earth, and Rastafarians regard Black people as the true
Jews and chosen people of God.
There are no fixed rules of practice or belief on other matters.
Rastafarians are guided by reference to the culture and traditions
of Ethiopia, and emphasize the ethos of peace and love, truth and
Common to most belief systems, men and women are assigned
gender-specific roles. While women are not discouraged from pursuing
careers outside the home, their highest role is seen as that of wife
The official religion of Ethiopia since AD 330 has been Christianity
and Rastafarians in consequence study the Bible, especially
the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the
New Testament. They recognize all 87 books of the Bible, including
the Apochrypha and the Book of Enoch, as opposed to the 66 books of
the authorized version used by many Christian churches. Today the
Rastafarian movement consists of several strands, and includes
persons of other than African descent.
There is no centralized, hierarchical structure of a Rastafarian
‘church’. Instead there are several Rastafarian organizations, such
as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian World
Federation, the Universal Black Improvement Organization,
the Twelve Tribes of
Israel and the Rastafarian Universal Zion.
There are no specifically designated places of worship – people
normally meet in their homes, where long sessions of discussion,
debate and argument (‘reasoning’) are held. However more formal
groups such as the Ethiopian World Federation will designate
specific sites and certain office holders or chaplains will lead the
spiritual part of the proceedings.
Singing and drumming, especially reggae music, are important ways of
communicating the ethos of the movement.
Controversially, smoking cannabis or ganja (‘the
herb’) is considered an important part of Rastafarian religious
practice and is treated as a sacrament. Ganja is seen as natural and
as God’s gift and Rastafarians seek to legitimize its use by
reference to biblical texts (Hebrews, chapter 6, verse 7).
One element of Rastafarian dress code is for men (brethrens) and
women (sistrens) not to cut their hair but to wear it in long locks,
known as dreadlocks. Many Rastafari men wear distinctive caps
(tams) made of knitted material, leather or cloth, often in the
traditional colors (red, gold, green and black) of the Ethiopian
flag or the national colors of Jamaica (gold, green and black).
These colors have symbolic meaning: red for the blood shed in the
historical struggle of Rastafarians; gold for faith, prosperity and
sunshine; green for the land and its produce; and black symbolizing
the color of the people. On certain occasions, such as prayer
meetings and spiritual gatherings, Rastafarians uncover their heads.
Some Rastafarians wear African-style dress, thus explicitly marking
their allegiance to an African-rooted tradition. This is also
symbolized by medallions of Ras Tafari, the lion, the imperial
symbol of the Ethiopian throne, representing strength and power.
Crosses are worn as symbols of the burden of life.
Out of reverence for the laws of nature, most Rastafarians are
vegetarian and will be concerned to eat only natural or organic
food, and to avoid polluting the earth with unnatural substances and
chemicals. Pork is prohibited, not only because of biblical
injunctions against it but also because of assumptions about the
animal’s susceptibility to disease. Many Rastafarians do not drink
Rastafarian children are blessed by the elders and perhaps a
congregation with drumming, chanting and prayers.
Following the Rastafarian interpretation of the Bible (St Mark,
chapter 12, verses 19–25), Rastafarians do not perform any formal
marriage ceremony, but a man and a woman who cohabit are
automatically treated as husband and wife by the community, and
fidelity is considered very important .
Since there is no belief in death as such, and Rastafarians view
life as eternal, moving from one generation to the next through
spiritual and genealogical inheritance, there are no special
ceremonies on death, or following death. Many Rastafarians will
follow the customs of the communities in which they reside.
Emancipate yourself from
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say its just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the book.
Bob Marley, Redemption Song