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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. An estimated sixty 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. Nowadays however, it has spread throughout much of the world through immigration. Middle-class people, white people, Asians, and Native Americans comprise minorities within the religion.

Table of contents
1 Doctrines
2 The Politics of Rastafarianism
3 Vocabulary
4 Ceremonies
5 History
6 Modern structure
7 External links


Rastafarianism's followers, known as Rastafarians or Rastas, believe that Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie, 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.

Rastafarianism is a strongly syncretic Abrahamic religion. Rastas believe that they, and the rest of the black race, are descendants of the ancient Israelites. 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. 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. 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.

Many Rastas believe that Jah has had three incarnations. Melchizedek, Jesus Christ, 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.

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.

Homosexuality is seen as sinful and decadent, and so homophobia is found in a lot of Reggae songs. Queer-bashing is celebrated by some Rastafarians, and persecution of homosexuals is common in Jamaica among Rastas and non-Rastas alike.



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:


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.

Leonard Howell was the most outstanding of the early leaders of Rastafarianism. He 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 medical and recreational use of ganja 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.

Haile Selassie's 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. 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 immigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica.

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 & the Wailers;. 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 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 white 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