Rastafarianism should not just be looked on as a religion or set of beliefs but rather as a way of life. Its development stems from mainly the poorer black people of Jamaica and has much to do with black social and political hopes.
Its founder is Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who was born in Jamaica in 1887 and died in 1940. The movement was really established in the 1930’s, but a pivotal point of its development was the convention of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in 1920.
The motto of this organisation was “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” They were quoted as wanting to unite “all the people of African ancestry of the world into one great body to establish a country and Government absolutely their own”.
Among the listed objectives of the association, we read of their desire:
to promote the spirit of race, pride and love;
to administer to and assist the needy;
to reclaim the fallen of the race;
to establish universities, colleges and secondary schools for the further education and culture of the boys and girls of the race;
to conduct a worldwide commercial and industrial intercourse.
A more in depth look at the life of Garvey is found here
While in America Garvey undertook several business ventures and the failure of one caused him and others to be arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison for fraud. However, he was deported back to Jamaica in 1927 and his message brought hope to many of his underprivileged and depressed Jamaican brothers.
Garvey taught that an African King would be crowned the black-messiah leader. When Prime Regent Ras Tafari announced, in 1930, his lineage to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and was crowned King of Ethiopia [Ps.68:31] people rallied. The change of name to Haile Selassie, which means, ‘Power of the Holy Trinity,’ fulfilled Garvey’s words.
There is not one group that we can call Rastafarians but there are a number of different groups and indeed many individuals; these remain independent of any organisation although they would share the central beliefs. There are probably only two well-organised groups the Bobos and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
In the 1950’s Rastafarians split two orders or ‘Houses’: The House of Dreadlocks and the House of Combsomes, (comb their hair); the latter ceased to exist in the 1960’s.
The running of a house is explained as follows at
“The House is run by an “Assembly of Elders,” theoretically consisting of seventy-two members, but generally far fewer. Eldership has been summarized as combining cunning and resourcefulness with initiative and trust, but avoiding selfishness, arbitrariness, or conceit. One does not become an Elder by appointment or election. The Elders oversee the affairs of the House, such as planning liturgical events, settling disputes, or appointing delegations as the need arises. However, beyond the Assembly of Elders, there is no membership to specific Houses as such. All Rastas are free to come or stay, to speak up or remain quiet, to contribute financially or withhold dues. One retains membership to the House simply be being a Rastafari. In turn, all members are equal, regardless of age, ability, or purpose. Nonetheless, this loosely-defined structure makes a united, organized religious movement virtually impossible.”
According to The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, in 1995 there were 180,000 Rastafarians worldwide. However, today there are estimated to be over 1 million Rastafarians worldwide and up to 10% of blacks in Jamaica would identify themselves with the movement.
Today, we see different streams of Rastafarians or Rastas as they are often known, and so it is difficult to be exact about what they actually believe. Added to this, Rastafarianism is a religion lived more than written down. It is a mixture of Ethiopian Christianity, Old Testament Judaism, animism [attributing a living-soul to plants] and spiritism. Today there is no single authority and some that you see with the distinctive hairstyle are not practising Rastafarians.
Christianity, to many, is seen as a white man’s religion and does not deal with the social injustice of Black people; even the Jesus of Christianity was a white man. On the other hand, Rastafarianism is intrinsically tied up with the Black people (especially of Jamaica) and their struggle for justice, dignity and self-respect. The belief is that black people are descended from one of the 12 Tribes of Israel and Ethiopia was founded by Menelik 1, who was the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Their view of the Bible is usually distorted in the same way because it is the ‘white man’s’ book, but they do draw out areas that support their belief and practices. For most however, it is simply a symbolic book, although Haile Selassie did encourage people to read it and so some groups will simply read it as a book but not seek to apply it to their lives.
Beyond the Bible, there are two other ‘holy’ books, the Holy Piby and the Kebra Nagast.
The Holy Piby is often called the “Black Man’s Bible”, and emphasises the destruction of white “Babylon” and the return of the Black Israelites to Africa which is the true Zion. It was compiled during 1913-1917 by Robert Athlyi Rogers and one of the sections pays tribute to Marcus Garvey. Rogers was born in Anguilla and committed suicide on 24th August 1931. Many Rastafarians however say that he “took himself away from this life” rather than saying he committed suicide.
In the original preface we read,
“The Holy Piby, a book founded by the Holy Spirit to deliver the gospel commanded by the Almighty God for the full salvation of Ethiopia’s posterities. In time the Piby shall contain all worthy prophecies and inspirations endowed by God upon the sons and daughters of Ethiopia, but no article shall be permitted to enter the Piby save that which is in accordance with the gospel of the twentieth century, preached by his Holiness, Shepherd Athlyi, apostle Marcus Garvey and colleague; the three apostles anointed and sent forth by the Almighty God to lay the foundation of industry, liberty and justice unto the generations of Ethiopia that they prove themselves a power among the nations and in the glory of their God. The Piby is strictly Holy, dedicated to the cause of saving souls for God upon which the Afro Athlican Constructive Church is built, therefore articles not agreeable shall not be entered upon or under the covers thereof.”
To help understand the “Kebra Nagast” we reproduce here part of the preface to the first English edition:
“This volume contains a complete English translation of the famous Ethiopian work, The “KEBRA NAGAST”, i.e. the “Glory of the Kings [of ETHIOPIA]”. This work has been held in peculiar honour in ABYSSINIA for several centuries, and throughout that country it has been, and still is, venerated by the people as containing the final proof of their descent from the Hebrew Patriarchs, and of the kinship of their kings of the Solomonic line with CHRIST, the Son of God. The importance of the book, both for the kings and the people of ABYSSINIA, is clearly shown by the letter that King JOHN of ETHIOPIA wrote to the late Lord GRANVILLE in August, 1872. The king says: “There is a book called ‘Kivera Negust’ which contains the Law of the whole of ETHIOPIA, and the names of the SHÛMS [i.e. Chiefs], and Churches, and Provinces are in this book. I pray you find out who has got this book, and send it to me, for in my country my people will not obey my orders without it.” (See infra, p. xxxv). The first summary of the contents of the KEBRA NAGAST was published by BRUCE as far back as 1813, but little interest was roused by his somewhat bald précis. And, in spite of the labours of PRÆTORIUS, BEZOLD, and HUGUES LE ROUX, the contents of the work are still practically unknown to the general reader in England. It is hoped that the translation given in the following pages will be of use to those who have not the time or opportunity for perusing the Ethiopic original. “The KEBRA NAGAST is a great storehouse of legends and traditions, some historical and some of a purely folk-lore character, derived from the Old Testament and the later Rabbinic writings, and from Egyptian (both pagan and Christian), Arabian, and Ethiopian sources.”
Another belief, which the majority of the Rastafarian groups take on board, is the divinity of Haile Selassie. Nigel Scotland writes:
“All Rastafarian groups venerate Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. To each, except the Twelve Tribes (the name of one Rastafarian group) Haile Selassie is ‘the true and living God’, the black Messiah, who arose out of Africa and will lead the black peoples back to the African continent, which is the real Zion.” Sectarian Religion, p.284.
Interestingly the Twelve Tribes group mentioned above appear to teach that Jesus is essential to salvation and only after you have encountered Him can you see the truth about Haile Selassie as the Messiah.
The fact that their Messiah is black is proven by the Authorised Bible’s rendering of Jeremiah 8:21 where it records, “… I am black…”
Notice too the belief that one day they will return to their true spiritual home, Africa and especially Ethiopia.
Many believe that for “Israelite” you read “Ethiopian” and so the Black people are the true ‘Israel of God.’ This does not automatically mean that they believe that the white race is inferior and indeed a number of white people have become Rastafarians. The problem of whether the Whites are evil or not come from how you take Garvey’s teaching, that they were the oppressor of the Blacks, and thus evil.
Probably, coming out of this idea of being the true Israel, is the various moral and dietary laws that they follow. For instance, many would discourage eating meat but pork would be forbidden.
Many too have a desire to reach out and help their brothers who are in need and indeed a love and respect for all living creatures and plants is also encouraged.
The meeting together of Rastafarians depends on which group they come from and could be infrequent and indeed the timing altering from season to season. Many celebrate their own special days, which are to do with Haile Selassie or Africa, but they would not celebrate Christmas or Easter.
The main dates most celebrate are:
January 6 – Ethiopian Christmas
April 21 – The anniversary of Emperor Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica.
July 23 – The birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie
August 17 – The birthday of Marcus Garvey
August 27 – The reported death of Haile Selassie
September 11 – Ethiopian new year
November 2 – The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie
There are also a number of terms and symbols used which is helpful to know about.
Babylon is used to represent the white political power structure that has been holding the black race down for centuries. Originally, this was by the shackles of slavery but now through their social standing and the domination of the white man.
The colours of the Ethiopian flag hold symbolic meaning for the Rastafarians. The red symbolises both the ‘Triumphant Rastafarian Church’ and the blood of the Rastafarian martyrs. The yellow or gold symbolises the wealth of their homeland and the green, the beauty and vegetation of the promised land of Ethiopia.
The lion is another symbol of the Rastafarians, with the meaning of both Africa and Emperor Haile Selassie, or Jah (God), himself.
A symbol, which many, but not all, adhere to, is the wearing of dreadlocks. This distinctive hairstyle can be both a symbol of rebellion because ‘dread’ means just that or a symbol of submission to God as taken from the Old Testament Nazarite vow not to cut the hair (see for instance Numbers 6:5 and Leviticus 21:15).
“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… 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.”
Bob Marley, considered by many Rastafarians as a prophet, introduced Reggae Music. Reggae means ‘to the king’ and the music still often conveys the message of black revolution and smoking marijuana or ganja. This latter point is one of the controversial symbols of Rastafarianism.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘wisdom weed’ because it is believed to be an aid to meditation and religious observance, the smoking of marijuana or ganja is justified by the use of selective verses of Scripture such as Genesis 1:12, Exodus 10:12 and 2 Samuel 22:9.
The beliefs of the Rastafarians were brought out of the poor conditions of many in Jamaica and a message of hope was given. The desire not to be downtrodden and to have a decent living is indeed the God-given right of all.
However, the ‘spiritually’ beliefs do not match up with the human desires. Although believing in the God of the Old Testament they change His word and put other men in place of Him. This of course means that they are not coming into a right relationship with God.
Some do show the need to know Jesus Christ but would then seem also to accept non-biblical teachings after that.
Some of the sources listed below are Rastafarian web sites.