A religion with deep political convictions, the Rastafari movement began in the slums of Jamaica in the 1920s and 30s. African religious tradition has heavily influenced the culture of Rastafarianism and biblical themes have heavily influenced the religion's belief system. The most famous Rastafari is arguably Bob Marley, whose reggae music gained the Jamaican movement international recognition. (Learn more about Bob Marley here.)
There is no formal, organized leadership in Rastafarianism, creating a wide variety of spiritual and moral variation within the religion. Some Rastafarians see Rasta more as a way of life, and others see it more as a religion. Nevertheless, uniting the diversity within the 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. (See the history of Rastafarianism here.)
Learn more about Rastafarian symbols here.
The Rastafarian lifestyle usually includes ritual use of marijuana, avoidance of alcohol, the wearing of one's hair in dreadlocks, and vegetarianism. (Learn more about Marijuana use in religion here.)
Fast Facts on Rastafarianism
- 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
- The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Ethiopian flag, colors: green, red, yellow (See Rasta symbols with meaning and explanations here)
Rastafarian religious terminology
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. Some 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." (Learn more about the origins of Rastafarianism here.)
Rastafari religious beliefs
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. (Learn more about Judaism here, Christianity here, and the book of Revelation here.)
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. (Learn more about Jesus Christ in Christianity here.)
Rastafarians do not believe in an afterlife,  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. (Learn more about Babylon in the Bible here.)
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. 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. (Learn more about the Christian Bible here.)
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
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 hygiene 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
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. 7Recommended:
- Rastafarian symbols
- Rastafarian history
- Rastafarian practices
- Marijuana and Religion
- Bob Marley
- "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).
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- 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).
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- 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).