Rastafari is an Abrahamic new religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor from 1930 to 1974 as God incarnate and the Messiah who will deliver believers to the Promised Land, identified by Rastas as Ethiopia. It has its roots in black-empowerment and back-to-Africa movements. It originated in Jamaica and its followers continue to be concentrated there, although smaller populations of Rastas can be found in many countries today.
Rastafari holds to many Jewish and Christian beliefs. Rastas accept the existence of a single triune god, called Jah, who has incarnated on earth several times, including in the form of Jesus. They accept much of the Bible, although they believe that its message has been corrupted over time by Babylon, which is commonly identified with Western, white culture. Specifically, they accept the prophesies in the Book of Revelations concerning the second coming of the Messiah, which they believe has already occurred in the form of Selassie. Before his coronation, Selassie was known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, from which the movement takes its name.
Marcus Garvey, an Afrocentric, black political activist, prophesied in 1927 that the black race would be liberated soon after a black king was crowned in Africa. Selassie was crowned in 1930, and four Jamaican ministers independently declared the Emperor their savior.
As an incarnation of Jah, Selassie I is both god and king to Rastas. While Selassie officially died in 1975, many Rastas do not believe that Jah can die and thus that his death was a hoax. Others believe that he still lives in spirit although not within any physical form.
Selassie’s role within Rastafari stems from several facts and beliefs, including:
- His many traditional coronation titles, including King of Kings, Lord of Lords, His Imperial Majestic the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, which correlates to Revelation 19:16: “He hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
- Garvey’s view of Ethiopia being the origin of the black race
- Selassie was the only independent black ruler in all of Africa at the time
- The Ethiopian belief that Selassie is part of an unbroken line of succession descending directly from the Biblical King Solomon the Queen of Sheba, thus connecting him to the tribes of Israel.
Unlike Jesus, who taught his followers about his own divine nature, Selassie’s divinity was declared by the Rastas. Selassie himself stated that he was fully human, but he also strove to respect Rastas and their beliefs.
Connections with Judaism
Rastas commonly hold the black race as one of the tribes of Israel. As such, Biblical promises to the chosen people are applicable to them. The also accept many of the Old Testament injunctions, such as the forbiddance of cutting one’s hair (which leads to the dreadlocks commonly associated with the movement) and eating of pork and shellfish. Many also believe that the Ark of the Covenant is located somewhere in Ethiopia.
The term Babylon is associated with oppressive and unjust society. It originates in the Biblical stories of the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, but Rastas commonly use it in reference to Western and white society, which exploited Africans and their descendants for centuries. Babylon is blamed for a great many spiritual ills, including the corrupting of Jah’s message originally transmitted through Jesus and the Bible. As such, Rastas commonly reject many aspects of Western society and culture.
Ethiopia is held by many to be the Biblical Promised Land. As such, many Rastas strive to return there, as encouraged by Marcus Garvey and others.
Rastafari’s origins are strongly rooted in black empowerment movements. Some Rastas are separatists, but many believe in encouraging mutual cooperation among all races. While the vast majority of Rastas are black, there is no formal injunction against practice by non-blacks, and many Rastas welcome a multi-ethnic Rastafari movement. Rastas also strongly favor self-determination, based on the fact that both Jamaica and much of Africa were European colonies at the time of the religion’s formation. Selassie himself stated that Rastas should liberate their people in Jamaica before returning to Ethiopia, a policy commonly described as “liberation before repatriation.”
Ganja is a strain of marijuana viewed by Rastas as a spiritual purifier, and it is smoked to cleanse the body and open the mind. Smoking ganja is common but not required.
Many Rastas limit their diets to what they consider "pure" food. Additives such as artificial flavorings, artificial colors, and preservatives are avoided. Alcohol, coffee, drugs (other than ganja) and cigarettes are shunned as tools of Babylon that pollute and confuse. Many Rastas are vegetarians, although some eat certain kinds of fish.
Holidays and Celebrations
Rastas celebrate several specific days in the year including Selassie’s coronation day (November 2), Selassie’s birthday (July 23), Garvey’s birthday (August 17), Grounation Day, which celebrates Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966 (April 21), the Ethiopian New Year (September 11), and Orthodox Christmas, as celebrated by Selassie (January 7).
Musician Bob Marley is the most well known Rasta, and many of his songs have Rastafari themes. Reggae music, for which Bob Marley is famous for playing, originated among blacks in Jamaica, and thus is unsurprisingly deeply interwoven with Rastafari culture.