Alternative Religions Research Guides
History/Founder/important persons/saints: The beginnings of the Rastafarian Movement can be found in the African Orthodox Church. The Church was founded in the early twentieth century by activist and Jamaican National Marcus Garvey as an alternative to Established "white" churches. While Garvey’s Church was later to become a fully canonical Greek Orthodox Church, he is best remembered for inspiring the Rastafarian movement. Garvey was a political activist who instituted the ‘Back to Africa" movement, and made frequent speeches prophesizing a Black Messiah, a king who was to be crowned in Africa.
As an orthodox Christian believer, Garvey was horrified and disgusted when in 1930 a Jamaican religious movement sprang up around his works, declaring Garvey a prophet, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (formerly Ras Tafari Markonnen), the expected messiah. This movement was led by another Jamaican, Leonard Howell. Howell was the first to preach that Ras Tafari was the Second Coming, and was imprisoned numerous times for his religious activities, which authorities believed were revolutionary. One sentencing Judge even referred to Howell’s theology as "the Devil’s doctrine."
With Selassie’s coronation, the movement gained momentum and a name, Rastafari. In 1966, Selassie obliged the faithful with a visit to Jamaica, where he advised believers not to return to Africa until Jamaica had been liberated. Selassie died fourteen years later, leading to widespread disillusion among the faithful. Some believe that Selassie never died, or that he ascended alive into heaven, and that reports of his death were spread to confuse believers.
Current leader/governing body: Official branches exist in the Carribean, the US, the UK, and Canada.
Number of Adherents: About 700,000 worldwide.
Clergy: None, individual believers are autonomous.
Requirements to join: Non blacks are discouraged generally, however, there is no official bar to anyone.
Church/temple: None; worship is often by small groups in homes. Gatherings of believers, called Nyahbinghi, usually center around the sharing of the "Chalice," a large ceremonial pipe containing the Rastafarian sacrament, Ganga (Marijuana), a practice likened to the Christian communion ceremony.
Scripture: Rastafarians accept some portions of the Hebrew and Christian bibles- an edited Bible, the "Holy Piby," written in 1913, is often cited as the Rastafarian scripture. The Kebra Negast, a book purporting to outline the lineage of kings from Solomon, is also important in establishing the lineage of Emperor Selassie.
Required observances, dietary restrictions: Rastafarians are prohibited from cutting or in any way interfering with the natural growth of their hair, or from using hair products and stylists. True dreadlocks are a natural result of this practice, rather than a cultivated hairstyle.
Rastafarians generally eat only "I-tal" foods- those that are as pure as possible, unpreserved, often but not always raw, and without chemical additives. Rastafarians avoid meat (especially pork), coffee, salt, tobacco, alcohol, and seafood (although small fish are allowed).
Code of Conduct: The Rastafarian code of conduct is generally held to be the Ten commandments as outlined in the Hebrew Penteteuch. Rasta encourages a life of simple purity and the avoidance of accumulation of material goods and social climbing.
Basic teachings and Beliefs of Rastafarians: Rastas avoid what they view as the materialistic and corrupt (white) culture, which is called "Babylon," a world of illusion similar to the Buddhist concept of Maya. Rastafarian theology emphasises individual apprehension of God (called Jah), and one who is "dread," that is, God-fearing, an approach to spirituality that is referred to theologically as theosis, or God-becoming.
Rastas have also adopted a form of the Hindu belief in Avatars, holding that Heile Selassie was the last of four incarnations of God which includes Moses, the Hebrew Prophet Elija, and Jesus. Ras Tafari (Selassie) is believed to come from the unbroken line of kings going back to the biblical Solomon, and is widely perceived as the second coming of Christ.
Rasta faithful revere Ganja (marijuana) as a sacrament that aids in the discovery of the "I in I," the true form/will of Jah. Followers are expected to live as pure a lifestyle as possible, avoiding vice an materialistic desires.
Among the prophecies is the expected exodus known as "Back to Africa," when Jah will give the signal for Rastafarians toi ‘return’ to Ethiopia. there are three sects of Rastafarianism: Bobo Shanti (a seperatist order who ahere to Old Testament law), The Nyahbinghi Order (the oldest sect, named for Queen Nyahbinghi of Uganda), and Twelve Tribes, who believe themselves descendents of the twelve tribes of David.
Holidays and observances: The date of Emperor Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, April 21st, is considered an important holiday, called "Grounation day." Also celebrated is Selassie’s birthday, the birthday of Marcus Garvey, and others, as well as the Ethiopian New Year (Sept. 11).
Rastafarian Symbols: The most important symbol is the flag with three bands of red, black, and green, taken from Garvey’s back to Africa movement, and the Lion of Judah, the personal emblem of Heile Selassie. The colors on the flag are red, representing the blood of African martyrs, Black, for the skin color of believers, and green, for the color of the Promised Land (Ethiopia) . Other important symbols are the Magen David (often in highly stylized form) and the Christian cross.
Myths and misconceptions: The best known rumor about Rastafarianism is that the religion is simply an excuse to smoke marijuana, a concept sometimes embraced by white suburban teens, although very far from the reality of the religion, which views Ganja as a sacrament allowing a direct experience of God. Another rumor, that Rasta is inherently racist and anti-white, is unfortunately true in some cases. On the positive side, most have rejected the notion that the white man is evil, and aver instead that Babylon is the materialist attitude rather than the "white" culture.
Bob Marley and Reggae music: