Rastafari, also known as the Rastafari movement or Rastafarianism, is a religion that developed in Jamaica during the 1930s. It is classified as both a new religious movement and a social movement by scholars of religion. There is no central authority in control of the movement and much diversity exists among practitioners, who are known as Rastafari, Rastafarians, or Rastas.
Rastas often claim the flag of Ethiopia as was used during Haile Selassie’s reign. It combines the conquering lion of Judah, symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy, with green, gold, and red.
Rasta beliefs are based on a specific interpretation of the Bible. Central is a monotheistic belief in a single God, referred to as Jah, who is deemed to partially reside within each individual. Rastas accord key importance to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974; many regard him as the Second Coming of Jesus and Jah incarnate, while others see him as a human prophet who fully recognised Jah’s presence in every individual. Rastafari is Afrocentric and focuses attention on the African diaspora, which it believes is oppressed within Western society, or “Babylon”. Many Rastas call for this diaspora’s resettlement in Africa, a continent they consider the Promised Land, or “Zion”. Some practitioners extend these views into black supremacism. Rastas refer to their practices as “livity”. Communal meetings are known as “groundations”, and are typified by music, chanting, discussions, and the smoking of cannabis, the latter regarded as a sacrament with beneficial properties. Rastas emphasise what they regard as living “naturally”, adhering to ital dietary requirements, wearing their hair in dreadlocks, and following patriarchal gender roles.
Rastafari originated among impoverished and socially disenfranchised Afro-Jamaican communities in 1930s Jamaica. Its Afrocentric ideology was largely a reaction against Jamaica’s then-dominant British colonial culture. It was influenced by both Ethiopianism and the Back-to-Africa movement promoted by black nationalist figures such as Marcus Garvey. The movement developed after several Protestant Christian clergymen, most notably Leonard Howell, proclaimed that Haile Selassie’s crowning as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 fulfilled a Biblical prophecy. By the 1950s, Rastafari’s countercultural stance had brought the movement into conflict with wider Jamaican society, including violent clashes with law enforcement. In the 1960s and 1970s, it gained increased respectability within Jamaica and greater visibility abroad through the popularity of Rasta-inspired reggae musicians, most notably Bob Marley. Enthusiasm for Rastafari declined in the 1980s, following the deaths of Haile Selassie and Marley, but the movement survived and has a presence in many parts of the world.
The Rasta movement is decentralised and organised on a largely sectarian basis. There are several denominations, or “Mansions of Rastafari”, the most prominent of which are the Nyahbinghi, Bobo Ashanti, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each offering a different interpretation of Rasta belief. There are an estimated 700,000 to 1,000,000 Rastas across the world. The largest population is in Jamaica, although small communities can be found in most of the world’s major population centres. Most Rastas are of black African descent, and some groups accept only black members.
Two Rasta street vendors in Zeerust, South Africa; they are wearing and selling items that display their commitment to the religion.
Rastafari has been described as a religion, meeting many of the proposed definitions for what constitutes a religion, and is legally recognised as such in various countries. Multiple scholars of religion have categorised Rastafari as a new religious movement, while some scholars have also classified it as a sect, a cult, and a revitalisation movement. Having arisen in Jamaica, it has been described as an Afro-Jamaican religion, and more broadly an Afro-Caribbean religion. Although Rastafari focuses on Africa as a source of identity, it is a product of creolisation processes in the Americas, described by the Hispanic studies scholars Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert as “a Creole religion, rooted in African, European, and Indian practices and beliefs”. The scholar Ennis B. Edmonds also suggested that Rastafari was “emerging” as a world religion, not because of the number of its adherents, but because of its global spread. Many Rastas nevertheless reject descriptions of Rastafari as a religion, instead referring to it as a “way of life”, a “philosophy”, or a “spirituality”.
Emphasising its political stance, particularly in support of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism, some academics have characterised Rastafari as a political movement, a “politico-religious” movement, or a protest movement. It has alternatively been labelled a social movement, or more specifically as a new social movement, and a cultural movement. Many Rastas or Rastafarians—as practitioners are known—nevertheless dislike the labelling of Rastafari as a “movement”. In 1989, a British Industrial Tribunal concluded that—for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976—Rastafarians could be considered an ethnic group because they have a long, shared heritage which distinguished them from other groups, their own cultural traditions, a common language, and a common religion.
Rastafari has continuously changed and developed, with significant doctrinal variation existing among practitioners depending on the group to which they belong. It is not a unified movement, and there has never been a single leader followed by all Rastas. It is thus difficult to make broad generalisations about the movement without obscuring the complexities within it. The scholar of religion Darren J. N. Middleton suggested that it was appropriate to speak of “a plethora of Rasta spiritualities” rather than a single phenomenon.
The term “Rastafari” derives from “Ras Tafari Makonnen”, the pre-regnal title of Haile Selassie, a former Ethiopian emperor who plays a major role in Rasta belief. The term “Ras” means a duke or prince in the Ethiopian Semitic languages; “Tafari Makonnen” was Selassie’s personal name. It is unknown why the early Rastas adopted this form of Haile Selassie’s name as the basis of the term for their religion. As well as being the religion’s name, “Rastafari” is also used for the religion’s practitioners themselves. Many commentators—including some academic sources and some practitioners—refer to the movement as “Rastafarianism”. However, the term “Rastafarianism” is disparaged by many Rastas, who believe that the use of -ism implies religious doctrine and institutional organisation, things they wish to avoid.
The Liberty Bell Temple in Los Angeles
Rastas refer to the totality of their religion’s ideas and beliefs as “Rastalogy”. Edmonds described Rastafari as having “a fairly cohesive worldview”; however, the scholar Ernest Cashmore thought that its beliefs were “fluid and open to interpretation”. Within the movement, attempts to summarise Rastafari belief have never been accorded the status of a catechism or creed. Rastas place great emphasis on the idea that personal experience and intuitive understanding should be used to determine the truth or validity of a particular belief or practice. No Rasta, therefore, has the authority to declare which beliefs and practices are orthodox and which are heterodox. The conviction that Rastafari has no dogma “is so strong that it has itself become something of a dogma”, according to the sociologist of religion Peter B. Clarke.
Rastafari is deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian religion, and shares many commonalities with Christianity. The scholar Michael Barnett observed that its theology is “essentially Judeo-Christian”, representing “an Afrocentralized blend of Christianity and Judaism”. Some followers openly describe themselves as Christians. Rastafari accords the Bible a central place in its belief system, regarding it as a holy book, and adopts a literalist interpretation of its contents. According to the anthropologist Stephen D. Glazier, Rasta approaches to the Bible result in the religion adopting an outlook very similar to that of some forms of Protestantism. Rastas regard the Bible as an authentic account of early black African history and of their place as God’s favoured people. They believe the Bible to be key to understanding both the past and the present and for predicting the future, while also regarding it as a source book from which they can form and justify their beliefs and practices. Rastas commonly perceive the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, as the most important part, because they see its contents as having particular significance for the world’s present situation.
Contrary to scholarly understandings of how the Bible was compiled, Rastas commonly believe it was originally written on stone in the Ethiopian language of Amharic. They also believe that the Bible’s true meaning has been warped, both through mistranslation into other languages and by deliberate manipulation by those seeking to deny black Africans their history. They also regard it as cryptographic, meaning that it has many hidden meanings. They believe that its true teachings can be revealed through intuition and meditation on the “book within” which allows them to commune with God. Because of what they regard as the corruption of the Bible, Rastas also turn to other sources that they believe shed light on black African history. Common texts used for this purpose include Leonard Howell’s 1935 work The Promised Key, Robert Athlyi Rogers’ 1924 book Holy Piby, and Fitz Balintine Pettersburg’s 1920s work, the Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy. Many Rastas also treat the Kebra Nagast, a 14th-century Ethiopian text, as a source through which to interpret the Bible.
Jah and Jesus of Nazareth
Rastas are monotheists, worshipping a singular God whom they call Jah. The term “Jah” is a shortened version of “Jehovah”, the name of God in English translations of the Old Testament. Rastafari holds strongly to the immanence of this divinity; as well as regarding Jah as a deity, Rastas believe that Jah is inherent within each individual. This belief is reflected in the aphorism, often cited by Rastas, that “God is man and man is God”, and Rastas speak of “knowing” Jah, rather than simply “believing” in him. In seeking to narrow the distance between humanity and divinity, Rastafari embraces mysticism.
Jesus is an important figure in Rastafari. However, practitioners reject the traditional Christian view of Jesus, particularly the depiction of him as a white European, believing that this is a perversion of the truth. They believe that Jesus was a black African, and that the white Jesus was a false god. Many Rastas regard Christianity as the creation of the white man; they treat it with suspicion out of the view that the oppressors (white Europeans) and the oppressed (black Africans) cannot share the same God. Many Rastas take the view that the God worshipped by most white Christians is actually the Devil, and a recurring claim among Rastas is that the Pope is Satan or the Antichrist. Rastas therefore often view Christian preachers as deceivers and regard Christianity as being guilty of furthering the oppression of the African diaspora, frequently referring to it as having perpetrated “mental enslavement”
Morality, ethics, and gender roles
A Rasta in Barbados, wearing a rastacap decorated in the Rastafari colours: green, gold, red and black
Most Rastas share a pair of fundamental moral principles known as the “two great commandments”: love of God and love of neighbour. Many Rastas believe that to determine whether they should undertake a certain act or not, they should consult the presence of Jah within themselves.
Rastafari promotes the idea of “living naturally”, in accordance with what Rastas regard as nature’s laws. It endorses the idea that Africa is the “natural” abode of black Africans, a continent where they can live according to African culture and tradition and be themselves on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level. Practitioners believe that Westerners and Babylon have detached themselves from nature through technological development and thus have become debilitated, slothful, and decadent. Some Rastas express the view that they should adhere to what they regard as African laws rather than the laws of Babylon, thus defending their involvement in certain acts which may be illegal in the countries that they are living in. In emphasising this Afrocentric approach, Rastafari expresses overtones of black nationalism.
The scholar Maureen Warner-Lewis observed that Rastafari combined a “radical, even revolutionary” stance on socio-political issues, particularly regarding race, with a “profoundly traditional” approach to “philosophical conservatism” on other religious issues. Rastas typically look critically upon modern capitalism with its consumerism and materialism. They favour small-scale, pre-industrial and agricultural societies. Some Rastas have promoted activism as a means of achieving socio-political reform, while others believe in awaiting change that will be brought about through divine intervention in human affairs. In Jamaica, Rastas typically do not vote, derogatorily dismissing politics as “politricks”, and rarely involve themselves in political parties or unions. The Rasta tendency to believe that socio-political change is inevitable opens the religion up to the criticism from the political left that it encourages adherents to do little or nothing to alter the status quo. Other Rastas do engage in political activism; the Ghanaian Rasta singer-songwriter Rocky Dawuni for instance was involved in campaigns promoting democratic elections, while in Grenada, many Rastas joined the People’s Revolutionary Government formed in 1979.
Gender Roles and Sexuality
Rastafari promotes what it regards as the restoration of black manhood, believing that men in the African diaspora have been emasculated by Babylon. It espouses patriarchal principles, including the idea that women should submit to male leadership. External observers—including scholars such as Cashmore and Edmonds—have claimed that Rastafari accords women an inferior position to men. Rastafari women usually accept this subordinate position and regard it as their duty to obey their men; the academic Maureen Rowe suggested that women were willing to join the religion despite its restrictions because they valued the life of structure and discipline it provided. Rasta discourse often presents women as morally weak and susceptible to deception by evil, and claims that they are impure while menstruating. Rastas legitimise these gender roles by citing Biblical passages, particularly those in the Book of Leviticus and in the writings of Paul the Apostle.
Rasta women usually wear clothing that covers their head and hides their body contours. Trousers are usually avoided, in favour of long skirts. Women are expected to cover their head while praying, and in some Rasta groups this is expected of them whenever in public. Rasta discourse insists this female dress code is necessary to prevent women attracting men and presents it as an antidote to the sexual objectification of women in Babylon. Rasta men are permitted to wear whatever they choose. Although men and women took part alongside each other in early Rasta rituals, from the late 1940s and 1950s the Rasta community increasingly encouraged gender segregation for ceremonies. This was legitimised with the explanation that women were impure through menstruation and that their presence at the ceremonies would distract male participants.
As it existed in Jamaica, Rastafari did not promote monogamy. Rasta men are permitted multiple female sex partners, while women are expected to reserve their sexual activity for one male partner. Marriage is not usually formalised through legal ceremonies but is a common-law affair, although many Rastas are legally married. Rasta men refer to their female partners as “queens”, or “empresses”, while the males in these relationships are known as “kingmen”. Rastafari places great importance on family life and the raising of children, with reproduction being encouraged. The religion emphasises the place of men in child-rearing, associating this with the recovery of African manhood. Women often work, sometimes while the man raises the children at home. Rastafari typically rejects feminism, although since the 1970s growing numbers of Rasta women have called for greater gender equity in the movement. The scholar Terisa E. Turner for instance encountered Kenyan feminists who were appropriating Rastafari content to suit their political agenda. Some Rasta women have challenged gender norms by wearing their hair uncovered in public and donning trousers.
Rastafari regards procreation as the purpose of sex, and thus oral and anal sex are usually forbidden. Both contraception and abortion are usually censured, and a common claim in Rasta discourse is that these were inventions of Babylon to decrease the black African birth-rate. Rastas typically express hostile attitudes to homosexuality, regarding homosexuals as evil and unnatural; this attitude derives from references to same-sex sexual activity in the Bible. Homosexual Rastas probably conceal their sexual orientation because of these attitudes. Rastas typically see the growing acceptance of birth control and homosexuality in Western society as evidence of the degeneration of Babylon as it approaches its apocalyptic end.
Rastas refer to their cultural and religious practices as “livity”. Rastafari does not place emphasis on hierarchical structures. It has no professional priesthood, with Rastas believing that there is no need for a priest to act as mediator between the worshipper and divinity. It nevertheless has “elders”, an honorific title bestowed upon those with a good reputation among the community. Although respected figures, they do not necessarily have administrative functions or responsibilities. When they do oversee ritual meetings, they are often responsible for helping to interpret current events in terms of Biblical scripture. Elders often communicate with each other through a network to plan movement events and form strategies.
Use of Cannabis
The principal ritual of Rastafari is the smoking of ganja, also known as marijuana or cannabis.[ Among the names that Rastas give to the plant are callie, Iley, “the herb”, “the holy herb”, “the grass”, and “the weed”. Cannabis is usually smoked during groundings, although some practitioners also smoke it informally in other contexts. Some Rastas smoke it almost all of the time, something other practitioners regard as excessive, and many practitioners also ingest cannabis in a tea, as a spice in cooking, and as an ingredient in medicine. However, not all Rastas use ganja; abstainers explain that they have already achieved a higher level of consciousness and thus do not require it.
A flowering cannabis plant; the smoking of which is considered a Biblically sanctioned sacrament by Rastas
In Rastafari, cannabis is considered a sacrament. Rastas argue that the use of ganja is promoted in the Bible,
• specifically in Genesis, Psalm Revelation.
They regard it as having healing properties, eulogise it for inducing feelings of “peace and love”, and claim that it cultivates a form of personal introspection that allows the smokers to discover their inner divinity. Some Rastas believe that cannabis smoke serves as an incense that counteracts immoral practices in society.
Rastas typically smoke cannabis in the form of a large, hand-rolled cigarette known as a spliff. This is often rolled together while a prayer is offered to Jah; the spliff is lit and smoked only when the prayer is completed. At other times, cannabis is smoked in a water pipe referred to as a “chalice”: styles include kutchies, chillums, and steamers. The pipe is passed in a counter-clockwise direction around the assembled circle of Rastas.
There are various options that might explain how cannabis smoking came to be part of Rastafari. By the 8th century, Arab traders had introduced cannabis to Central and Southern Africa. In the 19th century, enslaved Bakongo people arrived in Jamaica, where they established the religion of Kumina. In Kumina, cannabis was smoked during religious ceremonies in the belief that it facilitated possession by ancestral spirits. The religion was largely practiced in south-east Jamaica’s Saint Thomas Parish, where a prominent early Rasta, Leonard Howell, lived while he was developing many of Rastafari’s beliefs and practices; it may have been through Kumina that cannabis became part of Rastafari. A second possible source was the use of cannabis in Hindu rituals. Hindu migrants arrived in Jamaica as indentured servants from British India between 1834 and 1917, and brought cannabis with them. A Jamaican Hindu priest, Laloo, was one of Howell’s spiritual advisors, and may have influenced his adoption of ganja. The adoption of cannabis may also have been influenced by the widespread medicinal and recreational use of cannabis among Afro-Jamaicans in the early 20th century. Early Rastafarians may have taken an element of Jamaican culture which they associated with their peasant past and the rejection of capitalism and sanctified it by according it Biblical correlates.
In many countries—including Jamaica—cannabis is illegal and by using it, Rastas protest the rules and regulations of Babylon. In the United States, for example, thousands of practitioners have been arrested because of their possession of the drug. Rastas have also advocated for the legalisation of cannabis in those jurisdictions where it is illegal; in 2015, Jamaica decriminalized personal possession of marijuana up to two ounces and legalized it for medicinal and scientific purposes. In 2019, Barbados legalised Rastafari use of cannabis within religious settings and pledged 60 acres (24 ha) of land for Rastafari to grow it.