Case study of history of Rastafarian religion

Rastafarian Religion

Like all other religious groups, the history of Rastafarian religion also commences before the group itself. Marcus Garvey, an influential black spokesman, born in 1887, had directed the philosophical ideologies that eventually lead to the Rastafarian movement (Rick. 2002).

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It was in the early 1920’s, that Garvey also founder of the “back-to-Africa” movement, often spoke of the redemption of his people as coming from a future black African king (Magical Blend, June/July 1994, p. 76) and so on one of the occasion, Garvey announced,

Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King, he shall be the Redeemer.” (The Rastafarians, p. 67).

It was then after only a few years later that prophecy was to be fulfilled in the person of Ethiopia’s king, Haile Selassie, as explained by Barrett, “in the pantheon of the Rastafarians, Marcus Garvey is second only to Haile Selassie.” Thus, Ras Tafari Makonnen, on November 2, 1930, was crowned king of Ethiopia, and due to his coronation, he stated for himself the titles of:

Emperor Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity) I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and King of the Kings of Ethiopia” (Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, Peter Schwab, editor, p. 11).

However, the Rastafarian movement gained a following and formally began in 1930, after Selassie was crowned and the evident completion of the millennial expectations of Marcus Garvey. Furthermore, one of its early leaders Leonard Howell, who in 1933 was arrested by the Jamaican government for preaching a revolutionary doctrine (The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, Keith Crim, editor, p. 601), helped formed the theology of the movement. His arrest helped shaped the movement’s organizational structure. As explained by Barrett:

The harassment of Howell by the police might have been the reason why Rastafarians have decided to remain leaderless, a decision which has strengthened the movement” (The Rastafarians, p. 91).

However, one of the main doctrines of Rastafarians was their expectation that they would one day return to Africa, the Zion that would be restored to them after centuries in the Diaspora. The ideology of Garvey, with his “back-to-Africa” had inspired much of this hope (Rick. 2002).

Thus, this anticipated move appeared potentially achievable in 1960 and so with the help of the Jamaican government, a delegation of Rastafarians set out on a task to Africa. Although not a large-scale immigration to Africa by Jamaicans was attained, and at the same time the sending of some Rastafarian leaders to Africa ended in the movement’s improved knowledge of African realities, and most likely diffused the movement’s eagerness for direct and instant repatriation. (The Rastafarians, pp. 100-101, Riddle. 2000).

In the Rastafarian movement, one of the most important historical event occurred when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966. This event resulted in two great developments within the movement; firstly, Selassie persuaded the Rastafarian brothers that they should not seek in order to immigrate to Ethiopia till they had released the people of Jamaica. Secondly, since that time onward, April 21 has been celebrated as a “special holy day” among Rastafarians (Riddle. 2000).

With the death of Haile Selassie on August 27, 1975, came many types of rationalization from many Rastafarians. The responses that then concerned Selassie’s death ranged from “his death was a fabrication” to “his death was inconsequential since Haile Selassie was just a “personification’ of God” (Rastaman: The Rastafarian Movement in England, Ernest Cashmore, pp. 59-60). Furthermore, as the Magical Blend states,

When Selassie died in 1975, his divinity did not die with him. According to current belief, the Ras Tafari lives on through individual Rastafarians” (June/July 1994, p. 76).

However, presently, the Rastafarian movement has authorized and certified branches in Canada, the Caribbean islands, England, and America, along with members in the majority of the civilized countries (The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, p. 601).

Moreover, since the death of Selassie, it has experienced some disintegration, among which, one of the well-known splinter-groups, was known as the “Twelve Tribes of Israel,” which was founded by Vernon Carrington and has its headquarters in city New York (The Rastafarians, pp. 210, 227, 236). Other groups that had claimed loyalty and commitment to Ras Tafari were the “Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church” and the “Ethiopian World Federation.”

Overview Of Origination:

Basically, the Rastafarian religion is not just a religion, but also a way of life, which is originated in Africa. It is usually linked with the poorer black population of Jamaica. Rastafarians speaks out against the poverty, oppression and inequality as well as not just religious ideas but also global problems.

The basic key belief of the Rastafarians is that Haile Selassie is the living God for the black race, whose previous name was Ras Tafari, was the black Emperor of Ethiopia. Furthermore, Rastafarians say scriptures predicted him as the one with the hair of whose head was like wool, and feet were like unto burning brass (Rick. 2002).

However, Selassie was not a Rastafarian himself, he was a pious Christian. In reality, no one is still much sure as to what he thought of the whole Rastafarian movement. When Haile Selassie was reported dead, Rastas was the one who did not believe it as they believed that it was a trick of the media in order to try and bring their faith down. Rastafarians believed that Haile Selassie I had walked on to the perfect flesh, and sat on the highest point of Mount Zion where he and Empress Menen awaited the time of judgment.

Additionally, the Rastafarian name for God is Jah and the Lion of Judah represents Haile Selassie, the Conqueror. It also represents the King of Kings since a lion is the king of all beasts. And so Selassie wore a Lion of Judah ring, which was given to Bob Marley at the time of Selassie’s death (Rick. 2002).

Coming to Babylon, which is the Rastafarian term for the white political power structure has been holding the black race down for centuries. However, in the past, Rasta saw that the shackles of slavery held down blacks physically and presently, Rasta feels that the white man is still holding down blacks through poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and trickery. Thus, the effort of Rasta is still to try to remind blacks of their heritage and have them stand up against this Babylon (Rick. 2002).

Africa in general, specially, Ethiopia, is considered the Rastas’ heaven on earth, where there is no afterlife or hell as believed by Christianity. Therefore, Rasta’s believed that Jah would send the sign in order to help the blacks migrated back to their homeland, Ethiopian.

However, any kind of news from Ethiopia was taken very seriously as a warning signal to be ready to leave any time. This belief came from Marcus Garvey’s theme, “Back to Africa.” Though before Selassie’s death came, it was possible, however, it did succeed in turning the desires of blacks to look towards Africa as their roots.


As observed by Cashmore:

The belief system of Ras Tafari was so vague and loosely defined, even at its inception, due to its lack of a single authoritative voice, that what was to be acceptable doctrine was largely a matter of individual interpretation” (Rastaman, p. 7).

Thus, Leonard Howell early in the history of the movement provided the Rastafarians six principles.

Detestation for the White race;

The entire dominance of the Black race;

Revenge on Whites for their wickedness;

The denial, harassment, and disgrace of the government and legal bodies of Jamaica;

Preparation to go back to Africa; and Acknowledging Emperor Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being and the only ruler of Black people (The Rastafarians, p. 85).

As Barrett noted that this first sight of the new doctrine launched the Rastafarian movement has however, not changed significantly over the years. Furthermore, other than these six principles are also overriding concepts that lead to the key to the Rastafarian system.

Colors, Symbols And Rituals

Colors have been one of the more obvious symbols of the Rastafarians, which include red, gold, and green, taken from the Garvey movement. The color red symbolizes for the Church Triumphant, the church of the Rastas. Moreover, it symbolizes the blood that martyrs have shed in the history of the Rastas.

Moving on to the yellow, it represent the wealth of the homeland, where green stands for the beauty and vegetation of Ethiopia, as the Promised Land. At times black is used to symbolize the color of Africans, to whom 98% of the Jamaicans are descended.

Next is Ganja that is used for religious purposes for Rastafarians and its usage is written in the Bible in Psalms 104:14, “He causeth the grass for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.” Thus, the use of this herb is very wide among the Rastas, which is not only for spiritual purposes as in their Nyabingi festivity, but also for medicinal reasons such as colds and others.

The following are a few of the many Biblical texts that Rasta hold as reasons Jah, gave for the use of the herb:

thou shalt eat the herb of the field ” (Genesis 3:18) eat every herb of the land ” (Exodus 10:12)

Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith”

Proverbs 15:17)

The true Rasta eats only I-tal food, where this special food never touches chemicals or is natural nor is it in cans. This food is cooked, but served in the most raw form possible; with no salts, preservatives, or condiments. Therefore, Rastas are vegetarians. Furthermore, their drinking preferences rest with anything that is herbal, for instance tea, soft drinks, milk, Liquor, and coffee being viewed as unnatural. This term I-tal food is fast in taking hold in the consumer industry in Jamaica.

In addition, the dreadlocks on a Rasta’s head symbolize the Rastas roots that contrast the straight, blond appearance of the white man and establishment. This symbol not only shows their roots, but is supported in the Bible: Leviticus 21:5:

They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.”

Thus, the way the hair grows stand for the symbol of the Lion of Judah, which has also come to symbolize rebellion of the system and the right way to wear hair.

Rastafarian Influences

Influences In America, Jamaica, Africa And Europe:

The Rastafarian movement has been supposed to number from approximately ten to seventy thousand followers, containing two divisions, the old school and the new. The old school held to the belief of a forthcoming repatriation to Ethiopia, while the later one accepts as its mission involvement as a catalyst in Jamaica for social reform.

This new school has made contribution much to the island in religious art as well as music. This includes the music generally known as ‘reggae.’ This movement has now thus, branches in England, the United States, and Canada, and on other Caribbean islands.

Furthermore, approximately 70,000 followers live in the slums areas of Jamaica, while another 180,000 have scattered across the Caribbean islands, then into the black ghettoes of the United States and Britain, making converts as they get settle (0, Steve and Peter. 1997).

Moreover, 1975 to the present has been the period of the most extraordinary growth for the Rastafarian Movement, where six out of ten Jamaicans are believed to be Rastafarians or Rastafarian sympathizers. And so as per the calculation of 1998, the total following is believed to be approximately 700,000 worldwide (0, Steve and Peter. 1997).

This growth is mainly credited to Bob Marley, reggae artist, and the worldwide acceptance of reggae as an avenue of Rastafarian self-expression. Thus, in 1975, Marley became a prophet of Rastafarianism. Also the Rastafarianism religious-cultural movement began in 1930s in Jamaica. Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, is the messiah. Thus, Rastafarianism heavily influenced Reggae music.

Furthermore, between the 17th and 9th centuries, the population of Jamaica, mainly of African or diverse African-European origin, descendants of slaves have been brought to the island. Amongst the established minorities are Europeans, East Indians and Chinese. Primarily in the United States, Great Britain and Latin America, emigration has been large (Encyclopedia. 1993-1996).

In Jamaica, Rastafarian resistance was expressed through cultural forms, particularly reggae music. Popular reggae singers, such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, expressed Rastafarian ideas and social criticism in their song lyrics; during the 1970s, they significantly contributed to the growth of the Rastafarian movement throughout the Caribbean, the United States, England, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Latin America (0, Steve and Peter. 1997).

The chief thing and the element that has been brought by the Rastafarian movement to Jamaica and its music were a real recognition and honor of Africa. On the other hand, in American black music that was not the case since there was nothing at that time that was holding the African heritage, and so there was very little notion then in America of Afro centricity.

Further on, in Jamaica, though, there was a collection of the population that seeks to the west and listened to Miami and New Orleans radio. However, there also existed the Rastafarian element, which said that Jamaicans should hang on to the cultural roots making it’s the key dynamic in Jamaican music.

Thus, such a kind of charged mix of clash business and religious interests gave sufficient fuel for this specific synthesis of music and spirit. Also, Africa inspired the rhythms as the slaves that have been brought with them along with their drumming traditions and the knowledge to style instruments into their own new environment.

However, African heritage stay only as one energetic in the society of Jamaicans. Furthermore, on the social development of Jamaica, Europe, and particularly Imperial Britain had a deep effect. It was then through the means of trade as well as government English that became the island’s official language, although the people naturally developed their own distinctive tongue (0, Steve and Peter. 1997).

To add more, the European art became another feature that affected this new culture, in which slaves started to copy, usually with heavy satire but with the blessing of plantation masters, the dances and customs of refined English society. Morris dancing, Reels, polkas and the French quadrille became included into the rising body of combined culture.

Influence Of Raggae – Bob Marley:

Bob Marley, the first global pop-star to appear from a developing nation, has won fans from states around the world who share his vision of salvation and liberty as well as loved his original blend of American and Caribbean music.

When in 1967 he returned to Jamaica he converted from Christianity to Rastafarianism and started the mature stage of his musical career. Since the early days of “Simmer Down,” although Marley had melded politics along with music, his success grew while he at the same time he became increasingly political (Eric. 1997).

Furthermore, his 1976 song “War” recorded a speech of Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian king upon whom then the Rastafarian sect was based. Additionally, his lyrics to Rastafarian mysticism and holiness searched the chaos in Jamaica.

Thus, in 1980, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, Bob Marley along with the Wailers had the honor of performing at the independence ceremony. In the late 1970s, the group’s concerts attracted huge crowds not only in West Africa and Latin America but also in Europe and the United States (Eric. 1997).


Eric Bennett. Music- Marley, Bob. 1997.

Jamaica. Microsoft (R) Encarta (R) 97 Encyclopedia. – 1993-1996 Microsoft


Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. Reggae: The Rough Guide quoting Lloyd Prine

Jammy James. Ocotober 1997. Rough Guides. London pg. 202.


Peter, Schwab. Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, p. 11.


Riddle, Rob. Dubwise. Switch -Journal. May 15, 2000.

Rick, Branch. Watchman Fellowship Profiles. Academic Info: Religious Movements:

Rastafarianism: January 2002.

The Rastafarians. Pgs: 11-270.

The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. Pg: 601

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