What is Rastafarianism? And Who Are the Rastafarians?

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Rastafarianism is a new religious movement with its origin in 1930s Jamaica (1). According to scholar of religion Sheila Kitzinger, Rastafarianism begun as “a politico-religious protest cult which rejects Jamaican citizenship, claims that its members are Ethiopians, worships the Emperor Haille Selassie, and aims to “return” to Africa” (2)

Political Movement

To the Rastafarians, Rastafarianism is as much a political and social movement as it is a religion, especially given that it emerged during a period of an increasing awareness of “blackness,” notably of the black people living in the New World (3). This period also witnessed the emergence Pan-Africanism, which was a movement that intended to unite and inspire persons of African descent. A notable proponent of this ideology was black nationalist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) who intended to bring an awareness to blackness and denounce the oppression and exploitation of black people. His views had a strong resonance with impoverished black persons in Jamaica who were living under British rule. The majority of Jamaicans were descendants of African slaves, and they were forced to adopt the religion of their slave masters, which was predominantly Protestant Christianity. This was also often to the detriment of the slave’s African-based religious beliefs and traditions. The result was a unique black Jamaican interpretation of Christian scriptures rather than a synthesis of African and Christian beliefs. Kitzinger notes the Rastafarians “claim an African cultural heritage and identify with the Negro people scattered all over the world” (4).

The Bible and Zion

According to some Rastafari, notably those inspired by Pan-Africanism and black nationalism, white men, viewed as the real forces of evil, had changed the Bible as part of their oppression of blacks. The result was an incorrect reading and interpretation of biblical scripture, and one motivated primarily with controlling slaves. Rastafarians soon interpreted the Old Testament’s Zion as Africa, and they claimed that a saviour would come to rescue the African people from the white Europeans they referred to as “Babylon.” They would be delivered from their slavery and return to Zion, as they believed is promised in the book of Revelation from the New Testament.

Social Unrest

Many attempts have been made by Rastafari to return to Zion (Ethiopia), and this has led to social unrest. In 1933, one of the movement’s first leaders, Leonard Howell (1898-1981), sold 5000 postcards of the Emperor claiming they were passports to Ethiopia. He preached that if Rastafarians were not given a passage to their promised land they should rise in revolt. A few years later in 1941 the police raided Howell’s community at Pinnacle. Howell represented himself as God, lived with thirteen concubines, and had his followers work an abandoned estate. 70 of his followers were arrested on charges of growing ganja (cannabis) and for violence. Arrests continued through the 1950s when Rastafarians would sell their belongings and swarm to the docks and airports to wait for transport back to Ethiopia. When they realized the transport would not arrive they engaged in riot.

Haile Selassie

When Haile Selassie (1892-1975) came to the throne of Ethiopia in 1930 it was viewed as a fulfillment of prophecy. Selassie, born Tafari Makonnen, came from Ethiopian nobility and was a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He inherited the title “Ras” (similar to “Duke”), and became Regent of Ethiopia in 1916. He took on the name Haile Selassie (“Might of the Trinity”) and spent some years in England in exile after Italian ruler Benito Mussolini’s (1883-1945) invasion of Ethiopia. In the mid-1930s many Jamaicans viewed Selassie as the incarnation of God, but when he later returned to Ethiopia in 1941 he lost popularity, was imprisoned by armed forces called the Derg (“Committee”), and many within his family were imprisoned and/or executed. Selassie died in 1975 and was believed to have passed due to respiratory failure although controversy surrounds the cause of his death.

The Rastafari God

In some cases a person may enter the Rastafari community if she is convinced that Selassie is her God. This can be attained through an act of private affirmation, which is often done in front of a photograph of Selassie (5). The majority of Rastafarians believe Selassie to have been the second coming of Christ, and to have been the incarnation of the God of Israel, Jah. Many therefore seen him as one manifestation of the godhead, although some others do not go this far and instead see him to have been God’s earthly representative and ruler.

The Spread of Rastafarianism

Rastafarianism spread after the Second World War when Caribbean migrants left to seek work in North America and Britain. The movement experienced further exposure from the likes of reggae, an expression of Jamaican culture, religion, and music that became popular during the 1960s and 70s (6). The famous Bob Marley (1945-1981), for example, was the face of reggae and his travels across the globe did much to bring the religion into public consciousness beyond Jamaica. Today there are roughly a million Rastafari across the world.

Appearance, Rituals, and Taboos

Rastafarians are easily recognized by their physical appearance which typically includes their beards, long hair, dreadlocks, and vibrant dress colours of red, green, gold, and black symbolizing the life force of blood, herbs, royalty, and Africanness. Marijuana is smoked during meditation with the purpose of heightening spiritual awareness and for an increased understanding of God’s nature. Rastafarians also reject European values, behaviours, and material possessions. They intend to keep themselves separate from Western way of life except in rare circumstances. Many will not touch or let themselves be touched by a white person, who brings possible death by contact. They will also not allow their flesh to be penetrated, whether that be for blood transfusion or surgical operation. Religious services center on the worship of God and Selassie, and includes smoking, dancing, drumming, chanting, and singing.

References

1. Salter, Richard. 2005. “Sources and Chronology in Rastafari Origins.” In Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. p. 5.

2. Kitzinger, Sheila. 1969. “Protest and Mysticisim: The Rastafari Cult of Jamaica.” In Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. p. 240.

3. Ambalu, S. 2013. The Religions Book.

4. Kitzinger, Sheila. 1969. Ibid. p. 240.

5. Kitzinger, Sheila. 1969. Ibid. 246

6. Salter, Richard. 2005. Ibid. p. 6.

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