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Intro to Rastafari
Monday, January 12, 2009

Initiation Rituals and Membership

Membership occurs through a spiritual birth, through self-awareness, not by adoption but by right as a believer. Members are thus able to claim divinity through their relationship with Haile Selassie. They believe there are no untrue Rastafarians. Either one fulfills his or her vows or one does not. No specific public rituals exist for membership.

There are approximately 700,000 adherents worldwide.


In the early 1920’s, Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Back-to-Africa movement and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), stated that people should “look to Africa for the crowning of a black King, he shall be the Redeemer.” On November 2, 1930, the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, which means power of the Holy Trinity, king of Ethiopia took place.

In addition, Haile Selassie claimed for himself the following titles, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and King of Kings of Ethiopia. After the coronation and the apparent fulfillment of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy, the Rastafarian movement officially began in 1930. Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892. He married the daughter of Emperor Menelik II and became Ras (prince) Tafari, the name taken by his followers in Jamaica.

One of the early leaders was Leonard Howell whose teachings helped develop the theology of the movement and whose arrest in 1933 by the Jamaican government helped develop the organizational structure as well. As a result of his arrest, no strong central leadership was encouraged or developed. After his release from prison he founded the Pinnacle Commune in the hills above Kingston, where it is believed that the use of ganja was adopted as a religious ritual.

Bob Marley who popularized Reggae, a mixture of soul music and calypso, used his music as a means to spread the teachings of Rasta. Bob Marley used Reggae music as a medium to speak out against oppression, exploitation, and racism. After his conversion to Rasta, Bob Marley was considered to be one of its great prophets.

The largest growth of the movement has taken place since 1975, largely attributed to Bob Marley and his world-wide acceptance of Reggae as an avenue of Rastafarian self-expression, which continues today, long after his death. Bob Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981.

H.I.M. Haile Selassie was assassinated in a communist coup on August 28, 1975; however, there is debate among many Rastafarians about the validity of Selassie’s death. Since Selassie is Jah, he could not have died.


No comprehensive set of doctrines is available in Rastafarian theology. What has become acceptable is largely a matter of individual understanding and interpretation. This is, in part, due to the lack of a single authoritative voice among the Rastafarians.

H.I.M. Haile Selassie

Emperor Haile Selassie is divine and traces his lineage directly back to Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) and King Solomon of Jerusalem. This makes him a direct descendant of the root of David – the same one that produced Jesus Christ who was one and the same with Selassie, but of an earlier dispensation. Several passages from Scripture pointed forward to his coming, such as, Psalm 87:3-4, Revelation 5:2-5, and Revelation 19:1-6. Upon his death in 1975, the divine continues to live within each member. Life for the Rastafarian is not limited to the flesh. The name of God is Jah, an abbreviated form of Jehovah (Psalm 68:4).

I and I or InI

I and I, is an expression to emphasize the concept of oneness. No person is more privileged in life than another; all are considered equal. A further meaning is that God is in all human beings; it stresses the collective unity and experience of all individuals. That is why Rastafarians will use I and I instead of we or you and I.

The Bible

The Rastafarians accept the Bible, but with conditions. They prefer passages which are in harmony with their specific doctrines and believe that much of the Bible has been distorted in its translation. The Bible is further interpreted in an Afrocentric manner, a divinery inspired perspective given to them by the creative powers of His Imperial Majesty. Rastafarians believe that numerous Biblical texts support their teaching that God is black (Jeremiah 8:21), for to them blackness is synonymous with holiness. Thus Haile Selassie meets the requirement of the movement that he is both divine and black. Furthermore, according to Psalm 87: 3 and 4, clear reference is made that God would be born in Ethiopia. An allegorical interpretation of biblical passages is preferred. A key to understanding the Scriptures is to look for hidden meaning and directives in Biblical passages.


Jamaica is hell, Ethiopia is heaven. Repatriation to Ethiopia specifically, and Africa in general, is considered to be Rastafarians’ heaven on earth. Many Rastafarians today would say that this repatriation is not a literal journey anymore but is descriptive of life’s spiritual journey.

Role of Women

Rastafarian women are usually segregated from the men. Their role in Rastafari belief is clearly limited and subservient to men. Deuteronomy 22:5 dictates modest dress while I Corinthians 11:5 and 6 calls for the covering of women’s heads while in public. They do not wear makeup or fragrances. Nor are they permitted to draw from the chillum, the chalice used with ganja on the journeys.


The wearing of hair in dreadlocks is one of the distinctive physical characteristics of the Rastafarians. The Biblical injunction against the cutting of hair, especially for those who dedicate their lives to Jah as Nazerites, became the basis for letting their hair grow. In addition, the dreads represent the strength and biblical symbolism of the Lion of Judah, since dreads give off the appearance of a lion’s mane.

Rastafarians view their dreadlocks as their outward commitment to Jah and are able to receive inspiration from Jah through their natural receptors, the dreads. Dreadlocks are expressive of the Rastafarian’s commitment to live righteously and naturally.


Tams or crown may be worn to cover or contain the dreadlocks. In the community crowns may contain peaks or bills symbolizing the forward progression of the Rastafarian individual. Generally, crowns contain some or all of the following colors: red, yellow, green, taken from the Garvey movement, and also the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Some may contain the color black as well.

Red symbolizes the church triumphant which is the church of the Rastafarians. It can also symbolize the blood that martyrs have shed in the history of the Rastafarian movement. Yellow represents the wealth of the homeland which is Ethiopia. Green represents the beauty and vegetation of Ethiopia, the Promised Land. Black is sometimes used to represent the African continent.


The use of ganja by Rastafarians is one of the ways the members are able to develop insights into their beliefs which are not available by any other means. Ganja is the name given to a specifically cultivated type of Indian hemp derived from female plants, called Cannabis sativa. As Barrett noted, “its use produces psycho-spiritual effects and has socio-religious functions, especially for people under stress” (The Rastafarians, p. 129). The use of ganja in their rituals is Biblically based, the Rastafarians believe. Passages which have reference to descriptions of the herb such as Genesis 1:12, Proverbs 15:17, and Psalm 104:14, are used to justify its use. Primarily ganja, or the holy herb, provides a new understanding of self, the universe, and God. In worship, the prayer recited is:

“Glory be to the Father and to the Master of Creation
As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be
World without end: Jah Rastafari: Eternal God Selassie I.”

The Lost Tribes of Israel

To the Rastafarian, Israel and Ethiopia are the same and the names simply refer to a holy people. The Rastafarians, the true Israelites, have been punished by Jah for their sins through slavery under whites and, when freed from slavery, remained under the white government structure of oppression. Hence they were exiled to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. Although Rastafarians already should have returned, they were prevented by trickery of the government. One day all will return to Ethiopia.


The Rastafarian belief in reincarnation is similar to that found in Hinduism. God has revealed himself in various forms in history. Moses was the first Avatar or savior, since he was actually God revealed in the form of man. Elijah was the second Avatar and Jesus Christ was the third. Haile Selassie is the climax of God’s creation and the final Avatar. No other self-revelation of God will appear.

Major Groups within Rastafari

There are a number of branches within Rastafarianism, among them the orthodox or Nyabinghi, the 12 Tribes of Israel, and the Bobo Shante.

1. Orthodox or Nyabinghi

This group tries to bridge Rastafarianism and Ethiopian orthodoxy. Their theology is a mix of Christianity and Rastafarian beliefs. The members consider themselves to be Nazerites and wear dreadlocks. Their tams almost always include the color black.

2. Twelve Tribes of Israel

The 12 Tribes of Israel believe that His Imperial Majesty is the Christ revealed. The members regard the wearing of locks as an option which may or may not be utilized by the members who do not consider themselves to be Nazerites. Their tams include equal bands of red, green, and gold. Bob Marley belonged to the 12 Tribes of Israel until shortly before his death when he became an Orthodox Rastafarian.

3. Bobo Shante

The Bobo Shante Rastafarians view their leader, Prince Emanuel I, as the Christ who is now revealed in this time. To them, His Imperial Majesty would be the Father and Prince Emanuel the Son, using Trinitarian terminology. Bobo Shante Rastafarians consider themselves to be Nazerites and wear the dreadlocks. They generally do not wear colors on their headdress, which looks like a stylized turban.

Moral Code

Sam Brown, one of the early Rastafarian leaders, wrote this ten point moral code which reads as follows (The Rastafarians, p. 126):

“We strongly object to sharp implements used in the desecration of the figure of Man, e.g., trimming and shaving, tattooing of the skin, and cutting of the flesh. We are basically vegetarians, making scant use of certain animal flesh, outlawing the use of swine’s flesh in any form, shell fish, scaleless fishes, snails, etc. We worship and observe no other God but Rastafari, outlawing all other forms of pagan worship yet respecting all believers. We love and respect the brotherhood of mankind, yet our first love is to the sons of Ham. We disapprove and utterly abhor hate, jealousy, envy, deceit, guile, treachery, etc. We are avowed to create a world of one brotherhood. We do not agree to the pleasures of present day society and its modern evils. Our duty is to extend the hand of charity to any brother in distress, firstly, for ones of the Rastafari order – secondly, to any human, animal, plant, etc. We do adhere to the ancient laws of Ethiopia. Thou shall give no thought to the aid, titles, and possessions that the enemy in his fear may seek to bestow on your resolution to your purpose is the love of Rastafari.”