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Michael Katz


The Rastafarian religion is unique in having few set beliefs to follow or doctrines to live by. Its African origins teach unity and love among all. There is no unified Rasta church, but it does however hold certain philosophies sacred and a number of principles true. People who believe that Selassie is divine or of divine nature are called Rastafarians. The religion is about justice and freedom of the Black race. It was born from the pains of oppression (Erskine, pg 161, 1998). The messages speaks of freedom from physical and mental slaveries of all kinds. The Rasta philosophy opposes violence, and practices a more peaceful means of resistance. The first evidence of Rastafarians in Jamaica date back to 1930 (Nicholas, pg 25, 1996). The community generally holds some truths evident, but beliefs may vary. But all are united that Haile Selassie was divine. They believe that he was the living God, returned. He was Ethiopia's emperor, but was considered a holy prophet by many more (Baptist, 1997). There was also a strong movement to renew African culture in ones everyday life.

Fundamental Ideas

Rastafarians must explore the different ideals presented to them by communicating with Jah, their God, and through careful examination of the Bible. By living a natural life and giving praise to Jah through every deed are key methods to living an eternal life (Nicholas, pg 31, 1996). Through meditation the followers arrive at the truths, and begin to come to understanding what has been left out of the Christian Bible. The Bible gives a representation of the past and future, but can really only be understood within oneself. The idea of personal experience and being guided by Jah shows the Rastafarians independence. With Jah’s guidance the truth will ultimately be told. The Rasta does not only believe in Jah, but he knows Jah, which ultimately leads to knowing oneself. It is not only their God, but it is everything in this world. Jah can be seen in every person and every object. The idea of knowing God on a different level fascinates me. I think it is interesting to look at objects for more then what they appear to be.

Generally the message the Rasta’s believe in speaks of equality and consists of the six holy truths.

The six holy truths are:

-Black people are the descendants and of the early Israelites and have been exiled to Jamaica by the White man

-Haile Selassie is the living God

-The White person is inferior to the Black person

-Ethiopia is heaven while Babylon is hell

-Their God will arrange for their repatriation to Ethiopia

-In the future Blacks will rule the world (Barret, pg 104, 1988).

There is a notion in the six holy truths that tells of the Black man truly being the Reincarnation of the ancient Israelites. This stems from the belief in a holy people coming from oppression. Black slaves always felt a relation to the enslaved Hebrews of the past. Rastafarians think of themselves to have been the ancient Hebrews who were exiled in Babylon. Rasta’s think translators distorted the Bible long ago, so Blacks wouldn’t know their true relationship with God. Many things in the Bible have changed from the original version, which is why the bible must be read with great care. Rasta’s question the ideas that Europeans had left out in hope of diminishing pride and confidence.

The people of the Rasta movement believe in Jesus as do many other religions, but they believe in a black Jesus who is fits more into the Rastafarian culture. It is thought that Haile Selassie is the returned Messiah, but at the same time a fellow traveler. The spirit of Rastfari, or better known as Selassie, is universal and eternal (Nicholas, pg 33, 1996). He was thought to be the true, living god of the Black race. Biblical references point to his holiness, although he himself wasn’t so sure of this. His role was very important to the religion and his spirit lives on through everyone and everything. "From Jeremiah 8:21 they are convinced that God is Black: ‘for the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold of me.’ A Black god to the Rastafarians is of the greatest importance, because ‘Blackness is synonymous with holiness.’ The distinctiveness of Halie Selassie for the movement lies therefore in the authority of the scriptures of his divinity and in the fact that he is Black. His Ethiopian birth further strengthens the belief, for the Bible clearly states that their god would be born in that country" (Barrett, pg 106, 1988). Selassie strived toward a universal equality among men, and taught the sacredness of truth and justice. They believe that their god is quite different then the White mans god. It is only the White man’s god creates all evils that are found in this world. Again, the ideas have stemmed from the racial oppression the Black man has suffered in the past.

The idea of Black superiority was largely due to Marcus Garvey and others like him. Garvey was interested in economic equality between the White and Black races. He believed that the key to succeeding was through education and religion, even though he wasn’t a religious man himself. He was an admired political leader with great expectations for the Black race. He laid the important fundamentals in Rastafarian thought (Erskine, pg 94, 1998). They preached to uplift the spirits of the oppressed, and gave confidence during times of hardships. Through well-spoken speeches messages began giving a positive message for those who would listened. Garvey spoke of a ‘back to Africa’ movement. The universal feeling amongst the Rastafarian religion was that repatriation would be the answer to their social and economic problems (Erskine, pg 165, 1998). The Rastafarians are not anti-White, contrary to what many think. Depending on where you stand in the struggle is how people should be judged. The attitude towards non-Black Rasta’s is and should be, "If you experience ‘black,’ approach life in a ‘black’ way, and are ‘spiritually’ African, then you are Rasta" (Clarke, pg 82, 1993). It is important to note that the entire White race was not thought to be the oppressor. Garvey once wrote:

"...Honor them when they honor you; disrespect and disregard them when they vilely treat you…They have sprung from the same family tree of obscurity as we have; their history is as rude in its primitiveness as we have…" (Garvey, African Fundamentalism).

This idea of vengeance can still be heard through the Rasta culture. Being held down for so long has given rise to negative feelings towards the oppressor. The reality of the matter is everyone should be viewed on the same level, and we are all humans. No one race is superior to another. The White race has good and bad just as the Black race does. People must be treated as individuals and not by stereotypes developed from historical events. True Rasta’s have learned to accept people from all backgrounds and races as long as they are open-minded and speak a message of equality.

During the days of slavery Europeans told Africans that the people of their land were savages and they were being assimilated for their own good. They attempted to destroy their entire culture but did not want to share their religion because they felt the Slaves were less than human (Snider, lecture, 2/8/00). There is a common feeling amongst Rasta’s of "half of the story has never being told" (Rastafari Selassie Center, Finland). When the slaves began to read the bible it told of a land that would stretch her hands out to God. There were constant references to Ethiopia.

"…the Greeks spoke of Ethiopia as ‘the land where the Gods loved to be’ and of Ethiopians as the ‘blameless race.’ These revelations about Ethiopia came at a time when all other African people, inside and outside of Africa were under White rule. Only Ethiopia had never been conquered by the white man. Ethiopia was the torchbearer of freedom and the bastion of African independence, and pride"(Napti, Jamaicans of Ethiopian Origin and the Rastafarian Faith, 2/95,, 4/13/00).

Those who believe, wait for the day of return to Africa, the Promised Land. Selassie will ensure the safe return and the Rasta must be educated in the African culture. This return will lead them to heaven, where freedom and justice will run throughout the land. Ethiopia became a powerful icon to the African Slaves and was also a place to be proud of (Snider, lecture, 2/8/00). A quote taken from the prophecy of Isaiah says: "I will say to the north, give up: and to the south, keep not back; bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 43:6). A day of judgment will come and Babylon will fall. When the emperor visited Jamaica in 1966, it was thought to be the final step before the return back to Africa. Even though this day has yet to come.

There is a large following that believes Blacks are destined to become the rulers of the world. Through interpreting text in the bible they feel that Whites will suffer from societal downfall, where only Blacks will survive and eventually rule the world. Many Black historical figures are pointed to when discussing their intellectual potential as a race. Racial pride is important and the Rastafarians have strong Rasta roots.


The Rastafarian religion seeks to expand their message and remain together as a group. "The Rastafarian movement is less about the acceptance of a set of doctrines and more about the way one lives" (Clarke, pg 79, 1993). Their distinct cultural rituals are shared amongst members and help keep the oneness of the group. Meetings are often held to raise the spirits of members and for inspiration. It is not uncommon to hear words of prayer as well as mediation to be seen at these gatherings.

The strong sense of community can be seen through weekly meetings. Discussions of upcoming events, community and individual problems, and government practices are all common issues that could be heard upon attendance. People have opportunities to voice opinions to the group. Debates often lead to solutions by using democratic methods. Aside from weekly informational meetings, monthly community gatherings are also common. They tend to be for spiritual while they add a friendly atmosphere. Dancing, drums and eating lighten the setting and allows for laughter.

The largest and most important meeting in the Rastafarian tradition is the Nyabingi, which involves members from various regions of Jamaica. It is a selective meeting only intended for Rasta’s. Its exclusiveness makes the gathering seem cult-like in many respects. It is a religious ceremony in the sense of bringing the Rasta’s closer to Jah. But also a social gathering that creates unity. The religion stresses togetherness to fight the oppressors and gain what they feel they deserve. Drum playing, poetry reading and ganja smoking are all practiced to create a religious atmosphere. The meeting has strict rules which all must abide by, and visitors are not generally well greeted. The Nyabingi is a time when people’s actions become collective and their spirits and hopes are raised. A quote taken from Nicholas exemplifies this by saying:

"The Niyabingi is heard here, raising the power of Earth to the sky. Through rhythmic beats on the heavy bass drum, you can feel the earth’s very center…from smaller drums, carry the Rasta cry of freedom and dignity into the sky above…Rastafari have come to relax and share their innate power in nature. Some play the drums. Others dance in an unfrenzied, flowing motion. Each has its own, but all emanate for, and return to, the essential rhythm. Niyabingi…Each sings his own song, all sing the same song, ‘Carry Rastafari home’" (Nicholas, pg 70, 1996).


Natures Influence

Nature and the environment is a central theme in Rastafarianism. Living with respect to the land and its many components is showing one’s respect for Jah. The laws of nature are thought to be most prominent in Africa, and upon their return they will be able to live in harmony with nature. Living off of the land means food is produced organically and agricultural practices are implemented safely, causing no damage to the land. The Rasta diet is followed closely and has strict rules. Alcohol and swine is forbidden and for the most part they lead a vegetarian lifestyle. The idea behind the practice is vegetables come from the earth, and the earth only produces good things. Fruits are thought of in the same way. Things made from natural roots and herbs are an acceptable part to the diet. The diet is called I-Tal, and is primarily vegetarian.

The most preferable method of getting food is through one’s own plantation or garden. This idea is the most environmentally sound way of farming and producing food. The return of this process is doing the least damage to the land. Its objectives are to live a healthy lifestyle, while also separating out the unholy foods in ones diet. Often the desire to live ‘naturally’ is unfeasible because of Western societies wants and desires, but Rastafarians strive to live this way. The cycle of supply and demand carries on leaving degradation and the natural processes of the land ignored. Many are just beginning to see the importance of sustainable agricultural practices. The idea of ‘unmanageable land’ scares those that depend on the products from these high input practices. Multinational corporations were looked down upon, and the feeling was Jamaica’s natural resources were being exploited (Erskine, pg 163, 1998).



Becoming one with God is one of the most important and necessary ideas in the Rastafarian religion. Once you know God, you begin to know yourself. One of the more common ways of becoming closer to Jah is through the smoking of Ganja. It is a natural herb that is used in religious rituals and gatherings.

"A significant aspect of ganja use amongst Rastafarians is the possibility that it may induce a mystical experience in the user. The ingestion of certain drugs to induce mystical states is extensively documented" (Nolan, Rastafarians and Ganga, 2/98, urnal/issue1/nolan.htm, 4/13/00).

Although illegal in Jamaica, it is a necessary part of ritual services and everyday life for many Rastas. The Rastas smoke ganja because the Bible tells them so (Boot, pg 88,1976). There is no obligation to smoke the holy herb, but it is offered widely across the people. It creates inspiration and healing for those who choose to partake in the smoking of marijuana.

"He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of Man..." (Psalm 104:14).

The sacredness of the herb makes one wonder why it is still illegal in a country where it is so widely used for spiritual purposes. The Rasta’s believe it is one of the most natural ways to worship God (Clarke, pg 89, 1993). Personal consumption for religious purposes is a valid reason for partaking in the smoking of ganja. It is not being abused using it in this way, therefore I believe it should be decriminalized in their society. The selling of herb for profit should still be an illegal practice as well as punishing those not affiliated with the religion that partake in consumption. The laws in Jamaica are working against the Rasta and their people. Unfortunately their government is trying to move in the same direction as the Western world, ultimately trying to modernize and keep the masses down. Instead of focusing on the negative, they should look at what the religion brings to the Jamaican culture and its many influences on society.


When the word Rastafarian arises the first thoughts that come to mind are dreadlocks. "…not all Rastas have locks, and not all locksmen are Rastas. It is just a common characteristic among Rastas, symbolizing deep devotion to the Holy God"(,Dreadlocks,, K/index.htm, 4/13/00). Taking ideas from the bible has led to the cultivating of dreadlocks and takes on a religious motive. It follows the idea of living naturally by not grooming them and taking a natural course. Although seen as a symbol of defiance, Rasta’s feel it gives them power and deeper feeling of their origins. "The cultivation of dreadlocks is intended to symbolize this historical stage of wandering through the wilderness towards the promised land" (Clarke, pg 92, 1993). The locks serve a purpose and hold meaning to the religion. Dreadlocks have become trendy to some people in today’s society, but their significance is too often lost. While it is true you don’t have to be a Rastafarian to have locks, I have begun to wonder how many really know the symbolism behind the tradition. The Old Testament shows evidence of locks with warriors such as Samson. The Rasta locks are symbolic of a lion’s mane, an animal with power and authority. The historical backgrounds and rebellious nature of dreadlocks has made it a popular tradition in the Rastafarian culture (Clarke, pg 90, 1993).

The Lion is the most important symbol in the Rastafarian culture and is widely associated with the Rasta’s. It stands for power, strength and pride. It represents Selassie, who is referred to as the Conquering Lion of Judah (Barrett, pg 142, 1988). The lion has always been shown as a dominant animal and is a good representation of their powerful ideas. The lion is often portrayed holding the Ethiopian flag. There is that connection to nature through the choosing the lion to represent the group. The reoccurring theme shows how significant it really is to the religion. Thinking about the future, I see this environmental way of thinking taking shape in the rest of our society. There are brilliant ideas behind this religion, contrary to what most think.

The Rastafarian language is also unique and gives character to their culture. The Patois language has words with strong meanings and that give senses of feelings. For example, Babylon represents the corrupt establishment such as the police or oppressors. It what people strive to get away from. It is not necessarily tangible ‘I and I’ is an expression commonly used. It is the idea of everyone being part of a whole, and everyone being one. "I and I reminds the Rastafarian of his own obligation to live right and at the same time, it praises the almighty" (Nicholas, pg 39, 1996). It represents a collective group. Another commonly used expression is the ‘one love’. It is the idea of loving others as well as yourself. The love must be shown to all throughout ones life collectively (Snider, 2/8/00, lecture).

The clothing they wear reflects the lifestyle of hardwork they lead. The most common colors one would find on a Rasta or in the culture are red, gold and green. All are symbolic and are also the colors of the Ethiopian flag. The red stands for the blood that was shed through the many years of slavery. The gold stands for the gold that was stolen throughout the many long years. And finally the green stands for the earth and hope, the hope of a better life for the future (Snider, 2/8/00, lecture).


From past movements and expressions, Rasta’s have been questioned on their intended message. Many think that they speak of bringing the White race down, and of their hatred towards Babylon or the oppressors. People make judgments on mere looks alone. Bring beaten and treated as property clearly points to the reasoning of resentment. Since the times of slavery the Black race had been mistreated. The movement has survived obstacles throughout its history. Everything from power struggles to leadership crises has tried to keep the religion from succeeding (Nicholas, pg 25, 1996).

Forced to live under peoples rules has caused anger to rise and the Rastafarians are now finally able to express their feelings through religion. Today the freedoms of the Rasta people is restricted by establishments they don’t believe in (Nicholas, pg 33, 1996).

The religion holds strong messages and its devoted followers have great pride in their heritage. It arose from the oppressive practices of Western society against African slaves. Although some preach negative ideas to others, generally Rastafarians have begun to accept those who hear the message they are striving to convey. Equality and recognition are what they are fighting for and will not stop until their voices are heard. Reoccurring themes can are seen in the basics of the Rastafarian religion. A strong appreciation for the land has led to a simpler lifestyle that moves away from the Western approach. When one looks at the history of the Rastafarian culture you begin to see the other side of the story.

Works Cited

Baptist, Maria. "The Rastafari," 1997, URL:, 4/13/00.

Barrett, Sr. Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977.

Barrow, S & Dalton, P. Reggae - The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, 1997.

Boot, A & Thomas, M. Jamaica: Babylon on a thin wire. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

Clarke, Peter B. Black Paradise: The Rastafarian Movement. Northamptonshire: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Davis, Stephen. Reggae Bloodlines: In search of the music and culture of Jamaica. New York: DaCapo Press, 1977.

Erskine, Noel L. Decolonizing Theology: A Caribbean Perspective. New Jersey: Africa World Press Inc, 1998.

Garvey, Marcus. African Fundamentalism. Jamaica:1966., "Beginners Rastafari Page," URL: 4/13/00.

Napti, "Jamaicans of Ethiopian Origin and the Rastafarian Faith," 2/95, URL:, 4/13/00.

Nicholas, Tracy. Rastafari: A way of life. Chicago: Research Associates School Times Publications, 1996.

Nolan, P. "Rastafarians and Ganga," 2/98, URL:, 4/13/00., "Dreadlocks," URL:,K/index.htm, 4/13/00.

Rastafari Selassie Center Homepage, URL:,


Simpson, George. (1985) Religion and Justice: Some Reflections on the Rastafari Movement. (Vol. 46) New York: Phylon.