Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Jamaica had a history of resistance to slavery, including the Maroons and revolts which often took a religious form . In the early 20th century Jamaica and the rest of the British Empire was still a two-tier society. The claim that God was black, and that Jesus was also black, is an inversion of the racial order supported by Protestantism, which was the dominant form of Christianity associated with the Empire. Rastafari was just one of a number of ‘revival’ religions inspired by African religious traditions, mixed with elements of Christianity and Caribbean innovations. These new religions appealed to black people directly, providing hope and pride in their status as African-descended Caribbeans, rather than offering salvation through assimilation to white, European Christianity.
Rastas refer to God as ‘Jah’, which is a shortened form of the biblical ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’ as in Psalm 68:4 of the King James Version of the Bible. Jah is spirit that has been manifested in the historical persons of Moses, Jesus, and Haile Selassie I. However, Jah is also present in all people. This concept is invoked through the phrase ‘I and I’. In earlier Rastafari thought, this was limited to black people. As a rejection of the subjugated status of black people as the descendants of slaves, Rastafari viewed black people as the reincarnation of the biblical Israelites, meaning that they are God’s chosen people. Black people were taken as slaves and were then living in exile in Babylon, a land of oppression, adapting the biblical narrative of the Jews’ exile in Babylon. ‘Babylon’ is the name Rastas give to the white colonial system. It stands for evil. Rastas will be delivered from Babylon through a return to Zion, which for Rastafari is Ethiopia or Africa more generally. Ethiopia is heaven, also known as Zion, this is the Promised Land for the chosen people, where they will finally be free. Jamaica is Hell.
The repatriation of all black people to Africa was meant to occur whenever Haile Selassie decided. Repatriation is the Rastafari symbol of the return to freedom. It is a fulfilment of biblical history, in which the true children of Israel held captive in Babylon are set free in Zion. In the Millennium, the time after the Second Coming when God’s Kingdom is on Earth, the saved will sail to the Promised Land, which the Rastafari identified variously as Africa, Ethiopia, and Mount Zion. Repatriation would be symbolised with seven miles of ships leaving from darkness and hell fire. In the emerging movement this took a particular racial form that black people will be saved because they are special to God. In later formulations, Zion and Babylon are understood symbolically as states of being, which can be cultivated by people regardless of race. Rastafari beliefs can be seen as a religious formulation of social and political resistance to slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. Scholars have discussed whether it is best understood as a religion or an expression of black cultural or political identity, but some have concluded that it is impossible to separate out these strands.
Ethiopianism is an important influence on Rastafari beliefs, especially as formulated by Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Garvey was a proponent of Black Nationalism and founded the United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. In his Pan-Africanism, Ethiopia-Africa is the Promised Land to which the African diaspora created through slavery should return. Garveyism was religious as well as political, asserting that God is black. Ethiopia was viewed as a great civilisation that existed prior to the white colonial empires. Garvey supported this belief with biblical references to Ethiopia and Egypt, which he used to construct a historical mythology of the superiority of black people. Garveyism formed the doctrinal base of the Rastafari movement, which also believed white people, through their actions as colonial oppressors, were inferior to black people, who were God’s chosen people. However, the beliefs from the 1930s to the 1970s differed from post-1970s beliefs, when emphasis on black superiority and racial segregation gradually decreased. Rastafaris in the 21st century continue to see the post-colonial social structures as evil, but individual white people are seen and judged separately, based on their behaviour.
God is an immanent deity for Rastas, meaning that God is inherent in all people and that everyone is connected. The divine is found in the individual. This belief has far-reaching consequences. There is no single authority on doctrine for the Rastafari; it is up to individual interpretation how God or Jah is manifested for them. This means beliefs are fluid, as is membership, which is often a gradual process of realisation. There is no conversion ritual such as baptism or any creed to recite to make oneself Rastafari. There is a general dislike of ‘isms’, which is why most scholars do not call it ‘Rastafarianism’. Rastas use the word ‘livity’ to denote following ital norms such as dietary and clothing regulations (explained below) but more broadly to refer to the Rastafari way of life, severing oneself from the ways of the West and embracing the spiritual, social, political and cultural ways of the black God. There is no agreed system of beliefs, as Rastafari beliefs are open to debate and interpretation. However, there is a widely shared theology: Haile Selassie I is the living God, Ethiopia is the home of black people, redemption through repatriation is close, and the ways of white people are evil. This could even be reduced to two essential truths: Haile Selassie I is the living God and salvation for black people will come through repatriation to Africa, although for many in a symbolic rather than a physical sense. There are also a number of complementary and sometimes paradoxical ‘truths’ in Rastafari that are used as ways of explaining the past, present, and future circumstances of black people.
1. Maroons were Africans who had escaped from slavery and established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica.
The Bible is looked to as a source for Rastafari ways of living. There are biblical justifications for ganja use in Genesis 1:12, Genesis 1:29, Genesis 3:18, Exodus 10:12, Proverbs 15:17, Psalm 104:14, Psalm 18:18, Revelation 22:2, and many others. Dreadlocks are justified with Old Testament proscriptions against hair cutting such as “They shall not make baldness…” Leviticus 21:5, and Numbers 6:5, and 1 Corinthians 11:4-6 for women covering their hair. Rastas recite Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” at the beginning of meetings. Reading scripture is a regular part of weekly and monthly meetings. In ‘reasonings’ they strive to find hidden ‘true’ meanings in the Bible. One of the strictest ‘Mansions’ of Rastafari, the Bobo Shanti, read a section of the Bible nonstop for three hours, starting with Laws, then Prophets, and ending with the Gospels and Epistles, rarely commenting on what they are reading.
The work of Marcus Garvey and his organisation, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), form a source of scriptural inspiration to Rastafari. Revered by Rastafaris as an inspirer, Garvey is second only to Haile Selassie. Garvey advocated a back-to-Africa movement. His spiritual mission was fighting against the social and economic oppression of black people in Jamaica and worldwide. A movement formed around him, which he organised into the UNIA in 1914. His work promulgates Pan-Africanism, a worldwide confraternity of black people, with Africa as the united self-sufficient black nation. All black people could return there. He supported establishing black educational institutions for teaching about black cultures and worked to uplift the black race, proclaiming “Africa for the African at home and abroad”. However, he never visited Africa himself; it was a symbol of a homeland that was never realised. He was never accepted in his native Jamaica, only achieving success in the United States. Garvey did not approve of Rastafari, which he saw as a form of religious fanaticism.
Other significant scriptures for the Rastafari include the Holy Piby, written by Robert Athlyi Rogers, an Anguillan, in the 1920s and distributed by the early Rastafari preacher, Leonard Howell. Rogers wrote it to support his own Afrocentric religion, the Afro Athlican Constructive Church, in which Ethiopians (meaning black Africans) were God’s chosen people and Marcus Garvey was an apostle. Rogers’ church did not find much support, but the Holy Piby became an early scriptural resource for Rastafari. The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy by Fitz Ballintine Pettersberg, an African American preacher, was also written in the 1920s and provided inspiration for the early Rastafaris. It refers to King Alpha and Queen Omega and the ‘resurrection’ of Ethiopia. The Promised Key was written in 1935 by Leonard Howell, echoing much of the sentiment and some verbatim text of The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy, although with King Alpha being identified as Haile Selassie. My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress is the two-volume autobiography of Haile Selassie written over his life and used by Rastafari for inspiration from the life of the man that they believe to be the messiah, the incarnation of Jah. The 14th century Kebra Nagast gives an account of the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon and relates how the Ark of the Covenant came to Ethiopia. It is used by Rastafari who trace Haile Selassie’s lineage to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, making him the descendent of the biblical King David, and his descendants the true Israelites of the Bible to whom God promises salvation.
The Rastafari movement began in the slums of Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, and from there spread to the rest of the island. The early preachers worked separately and recruited Garveyites, with a core of the emerging movement formed by 1934. They offered hope at a time of social and economic depression and hurricane destruction, when the future of the poor seemed bleak. The coronation of a black Emperor identified by preachers as the messiah offered a vision of future renewal for black people who continued to be oppressed under British colonial rule. Leonard Howell preached six principles: hatred for the white race; the complete superiority of blacks; revenge on whites for evil; the negation, persecution, and humiliation of the government and legal authorities in Jamaica; preparation for black people to return to Africa; and Haile Selassie as the supreme being and only ruler of black people. This teaching presented a direct challenge to the government of Jamaica. Howell was arrested along with other Rastafari leaders and followers for sedition in 1934 by the British colonial authorities, and Howell was imprisoned. His teachings were continued by his lieutenants in secret.
In 1940, Howell founded a commune called the Pinnacle in the hills of St. Catherine, outside Kingston. The members were following the example of the 19th century Maroons, who had rebelled against slavery on the plantations of Jamaica and taken up arms against the colonial authorities, living in the hills in a self-sufficient community, which served as a beacon to other slaves in assisting their escape. Between 500 to 1600 followers lived at various times in Howell’s self-sufficient community at Pinnacle. Howell proclaimed himself the chief, styled after African tribal organisation. He allegedly had 13 wives. The commune subsisted on its own produce but also planted cash crops to sell in Kingston, including ganja (marijuana) which went on to assume religious significance for Rastafari. In January 1941, the police raided the commune, having been tipped off by neighbours that the Rastafari had demanded taxes from them in the name of Haile Selassie. Howell was arrested and imprisoned again. The Pinnacle community dispersed in his absence.
The second phase of Pinnacle began in 1953, and it was during this period that some Rastas started growing the distinctive dreadlocks. The commune was raided and the members were arrested again in 1954. Pinnacle was destroyed on 22 May 1954. By this time, Howell was claiming that he was divine; following the destruction of Pinnacle his followers deserted him, and he was committed to a Kingston mental hospital in 1960. In 1975, he was living with followers in Bushy Park, a few miles from the original Pinnacle site. Howell has been charged with acting as an autocrat at Pinnacle by historians of Rastafari, because he meted out punishments and was in charge of everything. He was the first to use the honorific ‘Gong’, an abbreviation of the name ‘Gangunguru Maragh’ which has an East Asian origin with Gangunguru translated as ‘teacher of famed wisdom’ and Maragh as ‘king’. The other early preachers achieved less lasting renown (or infamy), but each was a charismatic figure in the early movement. Hinds and Dunkley were seen as prophets. Joseph Hibbert was thought to have powers of clairvoyance, to see the truth of the past and what would happen in the future. Hibbert based his organisation on ‘occultism’, reading secrets hidden in the Books of Maccabees (these texts are not in the Hebrew Bible and are either relegated to a section called ‘Apocrypha’ or omitted from Protestant Bibles, but included in Roman Catholic versions). While he was known for having occult powers, he did not like teaching his secrets to his followers who subsequently left him.
The reggae musician Bob Marley is a prophet and poet for Rastas and for Jamaicans more generally. As a teenager, Marley was apprenticed to a Rastaman and adopted the beliefs and ways of living himself. His music uses the rhythms of traditional Rastafari drumming. Many of his famous songs include Rastafari teachings. As a member of the Twelve Tribes (see ‘Diversity’ below), Marley’s understanding of the livity was fairly unusual; however he became widely popular among Rastas. Marley was to the 1970s English and American Rastas what Marcus Garvey was to the 1930s Jamaican Rastas: a prophet and an inspiration. He was instrumental in the spread of Rastafari to the UK and the USA in the 1970s through disseminating Rastafari ideas and themes throughout the world using his music. While not every Rastafari sees him as a prophet, he has been very influential for the movement. He became a symbol of the archetypal Rasta after his death in 1980. He was posthumously given the Order of Merit, the third highest honour in Jamaica, and buried with a state funeral.
Rastas have no overall leader. Everyone is considered equal because each person is equally Jah. However, only those that follow the ways and beliefs of Rastafari realise this divine status. Becoming Rastafari is a spiritual birth in ‘sonship’, a personal divinity based on a relationship to Haile Selassie; the believer becomes a son of ‘Jah Rastafari who is god’ and shares his divinity. However, how this works out in practice is open to individual interpretation based on experience. No one member can lay down orthodoxy or tell any other member what to believe or how to behave. Elders and those who speak persuasively in ‘reasonings’ hold some authority; however, this authority is up to each individual to acknowledge, based on their own experience with that person. Authority ultimately rests individually in each Rastafari as an incarnation of Jah.