Rastafari emerged in the 1930s in Jamaica. A central belief is that the Ethiopian King, Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), is the living God. Tafari Makonen was the birth name of Haile Selassie I, which was changed upon his coronation on 2 November 1930, and ‘Ras’ was his title before coronation, meaning ‘duke’ or ‘prince’. The name ‘Haile Selassie’ means ‘power of the Trinity’. The movement took his original first name and title as its own. Haile Selassie I identified himself as the 225th King of biblical Ethiopia. However, it is unclear whether he ever supported the Rastafari belief that he was also divine. For Rastas, Haile Selassie I is the black messiah, who redeems black people who have been exiled from Africa through slavery. Rastafari beliefs reject the subordinate status of black people under colonialism. It was a radical reformulation of Jamaican social conditions in the early 20th century. These conditions were still structured according to the colonial order where white, European people held higher status, while black, African-descended people were enslaved. In 1807 the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire, and then in 1833 slavery as an institution was abolished, due in part to a revolt by slaves in Jamaica.
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.