Why Do the Rastafari Believe That Haile Selassie Was a God?

Rastafari believe that Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was a living God. But how did this belief develop?

Mar 1, 2024By Maup van de Kerkhof, MSc Int'l Dev, Essayist & Researcher
haile selassie god roots rastafari


What do you do when you’re the emperor of an African country, but you’re revered as a God by a little island all the way in the Caribbean? This was the conundrum Ras Tafari Makonnen found himself in. Later known as Haile Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia would take on this double role for most of his life. On the one hand, he was the emperor of Ethiopia, while on the other hand, he was the divine figure representing African redemption and pan-Africanism; values central to the Rastafari movement which originated in Jamaica.


How Marcus Garvey made Haile Selassie a God in Rastafarianism

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey, National Hero of Jamaica, by George Grantham Bain Collection, 1924. Source: Library of Congress.


The divine status of Haile Selassie I originates with a Jamaican-born activist and Pan-Africanist leader by the name of Marcus Garvey. He is credited with making the statement that contributed to the perception of Haile Selassie as a divine figure within the Rastafarian movement, although he would later come to see him as a challenger rather than a companion.


Garvey’s declaration in 1920 was as follows: ‘Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.’ Just a single sentence, but it would end up having a profound impact on the Rastafarian movement and the life of Ras Tafari Makonnen.


Garvey’s statement was seen as a prophecy by his followers and other members of the early Rastafarian movement, which was not yet named Rastafarianism at the time. It was interpreted as if the crowning of a black king in Africa would be simultaneous with the end of European domination over Africans worldwide. Also, it would signal a new era of African redemption and liberation.


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Ten years later, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned the Emperor of Ethiopia. As per Ethiopian tradition, his name was changed to Emperor Haile Selassie I, which stands for ‘Might of the Trinity.’


Garvey’s prophecy and Haile Selassie’s actions and policies led many Rastafarians to venerate him as the living God, or ‘Jah.’ He embodied the hope of African redemption for many followers of the Rastafari faith. Simultaneously, his political actions gave a sense of hope that their beliefs were not just beliefs but a forthcoming reality.


African Redemption as a Central Tenet of Rastafarianism

flag map jamaica ethiopia
Flag map of Ethiopia by Pnn2013, 2023. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The emergence of Haile Selassie I and its relation to Rastafarianism is not only divine. The combination of the divine Emperor on the one side and the early religious beliefs on the other became the foundation of what would later become a full-blown philosophy.


While Marcus Garvey already promoted a sense of nonviolent resistance, the spiritual dimension given by Haile Selassie I installed an even more profound sense of nonviolent resistance in the Rastafarian movement; it became ontological.


Return to Africa is at the basis of the movement, and the rhetorical structure tells that a situation of oppression is transformed through triumphing over the realm of freedom. While history in Rastafarianism is mainly perceived as a conflict between white colonizers and black colonized people, the spiritual dimension of Rastafarianism asks its followers to be non-violent and teach peace and love.


Whereas Christian missionaries rejected the beliefs of the ones they wanted to convert, Rastafari does no such thing. The essence of Rastafarianism is to surpass cultural imperialism and allow people to express their own beliefs along their own means, ultimately leading to African redemption, or redemption for any marginalized group for that matter. In the broadest sense, it draws comparisons to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.


Haile Selassie I at the League of Nations

league of nations
League of Nations 1923, by Anonyymi Uutiskuva. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


While the influence of the Ethiopian Emperor on the most fundamental value of Rastafarianism is clear, he reinforced himself as the savior of African people through his actions. One of his main feats came through his historic and influential speech before the League of Nations, often referred to as the ‘Appeal to the League of Nations.’ In fact, it is considered by many to be one of the most iconic moments in the history of diplomacy and international relations in general.


In 1935, Mussolini, the dictator of Italy at the time, launched his invasion of Ethiopia. This was a flagrant act of aggression and violation of international law, whereas Ethiopia was a member state of the League of Nations. The following year, on June 30, 1936, Haile Selassie pleaded in front of the League of Nations to uphold its founding principles and intervene to stop the Italian invasion.


While it had little to do with him being venerated as God by Rastafari—a position he always refused—his speech strengthened the Rastafarian belief in Pan-Africanism and African redemption.


Although moving away from the previous elaboration on the aspect of nonviolence in Rastafarianism, Haile Selassie’s speech included a powerful plea for justice and the consequences of inaction in the face of aggression. One of the most iconic lines in his plea was ‘It is us today. It will be you tomorrow,’ emphasizing the broader implications of allowing such aggression to go unchecked.


Italian troops addis ababa
Military Parade of Italian Troops in Addis Ababa, 1936, by an unknown photographer. Source: State Treasury of Poland.


It should, again, be noted that Haile Selassie’s importance to the Rastafarian movement was only given to him by his followers. While he definitely respected the movement, he himself did not relate to the movement as the leading divine figure. Because of this, the nature of Rastafarianism on the one side and Haile Selassie’s political and philosophical stance on the other side weren’t consistent all the time.


The call for intervention—implying a move away from the nonviolent nature of Rastafarianism—is an action of Haile Selassie himself and not necessarily adopted by Rastafari. The latter continued to believe in nonviolent resistance. However, what was strengthened for the Rastafarian community through the ‘Appeal to the League of Nations’ was the sense of Pan-Africanism.


The eloquence of the speech and the topics touched upon raised awareness about the Ethiopian crisis and the African struggle against colonialism and aggression more generally. The speech had a profound impact on the Pan-African movement, which sought to promote unity and solidarity among people of African descent worldwide. It inspired African leaders and activists to continue their efforts to end colonialism and achieve independence.


The resistance to the Italian occupation and the leadership of Haile Selassie became symbolic of the African resistance movement. While the actual unity of Africa was still far away in 1936, the speech allowed for this complex and gradual process to be brought a significant step forward.


Rastafarianism and Haile Selassie after his Death: From Religion to Philosophy

haile selassie addis ababa
Haile Selassie, Addis Ababa by British Press Service, 1942. Source: Library of Congress.


It’s not hard to see why the speech by Haile Selassie—along with his other actions in national and international policy—had a profound impact on the Rastafari movement. Simultaneously, the convictions and actions of the Rastafari would further shape feelings of Pan-Africanism, even after the death of Haile Selassie in 1975. But, his death also was quite the problem. Haile Selassie was the divine figure and the living God. After his death, Rastafari had to grapple with the spiritual and theological implications of his passing. This resulted in different responses from different groups.


For some, the belief in Haile Selassie as a divine figure continued. However, for a large part of the Rastafarian movement, the death of the Emperor forced a reevaluation of their beliefs. A key shift was that he came to be seen as a symbol of African resistance, empowerment, and a key figure in the struggle against oppression.


This is where Rastafarianism becomes more of a philosophical rather than a religious worldview. The most religious component of the movement was literally buried, shifting the focus from the religious dimension towards the socio-political and cultural dimension of Rastafarianism. Rastafari began to interpret the life and legacy of Selassie allegorically, drawing lessons and inspirations from his role on the world stage—a role that only grew after his speech in 1936.


flag map ethiopian lion
Flag map of Jamaica (Ethiopia) by DrRanomFactor, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Many Rastafari continued to emphasize the importance of African liberation, social justice, and repatriation to Africa. It allowed for a more profound reflection and discussion about the values central to the philosophy. While faith was still a factor, it was seen as a vehicle for addressing the systemic injustices faced by people of African descent and for advocating equal rights and self-determination.


Besides liberation, the idea of Pan-Africanism was further explored by the movement. Many see these developments as central to Rastafarian communities worldwide and essential to the global bonding over Pan-African sentiments more generally.


The move away from the religious nature also meant a practical change. While before, the worldview mainly revolved around ritual and prayers, it now became rooted in practical discussion and activism. Rastafari increasingly engaged in civil rights movements and politics. Hence, Haile Selassie and his death helped synthesize the spiritual nature of Rastafarianism with the philosophical one.


Haile Selassie Mural
Haile Selassie Potrait Mural, Chris English, 2013. Source: Panoramio


While the spiritual essence of nonviolence remains attributed to the Rastafari community itself, the broader philosophical implications for African redemption and liberation can be attributed—in large part—to the politics and actions of Haile Selassie. Or rather, to the reflections of the Rastafarian movement on this discourse.


The death of Haile Selassie forced the Rastafari community to be open to new events and new interpretations. This made it possible for Rastafari to engage with an open-ended and creative interpretation of human agency and history, simultaneously allowing for the development of philosophical concepts like I&I and livity, amongst others.

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By Maup van de KerkhofMSc Int'l Dev, Essayist & ResearcherThrough his studies and volunteering experiences, Maup has worked with many different cultural groups in various countries. Understanding a distant culture gives him a deep satisfaction, something which he tries to pursue throughout his professional life. He holds an MSc in International Development with a specialization in Inclusive Innovation and Communication. Additionally, he is interdisciplinary trained in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and political sciences. Maup is also an essayist and commissioning editor, where he commissions work relating to decolonizing the processes and organizations active in the global community like the UN or WTO.