Rastafari ranks among the newest of the global religions. Its roots go back to the 1930s, when Jamaican philosopher and activist Marcus Garvey and others advocated for the self-determination of people of African ancestry. The name of the tradition comes from the personal name of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari), one of the only independent Black leaders in Africa at the time. The vast majority of Rastas are of African descent today. In spite of its small following, the Rastafarian tradition has developed many unique traditions.
1. Rastafarian Livity: The Central Principle of Rasta Life
Perhaps no Rastafarian idea is more important to the lives of ordinary Rastas than livity. This term, created by the earliest Rastas, encompasses the central cultural practices of Rastafari. Rastas view their culture as more than merely a religious identity; it is fundamentally a way of life. It is important to note that Rastas themselves do not like to use the term “Rastafarian” to describe their beliefs. As livity is so central to Rastas’ communal and personal beliefs, this article cannot claim to be entirely exhaustive.
A committed Rasta strives to maintain and strengthen their livity through ritual practices and self-reflection. This could include certain types of music, meditation, and the smoking of marijuana (“ganja” in Rastafarian terminology). Rastafarian teachings tend to lean patriarchal, with men and women occupying separate roles historically. That being said, Rastafari women are valued for their contributions to the community. Both male and female Rastas refrain from cutting their hair, following a literal interpretation of Leviticus 19:27. Because of this, dreadlocks might be the most recognizable Rastafarian custom to non-members.
Rastafarian livity also involves following a particular diet. This is somewhat similar to kosher in Judaism, but there are major differences. Rastas don’t eat pork, and most do not eat meat at all. A vegetarian or vegan diet, known as ital to Rastas, is the standard. Rastas prefer to cultivate their foods naturally and locally, without added preservatives. Similarly, alcohol, coffee, and drugs other than marijuana are culturally forbidden.
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Rastafarian spiritual music comes in multiple forms. During devotional sessions called groundings, Rastas perform a kind of chanting and drumming known as Nyabinghi music. Reggae, which originated in Jamaica in the 1960s, is also closely connected to the Rastafari movement. Bob Marley helped to popularize the style to the rest of the world.
2. God and the Divine
The Rastafarian tradition can be considered an Abrahamic religion, part of the same branch as Christianity and Judaism. Its followers adhere to a monotheistic worldview, heavily inspired by the Bible’s Old Testament. Rastafarian monotheism does differ in significant ways from Christianity, however. Instead of following Jesus Christ as their messiah, many Rastas believe Haile Selassie was the earthly incarnation of God. Others simply regard him as a crucial prophetic figure. The final Ethiopian emperor functions as the most important spiritual forefather of the Rastafari movement. That being said, Rastas do hold the Bible as a paramount sacred text.
Rastas refer to God as Jah, based on the ancient Hebrew Yahweh and the old English Jehovah. Jah is identical to the Biblical God, but there are important distinctions regarding his relationship with humanity. In Christianity, God is believed to have created humans “in his image.” Despite this display of divine favor, the Christian God remains apart from earthly existence. Humans have eternal souls, but they are not divine, with the exception of Jesus Christ.
In Rastafari, every Rasta has some divine essence. A part of Jah can be found in every follower, which the common Rastafarian first-person expression “I-and-I” reflects. Many Rastas smoke ganja to connect more intimately with the divine. This is done during grounding sessions when Rasta men discuss their tradition’s principles and their application to their daily lives.
Given its roots among Black Jamaican communities and pan-African thinkers like Marcus Garvey, the Rastafari movement would be incomplete without its Afrocentric focus. Rastafari’s focus lies squarely on the African diaspora, especially in the Caribbean.
Rastafari can be seen as a religious product of the Atlantic slave trade. This forced displacement of millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean as slaves was the largest slaving enterprise in recorded history. Despite their dislocation from their original homelands, however, enslaved Africans did bring their religious ideas with them to the Americas. This included indigenous gods and spirits, folklore, and storytelling methods. In this regard, Rastafari could be grouped along with Caribbean Voodoo, albeit it is of a much more recent origin.
Rastafarian beliefs are fundamentally anti-colonial. Rastas view Africa as their spiritual homeland and the country of Ethiopia receives particular reverence, due in large part to its resistance to 19th-century European imperialism. The gold, green, and red colors of the modern Ethiopian flag are the traditional colors of Rastafari. Black is another important color for Rastas, representing the tradition’s followers.
4. Zion and Babylon
The overall Rastafarian worldview places itself between two theological/ideological poles: Zion and Babylon. This dichotomy is inextricably tied to Rastafari’s anti-colonial origins. Both terms come from the Old Testament, particularly the saga of the ancient Israelites. Many Rastas regard their movement as the true spiritual successor to ancient Israel.
The Bible states that Zion is another name for the city of Jerusalem. It can also refer to the land of Israel more broadly. Rastafari repurposes the Biblical definition in an Afrocentric direction. For Rastas, Zion refers to the continent of Africa, and Ethiopia specifically. The term represents both a place and an ideal to strive for, which Rastas equate with preserving and glorifying Black African culture. A number of reggae songs, such as Bob Marley’s 1974 hit “Iron Lion Zion,” refer to Zion explicitly.
Babylon occupies the opposite pole of the Rastafarian worldview. “Babylon” has a highly negative connotation, referring to European-dominated institutions which have historically oppressed Africans. These institutions sometimes include the government, scientific institutions, and big businesses. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, some Rastafari communities’ resistance to outside medicine contributed to the persistence of anti-vaccine sentiment. Committed Rastas prefer to avoid entanglement with Babylon whenever they can.
5. Mansions: Rastafarian Denominations/Communities
Unlike the Catholic Church or other major religions, Rastafari does not have a hierarchical structure. There is no supreme governing Rastafarian body. As a result, the Rastafari movement does have its divisions. These schools all follow central Rastafarian tenets such as livity, but they might differ on practice and membership requirements.
Rastafari is divided into “mansions,” a term derived from the King James Version of the Gospel of John. There are many Rastafarian mansions, but three of these have large followings: the Nyabinghi, the Bobo Ashanti, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Not all Rastas tie their cultural identities to a particular mansion. Instead, many follow an individualized practice of Rastafari.
The Nyabinghi are the oldest of the three major Rastafarian mansions. For followers, Haile Selassie is definitively the incarnation of Jah, and Ethiopia is their spiritual homeland. Historically, the mansion’s leaders supported the return of the African diaspora to the African continent. Nyabinghi followers follow a strictly vegan and organic ital diet. The name of the mansion comes from a legendary East African woman who amassed a large devotional following in the late 19th century.
The Bobo Ashanti mansion is slightly younger than the Nyabinghi, having been founded in the late 1950s. Its adherents still regard Haile Selassie as their principal prophet, but they also elevate Marcus Garvey to prophethood. Bobo Ashanti members follow a patriarchal social code; female members have to cover their bodies at all times. Men and women occupy separate social spheres in Bobo Ashanti thought and practice, yet the mansion is not necessarily misogynistic. Most notably, the Bobo Ashanti live separately from mainstream Jamaican society. They only smoke marijuana during religious services — never in public.
The final — and youngest — of the major Rastafarian mansions is the Twelve Tribes of Israel. As its name suggests, the order’s members consider themselves the successors of Biblical Israel. Compared to the Nyabinghi and the Bobo Ashanti, the Twelve Tribes of Israel are more socially liberal. Membership in the Twelve Tribes is not limited to Black people. The mansion was formed around 1968 by Vernon Carrington, whose followers knew him as the Prophet Gad. Bob Marley was a longtime member of the Twelve Tribes, although he did convert to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church shortly before his death.