Rastafarianism: Religion or Philosophy?

Most people heard of Rastafarianism, but do you know what it really is? We explore whether it is a religion or a philosophy (or both).

Feb 2, 2024By Maup van de Kerkhof, MSc Int'l Dev, Essayist & Researcher
rastafarianism religion philosophy


Popularized through reggae music, Rastafarianism speaks to the imagination of people all around the world. Its spread can, for a significant part, be attributed to the politically loaded lyrics of the late Bob Marley, and the actual message carried within these lyrics is central to the sustained appeal of the Rastafari worldview. While followers of Rastafarianism often use biblical references like ‘Babylon’ and ‘Zion,’ for many people, it’s still unclear whether the worldview should be seen as a religion or philosophy.


Rastafarianism Emerged in the Early 1900s

graffiti rastafari
Graffiti Rastafari en la Calle Uruguay, Andres Franchi Ugartemendía, 2014. Source: panoramio.com


Rastafarianism as we know it today first emerged in the 1930s and, in theory, started as a dynamic religious movement. Its roots can be traced back to one of the most famous activists of the Harlem Renaissance: Marcus Garvey. By combining the knowledge that he gained through his travels in South and Central America with his appreciation of African history and culture, in 1914, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League in Jamaica.


A later statement of Garvey would lead to the emergence of Rastafarianism. In 1920, he wrote a play that included a declaration: ‘Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.’


A decade later, a prince by the name of Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned as the 225th Emperor of Ethiopia. Based on both the words of Marcus Garvey as well as biblical prophecy, more people started to believe that the new Emperor of Ethiopia was the personification of the end of European domination and African suffering all over the world.


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The actions and policy of Ras Tafari Makonnen—who later adopted the name Haile Selassie I—led to this conviction. In sum, an Ethiopian Emperor perhaps gained his greatest following in a country that he wasn’t even ruling. A combination of social circumstances, prominent advocates, and religious beliefs set the stage for Rastafarianism to emerge in its eventual form.


Can a Philosophy have Divine Origins?

marcus garvey parade
Marcus Garvey in Military Uniform as the ‘Provisional President of Africa’, 1922. Source: Institute of the Black World 21st Century.


Marcus Garvey already hypothesized it a decade earlier, and eventually his prediction became reality: an African savior emerged. Because of a complex interplay of social phenomena, the Emperor of Ethiopia—rather than Marcus Garvey himself—was venerated as a living God, embodying the hope of global African redemption. Hence, the reign of Haile Selassie I became one of divinity. This largely has to do with the miserable social situation that many Jamaicans and Africans all over the world were in.


It is clear that the roots of Rastafarianism are already troublesome if we want to categorize it as either a religion or a philosophy. Sure, naming someone as a God generally means that the beliefs are religious in nature. But, naming someone as a living God already challenges the conventional nature of religion. Additionally, the evolution of Rastafarianism from the thought of Marcus Garvey indicates that it should be seen as a philosophy or cultural lifestyle rather than a religion.


Social Misery, Political Incompetence, and the Rise of a Philosophy

haile selassie
Haile Selassie during the Dutch Queen Juliana’s state visit to Ethiopia, Eric Koch, 1969. Source: Nationaal Archief.


Rastafarianism has been dynamic in nature from its very start, built on principles that challenge any conventional perception of religion. Over time, it increasingly incorporated the prevailing social, economic, and political environment and the challenges that came with it for Jamaicans.


The reason why the initial version of the Rastafari worldview is heavily reliant on religious symbolism can be explained through the social misery of the Jamaican people. It’s no secret that poorer communities are generally more religious. While there is no univocal answer to why that is the case, one of the reasons for heightened religiousness is the fact that it eases the negative effects of poverty on personal and communal well-being.


max weber
Max Weber in 1918 by Ernst Gottmann, 1918. Source: Max Weber-Gesamtausgabe.


The question then becomes, are religious—oftentimes poorer—communities incapable of philosophical reasoning? Can religion and philosophy exist alongside each other, or even be intermingled with each other to the extent that they’re hard to separate at first sight?


For the reader who is acquainted with the work of Max Weber, this question will already be answered. Not only did Weber abstract the philosophical nature of protestantism; the philosophical essence that was abstracted took on a life of its own. Arguably, it is even the very school of thought that is the subject of many Rastafari critiques.


Additionally, some of the most important Western philosophers were heavily reliant on religion. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that worldviews arising in other parts of the world are of lesser philosophical virtue when compared to the Eurocentric one. Or well, that’s true unless we accept to live in a world rooted in convictions of discrimination and racism.


The Evolution of Rastafarianism From Theology to Comprehensive Philosophy

sugar cane jamaica
Sugar-cane cutters in Jamaica, Caribbean by Historic Photographs, 1880. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich.


It is without a doubt that there is a heavy theological component to Rastafarianism, at least in the very beginning. While it had these strong religious elements initially, it gradually evolved into a more comprehensive philosophy that encompassed a broader range of ideas and principles. The transformation towards a comprehensive philosophy can be attributed to several factors.

First and foremost, the increasingly intellectual engagement with Rastafarianism allowed for its conversion into a philosophy. The initial disapproval of the Rastafari worldview by colonial authorities, paired with the 1934 invasion of Ethiopia by Italian forces, led to the growth of intellectual engagement with the movement. They began to explore broader philosophical questions that reflected the political and social environment. Or rather, the consequences of this environment on the Jamaican communities and beyond. Rastafari began to question the Eurocentric religious norms that had been imposed on them during the colonial era, leading to a more profound inquiry into their own spiritual and philosophical heritage.


Eventually, the beliefs of the philosophy needed to be articulated in a more intellectual and accessible manner. Through this, central concepts became more tangible and with that, easier to subject to philosophical inquiry. A virtuous circle, if you will. Building on the initial ideas of Marcus Garvey, intellectual leaders like Leonard Howell played a crucial role in shaping and articulating these ideas.


This intellectual engagement was not limited to texts. In fact, it predominantly involved open dialogues and debates within the Rastafarian community. Adherents engaged in discussions about their evolving beliefs and interpretations of scripture—both biblical and philosophical. These conversations further contributed to the intellectual growth of the movement, which eventually set the stage for the integration of global ideas after gaining international attention.


In light of Bob Marley’s popularity, profound conversations about spirituality, identity, and social justice became more prevalent. From here, the movement started integrating different global ideas into their philosophical framework, like pan-Africanism, Afrocentrism, and anti-colonial thought.

Really, the continuous pressure of colonial powers—which continues to this day—led to the emergence of the Rastafari philosophy. Because of the continuous neocolonial pressures, it is plausible that this development will continue in the future. The intellectual engagement led, and will lead, to the critical analysis of the social and political reality. Over time, the struggle for equality and liberation was not only spiritual in nature but became an increasingly social and political one.


Art and Literature as a Vehicle for Rastafari Philosophy

bob marley sketch
Sketch of Bob Marley por Daniel Alvarado Silvera by Daniel Alvarado Silvera, 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


It’s evident that the spread of Rastafarianism outside of the Jamaican borders has a lot to do with the arts and literature. Reggae music in particular can be seen as a vehicle for the spread of the Rastafari philosophy, challenging many conventional modes of conveying philosophy.


Surpassing the obvious example of Bob Marley—who brought us activist songs like ‘Redemption Song’ or ‘Them Belly Full but we Hungry’—artists like Burning Spear and Peter Tosh have contributed to the spread of Rastafarian beliefs.

Philosophy is made accessible to the wider public through Reggae music. It’s simple, yet profound, and intensified through the accompanying musical arrangements. Additionally, live shows are an extra layer added to this. Some describe this package in relation to Burning Spear as follows:


‘He’s the fire man; a higher man; an inspired man. Burning Spear, like his live stage shows transcends time and space. He is a prophet   on the burning shore. […] He is the shepherd, the gatherer of the flocks, uplifting the people. He carries the souls of the African ancestors; he is   the incarnation of those who survived the middle passages, and those who did not. It’s as if he personally bore witness to history’s tribulations, sufferations and struggles. He brings forth and utters an ancient melody that beckons us to remember.’


While this is by no means a claim that the artist is a philosopher himself, the above quote clearly indicates that the transmission of the Rastafari world view is encapsulated, for a significant part, in music.


Concluding: Rastafari as a Religion Turned Philosophy

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


In essence, Rastafarianism defies easy categorization as either a religion or philosophy. However, it certainly has evolved into something that is more leaning toward a philosophy than it does a religion. It has evolved into a comprehensive and transformative worldview that encompasses spirituality, identity, and social justice.


Its journey from its religious roots in the 1930s to a dynamic philosophy showcases its adaptability, relevance, and capacity to inspire individuals and communities worldwide. Not an unimportant asset to have for a philosophy. Rastafarianism, at its core, remains a living philosophy that continues to evolve in the light of the complexities of the modern age while remaining true to its foundational principles of unity, resistance, and African redemption.

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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.