Rastafari, also known as Rastafarianism, is an Abrahamic religion that developed in Jamaica during the 1930s. Scholars of religion and related fields have classified it as both a new religious movement and a social movement. There is no central authority in control of the movement and much diversity exists among practitioners, who are known as Rastafari, Rastafarians, or Rastas.

Rastas refer to their beliefs, which are based on a specific interpretation of the Bible, as “Rastalogy”. Central is a monotheistic belief in a single God—referred to as Jah—who partially resides within each individual. Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974, is given central importance. Many Rastas regard him as an incarnation of Jah on Earth and as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, another figure whom practitioners revere. Other Rastas regard Haile Selassie not as Jah incarnate but as a human prophet who fully recognized the inner divinity in every individual. Rastafari is Afrocentric and focuses its attention on the African diaspora, which it believes is oppressed within Western society, or “Babylon”. Many Rastas call for the resettlement of the African diaspora in either Ethiopia or Africa more widely, referring to this continent as the Promised Land of “Zion”. Rastas refer to their practices as “livity”. Communal meetings are known as “groundations”, and are typified by music, chanting, discussions, and the smoking of cannabis, the latter being regarded as a sacrament with beneficial properties. Rastas place emphasis on what they regard as living “naturally”, adhering to ital dietary requirements, twisting their hair into dreadlocks, and following patriarchal gender roles.

Rastafari originated among impoverished and socially disenfranchised Afro-Jamaican communities in 1930s Jamaica. Its Afrocentric ideology was largely a reaction against Jamaica’s then-dominant British colonial culture. It was influenced by both Ethiopianism and the Back-to-Africa movement promoted by black nationalist figures like Marcus Garvey. The movement developed after several Christian clergymen, most notably Leonard Howell, proclaimed that Haile Selassie’s crowning as emperor in 1930 fulfilled a Biblical prophecy. By the 1950s, Rastafari’s counter-cultural stance had brought the movement into conflict with wider Jamaican society, including violent clashes with law enforcement. In the 1960s and 1970s, it gained increased respectability within Jamaica and greater visibility abroad through the popularity of Rasta-inspired reggae musicians like Bob Marley. Enthusiasm for Rastafari declined in the 1980s, following the deaths of Haile Selassie and Marley, but the movement survived and has a presence in many parts of the world.

The Rasta movement is decentralised and organised on a largely cellular basis. There are several denominations, or “Mansions of Rastafari”, the most prominent of which are the Nyahbinghi, Bobo Ashanti, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each offering a different interpretation of Rasta belief. There are an estimated 700,000 to 1 million Rastas across the world; the largest population is in Jamaica, although communities can be found in most of the world’s major population centres. The majority of practitioners are of black African descent, although a minority come from other ethnic groups.


Scholars of religion have categorised Rastafari as a new religious movement, a new social movement, or as a social movement. The scholar of religion Leonard E. Barrett referred to it as a sect, and the sociologist Ernest Cashmore as a cult, while scholar of religion Ennis B. Edmonds argued that it could best be understood as a revitalization movement. Although Rastafari focuses on Africa as a source of identity, the scholar of religion Maboula Soumahoro noted that it was not an “authentic” African religion but an example of creolization, a product of the unique social environment that existed in the Americas. Edmonds also suggested that Rastafari was “emerging” as a world religion, not because of the number of adherents that it had, but because of its global spread. Many Rastas themselves, however, do not regard it as a religion, instead referring to it as a “way of life”. In 1989, a British Industrial Tribunal concluded that—for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976—Rastafarians could be considered an ethnic group because they have a long, shared heritage which distinguished themselves from other groups, their own cultural traditions, a common language, and a common religion.

The term “Rastafari” derives from the pre-regnal title of Haile Selassie; the term “Ras” means a duke or prince, while “Tafari Makonen” was his name. It is unknown why the early Rastas adopted this form of Haile Selassie’s name as the basis of their religion’s name. Many commentators—including some academic sources—refer to the movement as “Rastafarianism”. This term has also been used by some practitioners. However, “Rastafarianism” is considered offensive by most Rastafari, who, being critical of “isms” or “ians” (which they see as a typical part of “Babylon” culture), dislike being labelled as an “ism” or “ian” themselves. Cashmore urged fellow academics not to use this term, which he described as “insensitive”.

Rastafari is a decentralised and heterogeneous movement. It is thus difficult to make broad generalisations about the movement without obscuring the complexities within it.


The Liberty Bell Temple in Los Angeles was established by Ed Forchion

Rastas refer to the totality of their religion’s ideas and beliefs as “Rastalogy”. The scholar of religion Ennis B. Edmonds described Rastafari as having “a fairly cohesive worldview”; however, Cashmore thought that its beliefs were “fluid and open to interpretation”. Because it has no systematic theology or highly developed institutions, the sociologist of religion Peter B. Clarke stated that it was “extremely difficult to generalise” about Rastas and their beliefs. Based on his research in Ghana, the scholar of religion Darren J. N. Middleton suggested that it was appropriate to speak of “a plethora of Rasta spiritualities” displaying a “shifting eclecticism”. The movement has continuously changed and developed over the course of its history. Attempts have been made to summarise Rastafari belief, but these have never been accorded the status of a catechism or creed within the movement.

Emphasis is placed on the idea that personal experience and intuitive understanding should be used to determine the truth or validity of a particular belief or practice. No Rasta, therefore, has the authority to declare what beliefs and practices are orthodox and which are heterodox. The conviction that Rastafari has no dogma “is so strong that it has itself become something of a dogma”, according to Clarke.

Rastafari belief is deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian religion. It accords the Bible a central place in its belief system, regarding it as a holy book, and adopts a literalist interpretation of its contents. According to the anthropologist Stephen D. Glazier, Rasta approaches to the Bible result in the religion being “highly Protestant in outlook”. Rastas regard the Bible as an authentic account of early black history and their place as God’s favoured people. They believe that the Bible was originally written on stone in the Ethiopian language of Amharic. For Rastas, the Bible is therefore viewed as the key to understanding the past and the present and for predicting the future. It is also regarded as a sourcebook from which they can form their religious practices. The Bible’s final book, the Book of Revelation, is widely regarded as the most important part for Rastas, having a particular significance for their situation.

However, Rastas also believe that the true meaning of the Bible has been warped, both through mistranslation into other languages and by deliberate manipulation by those who wanted to deny black Africans their history. They also regard it as cryptographic, meaning that it has many hidden meanings. They believe that its true teachings can be revealed through intuition and meditation with the “book within”. As a result of what they regard as the corruption of the Bible, Rastas also turn to other sources that they believe shed light on black African history. Common texts used for this purpose include Leonard Howell’s 1935 work The Promised Key, Robert Athlyi Rogers’ 1924 book Holy Piby, and Fitz Balintine Pettersburg 1920s work, the Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy.

Jah Rastafari and Jesus of Nazareth

Rastafari is monotheists, worshipping a singular God whom they call Jah. The term “Jah” is a shortened version of “Jehovah”, the name of God in English translations of the Old Testament. As well as regarding Jah as a deity, Rastas also believe that Jah is inherent within each human individual. This belief is reflected in the aphorism, often cited by Rastas, that “God is man and man is God”. Due to the view that God exists within everyone, Rastas believe that all members of the religion are intrinsically connected, and thereby regard statements like “you and I” as being insignificant. As a result, Rastas speak of “knowing” Jah, rather than simply “believing” in him. In seeking to narrow the distance between humanity and divinity, Rastafari embraces mysticism. In believing that human beings have an inner divinity within themselves, Rastas help to cultivate a bastion against the uncertainty and insecurity that exists within society and societal institutions.

Jesus of Nazareth is an important figure in Rastafari. However, practitioners reject the traditional depiction of Jesus present in Christianity, particularly the depiction of him as a white European, believing that this is a perversion of the truth. They believe that Jesus was a black African and that he was a Rasta. Christianity is treated with suspicion out of the view that the oppressors and the oppressed cannot share the same God, with many Rastas taking the view that the God worshipped by most white Christians is actually the Devil. Rastas therefore often view Christian preachers as deceivers, and regard Christianity as being guilty of furthering the oppression of the African diaspora, often referring to it as having perpetrated “mental enslavement”. One recurring saying among Rastafari is that “The Pope is Satan”. Jesus is given particular prominence among a Rastafari denomination known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Rastas belonging to this group refer to Jesus as Yahshua and Yesus Kritos, and believe that his second coming is imminent. Accordingly, they do not share the view of other Rastas that Haile Selassie was the second coming of Jesus.

Haile Selassie

From its origins, Rastafari was intrinsically linked with Haile Selassie, who ruled as Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. He remains the central figure in Rastafari ideology, and although all Rastas hold him in esteem, precise interpretations of his identity differ. The Makonnen dynasty, of which Haile Selassie was a member, claimed descent from the Biblical figures Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a belief that many Rastas share.

Haile Selassie, photographed in the 1930s

Understandings of how Haile Selassie relates to Jesus differ among Rastas. Many, although not all, view the Ethiopian king as Second Coming of Jesus. In this, Haile Selassie is also believed to be the messiah predicted in the Biblical Old Testament, the manifestation of God in human form, and “the living God”. Some perceive him as part of a Trinity, alongside God as Creator and the Holy Spirit, which is sometimes referred to among Rastas as “the Breath within the temple”. Among those Rastas claiming a link between the two figures, some point to the belief that both Jesus and Haile Selassie were descendants from the royal line of David. Rastas also cite their interpretation of chapter 19 in the Book of Revelation.

Other Rastas see Selassie as embodying Jesus’ teachings and essence but not being the reincarnated Jesus himself. From this perspective, Haile Selassie is perceived as a messenger or emissary of God rather than a manifestation of God himself. This attitude may be more pervasive among Rastas living in Africa itself, who are more familiar with the realities of the continent’s political problems. Rastas holding to this view sometimes regard the deification of Haile Selassie as naïve or ignorant; there are various Rastas who went from believing that Haile Selassie was both God incarnate and the Second Coming of Jesus to seeing him as something distinct.

On being crowned, Haile Selassie was given the title of “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah”. Rastas use this title for Haile Selassie alongside others, such as “Almighty God”, “Judge and Avenger”, “King Alpha and Queen Omega”, “Returned Messiah”, “Elect of God”, and “Elect of Himself”. Rastas also view Haile Selassie as a symbol of their positive affirmation of Africa as a source of spiritual and cultural heritage.

During the 1960s, many Jamaican Rastas professed the belief that Haile Selassie would never die. The 1974 overthrow of Haile Selassie by the military Derg and his subsequent death in 1975 resulted in a crisis of faith for many Rastas. Some practitioners left the movement altogether. Others remained and developed new strategies for dealing with the news. Some Rastas believed that Selassie did not really die and that claims to the contrary were Western misinformation. To bolster their argument, they pointed to the fact that no corpse had been produced; in reality, Haile Selassie’s body had been buried beneath a toilet in his palace, remaining undiscovered there until 1992. Another perspective within Rastafari acknowledged that Haile Selassie’s body had perished, but claimed that his inner essence survived as a spiritual force. A third response within the Rastafari community was that Selassie’s death was inconsequential as he had only been a “personification” of Jah rather than Jah himself.

During his life, Selassie described himself as a devout Christian. In a 1967 interview when a Canadian interviewer mentioned the Rastafari belief that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, he responded by saying: “I have heard of this idea. I also met certain Rastafarians. I told them clearly that I am a man, that I am mortal, and that I will be replaced by the oncoming generation, and that they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.” His grandson Ermias Sahle Selassie has said that there is “no doubt that Haile Selassie did not encourage the Rastafari movement”. For some Rastas, Haile Selassie’s denials are taken as evidence was that he was indeed the incarnation of God. However, critics of the religion have insisted that Haile Selassie was merely a human being who never claimed to be God.

Afrocentrism, Babylon, and Zion

The eastern African nation of Ethiopia is given great prominence in Rasta doctrine

According to Clarke, Rastafari is “concerned above all else with black consciousness, with rediscovering the identity, personal and racial, of black people”. The Rastafari movement began among Afro-Jamaicans who wanted to reject the British imperial culture that dominated Jamaica, while at the same time making a determined effort to create an identity based on a re-appropriation of their African heritage. Rastas equate blackness with the African continent and thus endorse a form of Pan-Africanism. Practitioners of Rastafari identify themselves with the ancient Israelites—God’s chosen people in the Old Testament—and believe that black Africans or Rastas are either the descendants or reincarnations of this ancient people. Rastafari espouses the view that the true identity of black Africans has been lost and needs to be reclaimed. In reclaiming this identity, Rastas believe, they will help to rid themselves of feelings of inferiority.

Rastafari teaches that the black African diaspora are exiles living in “Babylon”, a term applied to Western society. For Rastas, European colonialism and global capitalism are regarded as manifestations of Babylon, while police and soldiers are viewed as its agents. The term “Babylon” is adopted because of its Biblical associations. In the Old Testament, Babylon is the Mesopotamian city which conquered and deported the Israelites from their homeland between 597 and 586 BCE. In the New Testament, “Babylon” is used as a euphemism for the Roman Empire, which was regarded as acting in a destructive manner akin to the ancient Babylonians. Rastas view Babylon as being responsible for both the Atlantic slave trade which removed enslaved Africans from their continent and for the ongoing poverty facing the African diaspora. Rastas turn to scripture to explain the Atlantic slave trade. Rastas believe that the slavery, exile, and exploitation of black Africans was punishment for failing to live up to their status as Jah’s chosen people.

For Rastas, Babylon is regarded as the ultimate evil. Rastas regard the exile of the black African diaspora in Babylon as an experience of great suffering, with the term “suffering” having a significant place in Rasta discourse. Rastas seek to delegitimise and destroy Babylon, something often conveyed in the Rasta aphorism “Chant down Babylon”. Practitioners are often critical of Western resource extraction from Africa, seeing it as a form of exploitation akin to the Atlantic Slave Trade. Adopting a Pan-Africanist ethos, many Rastas have criticised the division of Africa into nation-states, again regarding this as a Babylonian development. Rastas often expect white-dominated society to dismiss their beliefs as false, and when this happens it is seen as confirmation of the correctness of their faith, thus strengthening their convictions.

Map of Ethiopia, the “Zion” of the Rastas

Rastas view “Zion” as an ideal to which they aspire. As with “Babylon”, this is again a term derived from the Bible, where it referred to an idealised Jerusalem, regarded as the City of God. Rastas use the term in reference either to Ethiopia or to Africa more widely, a land which has an almost mythological identity in Rasta discourse. In doing so, Rastas reflect their desire to escape what they perceive as the domination and degradation that they experience in Babylon. During the first three decades of the Rastafari movement, it placed strong emphasis on the need for the African diaspora to be repatriated to Africa. To this end, various Rastas lobbied the Jamaican government and United Nations to oversee this resettlement process. Other Rastas organised their own transportation to the African continent. Critics of the movement have argued that the migration of the entire African diaspora to Africa is implausible, particularly as no African country would welcome this.

By the movement’s fourth decade, the desire for physical repatriation to Africa had declined among Rastas. This change in view was influenced by observation of the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia. Rather, many Rastas saw the idea of returning to Africa in a metaphorical sense, entailing restoring their pride and self-confidence as people of black African descent. The term “liberation before repatriation” began to be used within the movement. Some Rastas seek to transform Western society so that they may more comfortably live within it rather than seeking to move to Africa. There are nevertheless many Rastas who continue to emphasise the need for physical resettlement of the African diaspora in Africa. Some Rastas living elsewhere in Africa see no need to migrate to Ethiopia specifically because they believe that all of Africa falls under the Biblical understanding of “Ethiopia”; thus, Rastas in Ghana for instance described themselves as already living within “Ethiopia”.

There is no uniform Rasta view on race. Rastas typically believe that black Africans are God’s chosen people, meaning that they made a deal with him and thus have a special responsibility. This is similar to beliefs in Judaism. Influenced by Garvey, many Rastas endorse black supremacy, believing the black African race to be superior to other racial groups. This has opened the religion up to accusations of racism from its critics, including black Jamaicans. Cashmore noted that there was an “implicit potential” for racism in Rasta beliefs but that racism was not “intrinsic” to the religion. Some Rastas have acknowledged that there is racism in the movement, primarily against Europeans, Asians, and also against white European Rastas. Some Rasta sects reject the idea that a white European can ever be a legitimate Rasta. Others believe that an “African” identity is not inherently linked to black skin but rather is about whether an individual displays an African “attitude” or “spirit”.

Morality, ethics, and gender roles

A Rastaman in Barbados, wearing a rastacap decorated in the Rastafari colours: green, gold, red and black

Most Rastas share a pair of fundamental moral principles known as the “two great commandments”. These are love of God and love of neighbour. Rastafari promotes the idea of “living naturally”, in accordance with what Rastas regard as nature’s laws. It endorses the idea that Africa is the “natural” abode of black Africans, a continent where they can live according to African culture and tradition and be themselves on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level. Practitioners believe that Westerners and Babylon have detached themselves from nature through technological development and as a result have become debilitated, slothful, and decadent. Some Rastas express the view that they should adhere to what they regard as African laws rather than the laws of Babylon, thus defending their involvement in certain acts which may be illegal in the countries that they are living in.

Some Rastas have promoted activism as a means of achieving socio-political change, while others believe in awaiting change that will be brought about through divine intervention in human affairs. In Jamaica, Rastas do not typically vote and derogatorily dismiss politics as “politricks”. Similarly, some Ghanaian Rastas were reported as refusing to vote in the 2000 general election, believing that salvation would only come through livity, not political activity. The Rasta tendency to believe that socio-political change is inevitable opens the religion up to the criticism from the political left that it encouraged adherents to do little or nothing to change the status quo. Most of these Jamaican practitioners have rejected both capitalism and socialism as models of economic development. Other Rastas do engage in political activism; the Ghanaian Rasta singer-songwriter Rocky Dawuni for instance has been involved in campaigns promoting social justice, environmental justice, and democratic elections. In the example of Grenada, many Rastas joined the People’s Revolutionary Government which was formed in 1979, although Marxist–Leninist factions later turned against them.

Gender roles and sexuality

Rastafari promotes what it regards as the restoration of black manhood, believing that men in the African diaspora have been emasculated by Babylon. Rastafari espouses patriarchal principles, and promotes the idea that women should submit to male leadership. External observers—including scholars like Cashmore and Edmonds—have claimed that Rastafari accords women an inferior position to men. Rastafari women usually accept this subordinate position and regard it as their duty to obey their men; the academic Maureen Rowe suggested that women were willing to join the religion despite its restrictions because they valued the life of structure and discipline it provided. Rasta discourse often presents women as morally weak and susceptible to deception by evil, and claims that they are impure during their period of menstruation. Rastafari mirrored the views on gender which were common in Jamaican society more broadly; however, it has retained its commitment to patriarchy while Jamaican society has moved toward greater gender equity. Rastas legitimise these gender roles by citing Biblical passages, particularly those in the Book of Leviticus, and in the writings of Paul the Apostle.

Rasta women usually wear clothing that covers their head and masks their body contours, in a manner akin to traditional Islamic clothing. Long skirts are usually worn rather than trousers, and women are expected to cover their head while praying. Rasta discourse legitimises this female dress code with the claim that it is necessary to prevent women attracting men; it also endorses this female dress code as an antidote to the sexual objectification of women in Babylon. Rasta men are permitted to wear whatever they choose. Although men and women took part in early Rasta rituals alongside each other, from the late 1940s and 1950s a more radical movement within the Rasta community encouraged gender segregation for ceremonies. This was legitimised with the explanation that women were impure through menstruation and that their presence at the ceremonies would distract male participants.

A Rasta shop in the U.S. state of Oregon

Both contraception and abortion are usually censured by Rastas, and a common claim in Rasta discourse is that these were inventions of Babylon created in an attempt to decrease the black African birth-rate. Rastas also typically express hostile attitudes to homosexuality, regarding homosexuals as evil and unnatural; this attitude derives from references to same-sex sexual activity in the Bible. In the 1960s, the scholar Sheila Kitzinger suggested that this horror of homosexuality “may be an indication of a heterosexuality which is not markedly pronounced” among Jamaican practitioners. The scholar of religion Fortune Sibanda suggested that there were likely homosexual Rastas who deliberately concealed their sexual orientation because of these attitudes. Rastas typically see the growing acceptance of birth control and homosexuality in Western society as evidence of the degeneration of Babylon as it approaches its apocalyptic end.


The cultural and religious practices of Rastafari are referred to as “livity” by Rastas. Rastafari has no professional priesthood, with Rastas believing that there is no need for a priest to act as mediator between the worshipper and divinity. There are individuals who are regarded as elders within the community. This is an honorific title bestowed upon those who have attained a good reputation among Rastas because of their exemplary conduct. Although respected figures, they do not necessarily have any administrative functions or responsibilities among Rastafari. Elders are often in communication with each other through a network.


Rastafari in Liberia celebrating Marcus Garvey’s birthday

The term “grounding” is used among Rastas to refer to the establishment of relationships between like-minded practitioners. Groundings often take place in a commune or yard, and are presided over by an elder. The elder is charged with keeping discipline in the group, and can ban those who contravene the rules that they set forth. The number of participants can range from a handful to several hundred. Activities that take place at groundings include the playing of drums, chanting, the singing of hymns, and the recitation of poetry. Ganja, or cannabis, is often smoked. Most groundings contain only men, with women being excluded. Some Rasta women have established their own, all-female grounding circles.

One of the central activities that takes place at groundings is “reasoning”. This is a discussion among assembled Rastas about the religion’s principles and their relevance to current events. These discussions are supposed to be non-combative, although attendees can point out the fallacies in any arguments that are presented. Those assembled inform each other about the revelations that they have received through meditation and dream. Each contributor is supposed to push the boundaries of understanding until the entire group has gained greater insight into the topic under discussion. Cashmore observed that in England, Rastas arrived and left throughout the reasoning session. In meeting together with like-minded individuals, reasoning helps Rastas to reassure one another of the correctness of their beliefs.

Rastafari meetings are opened and closed with prayers. Barrett suggested that the most common example had “all the structure of a classical ritual prayer”. This prayer involves supplication of God, the supplication for the hungry, sick, and infants, calls for the destruction of the Rastas’ enemies, and then closes with statements of adoration.

Princes shall come out of Egypt, Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand unto God. Oh thou God of Ethiopia, thou God of divine majesty, thy spirit come within our hearts to dwell in the parts of righteousness. That the hungry be fed, the sick nourished, the aged protected, and the infant cared for. Teach us love and loyalty as it is in Zion.

— Opening passage of a common Rasta prayer

The largest groundings were known as “groundations” or “grounations” in the 1950s, although were subsequently re-termed “Nyabinghi Issemblies”. The term Nyabinghi is adopted from the name of a mythical African queen. Several dates are often selected for Nyabinghi Issemblies, particularly those associated with Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. These include Ethiopian Christmas (7 January), the day on which Haile Selassie visited Jamaica (21 April), Selassie’s birthday (23 July), Ethiopian New Year (11 September), Selassie’s coronation day (2 November). Some Rastas also organise Nyabinghi Issemblies to mark Jamaica’s Emancipation Day (1 August) and Marcus Garvey’s birthday (17 August).

Nyabinghi Issemblies typically take place in rural areas, being situated in the open air or in temporary structures—known as “temples” or “tabernacles”—which are specifically constructed for the purpose. Any elder seeking to sponsor a Nyabinghi Issembly must have approval from other elders to do so, and requires the adequate resources to organise such an event. The assembly usually lasts between three and seven days. During the daytime, those Rastas attending the event engage in food preparation, ganja smoking, and reasoning, while at night they focus on drumming and dancing around bonfires. Nyabinghi Issemblies often attract Rastas from a wide area, including from different countries. They establish and maintain a sense of solidarity among the Rasta community and cultivate a feeling of collective belonging. They also help to confirm Rastas’ convictions in the veracity of Rastafari teaching.

Use of cannabis

Rastafari man carrying a basket

Clarke stated that the “principle ritual” of Rastafari was the smoking of ganja, or cannabis. Among the names that Rastas give to the plant are callie, Iley, “the herb”, “the grass”, and “the weed”. When smoked in ritual contexts, Rastas often refer to it as “the holy herb”. In addition to smoking it, Rastas also ingest cannabis in a tea, as a spice in cooking, and as an ingredient in medicine. Cannabis is usually smoked during groundings, although some Rastas smoke it almost all of the time. Others have criticised this practice, believing that use of the drug should be restricted to groundings. However, not all Rastas use ganja, explaining that they have already achieved a higher level of consciousness and thus do not require it.

Rastas argue that the use of ganja is promoted in the Bible, specifically in Genesis 1:29, Psalms 18:8, and Revelation 22:2. Rastas portray cannabis as the supreme herb, and regard it as having healing properties. They also eulogise it for inducing feelings of “peace and love” in those taking it, and claim that it cultivates a form of personal introspection that allows the smoker to discover their inner divinity, or “InI consciousness”. Some Rastas express the view that cannabis smoke serves as an incense that counteracts perceived immoral practices, such as same-sex sexual relations, in society.

When meeting in a grounding, Rastas typically remove their head gear first. Rastas most often smoke cannabis through a form of large cigarette known as a spliff. This is often rolled together while a prayer is offered to Jah; only once this is completed is the spliff then lit, enabling it to be smoked. At other times, cannabis is smoked not in a spliff but in a water pipe referred to as a “chalice”. There are different styles of chalices used by Rastas, including kutchies, chillums, and steamers. The pipe is passed in a counter-clockwise direction around the assembled circle of Rastas

A flowering cannabis plant

By the 8th century, cannabis had been introduced by Arab traders to Central and Southern Africa, where it is known as “dagga”. There are various methods of transmission that might explain how cannabis smoking came to be part of Rastafari. One possible source was the African diasporic religion of Kumina, based on the practices of Bakongo enslaved people and indentured labourers who were brought to Jamaica in the mid-nineteenth century. In Kumina, cannabis was smoked during religious ceremonies in the belief that it facilitated possession by ancestral spirits. The religion was largely practiced in south-east Jamaica’s Saint Thomas Parish, where a prominent early Rasta, Leonard Howell, lived during the period he was developing many of Rastafari’s beliefs and practices.

A second possible source was the use of cannabis in various Hindu rituals. Hindu migrants arrived in Jamaica as indentured servants from British India between 1834 and 1917, and brought the use of cannabis with them. One Jamaican Hindu priest, Laloo, was one of Howell’s spiritual advisors, and may have influenced his adoption of ganja. It is also possible that its adoption was also influenced by the widespread medicinal and recreational use of cannabis among Afro-Jamaicans in the early twentieth century. Early Rastafarians may have taken an element of Jamaican culture which they associated with their peasant past and the rejection of capitalism and sanctified it by according it Biblical correlates.

According to many Rastas, the illegality of cannabis in many nations is evidence of persecution of Rastafari. They are not surprised that it is illegal, seeing it as a powerful substance that opens people’s minds to the truth – something the Babylon system, they reason, clearly does not want. In smoking an illegal substance, Rastas protest the rules and regulations of Babylon. Rastas have advocated the legalisation of cannabis. The Rasta usage of ganja has attracted much popular, scholarly, and legal debate.


Rastafari music developed at reasoning sessions, where drumming, chanting, and dancing are all present. Rasta music is performed to praise and commune with Jah. In performing it, Rastas also reaffirm their rejection of Babylon. Rastas believe that their music has healing properties, with the ability to cure colds, fevers, and headaches. Many of these songs are sung to the tune of older Christian hymns, but others are original Rasta creations.

The bass-line of Rasta music is provided by the akete, a three-drum set, which is accompanied by percussion instruments like rattles and tambourines. A syncopated rhythm is then provided by the fundeh drum. In addition, a peta drum improvises over the rhythm. The different components of the music are regarded as displaying different symbolism; the bassline symbolises blows against Babylon, while the lighter beats denote hope for the future.

As Rastafari developed, popular music became its chief communicative medium. During the 1950s, ska was a popular musical style in Jamaica, and although its protests against social and political conditions were mild, it gave early expression to the Rastafarians’ social and political ideology. Particularly prominent in the connection between Rastafari and ska were the musicians Count Ossie and Don Drummond. Ossie was a drummer who believed that black people needed to develop their own style of music; he was heavily influenced by Kumina and Burru, two drumming styles developed by African-Jamaicans. Ossie subsequently popularised this new Rastafari ritual music by playing at various groundings and groundations around Jamaica, with songs like “Another Moses” and “Babylon Gone” reflecting this Rasta influence. Rasta themes also appeared in Drummond’s work, with songs such as “Reincarnation” and “Tribute to Marcus Garvey”. Rasta ideas began to feature in the lyrics of mento songs, such as Lord Lebby’s “Ethiopia”.

1968 saw the development of reggae in Jamaica, a musical style typified by slower, heavier rhythms than ska and the increased use of patois. Although like calypso, reggae was a medium for social commentary, it demonstrated a wider use of radical political and Rasta themes than had previously been present in Jamaican popular music. Reggae artists incorporated Rasta ritual rhythms, and also adopted Rasta chants, language, motifs, and social critiques. Songs like The Wailers’ “African Herbsman” and “Kaya”, and Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” referenced marijuana use, while tracks like The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” and Junior Byles’ “Beat Down Babylon” referenced the Rastafarian belief in Babylon. Reggae gained widespread international popularity during the mid-1970s, coming to be viewed as music of the oppressed by black people in many different countries. Its popularity led to the emergence of “pseudo-Rastafarians”, individuals who adopted the cultural trappings of Rastafari—such as dreadlocks and marijuana use—without sharing the religion’s beliefs. Many Rastas grew critical of reggae, believing that it had commercialised their faith. Although reggae contains much Rastafari symbolism, and the two have come to be widely associated, the connection between them is often exaggerated by non-Rastas. Most Rastas do not listen to reggae music. Out of reggae came dub music; dub artists often employ Rastafari terminology, even when not Rastas themselves.

Language and symbolism

In the 1940s, a distinct form of Rasta language, often known as “dreadtalk”, developed among Jamaican practitioners. Rastas typically regard words as having an intrinsic power, with Rastafari language reflecting Rastas’ own experiences, as well as fostering a group identity and cultivating particular values. Rastas seek to avoid language that contributes to servility, self-degradation, and the objectification of the person. They believe that the English language is a tool of Babylon, and thus by formulating their own language are launching an ideological attack on the integrity of the English language. The use of this language helps Rastas distinguish themselves from non-Rastas, for whom—according to Barrett—Rasta rhetoric can be “meaningless babbling”.

Garvey adopted the three colours of the Ethiopian flag for his movement; Rastas in turn adopted the tricolour

When greeting one another, Rastas often say “Peace and Love”. Rastas make wide use of the pronoun “I”. The use of this word denotes the Rasta view that the self is divine. It also reminds each Rasta that they are a human being, not a slave, and that they have value, worth, and dignity as a human being. For instance, Rastas use “I” in place of “me”, “I and I” in place of “we”, “I-ceive” in place of “receive”, “I-sire” in place of “desire”, “I-rate” in place of “create”, and “I-men” in place of “Amen”. Rastas refer to this process as “InI Consciousness” or “Isciousness”. Rastas typically refer to Haile Selaisse as “Haile Selassie I”, thus indicating their belief in his divinity. Rastas also typically believe that the phonetics of a word should be linked to its meaning. For instance, Rastas often use the word “downpression” in place of “oppression” because oppression bears down on people rather than lifting them up, with “up” being phonetically akin to the “opp-“. Similarly, they often favour “livicate” over “dedicate” because “ded-” is phonetically akin to the word “dead”.

Rastafarians often make use of the colours red, black, green, and gold. Red, gold, and green were used in the Ethiopian flag while, prior to the development of Rastafari, Garvey had used red, green, and black as the colours for his United Negro Improvement Association. According to Garvey, the red symbolises the blood of martyrs, the black symbolises the skin of Africans, and the green represents the vegetation of the land. Many Rastas endorse these associations to the colours. The colour gold is often included alongside Garvey’s three colours; it has been adopted from the Jamaican flag, and is often interpreted as symbolising the minerals and raw materials which constitute Africa’s wealth. Rastas often paint these colours onto their buildings, vehicles, kiosks, and other items, or display them on their clothing, helping to demarcate Rastas from non-Rastas and allowing adherents to recognise their co-religionists. As well as being used by Rastas, the colour set has also been adopted by Pan-Africanists more broadly, who use it to display their identification with Afrocentricity; for this reason it was adopted on the flags of many post-independence African states. Rastas often accompany the use of these three or four colours with the image of the Lion of Judah, also adopted from the Ethiopian flag and symbolizing Haile Selassie.


  • Ital Food

    An ital breakfast; ackee, plantain, boiled food, breadfruit, and mango-pineapple juice


Rastas seek to produce food “naturally”, eating what they call ital, or “natural” food. This is often produced organically, and locally. Most Rastas adhere to the dietary laws outlined in the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus, and thus avoid eating pork or crustaceans. Other Rastas remain totally vegetarian, and also avoid the addition of any additives, including sugar and salt, to their food. Rasta dietary practices have come under ridicule from non-Rastas; in Ghana for example, where food traditionally includes a high meat content, the Rastas’ emphasis on vegetable produce has led to the humorous comment from other Ghanaians that Rastas “eat like sheep and goats”. In Jamaica, Rasta practitioners have commercialised ital food, for instance by selling fruit juices prepared according to Rasta custom.

Rastafarians typically avoid food produced by non-Rastas or from unknown sources. Rasta men also refuse to eat food prepared by a woman while she was menstruating. They also avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.


Rasta man with tuff dreads

Through their use of language, dress, dreaded hair, and lifestyle Rastas seek to draw a clear boundary between themselves and non-Rastas. The formation of hair into dreadlocks is one of the most recognisable symbols of Rastas. The formation of dreadlocks is Biblically inspired, legitimised by reference to the Book of Numbers (6: 5–6). They are regarded as marking a covenant that the Rastas have made with God, and are also regarded as a symbol of strength linked to the hair of the Biblical figure of Samson. Sometimes this dreadlocked hair is then shaped and styled, often inspired by a lion’s mane symbolising Haile Selassie, who is regarded as “the Conquering Lion of Judah”. For Rastas, the wearing of dreads is a symbolic rejection of Babylon and a refusal to conform to its norms and standards regarding grooming aesthetics. They also reflect a commitment to the Rasta idea of ‘naturalness’. Rastas are often critical of black people who straighten their hair, believing that it is an attempt to imitate white European hair and thus reflects alienation from a person’s African identity.

There are Rastas who do not wear their hair in dreadlocks; within the religion they are often termed “cleanface” Rastas. Some Rastas have also joined the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Christian organisation to which Haile Selassie belonged, and these individuals are required to not wear their hair in locks by the Church. Many Rastas also grow their beards long. In reference to Rasta hairstyles, Rastas often refer to non-Rastas as “baldheads”, while those who are new to Rastafari and who have only just started to grow their hair into dreads are known as “nubbies”. Members of the Bobo Ashanti sect of Rastas conceal their dreadlocks within turbans. The tam headdress worn by many Rastas is coloured green, red, black, and yellow to symbolise allegiance and identification with Ethiopia.

From the beginning of the Rastafari movement in the 1930s, adherents typically grew beards and tall hair, perhaps in imitation of Haile Selassie. The wearing of hair as dreadlocks then emerged as a Rasta practice in the 1940s. Within the oral culture of the movement, there are various different claims as to how this practice was adopted. One claim is that it was adopted in imitation of certain African nations, such as the Maasai, Somalis, or Oromo, or that it was inspired by the hairstyles worn by some of those involved in the anti-colonialist Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. An alternative explanation is that it was inspired by the hairstyles of the Hindu sadhus.

Rastafari man in rastacap
Rastafarian man in a public market at a port of Jamaica’s Black River

The wearing of dreadlocks has also contributed to a negative view of Rastafari held by non-Rastas, many of whom regard it as wild and unattractive. Dreadlocks remain socially stigmatised in many societies; in Ghana for example, they are often associated with the homeless mentally ill, with such associations of marginality extending onto Ghanaian Rastas. In Jamaica during the mid-20th century, teachers and police officers used to cut off the dreads of Rastas. In the United States, several public schools and workplaces have lost lawsuits as the result of banning locks. Safeway is an early example, and the victory of eight children in a suit against their Lafayette, Louisiana school was a landmark decision in favor of Rastafari rights. More recently, in 2009, a group of Rastafari settled a federal lawsuit with the Grand Central Partnership in New York City, allowing them to wear their locks in ponytails, rather than be forced to “painfully tuck in their long hair” in their uniform caps. Dreadlocks and Rastafari-inspired clothing have also been worn for aesthetic reasons by non-Rastas. For instance, many reggae musicians who do not adhere to the Rastafari religion wear their hair in dreads.


The Rastafari movement developed out of the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade, in which over ten million Africans were enslaved and transported from Africa to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here, they were sold to European planters and forced to work on the plantations. Around a third of these transported Africans were relocated in the Caribbean, with under 700,000 being settled in Jamaica. On the island, the enslaved Africans were divided into a stratified system, with field workers on the lowest rung and house servants above them. In 1834, slavery in Jamaica was abolished after the British government passed the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Racial prejudice nevertheless remained prevalent across Jamaican society, with the overwhelming majority of Jamaica’s legislative council remaining white throughout the nineteenth century, and those of African descent being treated as second-class citizens. With slavery abolished, formerly enslaved Africans and Afro-Jamaicans became free peasants. In the three decades after emancipation, the Free Village system proliferated across Jamaica as non-conformist missionaries, particularly Baptist, purchased land from the large owners and sold it as smaller plots to former slaves.

Many Afro-Jamaicans joined Christian churches during the Great Revival of 1860–61. They brought with them many inherited African beliefs and rituals, which syncretised with Christianity in various ways and to varying degrees. Some of the new religions that emerged, such as Pukkumina, remained heavily based on traditional African religion, while others, like Revival Zion, were more fully Christian. The majority of these groups practiced spiritual healing and incorporated drumming and chanting, counselling, and spirit possession into their structures. Increasing numbers of Pentecostal missionaries from the United States arrived in Jamaica during the early twentieth century, reaching a climax in the 1920s. They provided a way for black Jamaicans—who continued to live with the social memory of enslavement and who were denied any substantial participation in Jamaica’s political institutions—to express their hopes, fears, and aspirations.

Ethiopianism, Back to Africa, and Marcus Garvey

Garvey’s influence
Marcus Garvey, a prominent African nationalist theorist who heavily influenced Rastafari and is regarded as a prophet by many Rastas

According to the scholar of religion Ennis B. Edmonds, Rastafari emerged from “the convergence of several religious, cultural, and intellectual streams”, while fellow scholar Wigmoore Francis described it as owing much of its self-understanding to “intellectual and conceptual frameworks” dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both Ethiopianism and the Back to Africa ethos remain “fundamental ingredients of Rastafarian ideology”. These two movements predated Rastafari and can be traced back to the eighteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, there were growing calls for the African diaspora located in Western Europe and the Americas to be resettled in Africa. In that century, many members of the African diaspora were moved to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Based in Liberia, the black Christian preacher Edward Wilmot Blyden began promoting African pride and the preservation of African tradition, customs, and institutions. Blyden sought to promote a form of Christianity that was suited to the African context, and believed that black people had to acquire their own historical knowledge about themselves. The idea of the African diaspora’s return to Africa was given impetus by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 as a nation-state for the Jewish diaspora to return to.

Also spreading through Africa was Ethiopianism, a movement that accorded special status to the east African nation of Ethiopia because it was mentioned in various Biblical passages. For adherents of Ethiopianism, “Ethiopia” was regarded as a synonym of Africa as a whole. Across the continent, although particularly in South Africa, Christian churches were established that referred to themselves as “Ethiopian”; these groups were at the forefront of the burgeoning African nationalist movement that sought liberation from European colonial rule.

Garvey supported the idea of global racial separatism and rejected the idea that black people of African descent living in the Americas should campaign for their civil rights; instead he believed that they should migrate en masse back to Africa. His ideas were opposed by many blacks in the Americas and he experienced hostility from African-American civil rights activists like W. E. B. Du Bois. He also faced opposition from the government of Liberia, which did not want millions of unskilled migrants arriving on its shores. As a mass movement, Garveyism declined in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A rumour later spread that in 1916, Garvey had called on his supporters to “look to Africa” for the crowning of a black king; this quote was never verified. Soumahoro noted that this statement was “legendary”. Rather, Garvey was critical of Haile Selassie for leaving Ethiopia at the time of the Italian Fascist occupation, describing the king as “a great coward” who rules a “country where black men are chained and flogged.” Rastafari does not promote all of the views that Garvey espoused, but nevertheless shares many of the same perspectives, with many Rastas regarding Garvey as a prophet. According to Soumahoro, Rastafari “emerged from the socio-political ferment inaugurated by Marcus Garvey”, while for Cashmore, Garvey was the “most important” precursor of the Rastafari movement.

Haile Selassie and the early Rastas: 1930–1949

Emperor Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. A number of Christian clergymen, among them Leonard Percival Howell, Joseph Nathaniel Hibbert, Henry Archibald Dunkley, and Hinds, claimed that Selassie’s coronation was evidence that he was the black messiah that they believed was prophesied in the Book of Revelation (5:2–5; 19:16), the Book of Daniel (7:3), and the Book of Psalms (68:31). These preachers began promoting this idea within Kingston, and soon the message spread throughout 1930s Jamaica. Clarke stated that “to all intents and purposes this was the beginning” of the Rastafari movement.

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia
Emperor Haile Selassie, considered by Rastas to be the reincarnation of Christ.

Over the following years, a number of street preachers—most notably Leonard Howell, Archibald Dunkley, Robert Hinds, and Joseph Hibbert—began promoting the idea that Haile Selassie was the returned Jesus. Howell has been described as the “leading figure” in the early Rastafari movement. Howell preached that black Africans were superior to white Europeans and that Afro-Jamaicans should owe their allegiance to Haile Selassie rather than to George V, King of Great Britain and Ireland. The island’s British authorities arrested him and charged him with sedition, resulting in a two-year imprisonment. Following his release, Howell established the Ethiopian Salvation Society and in 1939 created a Rasta community known as Pinnacle, in St Catherine. The community attracted between 500 and 2000 people, who were largely self-sufficient. Police feared that Howell was training his followers for an armed rebellion and were angered that it was producing marijuana for sale among the wider community. They raided the community on several occasions and Howell was imprisoned for a further two years. On his release he returned to Pinnacle, but the police continued with their raids and shut down the community in 1954; Howell himself was committed to a mental hospital.

In 1936, Italy invaded and occupied Ethiopia, with Haile Selassie going into exile. The event brought international condemnation and growing sympathy for the Ethiopian cause. In 1937, Selassie then created the Ethiopian World Federation, which established a branch in Jamaica in 1938. In 1941, the Italians were driven out of Ethiopia and Selassie returned. For many Rastas, this event was interpreted as the fulfilment of an event described in the Book of Revelation (19:11–19).

Growing visibility: 1950–1969

Rastafari’s main appeal was among the lower classes of Jamaican society. For its first thirty years, Rastafari was in a conflictual relationship with the Jamaican authorities. Jamaica’s Rastas expressed contempt for many aspects of the island’s society, viewing the government, police, bureaucracy, professional classes, and established churches as instruments of Babylon. Relations between practitioners and the police were strained, with Rastas often being arrested for cannabis possession. During the 1950s the movement grew rapidly in Jamaica itself and also spread to other Caribbean islands, the United States, and the United Kingdom.​

Bob Marley
Reggae musician Bob Marley did much to raise international awareness of the Rastafari movement

In the 1940s and 1950s, a more militant brand of Rastafari emerged. The vanguard of this was the House of Youth Black Faith, a group whose members were largely based in West Kingston. Backlash against the Rastas grew after a practitioner of the religion allegedly killed a woman in 1957. In March 1958, the first Rastafarian Universal Convention was held in Back-o-Wall, Kingston. Following the event, militant Rastas unsuccessfully tried to capture the city in the name of Haile Selassie. Later that year they tried again in Spanish Town. The increasing militancy of some Rastas resulted in growing alarm about the religion in Jamaica. According to Cashmore, the Rastas became “folk devils” in Jamaican society. In 1959, the self-declared prophet and founder of the African Reform Church, Claudius Henry, sold thousands of black Jamaicans, including many Rastas, tickets for a ship that he claimed would take them to Africa. The ship never arrived and Henry was charged with fraud. In 1960 he was sentenced to six years imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the government. Henry’s son was accused of being part of a paramilitary cell and executed, confirming public fears about Rasta violence. In 1963, following a violent confrontation between Rastafarians and police forces at a gas station, the Jamaican government issued the police and military an order to “bring in all Rastas, dead or alive,” resulting in mass arrests, with many of those arrested tortured or killed in what would be known as the Coral Gardens incident. Clamping down on the Rasta movement, in 1964 the island’s government implemented tougher laws surrounding marijuana use.

At the invite of Jamaica’s government, Haile Selassie visited the island for the first time in August 1966, with crowds of Rastas assembling to meet him at the airport. The event was the high point for many of the religion’s members. Over the course of the 1960s, Jamaica’s Rasta community underwent a process of routinization, with the late 1960s witnessing the launch of the first official Rastafarian newspaper, the Rastafarian Movement Association’s Rasta Voice. The decade also saw Rastafari develop in increasingly complex ways. During that decade, some Rastas began to reinterpret the idea that salvation required a physical return to Africa, instead interpreting salvation as coming through a process of mental decolonisation that embraced African approaches to life.

Whereas its membership had previously come predominantly from poorer sectors of Jamaican society, in the 1960s Rastafari began to attract support from more privileged groups like students and professional musicians. The foremost group emphasising this approach were the Twelve Tribes of Israel, whose members came to be known as “Uptown Rastas”. Among those attracted to Rastafari in this decade were middle-class intellectuals like Leahcim Semaj, who called for the religious community to place greater emphasis on scholarly social theory as a method of achieving change. Although some Jamaican Rastas were critical of him, many came under the influence of the Guyanese black nationalist academic Walter Rodney, who lectured to their community in 1968 before publishing his thoughts as the pamphlet Groundings. Like Rodney, many Jamaican Rastas were influenced by the U.S.-based Black Power movement. After Black Power declined following the deaths of Malcolm X, Michael X, and George Jackson, Rastafari filled the vacuum it left for many black youth.

International spread and decline: 1970–present

Rasta Today
A Rasta vendor in the United States, 2013

In the mid-1970s, reggae’s international popularity exploded. The most successful reggae artist was Bob Marley, who—according to Cashmore—”more than any other individual, was responsible for introducing Rastafarian themes, concepts and demands to a truly universal audience”. Reggae’s popularity led to a growth in “pseudo-Rastafarians”, individuals who listened to reggae and wore Rasta clothing but did not share its belief system. Many Rastas were angered by this, believing it commercialised their religion.

Through reggae, Rasta musicians became increasingly important in Jamaica’s political life during the 1970s. In his desire to move towards democratic socialism, Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley courted and obtained support from Marley and other reggae musicians, helping to bolster his popularity with the electorate. Manley described Rastas as a “beautiful and remarkable people”, and carried a cane, the “rod of correction”, which he claimed was a gift from Haile Selassie. Following Manley’s example, Jamaican political groups increasingly employed Rasta language, symbols, and reggae references in their campaigns, while Rasta symbols became increasingly mainstream in Jamaican society. This helped to confer greater legitimacy on Rastafari, with reggae and Rasta imagery being increasingly presented as a core part of Jamaica’s cultural heritage for the marketing purposes of the growing tourist industry.

Enthusiasm for Rastafari was likely dampened by the death of Haile Selassie in 1975 and that of Marley in 1981. During the 1980s, the number of Rastafarians in Jamaica declined, with Pentecostal and other Charismatic Christian groups proving more successful at attracting young recruits. Several publicly prominent Rastas converted to Christianity, and two of those who did so—Judy Mowatt and Tommy Cowan—maintained that Marley had converted from Rastafari to Christianity, in the form of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, during his final days. The significance of Rastafari messages in reggae also declined with the growing popularity of dancehall, a Jamaican musical genre that typically foregrounded lyrical themes of hyper-masculinity, violence, and sexual activity rather than religious symbolism. Since the mid-1990s, however, there was a revival of Rastafari-focused reggae associated with musicians like Anthony B, Buju Banton, Luciano, Sizzla, and Capleton. From the 1990s, Jamaica also witnessed the growth of organised political activity within the Rasta community, seen for instance through campaigns for the legalisation of marijuana and the creation of political parties like the Jamaican Alliance Movement and the Imperial Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated Political Party, none of which attained more than minimal electoral support.


Rastafari is not a homogeneous movement and has no single administrative structure, nor any single leader. Centralised and hierarchical structures are avoided by Rastas because they want to avoid replicating the formal structures of Babylon. Rastas also tend to avoid hierarchic and bureaucratic structures because of the ultra-individualistic ethos that the religion promotes with its ideas about inner divinity.

The structure of Rastafari groups is less like those of Christian denominations and is instead akin to the cellular structure of other African diasporic traditions like Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, and Jamaica’s Revival Zion. Since the 1970s, there have been attempts to fashion a pan-Rasta unity movement, namely through the establishment of the Rastafari Movement Association, which sought political mobilisation. In 1982, the first international assembly of Rastafari groups took place in Toronto, Canada. This and subsequent international conferences, assemblies, and workshops have helped to cement global networks and cultivate an international community of Rasta practitioners.

Mansions of Rastafari

Within Rastafari, there are distinct groups which display particular orientations. There are often referred to as “houses” or “mansions”, in keeping with a passage from the Gospel of John (14:2): as translated in the King James Bible, Jesus states “In my father’s house are many mansions”. The three most prominent branches are the House of Nyabinghi, the Bobo Ashanti, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, although other important groups include the Church of Haile Selassie I, Inc., and the Fulfilled Rastafari.

House of Nyabinghi

The House of Nyabinghi is an aggregate of more traditional and militant Rastas who seek to retain the movement close to the way in which it existed during the 1940s. They stress the idea that Haile Selassie was a manifestation of God and the reincarnation of Jesus. The wearing of dreadlocks is regarded as indispensable, and patriarchal gender roles are strongly emphasised. Nyabinghi Rastas refuse to make any compromise with Babylon, and are often critical of reggae musicians like Bob Marley whom they regard as having collaborated with the commercial music industry. According to Cashmore, the Nyabinghi House is “vehemently anti-white”. It is probably the largest Rastafari group.

Bobo Ashanti

The Bobo Ashanti sect was founded in Jamaica by Emanuel Charles Edwards through the establishment of his Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC) in 1958. The group established a commune in Bull Bay, where they were led by Edwards, who served as the group’s high priest, until his 1994 death. The group hold to a highly rigid ethos. Edwards advocated the idea of a new trinity, with Haile Selassie as the living God, himself as the Christ, and Garvey as the prophet. Male members of the group are divided into two categories: the “priests” who conduct religious services and the “prophets” who take place in reasoning sessions. Women are regarded as impure because of menstruation and childbirth, and so are not permitted to cook for men. The group teaches that black Africans are God’s chosen people and thus are superior to white Europeans. Bobo Ashanti practitioners will often refuse to associate with white people. Members of this sect are recognisable by their attire, which include long, flowing robes and turbans. Since the 1990s, increasing numbers of Bobo Ashanti Rastas have lived outside the Bull Bay commune, but continue to regard the latter as a place of pilgrimage.

Twelve Tribes of Israel

12 Tribes
Twelve Tribes of Israel headquarters in Shashamane, Ethiopia

The Twelve Tribes of Israel sect was founded in 1968 in Kingston by Vernon Carrington. He regarded himself as the reincarnation of the Old Testament prophet Gad, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, and his followers thus refer to him as “Prophet Gad”, “Brother Gad”, or “Gadman”. It is commonly regarded as the most liberal form of Rastafari and the closest to Christianity in its beliefs; Barrett stated that there was “only a thin line dividing the sect from true Christianity”. Practitioners are often dubbed “Christian Rastas” because they believe Jesus is the messiah and only saviour; Haile Selassie is accorded importance, but is not viewed as the second coming of Jesus. The group divides its members into twelve groups according to which month in the Hebrew calendar they were born; each month is associated with a particular colour, body part, and mental function. Maintaining dreadlocks and an ital diet are considered commendable but not essential, while adherents are called upon to read a chapter of the Bible each day. Some Rastas regarded the Twelve Tribes as a heretical group for its views.

The Twelve Tribes peaked in popularity during the 1970s, when it attracted artists, musicians, and many middle-class followers, resulting in the term “middle-class Rastas” and “uptown Rastas” being applied to members of the group. Marley was one such of these musicians belonging to the Twelve Tribes. Carrington died in 2005, since which time the Twelve Tribes of Israel have been led by an executive council. As of 2010, it was recorded as being the largest of the centralized Rasta groups. It remains headquartered in Kingston, although has followers outside Jamaica.

Church of Haile Selassie

The Church of Haile Selassie, Inc was founded by Abuna Foxe, and operated much like a mainstream Christian church, with a hierarchy of functionaries, weekly services, and Sunday schools. In New York, the group have established prison chaplains. In adopting this broad approach, the Church seeks to develop Rastafari’s respectability in wider society.

Fulfilled Rastafari

Fulfilled Rastafari is a multi-ethnic movement that has spread in popularity during the twenty-first century, in large part through the Internet. The Fulfilled Rastafari group accept Haile Selassie’s statements that he was a man and that he was a devout Christian, and so place emphasis on worshipping Jesus Christ through the example set forth by Haile Selassie. The wearing of dreadlocks and the adherence to an ital diet are considered issues up to the individual.

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