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Name: Rastafarians, Rastas, Ras Tafarians
Founded: c. 1930

Name: Ras Tafari Makonnen
Born: 1892 in Harer, Ethiopia
Died: August 27, 1975

Name: Marcus Mosiah Garvey
Born: 1887
Died: 1940

The name "Rastafarian" encompasses a number of different religious movements which have developed on the island of Jamaica since the 1930s. It has primarily involved poor black men who have found inspiration in the Back to Africa Movement begun by Marcus Garvey. His basic idea was that freedom and redemption for blacks would only be found in Africa because European colonization and slavery had fragmented the African culture and spirituality.

As long as blacks remained outside of Africa, especially in the United States, they would continue to be afflicted by a "slave mentality" which would prevent them from achieving the true greatness which they deserve. This, of course, precluded any participation in social programs which were designed to aid poor blacks - doing so only served to perpetuate the "mental slavery" which still held them back.

Although he always remained a Roman Catholic, Garvey urged others to form their own church and to imagine Jesus as black, rejecting the common portrayal of Jesus as looking much like a white European. He also predicted that one day an African king would be crowned and he would be the one to lead the people to their destiny.

Many believed that this prophecy was fulfilled when Ras Tafari Markonnen became the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I ("Power of the Trinity") on November 2, 1930. It is uncertain what Selassie thought of the Rastafarian movement and he himself never became a member - on the contrary, he remained a Christian all of his life. He only once visited Jamaica, the place where Rastafarianism began, on April 21, 1966. According to tradition, he met with Rasta leaders and convinced them that they should not try to emigrate to Ethiopia before liberating Jamaica itself. As a consequence, April 21st is now celebrated by Rastafarians as "Grounation Day."

There is no centralized organization which controls the doctrines of Rastafarians and there are diverse groups which lay claim to the name. They all, however, tend to have several themes in common:

1. Condemnation of European colonialism and slavery; 2. Return to Africa to defeat oppression; 3. Divinity of Haile Selassie; 4. Pacifism; 5. Religious use of Ganja.

The first two themes are clearly due to the legacy of Marcus Garvey's philosophy, according to which most of the problems of Africans today can be traced to the political and social policies of Europe and, as a consequence, Africans must become independent and self-sufficient in order to reach their full potential.

Today Selassie is still regarded not simply as divine, but in fact as the Messiah by Rastafarians (who also believe that blacks are the "true" Jews). When his death was reported, most Rastafarians would not believe it and, in fact, thought that it was simply another attempt by the white power structure to damage the attempts by blacks to achieve self-sufficiency.

Today many Rastafarians believe that Selassie is still alive, in hiding, and will one day return to lead his people to the promised land (Ethiopia - there is no heavenly afterlife in Rastafarianism). Others don't regard his death as being an important issue - his life here on earth was simply the physical manifestation of God for a brief time.

Rastafarian pacifism is part of a strict ethical system designed to maintain personal dignity. This pacifism also extends to Rastafarians being vegetarians. Dietary rules are particularly important and the only foods which Rastafarians are supposed to eat are called I-tal foods which never touch chemicals and which are thought to be as natural as possible.

One feature of Rastafarianism which is often misrepresented in the media is the ritual use of ganja (marijuana). Pious Rastas do not and should not use marijuana recreationally; instead, it is reserved for religious and medicinal purposes. Some do not even use it at all. When it is used, the purpose is to aid in meditation and perhaps help the user achieve greater mystical insight into the nature of the universe.

The wearing of dreadlocks is done to symbolize the roots of Rastafarianism and separation from the straight hairstyles of white Europeans. It was, apparently, inspired by the Bible: "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh" (Leviticus 21:5). Thus, in a sense, the Rastafarians share something important with Orthodox Jews.

Rastafarian beliefs were initially repressed by colonial rulers, but have since spread throughout the Caribbean and beyond. The total number of adherents is believed to be around one million worldwide.

One problem for modern Rastafarians is that there are many young blacks (and whites) who have adopted the outward symbols of Rasta (including the wearing of dreadlocks) without also adopting their ethical and religious meanings. As a result, the Rastafarian faith is not only diluted, but it is given a bad name in the wider culture.

Discrimination against Rastafarians, usually due to misunderstandings but sometimes due to outright prejudice, has always been a problem. From the very beginning Rastafarianism appealed mostly to the lower classes in Jamaica, and those in power viewed any revolutionary movement which organized the masses as a potential threat. Today, the discrimination tends to focus on the prejudice that Rastafarians are drug addicts and unfit for work. There have been cases where employers or the government have discriminated against Rastafarians, in particular with regards to the wearing of dreadlocks.

Also Known As: Rastas, Ras Tafarians

Alternate Spellings: none

Common Misspellings: none

Related Resources:

What is the Philosophy of Religion?
Sometimes confused with theology, the Philosophy of Religion is the philosophical study of religious beliefs, religious doctrines, religious arguments and religious history. The line between theology and the philosophy of religion isn't always sharp, but the primary difference is that theology tends to be apologetical in nature, committed to the defense of particular religious positions, whereas Philosophy of Religion is committed to the investigation of religion itself, rather than the truth of any particular religion.

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