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Rastafarianism and Haile Selassie I’s denial of divinity

16/07/2017 00:00:00
by Learnmore Zuze

“I have heard of that 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.”

- Haile Selassie I (Former Emperor of Ethiopia)

I GREW up amongst family and friends who, predominantly at the time, were fanatics of the Rastafarian religion. Perhaps the word fanatics is an understatement; these were fundamentalists who even took a vow to a no-salt diet, including strict adherence to vegetarian values in line with Rastafarianism. Music albums of reggae music’s most prominent figure, Bob Marley, were well kept almost under lock and key.

The grainy video recording of Bob Marley’s 1980 show in Zimbabwe was a prized possession. Reggae was more than music; it carried spiritual authority in the neighbourhood I lived, as a general thing. The unmistakable colours of the Ethiopian flag -red, green and gold - embellished everything, from hats, shirts, trousers to virtually everything that could be worn.

There are two things that should be clearly understood in assessing this religion: Rastafarianism (the religion) and Reggae (the music). Reggae songs have been a major influence, conscripting many into converting to the religion. Reggae songs are normally filled with themes of freedom from political oppression as well as campaigns to legalize marijuana.

Rastafarianism took people by storm in the 80s and early 90s, losing steam somewhere in the late 90s and today, the music doesn’t seem, apparently, to have a world dominant figure as in the 70s and 80s when Bob Marley and Peter Tosh symbolised the brand. What obtains today is a blend, not the roots reggae as played by the most popular family of reggae music: The Wailers, from which legends Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer would emerge.

Memories of this religion flickered through my mind when a keen follower of this column in Sydney, Australia, who is an ardent follower of Rastafarianism, asked me to be ‘ruthless’ in my assessment of aspects of Rastafarianism. He asked me to assess his religion without pulling punches. “I would appreciate a candid critique of the Rastafarian religion, particularly whether there are any aspects that conflict with the biblical narrative. Be ruthless in your analysis, sir,” he wrote. From his stand point nonetheless, the Rasta man, as the late African reggae connoisseur Lucky Phillip Dube put it, is the only pure creature left in Jah (God) creation.


Now, a whole book can be written on Rastafarianism, but I will seek to be precise with the most notable and contentious aspect of the Rastafarian religion and conclude by addressing the question he needed answered most, which is whether there was anything wrong with the Rastafarian religion.

Principally, the man from whom the religion derives its name, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, stands majestically at the centre of Rastafarianism, becoming himself the object of worship. He was born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael. Extracting from his name, Rastafarians prefix their names with Ras - Tafari. He is the mainstay of the religion, being viewed as God incarnate. Haile Selassie I was Ethiopia's regent from 1916 to 1930 and emperor from 1930 to 1974. He also served as Chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and was a member of the Solomonic Dynasty.

Among people in the Rastafarian movement, whose followers are estimated at between two and four million, Haile Selassie is revered as the returned messiah of the Bible, God incarnate. Beginning in Jamaica in the 1930s, the Rastafari movement perceives Haile Selassie I as a messianic figure who will lead a future golden age of eternal peace, righteousness, and prosperity. Haile Selassie was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian throughout his life.

In Jamaica, where reggae took off and where the movement is most defined, Selassie is referred to as ‘The Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah’ which is the pre-given name of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament of the Bible. In fact, everything that should be the preserve of Christ is ascribed to the former Ethiopian leader.

Now, I may state many things in this article but if there is one point that the reader should grasp from reading this piece, it is this: Haile Selassie I was a mortal being and no religion can ever be right when it is premised on the worship of a mortal being. Selassie I himself confessed to being a mortal at his death.

In a 1967 recorded interview Haile Selassie flatly denied his alleged divinity. In the interview Bill McNeil says: "there are millions of Christians throughout the world, your Imperial Majesty, who regard you as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ."

Selassie replied in his native language:

“I have heard of that 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.”

This is precisely the trouble with Rastafarianism. Selassie cannot substitute God and most of the passages attributable to Jesus Christ are erroneously ascribed to the late emperor.

I have merely scratched the surface of the Rastafarian religion, highlighting its major flaw but will most likely make a follow up piece on certain practices of the Rastafarian religion. At the end, it must be understood that the ultimate defect of Rastafarianism is its giving deity status to a self-confirmed mortal. There is everything wrong with the deification of a human being who is long dead.

E-mail: lastawa77@gmail.com

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