Overview of the Religious System of the Zulu People

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Religion in the broadest sense may be defined as man’s attitude towards the unseen, and the earliest forms of human thought furnish the clue from which must be traced the development of those great systems of religion that have at different time periods been professed by certain groups of people. The term religion must also include, not only beliefs in unseen spiritual agencies, but numerous customs, superstitions, and myths which have usually been regarded by the people of the specific society or community. As far as, Zulu religion goes, there are many different opinions about the origin and historical content. Since many of the beliefs and traditions were passed orally, there are no written records of the founders or early history of Zulu religion. However, because of the Zulu’s distinctive beliefs and unique customs, one can not deny the existence of the religious system of the Zulu people.

There have been numerous studies which present compelling evidence for the existence of a coherent Zulu religious system which involves the worship of a heavenly being, the Lord-of-the-Sky. There is, however, some uncertainty about the early Zulu’s belief in the Lord-of-the-Sky. “Reading studies by Callaway, one is given the impression that Zulu of his time made no clear distinction between sky divinity and the shades. However, modern Zulu are emphatic in expressing a very clear distinction between the Lord-of-the-Sky and the shades”(Berglund 32). In this case the word “shades” is referring to ancestors. The reason “shade” is used in place of ancestor is because the word “ancestor” in the English language means “ascendants who are dead.” The Zulu people believe this word refers to a separation between the living and the dead. The Zulu people have close and intimate relationship with their departed relatives. “This is not descriptive of Zulu concepts which, as the study will be showing, assume a very close and intimate relationship and association with the lineage between the departed and their survivors”(29). Even though there are doubts about Zulu traditional religion, most studies appear to confirm the fact that belief in a sky deity is and always has been central to Zulu religious thought. “Unkulunkulu (the old, old one) is the Creator of First Cause. If a Zulu is asked about the origin of man and the world, he will say Unkulunkulu the Zulu people believe in a power which they call “Heaven” or “The Lord of Heaven”(Krige 282). Other researchers argue that “all the Bantu further have some conception, generally rather vague, of a supreme power. . . The Zulu have a sky god. . . the Lord of Heaven”(Shapera 262). Quite clearly the existence of a Zulu belief in a sky deity is well established in the literature on both the Zulu people in particular and African religions in general.

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The earliest period of recorded contact between Zulu and European cultures gives some information about Zulu religious beliefs. This evidence, however, is culturally bias because of the European stereotypes and expectations. Nathaniel Isaacs, a European trader, visited Shaka, the Zulu king, and developed a strong friendship with him. In gratitude for assistance in a battle against his enemies Shake made him a minor chief, eventually granting him a strip of land around the coast surrounding Port Natal, modern Durban. However, Isaacs reactions to the Zulu religion are somewhat bias because of his own beliefs and values. The language difference also serves as a barrier between Isaacs and Shaka. “Chaka, when we first held a conversation with him on the subject of the existence of a Supreme Being, at once evinced he had no idea of a deity, and that his people were equally ignorant on this subject”(Hexham 38). From Isaacs’s point of view, it seemed as if Shaka and the rest of the Zulu people did not understand the concept of religion. After living amongst the Zulu people for some time Isaacs was able to make the following observations: “Religions – They have none. The Zoolas have no idea of a Deity, no knowledge of a future state. They cannot comprehend the mystery of creation”(Isaacs 301). Soon after Isaacs had arrived in Natal, Shaka was assassinated and Dingane became the new Zulu king. Isaacs’ opinions of Shaka’s predecessor are much more positive and optimistic. “I am proud to say of his successor that a ray of light has been seen in him. He is greatly advancing into that state of mental improvement, which only now requires the more enlightened aid of missionaries to ripen into perfection”(Hexham 38). On the other hand, Captain Alan Gardinar, the first missionary to the Zulu people, had a difference of opinion about Dingane. “That my views were not in any degree connected with trade he could understand, but what was God, and God’s word, and the nature of the instruction I proposed, were subjects which he could not at all comprehend”(Isaacs 31). Gardinar was, however, convinced that all men have some natural knowledge of God. He was, therefore, able to conclude: “we seem to have arrived here at a period when the traditional knowledge of a Supreme Being is rapidly passing into oblivion”(Gardinar 178). As a basis for this statement Gardinar repeats a Zulu legend which he takes as a creation account and in doing so makes the assumption that the Zulu originator of life is equivalent to God. This is, of course, highly uncertain when, in fact, other Zulu accounts of creation clearly refer to an original ancestor rather than to God in the Christian sense. Even here, however, it is doubtful if Gardinar is relating a story which is uninfluenced by European contact because he also states: “The generality of the people are ignorant even of this scanty tradition; but since their recent intercourse with Europeans the vague ideal of a Supreme Being has again become general”(179). After making this observation, Gardinar comes to the conclusion that, “At present, the reigning king absorbs all their praises, and his is, in fact, their only idol”(179).

Francis Owen, a European missionary, arrived in Natal in 1837 in response to a call for missionaries by Captain Gardiner. Owen was trained to preach to middle-class English congregations and treated his Zulu hearers as though they were Englishmen. He gives no evidence of adapting his message to his subjects and attempts to make up for the Zulu people’s lack of Biblical knowledge and Christian education by giving endless details that survey Biblical history and Christian theology. Upon arrival in Zululand he made the following statement: “Dingane then asked how old I was. . . He then called for an old print he had of the kings of England. . . he then asked me if God was amongst these kings. . . The Indoonas asked me if I had seen God. . .”(Cory 39). From this comment it seems that Owen believes that Dingane and his chiefs thought of God as an ancestor and, despite the teachings of Gardiner and other missionaries to the contrary, found it difficult to conceive of God in non-cultural terms. From another conversation Owen had with Dingane, it becomes clear that the Zulu story of the origin of death was not a story about God. “They had no objection to God’s word, but they did not believe in the resurrection”(Hexham 114). When Owen tried to explain his evangelical understanding of Jesus Christ rising from the dead to Dingane, he encountered a host of questions about the death of God. “Dingane asked me how many days Jesus Christ had been dead. If only three days (said he), it is very likely that he was no dead in reality but only supposed to be so!”(115). From these observations, Owen felt that the concept of resurrection from dead was new to the Zulu people. “These questions show quite clearly that the concepts of an undying Supreme Being was foreign to Zulu thought because none of Dingane’s chiefs could understand what I was talking about”(Cory 74).

In contrast to the early opinions of the Zulu people, Joseph Shooter, a missionary from Europe, asserts in his book, The Kafirs of Natal and the Zulu Country, that the Zulu had a tradition of a “Being” whom he identifies as Unkulunkulu who was a kind of creator. He shares Gardiner’s belief that over time the Zulu people had lost an “original” knowledge of true religion and that missionaries had arrived during a time of general apostasy. Shooter’s account of Zulu religion presents a general overview and weaves together various themes in a creative way which appears to be the first systematic attempt to see Zulu religion as a whole. “This tradition of the “Great-Great” is not universally known among the people. War, change, and the worship of false deities have gradually darkened their minds, and obscured their remembrance of the true God”(Shooter 160). Shooter also states that the Zulu people believe in life after death. “The Kafirs believe that, when a person dies, his i-bloze or isi-tute survives. These words are translated ‘spirit,’ and there seems no objection to the rendering”(Hexham 360). With regards to a Supreme Being, Shooter explains that the Zulu people have preserved the tradition of a higher power whom they call the “Great-Great”. This tradition, however, is not universally known among the Zulu people. There is one tribe in Natal which still worships the “Great-Great,” though its recollection of him is very dim. “When they kill the ox they say ‘Hear Unkulunkulu, may it always be so.’ So when a person is sick, they say, ‘Hear Unkulunkulu may be recover”(360). Clearly, Shooter wanted the Zulu to have a ‘traditional’ belief in God and was forced to interpret their apparent lack of such a belief in terms of their degeneration as men in rebellion against the truth of God.

Nine years after Joseph Shooter published his book another missionary was busy observing the religious habits of the Zulu people. This missionary was William Clifford Holden, who later would write, The past and future of the Kaffir Races. This account of Zulu religion is recognized as one of the better mid-nineteenth-century descriptions of Zulu life and customs. Holden’s work is so valuable because he clearly recognizes that some Zulus held views which, could be identified, to some degree at least, with the Christian God. Although few Zulus had some vague idea of a deity, the vast majority, he argued, had no such belief. More importantly, those who did have some indistinct beliefs which, seemed like a belief in God really should be seen as worshipping their ancestors. “One large class of persons have no conception of one Great Supreme Being; Another large class have a sort of dreamy, indistinct, indefinite idea of a Supreme Being, designated the “Great Great”(Hexham 394). This point about misunderstanding Zulu belief was developed by J.A. Farrer in, Zululand and the Zulus (1879). He saw ancestor worship as the basic Zulu religious response and added that the Zulu understanding of Unkulunkulu was essentially a belief about the ancestors of the people even though it could be said to function in a similar way to beliefs about God through the attribution of creation. Farrer also discussed the Zulu traditions concerning a ‘Lord-of-the-Sky’ or heaven deity. He relates how the Zulu people speak about such a being whom he sees as “inferior” to Unkulunkulu. He then adds: “It is possible that missionary teaching has somewhat modified the original conception of this ‘king of heaven'”(Farrer 128). This statement is closely related to the beliefs recorded by Henry Callaway indicating an original custom which referred to the Zulu king and not to God. Thus it can be seen that adequate evidence exists to support the interpretation that before the coming of Europeans the Zulu had no traditional belief in a supreme deity.When Europeans first arrived in Zululand, they appear to have been welcomed by the Zulu people because of their trade goods and the technological superiority, which the Zulus recognized they possessed. The Zulu kings had great desire to acquire the knowledge the European men offered. The knowledge is in regards to the possession of firearms and, in the eyes of the Zulus, the ability to read. Therefore, when Captain Gardiner told them such things as “They were now a great people, but I wished them to know these words that they might become greater,”(Gardiner 133), the Zulu people listened to what he said with great interest and care. The Zulus felt they were receiving the key to power, when the Europeans were attempting to teach them to read. “The promise to make them ‘greater’ must have seemed a hopeful one because these new strangers sought to teach the Zulus the art of reading, which to them appears to have been seen as the key to European power”(133).

The missionaries and traders who visited the Zulu during this early period of contact did so with an overwhelming confidence in the superiority of their civilization which they were quick to point out to the Zulu people and which they attributed to the Christian religion. Their belief in the truths of Christianity could, however, have been severely challenged by the existence of Zulu society. The Zulus represented a people who appeared not to have heard of the gospel. “The question could therefore have arisen as to how a just God could judge a people who were totally ignorant of his commands”(Isaacs 120). But this question was never on the minds of the missionaries because a theological interpretation of Zulu life existed which allowed for their apparent ignorance of the gospel. This interpretation depended upon the assumption that the Zulu people must at one time have known the truth of God and that their present state of ignorance was a result of willful rebellion against God’s commands. There was, for the missionaries, therefore, no real possibility that the Zulus did not know about God at some time in their history. Gardiner observed: “What an awful condition for an immortal being! Man, when once departed from God, goes out, like Nebuchadnezzar in his banishment. . . Breath, Lord upon these dry bones, and they shall live”(Gardiner 179). For him, and later missionaries, it was obvious that they had arrived at a time when the traditional knowledge of a Supreme Being was rapidly disappearing. The interpretation was cleverly summed up by Shooter who said: “false deities have gradually darkened their minds, and obscured their remembrance of the true God”(Shooter 160). As a result the missionaries set about proclaiming the truth of God without making any concessions to Zulu religious beliefs. As can be seen most clearly in the preaching of Owen, they proclaiming their understanding of the gospel, expecting that the Zulus would be able to understand and respond to it.

In conclusion, the conversion of sections of the Zulu nation to Christianity originally created a sharp division in Zulu society, the emergence of this “traditional religion” provided all Zulu people with a common heritage and identity. The present reality of the belief regarding the Lord-of-the-Sky may, therefore, be seen in terms of the development of a civil religion of Zululand.Bibliography:BibliographyBerglund, Axel-Iver. Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. (Cape Town: DavidPhillip, 1976), 32-383.

Krige, Eileen. The Social System of the Zulus. (Pietermaritzburg: Shuter ; Shooter, 1936), 280-282.

Shapera, I. The Bantu Speaking Tribes of South Africa. (Cape Town: Masken Miller, 1937), 262-263.

Isaacs, Nathaniel. Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa, Vol. 1. (London: EdwardChurton, 1836), 119-302.

Gardiner, Alan. Narrative of a Journey to the Zoolu Country. (London: William Crofits,1836), 178-180.

Cory, Sir George. Owen’s Diary. (Cape Town: Van Riebeech Society, 1926), 39.

Shooter, Joseph. The Kafirs of Natal and the Zulu Country. (London: E. Stanford, 1857), 160-162.

Farrer, J.A. Zululand and the Zulus. (London: Kirby, 1879), 128-129.

Hexham, Irving. Traditional Zulu Ideas about God. The Edwin Mullen Press, African Studies Volume 6, 300-401.

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Overview of the Religious System of the Zulu People. (2018, Nov 03). Retrieved from


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