Muslim surfers: finding Islam and Allah in every wave

December 1, 2021 | Surfing
Muslim surfers: Shirin Gerami wearing the Finisterre Seasuit created by Easkey Britton | Photo: Finisterre

Surfing is an inclusive sport and lifestyle that is all about enjoying and sharing the love of the ocean.

It is open to people of all ages, races, genders, religions, and sexual orientations.

However, since it was exported from its spiritual home in Polynesia to America, Australia, and then to the rest of the world, it became a mostly white sport.

Surf culture is predominantly a story of white protestant, catholic, atheist, and agnostic enthusiasts.

Can you name a Muslim or black surfer competing at a professional level? Probably not - but that's not ignorance. The truth is they barely exist.

Christian Surfers is a collective movement of wave riders drawn together by a shared belief in Christianity.

It was founded in the late 1970s in Cronulla, Australia, and is now well-established and active in over 30 countries.

But where are the surfers who follow or practice Islam? Islam is the world's second religious group (24 percent) after Christianity (31 percent).

Meet the Muslim Surfers Association of California (MSAC).

They are one of the few organized groups of Muslim wave riders in the Western world actively and publicly engaged with connecting, discipling, and serving the community.

SurferToday sat down with Kavon Iraniha, co-founder of MSAC, to know more about Muslim surfing in America and worldwide.

And we ended learning a lot about integration, tolerance, and the challenges Muslim surfers often face in the lineups across the planet.

When and where was the Muslim Surfers Association of California (MSAC) founded?

MSAC was founded in San Diego, California, in August 2013.

Who founded it?

The organization was mainly founded by myself and Shereen Nourollahi after we had some friends express interest.

We were both engaged with our Muslim community, and we both had a love for surfing. We wanted more Muslims to experience this love.

Two years before, I studied in Costa Rica and taught in Indonesia, so surfing became a hobby.

Muslim surfers: women use hijabs while riding waves | Photo: MSAC

Why was it important to set up the MSAC?

Ever since 9/11, Muslims had been getting attacked, and in turn, Muslims have been focused on politics and trying to set the record straight that what happened on that day was not Islamic, and the people involved were not Muslim.

Many Muslims were too serious and thought their path to God was through debates, focusing on the Palestinian struggle, and locking themselves up in a mosque.

We wanted Muslims to go out and have fun, smile again, and find God through the beauty of the ocean that was right there in front of them.

Also, it was a way for Muslims to meet others who had a similar passion.

Although MSAC was a way to bring Muslims together in their love of surfing, for me, it had a much bigger impact.

I found the love of my life through MSAC. I met my Swiss wife through MSAC.

She was traveling through the States with one of her friends, and they wanted to stop in San Diego and enjoy the ocean.

While researching their trip and choosing where to stay, her friend randomly told her to see if there were Muslim surfers, and she said, "You know, Muslims in California are very liberal. I wouldn't be surprised if they had a Muslim surfing group."

Well, they found our group and sent a message.

I responded, telling them they could borrow one of my boards when they came to visit.

Three months later, they were in town, and we finally met face to face. And a Muslim girl who liked surfing was a definite spark for me.

Within a couple of days, I actually did ask her to marry me - semi-jokingly - but she said no.

We kept in touch when she returned, and even though we were super long-distance, we decided to give it a try.

So I went to visit her and her family in Switzerland, she came with her Mom to visit my family in Cali, one thing led to another, and we got married.

Our honeymoon was in Bali.

We surfed in Morocco, Peru, Brazil, West France, Portugal, Hawaii, Mexico, South Africa, Philippines, and Switzerland, at the Alaia Bay artificial wave pool.

Kavon and Dounia: united by surfing | Photo: Dounia Hamdi Iraniha

Is MSAC an online-only group or also an offline, outdoor organization?

MSAC is mainly an online group at facebook.com/groups/muslimsurfers.

How would you describe the evolution of surfing within the Muslim community in California, the United States, and around the world?

Well, I was very excited to hear about first-ever Muslim yoga/surfing retreats and the endorsements of moderate swimming apparel for women who wanted to get into the water without going against their religious dress code.

Have you got any idea how many Muslim surfers are there in California, the USA, and the world?

I don't think there aren't many - we still have a long way to go, but I am often surprised.

Last year I was in South Africa, and while surfing in Cape Town, I ran into some Muslim surfers who were surfing next to me.

We talked and discovered that one of them was with a group of Muslim surfers who frequent J-Bay and take trips to Morocco to surf in Agadir.

It was really eye-opening. His group is all offline, so there was no way to find them online.

I met more Muslim surfers on that trip, including one guy who even used to compete.

How do other religious and non-religious surfers see the Muslim community out in the lineup?

As a man, nobody really knows my religion when I'm out there. I'm sure the women would have a whole other tale to talk about.

But the guys I met in South Africa told me stories about how they were surfing during the apartheid era, at the same beach we were on - Bloubergstrand Beach - which used to be a whites-only beach.

They would take their boards on the beach, and the police would chase them as they raced into the water and cheered.

The police would not enter the water, leaving them to surf the waves in defiance of the apartheid system. I thought that was a cool story.

Do you feel discriminated against out in the surf?

Personally, I don't.

And I don't know how much the women would in California. Most people there are generally very open-minded and cool.

I really like that about the surfing community as a whole; they are usually very nice people.

Muslim female surfer: wearing the special wetsuit developed by Finisterre | Photo: Finisterre

What is the most common misconception about the Muslim surfing community?

To be honest, we probably get more insults from the Muslim community than from other surfers.

The Muslim community - especially the very traditionalists - think that it's not a good sport for Muslims to partake in.

They think that we must be hippies or not very good Muslims.

Their main reasoning is that they think everyone at the beach is naked, and these places should be forbidden for Muslims to go to.

It's funny, but I feel bad for them in a way.

How do you connect your religious belief with the practice of surfing?

Well, when you get down to the gist of Islam, it's about seeing God in everything around you while merging your body, mind, and soul with those elements.

When surfing, you use the force of nature to propel yourself through the water.

You need to use all those elements (body = strength; mind = intellect; soul = God-consciousness).

When it comes together, and you share that perfect wave for a couple of seconds, all the distractions in your life are gone.

You get really focused on being in that moment, just you and the wave, the perfect union with the divine.

From a formal perspective, do female Muslim surfers use any type of scarf while surfing?

It depends on the female Muslim surfer.

If they typically wear a scarf while out in public, then yes, they would opt to wear a type of scarf while in the water.

My wife created her own makeshift scarf, which is elastic, so it holds better. But on some bigger wipeouts, it has come off, and she had to struggle to put it back while in the water.

Muslim women: they need to wear board shorts over leggings and an upper body spring suit with a hijab before catching waves | Photo: Creative Commons

How do women adapt their cultural-religious practices with, for instance, putting a wetsuit on and taking it off? Is it easy to do?

That is a struggle for my wife.

While we were traveling down the coast of Brazil, we would stop at a surf spot, go surfing, continue driving until we found another.

For me, it was easy, just board shorts and a rash guard.

For her, she had board shorts over leggings and an upper body spring suit with her hijab.

She would often get really cold when out of the water, and if she changed, then she wouldn't want to change back again that same day.

Recently, we bought one of those surf ponchos, and it's much easier to change in and out of.

Have you got regular online and offline meetings to discuss religion and surfing?

In the beginning, we did have meetings and surf sessions, but for the last couple of years, the group has died down, and most of us are either engaged or moved away.

I'm living in Geneva, Switzerland, now, for example. I'm a Montessori teacher for 6-9-year-old children.

What's interesting about the Montessori method of education that I love is that each child is treated uniquely, and they are inspired to look within themselves to find their true purpose in this world.

Does MSAC have any relationship with other religious groups like Christian Surfers?

No, we never developed that far.

Shirin Gerami: Iran’s first female triathlete has given surfing a go | Photo: Finisterre

What do religion and surfing have in common?

The only purpose of religion is to try to experience and get close to God.

Many people forget this, and they fight over whose religion is better or "more" right. Religion is a lantern lighting up a path to God.

Most people who are "religious" are only looking at the lantern itself and not where the light is shining.

Surfing for me, like religion, is a way I can experience God.

I think most surfers have this unexplainable experience while just sitting on their board past the waves, looking at the sky and vast ocean, that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

How could surfing help build a more peaceful and tolerant society?

I think the surfing community is quite special and evolved. There are people from all over the world who all come together to enjoy the ocean.

I even remember watching one of the recent tournaments where the woman who won gave a speech about the inequality of prize money between male and female surfers.

And immediately, the World Surf League (WSL) decided to make a change.

Most leagues wouldn't be so open to such criticism, but they took it as an opportunity to better themselves.

I really appreciate that because many leagues have denied Muslim women because they wanted to wear the scarf.

It makes me hopeful that the surfing community will eventually be open to all expressions of faith.

Do you set up special MSAC events?

I think if I would've stayed in San Diego, then yes.

But since I left, I was hoping some of the other members would take up a leadership role and do events.

Unfortunately, this hasn't happened yet. I am still waiting, though.

If you had to make a wish involving Islam and surfing, what would it be?

I would really like to see a female Muslim surfer make it professionally.

I think that would inspire many Muslims. My baby girl just turned one, so I'm going to see what I can do.

What could Islam teach an agnostic or atheist surfer?

As I mentioned before, every surfer has had this unexplainable experience while out in the ocean - they are a part of something much bigger than themselves.

In Islam, we call this our fitra - or fitrah.

It's a type of buried intuition, and only through some type of meditation (including surfing), or major life event (good or traumatic), can dig up this buried fitra.

Under the right guidance, Islam can teach an agnostic or atheist how to better get in touch with this part of yourself, thus bringing you closer to God.

In my opinion, Islam isn't the only path to reach God.

You can embrace other religions and beliefs too. But for me, Islam is like Google Maps - it will get you there in less time.

I actually used to be atheist, and then agnostic, before becoming Muslim.

My dad is Muslim - mostly non-practicing but respects the religion.

My Mom was an American Christian and became Muslim right before she died of cancer when I was around seven years old.

So, I learned about my religion - just a little - before going into high school and being able to think for myself.

I realized I didn't really believe what I was taught, so I became an atheist for a while.

After 9/11, people were criticizing Muslims, and even though I didn't believe in it, I respected their rights,

So I started debating, which made me start to learn more about religion and think: "Okay, as dumb as it is to say there is a God for sure, it's just as dumb to say there isn't a God for sure."

That's when I become agnostic, not sure of one or the other.

Then I started researching philosophy and all religions, even going to the Mosque when they would give speeches to learn about this belief.

I remember them talking about how you shouldn't believe in a religion that is against logic - and I was a logical person at the time - and when you have logic, your faith comes after.

Then, they said how Islam is the religion of logical believers and how many verses in the Quran were written before science proved their validity.

One thing really caught my attention - the Quran says that if you find a single fault in the book, then the whole religion is false.

So, I went on a mission to find a discrepancy, and in that mission, I ended up finding my way back to Islam.

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