BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Karim Shamsi-Basha felt like his head was literally going to explode — then everything went dark.
The photojournalist, working at the time for Alabama’s Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper, was covering a church fire on April 8, 1992, when his world suddenly turned upside down.
“It was a chaotic day,” he recalled. “I felt this headache; within seconds it evolved into an explosion in my head and my eyes felt like they were going to pop out.”
The last thing Shamsi-Basha remembered from that moment was the paramedics hovering over him asking him questions. Shamsi-Basha had experienced a ruptured aneurysm in his brain. He was in a coma for about three weeks and couldn’t talk or walk for a couple of months after he opened his eyes. He subsequently experienced other lingering effects from the aneurysm such as double vision and short-term memory loss.
But despite the setbacks, he went on to make a full recovery.
A journey of searching
Shamsi-Basha’s final visit with his neurologist those many years ago launched him into an unexpected spiritual journey after the doctor told him few people recover from a ruptured aneurysm the way he had. “You have to find out why you survived,” the doctor told him.
It could be said that Shamsi-Basha, who grew up a Muslim, had already been on a long path of exploring religion.
Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, Shamsi-Basha was the youngest of four children. His mother revealed to him years later in his adulthood that she had almost aborted him while pregnant. But her friend Hanrietta, who had accompanied her to the clinic, wouldn’t allow her to go through with the procedure. Shamsi-Basha said he later learned that Hanrietta dragged his mother by her hair from the waiting room and took her back home. He was born a few months later.
He has fond memories of growing up in Damascus, particularly time spent with his father, the owner of a clothing store and also a talented poet and writer.
“I was very special for my dad,” Shamsi-Basha said. “He showered me with love.”
Shamsi-Basha had a good friend in middle school, Moneir, who was a Christian. The two friends sometimes discussed religion. These conversations about faith occasionally resulted in Shamsi-Basha going to his father with questions.
“[My dad] would say … ‘You just go on and keep reading and keep exploring.’ Dad was very open-minded, and he encouraged me to explore and read and learn,” he recalled.
Shamsi-Basha graduated from high school and immigrated to the United States in January 1984. He met his wife, who was a Methodist, while studying at the University of Tennessee. They married and moved to Birmingham in 1989. “We were both open-minded,” he explained. “We didn’t have a problem marrying each other from different religions.”
After his aneurysm in 1992 and subsequent recovery, Shamsi-Basha decided to follow the advice of his neurologist to find out why he had survived. Some of his Christian friends advised him to read the Gospel of John, telling him that God’s love is “why we’re on this earth.”
‘Go through Jesus’
Shamsi-Basha wanted to know more about God’s love, so he began reading John and eventually read John 14:6 where it says: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.'”
“I didn’t want to come to the Father alone and leave my (Muslim) family,” Shamsi-Basha said, noting the concern that verse caused him. He began talking to many theologians who all had a “pretty black-and-white explanation just like the Bible: ‘If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to go through Jesus.'”
He continued seeking to learn more about Jesus the next four years.
Bill Bangham, a veteran editor, journalist and photographer with the International Mission Board, met Shamsi-Basha at a photojournalism conference during that time and formed a friendship with him.
“He’s the real deal. … This is not a façade — what you see is what you get,” said Bangham, who noticed Shamsi-Basha’s curiosity about Christianity early on in their friendship.
As a result of his years of searching, Shamsi-Basha had what he calls a “near-conversion” in 1996 when he asked a minister to baptize him.
“This is when I realized what God has done in my life. Everything that has happened in my life was God taking care of me,” he said. “And yet I still couldn’t call Him my Savior because I didn’t want to be saved alone without my family.”
Shamsi-Basha would later experience a series of painful events: a divorce from his wife of 16 years in 2001 and the death of his father in 2005.
“When he died, I fell apart. I became both Muslim and Christian. I was very mad at God for a couple years, but something inside kept tugging me back to Christianity,” he said. It wasn’t until a particular conversation he had with a Christian in 2008, he added, that he fully accepted Christ as his Savior.
Shamsi-Basha is a sincere, passionate person whom God has drawn to Himself, said a lay leader at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham. His name is withheld because of his ministry work in sensitive areas of the world.
Shamsi-Basha, who occasionally attends Dawson Memorial, said his salvation and conversion from Islam to Christianity was God’s doing. “All I did was obey,” he said. “Salvation is mentioned over 150 times in the Bible; it’s mentioned once in the Quran. Islam and most other religions on this earth say ‘do and don’t.’ Christianity says ‘done.'”
His story, “Paul and Me: A Journey to and from the Damascus Road, from Islam to Christ,” was published in 2013. The book includes parallels to the apostle Paul’s life and sections about Paul, written by several 20th century biblical scholars, in each chapter.
“The apostle Paul is one of the most influential people in the history of Christianity,” Shamsi-Basha explained in the book’s introduction. “I am a humble servant who happened to be born in the city of Damascus, where Paul had his conversion. … Paul converted to Christianity on the Road to Damascus; I converted on the Road from Damascus — two very different stories, two very different men — the same salvation and the same Lord and Savior.”
Boldness in sharing faith
Shamsi-Basha eventually shared the news of his conversion with his Muslim family members. For the most part, the topic isn’t discussed, he said.
“I am just letting them see the light of Christ in me. And if the subject comes up, I would be happy to discuss it,” he wrote in “Paul and Me,” which includes a letter to his family at the beginning.
Since his book was published, he has shared his faith story with many churches as well as on national platforms such as “The 700 Club.”
— Julie Payne
Payne is a writer for The Alabama Baptist newspaper.