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Former Muslim shares his own Damascus Road experience in new book comment (0)

July 3, 2014

By Julie Payne

Former Muslim shares his own Damascus Road experience in new book

Karim Shamsi-Basha felt like his head was going to explode — then everything went dark.

The photojournalist, working at the time for the Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper, was covering a fire at Independent Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, 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 he remembered from that harrowing moment were the paramedics hovering over him asking him questions.

As a result of the ruptured aneurysm in his brain he suffered that day, Shamsi-Basha was in a coma for about three weeks and couldn’t talk or walk for a couple of months after he opened his eyes. When his faculties did begin coming back during therapy, there were lingering effects from the aneurysm such as double vision and short-term memory loss. But despite the setbacks, he still went on to make a rare recovery. 

A journey of searching

Shamsi-Basha’s final visit with his neurologist those many years ago would launch him into an unexpected journey of searching when the doctor said matter-of-factly that he had seen very few people recover as Shamsi-Basha 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 searching — particularly within the realm of religion. 

Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, Shamsi-Basha was the youngest of four children. His mother would reveal 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. As the story goes, Hanrietta dragged his mother by her hair from the waiting room and took her back home. Shamsi-Basha was born a few months later.

He has fond memories of his childhood 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 would sometimes discuss religion and their conversations about faith would often result in more questions for Shamsi-Basha, who would occasionally go to his father with those 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 emigrated 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 Book 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 this love, so he began reading John and eventually reached 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 noted of the roadblock 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 for the next four years.

Bill Bangham, director of The Academy at the International Mission Board, met Shamsi-Basha at a photojournalism conference during that time and formed a lasting friendship.

“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 of 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 noted, adding it wasn’t until a particular conversation he had with a Christian in 2008 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, Birmingham, whose name is withheld because of his ministry work in sensitive areas of the world. Shamsi-Basha attends the Journey worship service at Dawson Memorial Baptist from time to time. 

Shamsi-Basha noted 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 details his life in first person with parallels to the apostle Paul’s life and sections in each chapter about Paul written by several 20th century biblical scholars.

“The apostle Paul is one of the most influential people in the history of Christianity,” Shamsi-Basha explains 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 writes in “Paul and Me,” which includes a poignant letter to his family at the beginning.

Since his book was published, he has shared his faith story at many churches, including Berney Points Baptist Church, Hoover, as well as on national platforms such as “The 700 Club.”

The Dawson lay leader said, “He’s getting more and more bold in stepping out in his faith,” noting his prayer for Shamsi-Basha is that he’ll be able to reach people who need the gospel. He added, “We should all be those type(s) of people, stepping out and sharing our faith and being used in the realms God has placed us.”

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