HERE in the center of Africa's Muslim world, in a bare room on a narrow paved street shared by old cars, motorbikes used as taxis, herds of scrawny cattle, and occasional camels, five barefoot young boys in shorts and loose shirts sit quietly on the concrete floor. One of them leans forward. His eyes following the dark brown finger of his teacher as it moves slowly across a line of handwritten Arabic script in the Muslim holy book, the Koran.
But as this centuries-old tradition of learning to read by learning the word of God, or Allah, is played out in one of scores of tiny Koranic schools in Sokoto, change is seeping into this historic city at the edge of the Sahara Desert, and into the lives of many Nigerian Muslims.
These changes are important to the future of Africa. Nigeria, with the largest concentration of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the critical places where the huge wave of north African Islam rubs up against the bulk of black Africa, which is mostly Christian.
Peace and harmony have often been illusive goals in the world of Nigerian Muslims. Some two centuries ago, Muslim leader Usman don Fodio struck out from Sokoto on a jihad, or holy war, against non-Muslims in a vast region, forcing the conquered to convert to Islam.
Then in March 1903 a British military expedition some 1,000-men strong used modern rifles to wipe out - in just 90 minutes - a 4,000-man Muslim force equipped with spears, bows and arrows, and some old guns, and began a long period of British occupation and domination.
RELIGIOUS harmony in Nigeria could point the way for peaceful relations in other Muslim-Christian countries across the mid-belt of Africa.
One key to such harmony may come from a fact not always apparent to outsiders: Nigeria's Muslims are not a monolithic, like-thinking block. They are, in fact, diverse in their views on both social and political issues.
And it is this diversity that may lead more Muslims to closer cooperation with Christians on political and social issues, helping Nigeria avoid repetitions of the kind of Christian-Muslim violence that has struck the country periodically - most recently in 1987.
Part of the change in the world of Nigerian Muslims comes from within: Some Muslims are adopting more-liberal, less-strict social behavior than in the past, while others are searching for fresh meaning in life through a return to fundamental Islamic purity, as they see it.
Muhammud Jega is a lecturer at the Osman Don Fodio University in Sokoto. He says that over the past 10 to 15 years many Nigerian Muslims have stopped viewing Western education ``as an instrument of Christianity. And people are now more tolerant of the rights of women. There's a lot of abuse still, but people are more tolerant in that regard now. And people do not generally mind too much how people dress and how they live their lives.''
Part of the change is from the outside. A Muslim general, Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria's head of state, runs the country from a military barracks in Lagos, far to the south. He is directing the formation of a two-party, civilian system as part of an announced transition from military to civilian rule by 1992.
But with two major religions in Nigeria - Islam and Christianity - will the parties turn out to be one Muslim and one Christian? Such a ``polarization would tear the country apart,'' says Islamic scholar Ahmed Muhammed Kani.
But he and other Nigerian scholars and politicians say the Muslims of northern Nigeria range from politically very conservative to very liberal and are likely to be attracted to both parties - one of which is left of center, the other right of center.
``You'll not find a completely Muslim bloc, and on the other side a completely Christian bloc,'' says Dr. Kani.
Muslims are likely to go into both parties, he says, because of their divergent views on such issues as distribution of national wealth. Some Muslims want more government help for the poor, others want a greater emphasis on private enterprise.
Muslim political leader Muhammad Arzika offers another reason why Muslims are likely to split into both parties: to win elections. The country is too big for an all-Muslim or an all-Christian party to win enough support nationally to capture the presidency in the elections slated for 1992, he says.
So as a matter of practicality, Nigeria is ``moving toward ideological politics,'' where the importance of religion in politics is giving way to political ideas and where a significant number of Muslims follow some Muslim politicians into coalition politics with Christians.
Still, many uneducated or more traditional Muslims may wait to see which way their Muslim leaders are leaning before selecting a party. And most Nigerian analysts still expect one party to be predominantly Muslim and the other to be predominantly Christian.
But key religious leaders, including the Sultan of Sokoto, traditionally recognized as the spiritual leader of all Muslims in and around Nigeria, are counseling Muslims to practise religious tolerance.
There should be ``unity among Muslims,'' the sultan, Ibrahim Dasuki, said in an interview here. But, he added, speaking of other religions, ``we have to tolerate each other, we have to recognize the right of each other to live in peace and harmony.''