Nouredin Ahmed Aissa, 27, once a thief, now a beggar, lost a hand and a foot under the Islamic law of deposed Sudanese president Jaafar Nimeri.

Six months after the amputations in the courtyard of Kuber Prison, the stumps of his right arm and his left leg have yet to heal completely. He does not go to see his family, he says, because of the shame. He lives off such charity as he can find in this starving country. He sleeps in old cars or in the dust of a parking lot on the outskirts of the capital.

As he tells how he was tried and convicted and the sentence executed -- the anesthetic, the knife, the crowd and the last vision of his severed limbs held aloft from the prison walls before he fainted -- other Sudanese who have gathered around him mutter angrily about Nimeri and talk gleefully about his overthrow earlier this month.

Aissa, staring at the ground as he leans on a metal crutch, says the problem was not sharia, the Islamic law that decrees amputation as the penalty for theft, death for adultery, flogging for drinking alcohol. The problem was with Nimeri.

"In Islam, you have rights and duties," said Aissa, introducing a plea heard in jailhouses the world over. "I did not get my rights."

The argument that sharia is good but Nimeri was bad has become a common one among the devout Moslem majority that dominates Sudanese life and politics.

From September 1983, when Nimeri imposed sharia, until last January, 54 Sudanese lost hands by amputation. Those punished included Christians from the south as well as Moslems. Another 16 judged repeat offenders, like Aissa, lost both a hand and foot -- from opposite sides of the body, as decreed by sharia. Eight persons were hanged.

The teachings of the Koran remain the foundation of this country's law. Gen. Abdel Rahman Sawar-Dhahab, leader of the Transitional Military Council now in power, talks of revising Nimeri's procedures, not of repealing Islamic justice.

But as a new government takes shape here and as ways are sought to heal the wounds inflicted on this diverse, mostly tolerant society by Nimeri's 16-year dictatorship, no issue is more complex or emotional than the role of sharia.

It is, moreover, central to a broader issue that affects this strategic nation's relations with the West: the question of how Islam and the state will be blended by the new rulers.

Already some influential politicians talk of Iran and Libya as states they admire. Others talk of new paths. Some -- the minority, it seems -- advocate a secular government.

"We have been searching for a system since 1956," the year of independence from Britain, said university Prof. Mohammed Omar Bashir. "I think all the systems we have tried have failed. They haven't delivered." But Bashir added that "our legacy of western systems gave us something that, by definition, would not work."

It is into this vacuum that Nimeri thrust himself in 1969 and it is in order to fill this void, still evident even while he held office, that so many of this diverse nation's people turned to Sudanese forms of Islamic fundamentalism.

Nothing could be more natural for the Arab majority of northern Sudan. Just across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia is the holy city of Mecca and the heritage of the prophet Mohammed's teachings is evident here. Only a century ago the Moslem revolt led by the Mahdi raged through the streets of Omdurman, culminating in an epic battle against British Gen. Charles George (Chinese) Gordon.

But southern Sudan was a hunting ground for slaves until the last century, and its people long were dismissed as savages. Now they demand a voice in running the nation. They have fought wars for 20 of the past 30 years to make their point, and they appear to be winning one now. For many of them Islam and sharia are the religion and the law of the slavers. They want no part of it, even if it is not enforced.

"It is the obvious element that can pull all the southerners together," said Oliver Albino, one of the southern Sudanese politicians trying to work with the new rulers.

But the debate over sharia appears less likely to be decided in the marshes of the south, or even the mosques of the north, than in the cool, shaded gardens where Khartoum's intellectuals discuss their country's future and sometimes, as in the last few weeks, move to determine it.

In a government mansion that looks out across the Blue Nile to the old palace on the site where Gordon lived, Hassan Turabi speaks softly, in perfect English, of his Moslem Brotherhood as an elite society made up mainly of university graduates who intend "to give Islam a contemporary message."

He and his organization lent their name to Nimeri's government as Nimeri imposed his sharia in 1983. Members of the brotherhood served as the judges who sentenced men like Aissa without counsel and, in many cases, without appeal.

Turabi smiles easily. The role of the brotherhood was "very marginal," he said. Its participation in the government was the price paid to win the freedom to speak. Although this collaboration cost some credibility, Turabi's group remains a potentially powerful political influence, with tightly knit cadres and a militant following.

"Islam has come. We shall follow the rules of the prophet Mohammed or we shall die for it," they chant by the thousands at evening rallies. "There is no alternative to God's sharia."

Turabi, 52, wearing a traditional, flowing white robe and turban, quietly punctuates his conversation with occasional sprays aimed at errant flies from a can of Pif-Paf insect killer.

"We look to the West and see that you have not solved your problems with crime," he said. As for the resentments of the people in the south, "floggings and corporal punishment, whether amputations or what have you, are not that shocking to them."

Nimeri went too far, Turabi said, and used unjust procedures. But "ultimately you cannot do away with amputations because it's there in the book."

Sadiq Mahdi, 49, great-grandson of the Mahdi who fought Gordon and a traditional political and religious leader here, dismissed Nimeri's "Islamization" begun two years ago as political opportunism and "rubbish" that "should be thrown away as counterproductive and a disservice to Islam."

To the Oxford-educated Mahdi, the Islamization of Sudan must be approached gradually, with social justice the primary element. There must also be a "concordat" with the non-Moslem population.

Islam combats crime through the strength of faith, the impact of worship, the removal of the need to break the law, the weight of public opinion and education, Mahdi said. Punishment is only one element.

"We believe Nimeri's major disservice to Islam is that he used those measures" -- the hangings and amputations -- "more for the intimidation of rivals than the aims of the sharia."

When Nimeri decided in January to hang the 76-year-old sage of the small and moderate Republican Brotherhood, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, on charges of heresy, a chill of apprehension went through the intellectual community that had not been felt before.

"It was a kind of state murder," Mahdi said.

Before Taha's hanging, the intellectuals and professionals of Khartoum, the tiny educated class in this nation of famine and illiteracy, had often suffered Nimeri's jails only to be released, embraced and brought into his government when he thought it expedient. Turabi spent 2,230 days in prison before he joined Nimeri's regime. Mahdi spent years in jail.

So many dissenters were in and out of Kuber Prison that some called it "the National Hotel."

The oppressive weight of Nimeri's security apparatus was felt especially among the intellectuals, who grew increasingly suspicious of each other.

"We were frightened," said Bashir, the university professor. "We couldn't speak our minds. We could only speak to others, outsiders, and ask them not to quote our names."

One of those outsiders, Washington Post correspondent Jonathan C. Randal, was expelled from Sudan a few days before Nimeri's overthrow for reporting the dissent that pervaded Sudanese society.

But there was also a certain sense of immunity for the elite.

"We weren't worried about amputation. We wouldn't get amputated. But they could come into my house at any time and search it for anything," said Bashir.

The execution of Taha for distributing fliers opposing Nimeri's sharia suddenly eliminated the expectation of special treatment.

Bashir said, "We knew he wanted the example: 'Next time it is you.' We were very frightened."

They were united by their fears. And in March, when Nimeri turned on Turabi's people, his last supporters among the intellectuals, he found himself alone and vulnerable at last to the protests and then the coup that ended his rule.

Now the pressure is off the intellectuals, and Sudanese officials say Randal and other journalists are welcome to return.

The atmosphere in the streets is relaxed. For foreigners there are convenient changes. Men and women once again are allowed to swim together in the Hilton pool. There is talk of alcoholic beverages returning to the tourist hotels. Islamic prohibitions on the charging of interest, which make modern finance all but impossible, may be lifted.

The day Nimeri was deposed, Kuber Prison was stormed "like the Bastille," as one prominent lawyer put it, and a revolutionary exultation swept the country.

But for the victims of physical punishment under Nimeri's Islamic law, there is as yet no benefit from the change.

Aissa, illiterate and unskilled, has no part in the debate. He never saw the gardens of the intellectuals. The garden he remembers is the one outside Kuber Prison's fortress walls, where the limbs of offenders against sharia were buried.