A religious debate which has revealed a deep divide between moderate and conservative Muslims has escalated into a public dispute between the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and Islamic officials. In a departure from its usual practice of avoiding direct confrontation with the political establishment, the Malaysian Ulamaks Association, a leading body of Islamic officials, has publicly criticised Dr Mahathir over his call last week for Islamic moderation at the general assembly of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant government party. Previously, only some ulamaks had taken an open stand against the Prime Minister for advocating reforms that would change both the powers of Islamic officials and the implementation of religious laws. But his address to the UMNO assembly, which attacked the ulamaks' emphasis on ritual, questioned the growing enforcement of a dress code and suggested that religious studies should not be emphasised at the expense of other knowledge, appears to have united the officials against him. Responding to the Prime Minister's arguments against literal acceptance of religious doctrine, Abdul Ghani Shamsudin, deputy president of the association, said personal interpretations of Islam that did not follow proper discipline and methodology could lead Muslims astray. He said Muslims must accept not only the Koran and hadith (sayings of Mohammed) but also the idjmak (interpretations of the ulamaks). He said ulamaks had been accused of being narrow-minded but they believed political leaders should be more open in 'accepting views from others, including ulamaks'. In his address, Dr Mahathir questioned the ulamaks' emphasis on the aurat, the parts of the body covered by strict Muslims, which led to the arrest of three Muslim women for indecency after they appeared in a beauty contest. Mr Abdul Ghani said the question of the aurat was a fundamental issue. Dr Mahathir's UMNO address was welcomed by liberal Muslims and business leaders, who said it was important to project a moderate Islamic image in order to continue to attract investors, but received little open support from other party leaders. Political analysts said this reticence reflected a fear by many UMNO politicians that they would lose grassroots support if they took sides against the influential ulamaks. Their caution could lead to Dr Mahathir finding himself virtually isolated on the issue, with only liberal Muslims supporting him.