MALAYSIAN Muslims say the growing division between conservative and moderate followers of Islam extends to daily life. When a government officer visiting another department last week declined the offer of the surau, the prayer room, saying he did not have the time, he provoked a discussion about whether it was necessary to pray five times a day, in line with accepted practice. Alluding to recent remarks by the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, suggesting there was too much emphasis on religious rituals, the visitor said he believed it was acceptable to pray only three times a day. Later, a senior officer said he would tell the official's department head that he was unsuitable to hold a responsible job. Most of the government servants present agreed with the course of action, implicitly rejecting Dr Mahathir's arguments. At the general assembly of the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant government party, last week the premier called for Islamic moderation. A department official said many Malaysian Muslims who considered themselves modern in thought and behaviour found it difficult to accept the Prime Minister's re-examination of Islamic doctrine. The conservative camp has issued a barrage of pronouncements. The president of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement, Mohammad Nur Manuty, argued 'fighters against progressive Islam' posed a threat to the 'Islamisation process'. He said they had rejected the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and believed only the Koran could solve life issues. Moderate Muslims say the Koran allows many issues to be interpreted in a modern light, while the hadith's specific nature complicated matters. Mr Nur said other threats arose from the 'trend to freely interpret the Koran based solely on logic and feminism among the Malay elite and liberals'. Analysts said this was an attack on both Dr Mahathir and women's groups, which have accused religious officials of being 'anti-women'. But the Prime Minister has some supporters. In a letter to the New Straits Times, Jay Abdullah said he had often been troubled by Islamic issues, but had never been encouraged to discuss them. 'Can you imagine my profound joy in finding the leader of my country, this courageous man of vision, openly discussing these issues with the whole nation as his audience?' he wrote. 'This is the first Malay Muslim leader to have the courage and conviction to challenge the so-called conventional wisdom.'