Most Sunni scholars believe that the word "Mawla" (Arabic: مَولی) in this hadith does not mean "guardian" nor "prior in making decision for" and rather it means "friend and assistant". Scholars such as al-Taftazani, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Qadi Iji and al-Jurjani claim that "Mawla" cannot mean "guardian" and "prior in making decision for".
They also argue that,
In return, Shi'a scholars answered these arguments as follows,
Shi'a believe that the word "Mawla" in this hadith means "Awla bi-l-tasarruf" ("prior in making decision for") and the same as the Prophet (s) was prior to Muslims' affairs in making decisions for them than themselves, Imam 'Ali (a) had the same priority. This opinion has two preconditions:
A) "Mawla" means "prior in making decision for";
Shi'a believe that there are contextual and situational references in this hadith which suggest that the word "Mawla" in this hadith just and only means "prior in making decision for" and having this priority proved, Imam Ali's (a) imamate will also be proved, since 'Arabs use "Awla" (prior) only in cases where the "Mawla" has a responsibility for people and his orders are acceptable for them. And thus, when "priority in making decision" is proved, their priority of decisions for all the aspects of Muslims' lives will also be proved as the Prophet (s) had such a priority and authority:
|“||The Prophet has a greater right (or a greater authority) over the faithful than they have over their own selves…||”|
|— Quran, 33:6|
To prove this point, Shi'a have studied and discussed the content of this hadith. The word "Mawla" has been used in this hadith several times. It is a derivation of the word "Wali" and it is a name of God. It has different meanings. In one sense, it is rhymed with the verbal form "Faʿīl" (Arabic: فعيل) meaning "Fāʿil" (Arabic: فاعل) and thus has the usages of governor, ruler, guardian, manager and master. Its other usages are "the one who has a greater right", "closer", "attached" and "a following lover".
According to Shi'a, although this word has various usages, there are contextual references [in and out of the text] of this hadith which suggest that the word "Mawla" in this hadith just and only means "prior authority in making decision". These evidences are:
In this hadith, the Prophet (s) clarifies his greater right and authority over the faithful than themselves, based on the verse 6 of the Qur'an 33, "The Prophet has a greater right (or a greater authority) over the faithful than they have over their own selves…." The greater right and authority mentioned in this verse is about the life of the faithful and also about ruling them than themselves. When there is a greater right and authority, we are required to follow and obey the one who has that greater right and authority. According to the opinions of some exegetes, the greater right and authority mentioned in this verse addresses all worldly and spiritual affairs of Muslims, since the Prophet (s) would order the faithful only to what brings them the happiness in religion and the world.
Therefore, the correlation which exists between the mentioned phrase implying "the greater right and authority" and introducing 'Ali (a) in the other phrase shows that "Mawla" in the second phrase supported 'Ali's (a) greater right and authority over Muslims.
At the beginning of his sermon, the Prophet (s) gave the news about his demise and then asked about unity and whether he did his mission well. These are all signs for the fact that the Prophet (s) was trying to find a solution for the period after his demise, so that the Umma would not remain without leader and guardian and the great efforts he (s) made would not be left without fruits. He (s) wanted to appoint a wise and competent successor to manage different issues after he (s) passed away and the verse 67 of Qur'an 5 is an evidence to support this claim.