Al-Tawaqquf is when a researcher admits to having insufficient reason to justify holding an opinion concerning a specific matter. For example, a jurist might mention an issue and then abstain from listing a single possibility; or he might list several options and then declare that he does not have sufficient information to conclude which of the options is the most correct.
This abstention from having an opinion is a willful act of self-restraint. It seems to involve more than just abstaining from public declarations and extend to an individual refraining from even holding a private, tentative opinion.
Admitting that one does not have a decisive conclusion is a product of an individual’s awareness of the limits of his skills and knowledge. It is a reflection of the individual’s good character. In particular, it reflects sincerity, honesty, humility, and piety.
There are countless instances where scholars abstain from ever voicing a decisive conclusion on a specific matter, as well as where a scholar announces an opinion and later announces that he abstains from having one. One of the best-known examples of the first is when Imam Malik (may Allah grant him His mercy) answered “I do not know” to many in a long series of questions.
Unfortunately, today we feel that an individual must have an opinion on every matter and to put his views on the record, regardless of whether he possesses the requisite skills and knowledge to hold or justify having an opinion at all – let alone selecting among the possibilities. (And not only must he do this, but his opinion must also be “acceptable.”) While the individual researcher is ultimately responsible for holding and recording an opinion, the rest of us are also responsible for creating an environment where abstention from having an opinion (al-tawaqquf) is seen as an indication of incompetence, inability, ignorance, and immaturity. Instead, it needs to be seen as an indication of competence, ability, knowledge, and maturity. Instead of pressuring people into rushing to issue opinions prematurely, it gives them room to take their time to think things through, entertain alternatives, and all that other stuff we would allow experts in any other field.
And Allah knows best.